Primary reactions to the nomination of Rex Tillerson as Donald Trump’s secretary of state have focused on the specifics of the Texan oilman’s record as head of ExxonMobil, from his closeness to the Russian government to his company’s stance on climate change. Defending his decision, President-elect Trump has pointed to a different, more general side of Mr Tillerson’s record: namely, that he has the brains and negotiating smarts needed to rise to the top of a large and complex multinational corporation. Mr Trump’s pitch is straightforward: he is building a government of world-class deal-makers, who will strike bargains and make America a winner again in tough-minded transactions with foreign friends, rivals and foes.
Mr Trump may well have a point. Some of the criticism of Mr Tillerson seems to misunderstand the role of a corporate chief administrator, and to assume that every business leader is the personal incarnation of the company that he leads. As CEO Mr Tillerson is answerable to his stockholder and has a duty to put their interests and those of his firm first. If confirmed as America’s top diplomat, he will be representing Mr Trump and his government. It is surely unfair to assume, without evidence, that Mr Tillerson would inevitably be a shill for the oil industry, or reach his conclusions about, say, sanctions on Russia based on what profits his former firm. After all, Colin Powell spent most of his career as an army officer, ending up as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But few predicted that he would put the interests of America’s armed forces first when he was appointed to run the State Department by George W. Bush.