Trump Transition

Trump's Secretary of State pick: What every American should know about Rex Tillerson

Former Assistant Secretary of State Robert Charles explains

 

Trump has done it again.  Bang.   Another fascinating, deep, insightful choice – Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State.  What should every American know about this selection?  A few things they may not have heard yet. 

Exxon’s Chairman and CEO, Rex Tillerson is another novel choice, as edgy in diplomacy as he is proven in business.  What do we know about Tillerson?  What does what we know tell us about Tillerson’s prospects for diplomatic success?  Much and much.  First, an engineer by trade, he is an accomplished manager.  That is two legs up on most of the State Department. 

Tillerson has managed Exxon’s holdings in Russia and the Caspian Sea for almost two decades.  That alone suggests potential negotiating depth needed to resolve the Ukraine/Crimea problem with Russia, emphasis on economic variables and mutually agreed geopolitical and sovereignty considerations.  The wider world would celebrate it – as Americans should. 

What else is knowable and what might it mean for American diplomacy?  Tillerson’s age and depth in global “big picture” and “big power” sensitivities may, in fact, dovetail exceptionally well with former General Officers likely to lead Defense, Homeland Security, and the National Security Council.  Those who have been around the block, albeit in different directions, tend to know the block.

Tillerson’s ties include time with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Business Roundtable and Business Council, which augur in favor of balance when it comes to preserving pro-American international trade relationships – and avoiding any sudden tips toward runaway protectionism.  He is obviously close to Russia, but in an age where strains and miscommunication have been the hallmark of American diplomacy, with Russia and the world, there is room for improvement in that relationship, as there is with others globally.

And here is another unheralded bonus.  Anyone who has spent time on the 7th floor of the U.S. State Department (and I have), knows that being Secretary of State is about one-on-ones, personal and unblinking, detailed and bilateral connectivity.  That is how you get results in diplomacy, whether on that floor or flying around the world. 

John Foster Dulles used to command attention – and get significant results – with presence and wit, focus on person and detail.  Colin Powell did the same thing.  One-on-one is where proverbial rubber meets road, where trust forges agreements, and the agreements do not get broken. 

Said Dulles, “A man’s accomplishments in life are the cumulative effect of his attention to detail.”  Said Powell, “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.”  Tillerson is cut from that same cloth, combining those exact qualities – verified by his life’s work.  More to the point, where he has served other shareholders to now, we are all about to become the shareholders – all Americans – that he serves.  How about that?  

The downside, if any, is that he will not know the knotty, peculiarly intractable and unavoidably political world of the State Department – or the way in which that ungainly department interacts – and must – with Congress.  That said, anyone who can lead an enterprise the size of Exxon, can recruit the necessary leadership to run State. 

Perhaps most splashy, his salary will drop to 1/145th of the Exxon salary, if he accepts any government compensation.  It will plummet from $27.2 million dollars annually (without other package elements) to $186,600 annually.  Odds are, he will leave that drop unnegotiated – signaling a new era in government service and diplomacy.

What is the take-away from this savvy appointment?  A new professionalism is in the air – and it’s about time.  Whatever friction he may encounter in the wind tunnel of change, he is likely to do well, and bring a perspective not often seen in the Capitol.  

Robert Charles is a former assistant secretary of state for President George W. Bush, former naval intelligence officer and litigator. He served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses.  

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