Around three weeks ago, the Dear Leader-Elect of the U.S. made one of his most frightening nominations for important posts within his administration. Considering the group of neo-Nazis, segregationists, mixers of church and state, and outright insults to democracy that cabinet consists of, the massive unease that should be felt about Rex Tillerson’s nomination as Secretary of State may seem like overstatement. But as the U.S. comes out of eight years of the most energy-forward administrations in its history, where pipelines have been opposed, solar panels incentivised, federal parkland saved and expanded, and the first steps away from fossil fuel finally taken, Tillerson represents steps back that the U.S. can’t afford to take.
Speculation on Trump’s cabinet, like all aspects of his transition process, has been a cornucopia of conflicting interests. But Rex Tillerson is the CEO of ExxonMobil, one of the largest fossil fuel businesses in the world. One of that firm’s most recent business triumphs was a series of deals with Russian oilmen to explore the Black Sea and Siberia’s massive oil deposits and take advantage of the Russian Federation’s more lenient environmental laws. It was a deal potentially worth billions, and more important, it was one that no other oil company could have in the same way. Tillerson, after all, was personally acquainted with Vladimir Putin, had been honored by the Russian government, and personally owned more than $218 million in ExxonMobil stock.
But when President Obama’s administration put sanctions on Russia following its invasion of the Crimean peninsula, all of Exxon’s drilling deals with the Russian Federation were put on hold. This made the big question in the U.S. election, as far as Russia was concerned, “Will the U.S. lift sanctions against Russia?” If the answer is no and the sanctions continue, Russia’s ability to export and sell its natural gas will be crippled, in turn crippling the Russian economy and ruining Putin’s image as an infallible strongman. If the answer is yes, however, Russia’s position in global economics is greater than it ever has been, and ExxonMobil stands to be the chief beneficiary of the continued rape of Russia’s resources besides Putin himself.
This means that Putin and Tillerson are at the center of a situation that’s—at least when summarized crassly by a columnist—a perversion of the mutually assured destruction that characterized our Cold War with the USSR. Exxon needs Russia to open new markets and side-step increasing regulation of its industry by more enlightened governments; Putin needs Exxon to make sure that his way of doing things for Russia stays relevant for the foreseeable future. In short, the Tillerson nomination isn’t shocking because it serves vain capitalist interests—that’s par for the course at this point in Trump’s ascendency. What makes this one beyond even a pale that includes neo-Nazis and anti-educationists is that it’s Exxon and Russia, not Trump—or, God forbid, Americans—who come out on top.