How Will Tillerson’s International Career, Exxon Mobil’s Exchange Programs, Translate to Secretary of State Role?


7 minutes

Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson is nominated to be next Secretary of State.
Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson is nominated to be next Secretary of State.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The first major indication of the Trump administration’s foreign policy priorities came with the nomination of Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil, to be the next Secretary of State. As Mr. Tillerson has spent his career in the business sector in various roles with Exxon and Exxon Mobil since 1975, it’s difficult to know what his diplomatic priorities would be, especially with regard to the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program and other international exchanges. His very international career, however, as well as his own exchange experience, his past statements, and Exxon Mobil’s robust investment in international exchange programs around the world, may begin to shed some light.

Tillerson has spent much of his career traveling to and dealing with the approximately 50 countries in which Exxon Mobil operates. While much of the focus of his confirmation process will likely be on his relationship with Russia, Tillerson, according to The New York Times, “has relationships far and wide … and is particularly well versed in the affairs of Angola, Argentina, Canada, Mexico, Nigeria, and Qatar.” Tillerson is known as a “first-rate corporate diplomat,” according to the Times, and Forbes reported that he “knows world leaders and understands their motivations.”

When he was 18 years old and a student at the University of Texas, Tillerson made his first trip abroad on a Partners of the Americas exchange program to Peru to engage in earthquake relief work. According to Dinero En Imagen, this experience in Latin America “sensitized him to the world and this is key in understanding his strategic thinking.” Tillerson is now a trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and an honorary trustee at the Business Council for International Understanding (BCIU). He has spoken about the need for U.S. global engagement on issues such as creating energy access and promoting global health, and has stressed the importance of international cooperation and partnerships in economic development. And he’s acknowledged the important role that international students, scientists, and engineers play in the U.S. oil and gas industry, as well as the need for a global company like Exxon Mobil to develop international, globally competent, and STEM-educated employees.

Under Tillerson’s leadership, Exxon Mobil has promoted and facilitated international educational exchange in a variety of ways. Exxon Mobil is a State Department-designated sponsor in the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program Trainee category. Working in partnership with the Institute of International Education, Exxon Mobil also funds a variety of exchange programs that focus on developing highly skilled and culturally adept individuals, with a primary focus on geoscience. These Exxon Mobil exchanges include scholar programs with the Middle East and North Africa, Romania, and Russia, as well as programs with Iraq, Angola, Libya, and Mexico. The Exxon Mobil Foundation donated $1 million to help launch the 100,000 Strong in the Americas student exchange program, and additionally supports global health and women’s economic empowerment programs around the world.

Exxon Mobil, under Tillerson’s tenure, has supported programs and initiatives that prize international exchange and the development of global career skills. And while we can’t yet know what a Secretary Tillerson’s foreign policy focus would be, he seems to appreciate and understand the importance of international experience and relationships in conducting successful diplomatic and business transactions.

Importance of the new Secretary of State’s appointments

As Secretary of State, Tillerson - pending a Senate confirmation - would be the U.S.’ top diplomat and responsible for the overall coordination, execution, and supervision of U.S. foreign policy. While the overall direction of an administration’s foreign policy agenda comes in large part from the president, the secretary also has significant input into foreign policy decisions, and typically makes the practical decisions of how those details are implemented.

One such way Tillerson could assert his priorities is via appointments. Just as the secretary is appointed by the president, the secretary then appoints a variety of officials to fill leadership positions. For the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program and other Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) exchange programs, there are three key appointed positions, listed here in order of seniority:

  1. Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs – coordinates all of the U.S.’ public diplomacy outreach (requires Senate confirmation);
  2. Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) – oversees all State Department international exchange programs (requires Senate confirmation); and
  3. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Private Sector Exchanges – oversees the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program (does not require confirmation).

These appointments have a strong impact on the priorities and direction of State Department exchange programs. Given that it will take some time for the Senate to hold confirmation hearings for Tillerson, and then for the secretary to make his appointments, it’s unlikely that these three positions will be filled until many months into 2017.

Exchanges have long been a key piece of U.S. foreign policy

While we only have a few early indications of what Tillerson’s position on international exchange programs may be, it’s clear that secretaries of state - regardless of administration or political party - have long viewed exchange programs and positive international engagement as crucial pieces of U.S. foreign policy.

J-1 Exchange programs provide global opportunities for participants.
J-1 Exchange programs provide global opportunities for participants.
Image courtesy of Marine Deussen

Looking back at the past two presidential administrations, exchanges have consistently been a priority for the State Department. Funding for international exchange programs increased by 20% in George W. Bush’s second term, and by 18% in Barack Obama’s first term. Participation in the State Department’s many exchange visitor visa (J-1) programs increased by 40% from 2000 to 2015, thus bringing a growing number of students, scholars, teachers, and professionals to visit the U.S.

Hillary Clinton spoke about, and worked to increase, exchange programs on many of her international trips as secretary, with outgoing Secretary John Kerry following that lead. Kerry’s personal connection to exchange, through his own experiences traveling in Europe, gave him the conviction that “nothing brings about a common understanding more than … getting the chance to live in another country, see the world through another lens, and forge friendships that can last for decades.”

The secretaries during the George W. Bush administration, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, both spoke throughout their terms about the need to increase exchanges. During International Education Week in 2001, Powell said that “international education prepares our citizens to live, work, and compete in the global economy, and promotes tolerance and the reduction of conflict.” Rice noted in 2007 that, when she was a student during the Cold War, studying Russian and other critical languages was viewed as “the patriotic thing to do.”

“There is really no better commercial, if you will, for American democracy and the strength of America than having our people travel abroad and having people travel here,” Rice said at a 2008 Senate committee hearing on State Department programs. “And we’ve tried, through public-private partnerships, more exchanges, more visitors, to give people access to the United States.”

This view is not confined to just the secretaries of the 2000s. Eight former secretaries of state, Republican and Democrat alike, called for an increase in American global engagement, including increasing exchange programs, in a 2009 joint Politico article:

“We, former secretaries of state of different administrations and different political parties, and with differing views on many other issues, are nevertheless of one mind on this issue of critical importance to our country’s national security. … Our national security demands greater engagement.”

Secretary of State nominee Tillerson’s international travels and business experience, along with Exxon Mobil’s investment in exchanges, indicate that he has an understanding of exchanges as crucial to helping Americans live, work, and compete in the global economy. As Tillerson begins to formulate his plan for the Department of State, we strongly encourage him to keep international exchanges at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy strategy.

Mark Overmann Mark Overmann

After studying in France and teaching in China, Mark was hooked on cultural exchange. He's worked in the field of international education and exchange for 15 years, and is InterExchange's Vice President of External Affairs.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
Exclusive partner of the Erasmus Student Network for J-1 Visa sponsorship of internships in the U.S.
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Generation Study Abroad
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation