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Meet Exxon’s Rex Tillerson, Trump’s Choice for Secretary of State

13 Dec

Rex W. Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, was offered the job of secretary of state by President-elect Donald J. Trump on Tuesday.

It is the latest instance in which Mr. Trump has tapped an executive from corporate America for a high-level cabinet position. Mr. Tillerson, 64, whose extensive deal making for Exxon has plunged him into global politics, is a conservative known to be a quick study and a decisive leader.

He is a Texan by birth, with a twang to show for it. This is what else you should know about him.

1. What does Mr. Tillerson know about diplomacy?

Mr. Tillerson has spent the past 41 years at Exxon, where he began as a production engineer and went on to strike deals for a company that explores for, buys and sells oil and gas in some of the world’s most troubled corners.

Mr. Tillerson has needed some sharp diplomatic skills. He has worked with leaders of numerous countries, including Nigeria and Qatar, and Exxon has been dominant in many countries, including Equatorial Guinea and Sudan. He has long had friendly relations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Of course, being a representative of a corporation and being a secretary of state are very different. Mr. Tillerson will now face a fuller range of issues, from human rights to strengthening NATO and other alliances to brokering a peace deal between Israel and Palestinians. He is a supporter of free trade who has acknowledged climate change is a challenge, but his opinions on most issues are not known. He will have a lot of thinking and learning to do.

Without foreign policy experience outside his business dealings, Mr. Tillerson may have to take more instruction from State Department experts and direction from the White House. He will need to exert his authority early on.

“He’s much more than a business executive,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Tillerson in an interview with Fox News on Sunday. “He’s a world-class player.”

2. Isn’t his relationship with Russia a concern?

Several senators — including John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida — do not think a conciliatory relationship with Russia is a good thing, considering the country’s aggression in Ukraine and its friendly relations with a Syrian government that is killing its own people. (There is also the question of whether Russians meddled with the United States election.)

But Mr. Tillerson may take a different approach than he has during his time at Exxon, which relies on Russia for much of its international business. Exxon has various joint ventures with Rosneft, the state-owned Russian oil giant, and American sanctions have stymied Exxon’s ability to drill in the Arctic and in Siberian shale fields.

How Mr. Tillerson would view Russia’s continued meddling in Ukraine, in other neighboring countries or in Syria is not clear. Perhaps his rapport with President Putin would help smooth relations, but to what end? Would the Kremlin be willing to moderate its behavior in exchange for simple sanctions relief? Or would President Putin simply become more aggressive? How would Mr. Tillerson respond to that? And if the United States does improve relations with Russia, what would that mean for the Syrian conflict, in which Russia has actively intervened? There is no way of knowing yet.

3. Can Mr. Tillerson confront dictators?

He has in the past. Shortly after he took the helm of Exxon a decade ago, Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s socialist president, moved to nationalize the assets of nearly two dozen foreign oil companies. Most chose to negotiate compensation arrangements. But Exxon took Venezuela to international arbitration court and won a $1.6 billion compensation package in 2014. Then Exxon mobilized a serious exploration effort in Guyanese waters claimed by Venezuela, angering Caracas.

Again, though, his prior negotiations concerned energy issues that he knows well. It is not known how tough he would be on political affairs he is less familiar with.

4. What is his position on climate change?

His record is mixed. He veered Exxon away from the climate skepticism it had displayed under his predecessor, Lee R. Raymond. At the same time, he has aggressively defended the company amid investigations by several state attorneys general who alleged the company hid research while publicly opposing policies designed to curb global warming and the burning of fossil fuels. Mr. Tillerson has backed a carbon tax and research to advance carbon capture, sequestration and biofuels.

Will Mr. Tillerson try to persuade Mr. Trump to support the international climate accord reached in Paris? He might, but he would probably stress the importance of natural gas and methods to bury carbon emissions — policies that would not hurt fossil fuel industries.

5. How will he protect human rights?

The most concrete glimpse we can get is Mr. Tillerson’s handling of gay rights. A former Eagle Scout, he served as national president of the Boy Scouts of America from 2010 to 2011, when the organization still maintained a ban on gay scouts and scout leaders. Nonetheless, Mr. Tillerson has pushed the organization to be open to gay rights. In 2013, as he served on the executive board, the Boy Scouts voted to lift the ban on gay scouts.

But under his leadership, Exxon has been slow to adopt explicit policies protecting gay employees from discrimination, and it has come under fire for it. k

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