Risks of a Tillerson Foreign Policy: Authoritarian Growth and Corruption

In 2011 Exxon Mobil, with Secretary of State-nominee Rex Tillerson at the helm, won a lucrative contract to explore for oil in a Russian-controlled part of the Arctic Ocean, as it promised to assist Russian state oil company, Rosneft, with its own exploration. President Putin himself, with whom Tillerson has said he has “a very close relationship,” announced the deal. Indeed, under Tillerson, Russia had become Exxon Mobil’s single biggest theater of oil exploration, and Exxon had developed close relationships with both Putin and Igor Sechin, the CEO of Rosneft and Putin’s former KGB colleague. By 2014, Exxon Mobil and Rosneft had 10 joint ventures all over the territory of the Russian Federation.

In July 2014, after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, the United States imposed sanctions on the Russian energy sector, prohibiting U.S. oil companies from doing business with Russian oil and gas drillers. The move froze Exxon Mobil’s deals with Rosneft. Exxon Mobil reported to the SEC that its losses due to the sanctions could be as high as $1 billion.  Tillerson indicating recently that repeal would enable his company to go “back to work.”

Tillerson has shown utter disregard for the sanctions, favoring greater access to business deals over international law and human rights standards. This year, in contravention of U.S. foreign policy, he attended the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, where his presence sent a clear message in opposition to the sanctions. Going even further in December, Exxon Mobil and Tillerson successfully prevented passage of the STAND for Ukraine Act, which would have codified the sanctions for five years, making it more difficult for a future administration to repeal them.

A number of news publications and Republican senators have voiced concerns about Tillerson’s possible ability to benefit personally from removal of sanctions—one of the major foreign policy decisions likely to face the new secretary of state.  But his financial conflicts are only the tip of the iceberg when considering his suitability as a candidate. His stance against the sanctions is motivated by a desire for him and his colleagues in the oil industry to make more money. What is especially telling is who he wants to profit, what he is willing to ignore in order to profit, and what this says about his theory of foreign policy.

Among those that Tillerson seeks to enrich by ending sanctions are his friends in Russia, including Igor Sechin (credibly alleged to be the mastermind of the trumped up charges and imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky so that Rosneft could take over his oil company – Yukos), and Putin, who has “taken authoritarianism to a whole new level” according to a Human Rights Watch representative. His desire to assist Putin at a time when he’s emerging a leader in the global anti-human rights movement is a danger to basic principles upon which the United States has based its foreign policy for decades, if not since its inception. Putin engages in large-scale corruption, presides over one of the worst regimes for journalists and opposition figures—many of them end up dead—and prevents independent watchdog organizations from operating in Russia and in Crimea, effectively concealing human rights abuses in elections and prisons (including torture and arbitrary imprisonment) and against minority communities.

If it is Tillerson’s belief that Putin should benefit from the repression and killings of activists and journalists who try to expose his shady financial dealings (see for example Sergei MagnitskyBoris NemtsovAlexander LitvinenkoPaul KlebnikovGarry KasparovAlexei Navalny), that makes clear his antagonism toward a values-based foreign policy that upholds the rule of law, protection for minority groups, fairness, equality, and fundamental rights. If he is willing to cozy up to someone whose corruption is so widely known that the U.S. Treasury discusses it openly, then the values he would spread as secretary of state would contribute to—more than combat—global instability.

If Tillerson does not believe his position secretary of state includes providing global leadership in the push toward greater openness, tolerance, expanded civil liberties, and observance of international law, he will be a poor choice for the position. If he seeks only to promote the basic level of stability needed in a state for some modicum of foreign investment to take root, his policymaking will likely promote the growth of authoritarianism rather than its decline – since it can indeed provide greater “stability” in the short term, though with a long hangover of unrest and insecurity.

Indeed, if Tillerson wants the job of secretary of state, he will have to shift his worldview and acknowledge, as both Democrats and Republicans have agreed for decades, and recently affirmed in a bipartisan report, that American global leadership on issues of freedom and security continues to be crucial.  If the U.S. government retreats from leadership now, it will cede that role to other more authoritarian nations, like Tillerson’s friends in Russia—for whom rights and liberties can be redefined out of existence, ignored, or legislated away, especially if they get in the way of business deals.  If that is the vision Tillerson wants to bring to his work, Congress would be wise to send him packing.


Published on January 10, 2017


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