Will Trump’s wild card Tillerson pay out?
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President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Giving thanks for Thanksgiving itself Immigration provision in Democrats' reconciliation bill makes no sense MORE’s pick for secretary of State has caught most off guard. Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., is widely seen as completely out of left field. However, it shouldn’t be — you just need to understand Trump’s business legacy.

One of the quotes Trump uses most from his book “The Art of the Deal” is: “Leverage, don’t make deals without it.” It is a theme the businessman constantly rehashed during the election campaign when discussing his policy of renegotiating such agreements as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and even the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, among others.

Trump has oft stated that these agreements were not balanced enough toward American interests, and that he would be able to strike a “better deal.” Whether he is capable of this — or if it is even possible to reopen such multilateral agreements — remains to be seen, but with this in mind it should come as little surprise that his choice for America’s top diplomat should be the CEO of one of the world’s biggest companies.


Tillerson has signed agreements in some of the most challenging places in the world, including a deal with Russia to drill in the Arctic that could be valued up to $300 billion and a deal to develop oil fields in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.


While Trump has mostly conducted business with private individuals, Tillerson has had to deal with the very highest levels of government, and gain their trust.

It is his relationship with Vladimir Putin that has raised most eyebrows, especially as Russia-U.S. relations are at their most strained for quite some time. While some argue that he has become too close to Putin, others contend that this relationship was based purely on interests and the prospective secretary of State has no particular love for the Russian leader.

What Tillerson will bring to the table is intimate knowledge of Putin and how he works, especially when making a deal. Few in the West understand the Russian leader, but it is clear that the Russians are flexing their muscles unchallenged in various arenas that are widely seen as in opposition to American interests.

The Russians have created a situation whereby one can agree or disagree with them, but they can no longer be ignored on the international stage. To have a secretary of State that has successfully dealt with Putin and gained his trust could prove to be a masterful stroke by Trump.

For those who feel that with Trump as president and Tillerson in the State Department, the Russians are the winners in the administration formation, they only have to look at the appointments of James Mattis as secretary of Defense and Mike Pompeo as the incoming CIA director. These positions are all filled by people with a strong record of skepticism toward Russia and Putin.

If Trump wants to enhance American interests around the world and stem the perception of decay and disinterest that has set in throughout many capitals, he must set a new tone backed by material assets and power in order to regain leverage. Only then can Mr. Art of the Deal redraw agreements and assert the American hard power that saw it become the world’s unipolar power. For this he needs an international deal-maker to fulfill the policies he laid out during the election campaign.

Condoleezza Rice said in 2007, while secretary of State: “You aren't going to be successful as a diplomat if you don't understand the strategic context in which you are actually negotiating. There are a set of underlying relationships, underlying balance of power, leverage on different sides, and you have to recognize when you are in a position to then, on top of that, find a solution given the underlying balance."

Tillerson understands the interests, relationships and personalities behind the power of many nations around the world, and he knows their strengths and weaknesses and how to gain possible leverage to use against them. This may be part of the reason that such Republican heavyweights such as Rice, Robert Gates, Stephen Hadley and James Baker shilled for his nomination.

Tillerson is Trump’s wild card response to the current perception of America, especially at a time when international agreements are creating new international realities and discomfiting current alliances. To reorient America’s foreign policy, Trump needs a deal-maker who can make his improbable vision a reality.


Gregg Roman is director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.

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


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