When Rex Tillerson goes before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Wednesday for his confirmation hearings to become the next secretary of state, he’ll likely face standard questions a range of international issues including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Syria, and tensions in the South China Sea. But the committee has perhaps never assessed a pick like Tillerson, who spent his 10 years as the CEO of the energy multinational ExxonMobil focused on long-term shifts in the energy market and their impact on geopolitics.
He has never served in public office. And his leadership of one of the most powerful corporations in the world, while it gave him State Department-relevant experience negotiating in dozens of countries, could present substantial challenge for him if he’s confirmed. His company’s relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin; a shadowy Russia-U.S. oil venture based in the Bahamas, a tax haven; as well as, allegedly, the governments of Iran, Syria, and Sudan, suggest a pragmatic businessman whose pursuit of profit, while legitimate,
Most notable of these questions: Russia. For a time, Tillerson headed up ExxonMobil’s Russian operations. He took a lead role on the company’s dealings in the country’s Sakhalin-1 oil and gas project, building a partnership with the state-owned Russian oil firm Rosneft in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That deal—conducted, at Tillerson’s strenuous insistence, to the letter of Russian law—paved the way for ExxonMobil to gain substantial equity in additional Russian oil fields, helping it replenish its reserves. Things were not always smooth: In 2003, ExxonMobil tried to acquire a stake in Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Yukos, the country's largest private oil firm, just before the firm was nationalized and Khodorkovsky was arrested.