WASHINGTON – There is always the danger of allowing low expectations to become irrational exuberance when those expectations are marginally exceeded. So any office in the Trump administration not filled by a kook or a crank feels like a victory for the republic.
Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is not a kook or a crank. I realize this isn’t quite eulogy material, but hey, baby steps.
The theory of Tillerson’s nomination is sound. He is best in class among oil executives, known for his intelligence, savvy and personal integrity. He has a sophisticated understanding of geopolitics, a field that often coincides with the geology of energy. As the CEO of the world’s largest publicly traded energy company (Exxon Mobil), Tillerson faced down Hugo Chavez and has talked up a variety of world leaders (including, famously, Vladimir Putin). He is known as a good manager – which is not irrelevant in a department famously resistant to management. And he is likely to be seen by Trump as a peer, providing him the standing to disagree if (or when) the president becomes impulsive.
It is massively reassuring that Tillerson is an establishment Republican – a supporter of Jeb Bush in the primaries, of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of NAFTA (particularly because Canada and Mexico are essential to American energy security). In an administration hostile to “globalists,” Trump’s pick for secretary of state has said: “We must embrace the free flow of energy, capital and human talent across oceans and borders.” Tillerson’s (rare) speeches and interviews reveal someone with a comprehensive knowledge of energy prices, market forces and technological innovation, rather than some Kissingerian vision of world politics. But it is not a bad thing to have a man of temperate judgment near an untested president.
Is Tillerson too close to Russia and Putin? Before the serious screening of a confirmation hearing, we really don’t know. But the evidence, so far, is slim. Any responsible oil executive would cultivate good relations with Russia – the world’s largest producer of oil and second largest producer of natural gas. Failing to do so would amount to corporate malpractice. It is Tillerson’s misfortune to seek confirmation in an administration with very serious Russian-related issues. But normal business relationships do not necessarily indicate personal views and sympathies.
Is Tillerson insufficiently serious about global warming? Perhaps. But he looks to be the most serious in the Trump administration (which itself says something). Tillerson has questioned the adequacy of current climate models but he does not deny a human role in warming. He supported the Paris climate agreement. He has supported a carbon tax in the past. He stands where most scientifically informed Republicans also stand.
In his speeches, Tillerson (who started as an engineer) shows consistent interest in transformative energy technologies. He might be an ally for increasing public funding of basic energy research – which may be the best hope for reducing carbon output on a timetable that mitigates the worst climate risks.
Are Tillerson’s lifetime ties to “big oil” disqualifying as America’s top diplomat? Not in a world that must eventually produce enough energy to allow for the economic advancement of 9 billion people. By one estimate (from the International Energy Agency), energy producers will need to invest $37 trillion in energy infrastructure by 2035. Tillerson has been an advocate for economic conditions that encourage predictability, innovation and investment over the long term.
The nominee has been vocal about the “humanitarian imperative” of confronting energy poverty. “Approximately 1.3 billion people on our planet,” he has argued, “still do not have access to electricity for basic needs like clean water, cooking, sanitation, light, or for the safe storage of food and medicine.” An emphasis on this issue as secretary of state would be an example of productive continuity with the Obama administration, which made clean energy production in Africa a policy priority.
What are Tillerson’s views on religious freedom? Human rights? Genocide prevention? We have no idea. So his confirmation hearing will need to explore these matters in detail. But it is worth noting that the Exxon Mobil Foundation – under the control of the Exxon Mobil board – has made a decade of serious investments in malaria control in many countries where it operates. The company seems to understand that overall success depends on good community relations – the same theory behind American soft power in encouraging global development and health.
Tillerson is a nominee who seems to improve on closer inspection. He deserves an audience of open minds.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.