President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to nominate ExxonMobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state is sounding alarm bells among human rights groups. And there are good reasons for it.
Tillerson, 64, who like Trump has no government experience, is best known for his close ties with Russia’s authoritarian President Vladimir Putin, who awarded him the Kremlin’s Order of Friendship prize in 2013.
As an lifetime Exxon employee, Tillerson has befriended some of the world’s worst human rights offenders — including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Ecuatorial Guinea — as part of his mission to find lucrative oil exploration or extraction deals abroad. It is often said that oil executives are not guided by ideology, but by geology, and Tillerson may be a poster boy for that saying.
Amnesty International, a human rights advocacy group, said that Tillerson’s nomination is “deeply troubling and could undermine human rights in the U.S. and abroad.” Human Rights Watch, another advocacy group, said that under Tillerson, Exxon “has been hostile to U.S. laws requiring greater financial transparency and stronger human rights standards for companies — laws that the State Department has supported.”
Much of Tillerson’s rise to corporate stardom was due to his close ties to the Russian government. In 2011, he signed a huge deal with Russia’s Rosneft oil company, in which the Russian government has a majority stake. Putin attended the signing ceremony.
Asked about Tillerson, Trump said his nominee is “much more than a business executive, he’s a world class player.” In an interview with Fox News, Trump said that “to me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players, and he knows them well. He does massive deals with Russia. He does massive deals for the company, not for himself.”
But will the skills that helped Tillerson move up the corporate ladder at Exxon by cozying up to oil-rich dictators help him when it comes to implementing sanctions against Russia for the 2014 invasion of Crimea? Will his long ties with ruling families in Saudi Arabia and Qatar undermine U.S. policies in the Middle East?
Even some key Republican legislators are worried about Tillerson. “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a Secretary of State,” tweeted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Dec. 11.
The Russian strongman is not only the target of U.S. sanctions for invading Crimea, but is being accused by U.S. intelligence agencies of hacking the recent U.S. elections, planting false news reports and stealing campaign e-mails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign to pass them on to WikiLeaks.
Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told me in an e-mail that Tillerson’s Russia connection also raises serious questions about how Tillerson would deal with Russia’s increasing influence in Latin America. “I fear that a Secretary Tillerson could reduce our approach to a diverse and vibrant region to a singular focus on oil production. This would set us back many years,” Engel said.
What worries me the most is that Tillerson wouldn’t help counterbalance Trump’s disregard for human rights as a U.S. policy principle, which has been upheld by Democratic and Republican administrations for the past four decades.
Trump said in a June 20 interview with The New York Times that “I don’t think we have a right to lecture” other countries on human rights. Asked specifically whether that meant that he would not make democracy and liberty a cornerstone of his foreign policy, Trump responded, “We need allies.”
The idea of a corporate-driven U.S. foreign policy whose only objective is maximizing U.S. companies’ profits — no matter what — has been tried before.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it led to questionable U.S. interventions in Central America on behalf of U.S. companies. But that created a backlash that led to the 1959 Cuban Revolution and a wave of anti-American governments in the region. Without a human rights-conscious secretary of state, Trump is likely to repeat the mistakes of the past.
— Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.