The designation of ExxonMobil Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State follows the line taken by president elect Donald Trump of valuing private sector experience above government chops. In this case, he chose a seasoned oilman who maintains personal relations with several heads of state obtained through commercial negotiations representing his company.
Experience has shown that expecting that a successful entrepreneur in the private sector will achieve similar results in public office usually ends up in disappointment. Power works in very different ways. Companies have a vertical nature that is valued and obeyed in a way that does not exist in a government bureaucracy.
Furthermore, negotiating a commercial product with a client is very different from playing global chess against rivals with multiple strategic interests. Trump may believe that “a deal is a deal,” but in diplomacy and international relations there are no bankruptcy laws to fall back on after a mistake.
Much less if the person sitting on the other side of the table is Vladimir Putin. A ruthless former soviet espionage agent who wants to reestablish the bipolar balance of power of the Cold War, the Russian leader now expects that the Trump administration recognizes and respects his country as a superpower.
The newly assertive Russian role has been seen in such actions as the Crimea invasion and interventions in Ukraine – including being responsible for downing an airliner -, the Baltic countries – formerly soviet republics – and Libya. This, coupled with cases of internal repression have led to commercial sanctions against Russia. At the time, Tillerson opposed those measures.
The sympathies between Putin and Trump were already visible During the presidential campaign: A weakening of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), coupled with the millionaire’s criticism towards European allies were seen as strengthening Russia’s position.
Tillerson, who is close to Putin due to commercial relations, is seen from Moscow as a “pragmatist”, and a “credible” interlocutor to “build a mutually beneficial relationship.” Trump does not want to clash with Russia, instead seeking to work together, for example in the Middle East.
What’s important is not to abandon the European allies, who know much better than the incoming administration about why Putin should not be trusted.