Trump's Secretary of State Pick Gets Climate Change

Which will Tillerson put first?

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If Richard Nixon could go to China, can Rex Tillerson save Paris? It is but one of many questions, some more answerable than others, about President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of state.

Unlike the president-elect, Tillerson, the chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., supports both the global climate-change accord forged in Paris last year and a carbon tax. So the main question for Tillerson may be this: How will he manage his relationship with his new boss?

Tillerson should feel free to consult with his fellow nominees, many of whom are no doubt pondering the same question. But he should also be prepared to explain how he plans to translate his specific views and experience into policy.

Tillerson deserves credit for changing Exxon’s position on the greatest single threat facing the planet, and one with great potential to be a destabilizing force. Managing global efforts to combat climate change will be one of the secretary of state’s main tasks in the next four years.

Tillerson could also play a key role in strengthening America’s energy security. This challenge goes beyond promoting exports of U.S. oil and natural gas and building pipelines like Keystone. As Tillerson has stressed, it also entails strong support for the multilateral trading system that underpins the global energy market -- something that Trump’s bluster about a trade war with emerging markets would jeopardize.

Members of Congress have rightly raised strong concerns about Tillerson’s ties to Russia, where Exxon Mobil has huge interests. A medal from Vladimir Putin is itself not grounds for disqualification. But Tillerson’s views on how best to contain the strategic threat posed by Russia could be. Dismantling the sanctions imposed by Europe and the U.S. in the face of Russian subversion and aggression would signal U.S. weakness and undermine the alliances that Tillerson says he wants to strengthen.

As the head of a company with operations in at least 50 countries, Tillerson has practiced the commercial diplomacy that the State Department has long preached but seldom achieved. In the many repressive and corrupt petrocracies with which Exxon Mobil has done business, it has a strong safety record and has generally been scrupulous in its business dealings. And as CEO of a company with about 73,500 employees, Tillerson knows what it’s like to direct a big bureaucracy.

Against all this are questions about his views on Russia, his lack of any political or government experience, the importance of separating corporate and national interests -- and how his views mesh with his president’s. It’s an imposing litany, but not insurmountable.

More than three decades ago, some of these same doubts were raised about George Shultz, President Ronald Reagan’s pick for secretary of state. The former president of Bechtel Group went on to become one of the most admired U.S. diplomats of the Cold War years, channeling the president’s most constructive impulses and providing steady leadership to America’s diplomatic corps. If Tillerson wants to be confirmed, he should pledge to follow Shultz’s example.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.