Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Photo: Reuters, Joshua Roberts
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Photo: Reuters, Joshua Roberts

The American political elites are good at acting dumb. Why do they get excited that Exxon Mobil chief Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice as state secretary, is a recipient of Russia’s Order of Friendship?

In typically abusive language, Senator John McCain reacted, “When he [Tillerson] gets the friendship award from a butcher, frankly, it’s an issue that I think needs to be examined.” The “butcher” under reference is of course Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida tweeted, “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState.”

Why do elites say such inane things? Russia’s Order of Friendship is no big deal.

The medal is of relatively recent origin, in vogue since 1994. The last presidential decree on the medal was signed by President Dmitry Medvedev in 2012.

The decree says broadly that the honor shall be bestowed on foreign nationals who significantly contributed to the implementation of joint ventures with the Russian Federation, major economic projects and attracting investments into the economy of the Russian Federation, or promoted Russia’s cultural and historical heritage, etc.

The Kremlin chose to honor the boss of ExxonMobil because of the company’s massive investment plans in the Russian energy sector. Moscow felt all but obliged to honor the oil mogul who took the big decision.

ExxonMobil’s business plans were a dream-come-true for Moscow, given the seamless access to capital and advanced technology it promises to open up new oil and gas fields.

The Order of Friendship is an expression of goodwill and/or gratitude. It’s far from a diabolic Russian tool to corrupt influential personalities. Indeed, one distinguished recipient of the Order of Friendship was none other than the late elder statesman of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew (whom, apparently, both Putin and McCain admired.)

The list of American recipients speaks for itself: Lydia Black (historian and anthropologist); David Blatt (basketball coach); Van Kliburn  (renowned pianist); Patricia Kloherty (American businesswoman who managed the US-Russia Investment Fund); Raymond Johnson (businessman who founded the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis); John Middleton-Tidwell (scholar of US-Russian history); Richard Pierce (scholar of Russia-US studies); Barbara Sweetland-Smith (historian of Russia-US studies);  Rex Tillerson (CEO of ExxonMobil Corporation); and, Steven Seagal (actor, director, musician, martial art instructor).

The hullabaloo over Tillerson is for the wrong reasons. The most glaring thing about the nomination is that for the first time in American political history, a corporate boss is going to be the country’s top diplomat and will be in charge of a perestroika in US foreign policies.

Trump’s sense of priorities is writ large here and it is hugely controversial. He apparently wants to transfer as much wealth as possible from the rest of the world to the American economy.

Now, is that a good thing that the lone superpower avariciously resorts to nineteenth-century mercantile policies to exploit mankind to fatten the American economy? Won’t it lead to the resurrection of the Ugly American and gunboat diplomacy?

What happens to the Millennium Development goals? What about America’s exceptionalism, which is President Barack Obama’s pet topic in foreign policy?

Again, how is America going to benefit out of Tillerson’s expertise and leadership qualities, which are no doubt fabulous?

Tillerson played a key leadership role promoting ExxonMobil’s highly profitable business activities in countries such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Mexico and Venezuela.

In Iraq, ExxonMobil is active in the northern region. It will be the single biggest beneficiary if Iraq gets fragmented and the northern Kurdish region breaks loose as independent country.

Equally, if Syria disintegrates and an oil and gas pipeline could be established connecting Iraqi Kurdistan with Eastern Mediterranean, ExxonMobile will have hit the jackpot, because the pipeline could also bring Qatari gas to the European market.

Will Trump and Tillerson give the necessary push to balkanize Iraq and Syria?

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are promoters of extremist Islamist groups in Syria, some of which would qualify as al-Qaeda affiliates. But ExxonMobil is doing roaring business in both countries.

Now, Trump has promised the mother of all wars against terrorism, which ought to put the Saudi and Qatari sheikhs in his crosshairs. Will Tillerson act as the ultimate conciliator?

While Trump remains content to wage his war of words with the extremist groups nurtured by the sheikhs, Tillerson could cover the backside of Big Oil in the Gulf.

Importantly, ExxonMobil becomes the missing link between Trump and Obama’s ‘regime change’ agenda in Syria. The sheikhs of course will be delighted if the nexus works.

Or, turn to America’s backyard. Mexico is a country that Trump wants to quarantine. He hopes to get Mexico to finance the construction of a wall between the two countries.

Trump also hopes to expel the illegal migrants from American soil. Yet, ExxonMobil is a big stakeholder in Mexico.

As for Venezuela, the country’s leftist government under late Hugo Chavez appropriated ExxonMobil’s vast assets in that country. Thereupon, the vengeful American corporate giant under Tillerson’s supervision hit back by filing damages running into tens of billions of dollars.

Venezuela now alleges a US conspiracy to overthrow its democratically-elected government.

Don’t these things bother McCain and give him sleepless nights?

There is no dearth of right questions McCain could ask Tillerson during his Senate hearings. ExxonMobil has a track record of hard-nosed business practices.

It walks a fine line between doing legitimate business and ‘incentivizing’ foreign leaders who are not accountable to take speedy, helpful decisions.

Tillerson devoted his entire working life to ExxonMobil. Don’t ask why foreign leaders patronized him. Ask how he could persuade them to show favors to ExxonMobil.

But, alas, the focus has instead shifted to the “Russian hacking” and on Tillerson being the recipient of Russia’s Order of Friendship.

It is a sad reflection of something deeper–the schism that has appeared amongst America’s ruling elites over the directions of foreign policy at a juncture when the US’s global influence is in decline and needs to be arrested.

The predicament is acute, because the decline in America’s global influence and America’s own decline also happen to be intertwined and mutually reinforcing.

The attack on “Russian hacking” becomes the objective co-relative of the US’ defeat in Syria, the unraveling of the pivot to Asia and the failure of Obama’s containment strategy against Russia.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.