The Administration

Tillerson’s ties to Russia could bolster US interests

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President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of ExxonMobil CEO  Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State has provoked concerns among some lawmakers that his good working relationship with Russia under President Putin and his company’s investments in the nation will prevent Tillerson from promoting U.S. national interests.

In addition, there are worries that Tillerson’s appointment signals a change in Washington’s international energy policy. A more careful look might alleviate some of those concerns. For most of the post-World War II period, energy has been a strong component of U.S. foreign policy.

Especially notable episodes include Henry Kissinger’s role in the establishment of the International Energy Agency in response to the 1973-74 oil crisis; the U.S. attempt to block establishment of gas pipelines from the Soviet Union to West Germany under the Reagan Administration; and the use of sanctions that target states’ energy sectors, in countries like  Iraq, Iran and Sudan.

Institutionally, energy policy received its greatest boost at the State Department under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with the establishment of the Bureau of Energy Resources. In this very active bureau, over 90 diplomats focus on integrating energy into U.S. foreign policy around the globe. Thus, Under Tillerson, any new emphasis on energy issues will be more evolutionary than revolutionary. 

Next, the claim that Tillerson having a cooperative relationship with Russia implies a lack of ability to promote American interests is puzzling. In fact, during periods of good bilateral relations, the U.S. has had a lot more influence over Russia’s foreign policy choices.

Russia is a global power that may not be the U.S.’s match in relative power, but certainly it is in relevant power. It has proved this in a variety of regions around the globe.  

Moscow can’t just be ignored. A Secretary of State with a history of identifying common interests with Russia will likely be able to promote security cooperation with it.

In assessing the implications of  Tillerson’s nomination for U.S. policy efforts to avert climate change, it is important to note that he was at the forefront of energy company CEOs endorsing a carbon tax in 2009.  In fact, most major oil companies are actually oil and gas companies.

Natural gas producers benefit from climate change policies because they disproportionately affect the consumption of coal — the main rival of natural gas and the largest producer of carbon emissions and air pollution.

Oil and gas companies, by and large, prefer a carbon tax over complicated schemes like emissions trading or cap-and-trade that do not give a clear price signal that can help them plan their investments to conform with the climate aversion policies. 

{mosads}Regarding the potential of the U.S. pulling out of the Paris CO21 Agreement, it should be recalled that it is a non-binding agreement. What will count is what each country does at home, not a toothless international mechanism.

The reality is that in the U.S., which is not a signatory to the major climate treaties of the past two decades, emissions are declining. This has happened due to the discovery and development of abundant U.S. natural gas supplies, which has motivated the power sector to move away from coal.

Policy did not motivate the switch; price did.  President-elect Trump has stated that the U.S. needs “clean air, and beautiful clean water.”  Hold him to this statement and it will bring both environmental and climate benefits. 

One of the major strengths of U.S. foreign policy over the decades, in contrast to Europe and many other regions, is the ability to integrate energy into foreign policy. The U.S. has a larger tool box due to this approach.

Clearly, those tools will continue to be utilized under the incoming administration. 


Brenda Shaffer is a visiting researcher and professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, and the author of the book “Energy Politics.”

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Brenda Shaffer Climate change Diplomatic Relations Donald Trump Energy policy Exxon Mobil Hillary Clinton Russia secretary of State
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