Rex Tillerson, from a corporate oil sovereign to the State Department

Steve Coll writes: The news that President-elect Donald Trump is expected to nominate Rex Tillerson, the chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil, as his Secretary of State is astonishing on many levels. As an exercise of public diplomacy, it will certainly confirm the assumption of many people around the world that American power is best understood as a raw, neocolonial exercise in securing resources.

Tillerson figures prominently in “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power,” a book I wrote about the corporation that came out in 2012. He declined my requests to interview him for that project, but I turned up at several public appearances he made and asked him a few questions from the reporters’ gallery. I also studied his public remarks, reviewed accounts of his activities reported in State Department cables obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests or released by WikiLeaks, and conducted interviews with other ExxonMobil executives, retirees, friends, competitors, civil-society activists and business partners from Asia to Africa to the Middle East.

Tillerson’s life has been shaped to a profound extent by two institutions: ExxonMobil and the Boy Scouts of America. He grew up in Texas, where his father was a modestly compensated administrator for the Scouts. Tillerson became an Eagle Scout. An engineering major at the University of Texas, in Austin, Tillerson joined ExxonMobil in 1975. He has never worked anywhere else. Of all the companies that were born out of the breakup of Standard Oil, Exxon is culturally the most direct descendant of John D. Rockefeller’s monopolistic giant, which was organized on principles of ruthless capitalism and Protestant faith. Exxon today is an unusually cloistered corporation that promotes virtually all of its top executives from within. Former executives I interviewed mentioned that as recently as the nineteen-seventies, it was not unusual to start company meetings with a prayer. When Tillerson finally won a competition for the top job, in 2004, he directed substantial time and charitable activity toward the Boy Scouts. In public appearances, he comes across as sophisticated, yet his life is rooted in environments that are fundamentally nostalgic for imagined midcentury virtues and for the days when burning fossil fuels did not threaten to trigger catastrophic climate change. Tillerson once listed his favorite book as “Atlas Shrugged,” Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel that has become a touchstone for libertarians and promoters of unbridled capitalism. Compared to the records of some of the other people around Trump, Tillerson’s is at least one of professional integrity; Exxon is a ruthless and unusually aggressive corporation, but it is also rule-bound, has built up a relatively strong safety record, and has avoided problems such as prosecutions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, even though it operates in many countries that are rife with corruption. [Continue reading…]

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