Rex Tillerson and a positive agenda for Turkish-US ties

Rex Tillerson and a positive agenda for Turkish-US ties

Donald Trump is giving signs at every opportunity that he will follow a very different line from the past U.S. presidents we have known until now, and that his management style will not be much different than that in his own real estate business. In the run-up to Jan. 20, 2017, when he will take over from Barack Obama, he has almost completed his cabinet, filling it largely with retired generals and businessmen.

The position of secretary of state was the most curious choice for which we all waited. He met and interviewed potential candidates one by one. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney was almost sure to get the prestigious post. The legendary mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, who sided with Trump during his toughest days, hoped to emerge as the prize winner. Then Republican Senator Bob Corke joined the list of hopefuls, followed by David Petreaus. 

None got the job. They all seemed to have old baggage, one way or the other. Trump did not want to favor anyone for such a critical position. He has looked for the most ideal person he can possibly get.

At the height of his uncertainty, former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Robert Gates came to visit Trump in his tower for a totally different topic. During the conversation, the name of ExxonMobil’s 64-year-old chairman, Rex Tillerson, came up as a potential candidate. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also whispered Tillerson’s name into Vice-President Mike Perce’s ears.

After Trump’s sounding out with his daughter, son-in-law and sons, as well as the advisers he trusts in the transition team, he fixed his choice as Tillerson, and characterized him as an “embodiment of the American Dream” with deep geopolitical understanding and an effective network of global contacts at the highest level.
I believe that the Texan oil diplomat Tillerson might embarrass many who think he will not be a smart chief diplomat during his tenure. He is more talented than the other candidates whose names were floated for weeks.

Since 2006, he has been both CEO and chairman of Exxon Mobil. I met him twice – once in Austin, Texas, a couple of years ago and last time at the “Oil and Money” conference in London a few months ago when he was given the “most successful energy leader” award.

He comes from a modest family background. He started working at ExxonMobil 41 years ago as a young engineer and climbed the ladders to the top through hard work. He was to retire next year at 65 and will now do so at the end of the year. When I looked at the company’s annual report, it is clear that he will not leave as a poor retiree. He has $218 million in company shares, as well as a pension of $70 million.

ExxonMobil is undoubtedly the world’s largest oil company. It produces about 4 million barrels of oil per day. The total revenue, generated by 75,000 employees last year, was $269 billion. (Contrast that with Turkey’s exports in 2015 at $144 billion and imports at $207 billion). Many former diplomats and politicians are working for ExxonMobil on government relations and energy diplomacy. For instance, a former U.S. assistant deputy secretary of state, my friend Steve Mann, is there. So is Suzanne McCarron, who is the vice president for government affairs. There is also a successful Turkish executive in Tillerson’s team: Melda Güven, who leads the office in Washington.

It is important to remember that the chairman of the world’s largest oil company must establish and nurture relations with Russia, China, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Brazil, Egypt and other countries where his company is active. This is his primary duty. Hence, he should not be blasted for his enjoyment of good relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. We should judge him on the basis of how good he advocates and executes the best interests of the U.S.

If he is confirmed, Tillerson will find in his lap such hot agenda items as growing geopolitical tension and trade war with China, new engagement proposal with Russia, the shelving of the nuclear deal with Iran, the Paris climate change agreement (on which he disagrees with Trump), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

There is also the pertinent issue of burden sharing within NATO where no alliance member except Turkey and Greece spends the required 2 percent of their GDPs.

He has an engineer’s mindset, the passion to leave behind a historic legacy, strong charisma, trust-based relationships and a solid team. The choice of Tillerson should be viewed as comforting for many who are concerned about Trump’s possible frenzy over the next four years. We’ll wait and see what he is capable of delivering and whether he can operate under Trump’s strange leadership style.

It is of great importance for Turkey to revitalize existing relationships and cement new ones with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn, as well as Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Furthermore, it will be extremely useful to undertake a series of concrete recommendations for action to be prepared by an informal group of eminent people, consisting of leading Turkish and American personalities to form a forward-looking, common and positive agenda for Ankara and Washington.