With talk of a possible war looming war between Russia and the US – long regarded as a doomsday scenario – Rex Tillerson has the whole world in his oil-stained hands.
Is he up to the job of navigating these dark and unpredictable waters? His pedigree and behaviour so far suggests a soft “maybe”.
Mr Tillerson, 64, a Texan engineer by training, is America’s number one Boy Scout (no kidding) and former Exxon chairman whom Donald Trump appointed as his Secretary of State – the US President’s leading foreign affairs adviser and diplomat.
As with Trump’s other cabinet appointments, he is a rich businessman with no political experience. Nor does he have any formal grounding in international diplomacy.
And there’s some evidence he relies too heavily on others for combing the fine detail of a situation where nuance and reading between the lines count for everything.
One of Tillerson’s first orders was that his briefing materials not exceed two pages. Since then he has been accused of favouring efficiency over patient finessing.
He also raised eyebrows last month when he blocked American reporters from accompanying him on his first major mission to Asia, saying: “I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it.”
Now he is charged with teasing apart an evolving and complex international tangle that involves much more than putting Russia in its place.
Just days ago, Trump ordered a missile strike on Russia’s war-wrecked ally Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons strike on rebels. It was Trump’s emotional response to images of small children suffering agonising, choking deaths.
Both Russia and the US have warplanes operating in Syrian airspace; the former in support of Syrian troops, the latter engaged in battling the Islamic State. Until the missile strike, the Russians and Americans had an agreement to cooperate in not shooting each other down. Vladimir Putin has now cancelled that agreement.
Tillerson is about to fly to an outraged Moscow for talks. Rather than playing softly to Russia’s war talk, Tillerson has called Russia “complicit or simply incompetent” for allowing Syria to maintain its chemical weapons stockpile.
He has also accused Putin of trying to manipulate elections in Europe with the same computer-hacking techniques he is said to have deployed during the US presidential elections. This puts him wildly at odds with Trump who has branded the hacking claims a conspiracy by his Democratic Party critics.
From that alone we can conclude – and be thankful — that Tillerson is his own man. (He’s also surprisingly left-leaning on issues such as gay rights, even climate change.)
Meanwhile, US warships are steaming toward a standoff with North Korea, the lunatic state supported by China that has grown increasingly bold in its nuclear-missile ambitions. Tillerson won’t be called on to negotiate with North Korea, because the US has no diplomatic relationship with the rogue state.The two nation’s don’t talk to one another.
Tillerson’s challenge is not merely encouraging China to keep North Korea under its thumb, but he may be called upon to develop a deeper relationship with Beijing as an ally against Russia – along the lines of Richard Nixon’s strategy during the Cold War.
Ironically, in his Exxon days, Tillerson forged close ties with Vladimir Putin, negotiating multi-billion dollar deals – including a green light to explore underground resources in Siberia – and was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship. This caused some top Republicans to question and resist Trump’s appointment of Tillerson as Secretary of State. Others argued that he had the experience and talent to bring more of a no-nonsense approach to American diplomacy.
Tillerson’s early performance in the Trump administration has been low-key, even invisible. This prompted some to suggest he was weak. But as Trump suffered weeks of missteps, scandals and obstacles to his agenda, Tillerson has emerged untouched by the stain of incompetence that, in the eyes of many, has made the White House a laughing stock.
What that suggests is that he knows when to parry and when to thrust – and when to duck for cover. If he can keep it up in the swamp of the treacherous weeks ahead, the world might have reason to breathe just a little easier.