What does it mean for US foreign policy that Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson has no political experience?

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3 January
11:26
3 January
11:38

Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief executive, is a life-long oil businessman with no political experience. But at the beginning of 2017, when he takes on the role of the US Secretary of State, he’ll become one of the world’s most powerful diplomats. 

In the near term, Rex Tillerson’s lack of experience is going to make for a very rocky transition in the US State Department. But he’s not the only one. Looking at the people Donald Trump has brought into his cabinet, almost none of Trump’s appointees have experience of managing civilian bureaucracies. Trump has hired three generals who obviously have a lot of military experience – but the military is a very different entity than the civilian parts of government. 

"This maybe less true in terms of the long-term prospects for US foreign policy. Somebody like Rex Tillerson doesn’t have any formal diplomatic experience, but has certainly done high-level negotiation and has made contacts at high levels."

None of this inherently means that these new figures couldn’t be good at their jobs. Successful people in government come from all kinds of backgrounds. But it does mean that they will struggle to learn the ropes. 

This maybe less true in terms of the long-term prospects for US foreign policy. Somebody like Rex Tillerson doesn’t have any formal diplomatic experience, but has certainly done high-level negotiation and has made contacts at high levels. There are aspects of the secretary of state’s job that he will be as comfortable in as any other likely candidate. The issue here is more that he’s experienced in thinking primarily in terms of the interests of Exxon Mobil. And that's fine, because he’s had one brand to focus on and represent globally. But it’s going to be a big shift in mindset for Rex Tillerson from spending a lifetime thinking in terms of your private sector obligations to then working wholly in the interests of the United States.

"It’s hard to second guess what’s likely to happen because there are relatively few precedents: indeed, I don't even think we have an example of someone becoming a top US diplomat when he or she has never worked in or for the government."

It’s hard to second guess what’s likely to happen because there are relatively few precedents: indeed, I don't even think we have an example of someone becoming a top US diplomat when he or she has never worked in or for the government. So, like a lot of things about the incoming president Trump, we just don't know. The guy Tillerson could turn out to be naturally talented. You know clearly he got where he did by working his way to the top of ExxonMobil. This is not someone who’s without political talents. But it just remains to be seen whether he can transfer those skills into the kind that an effective Secretary of State needs.

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