Rex Tillerson’s Long Day in the Senate

US Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson presented a strong testimony at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 11. He demonstrated a broad understanding of the US foreign policy agenda, and at times sounded Reaganesque. Also impressive was the combination of US values, democracy, and human rights issues addressed during the hearing—and the hard-nosed realpolitik approach that he espouses.

Tillerson named China, Russia, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and Iran as the greatest challenges to US security. Clearly, one cannot take on these four all at once.

Russia did not come across as the United States’ new best friend in Tillerson’s testimony. He mentioned the values gap between the two countries, accepted Moscow’s culpability in the latest cyber-hacking scandal, and did not recognize the legitimacy of Russia’s occupation of Ukraine. To my surprise, Tillerson said that he would have supported the United States supplying weapons to Ukraine.

Nevertheless, sanctions may not be Tillerson’s favorite policy tool. When economic sanctions are imposed, US businesses suffer, he said. Tillerson is the former chairman and chief executive officer of ExxonMobil.

Tillerson said he would reexamine certain sanctions, including the latest ones imposed on Russia by US President Barack Obama’s administration in response to the cyberattacks aimed at disrupting the presidential elections in 2016. Many Russia policy cues will come from the White House, Tillerson made clear. This raises the question whether he would speak candidly to US President-elect Donald Trump—always a difficult task, and especially when it comes to the relationship between the president and secretary of state.

Tillerson was frank when he said that he does not know what Trump’s business interests in Russia, Turkey, and other countries may be—a new and unique development in the US power structure.

The confirmation hearing presented a man of stature, a businessman who is also a statesman, one imbued with love of country. Yet, other hefty considerations, including Tillerson’s corporate ties to Exxon and track record of relationships with other countries, including Russia, will likely be on senators’ minds when Tillerson’s nomination comes to a vote.

Ariel Cohen is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and the director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources, and Geopolitics. You can follow him on Twitter @Dr_Ariel_Cohen.

Related Experts: Ariel Cohen

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin in September announced plans to develop nuclear and conventional weapons to counter the United States and NATO. (REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin)