Among the names that were floated as President-elect Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson stood out.
But ExxonMobil isn't just any company — it's a giant. In fact, because of its enormous size and the geopolitical implications of its actions, it may be better to think of it as something more akin to a state — and Tillerson might be considered the head of that state.
As Robert McNally, president of the consulting firm Rapidan Group and a director for energy on President George W. Bush’s national security council, told The Washington Post: “The closest thing we have to a secretary of state outside government is the CEO of Exxon.”
The best way to understand ExxonMobil as a country is to consider its economic might.
The company is one of the largest in the world, second only to another American giant: Walmart. Last year, the company took in revenue of $268.88 billion. That's a lot of money, though it should be noted its actually quite a drop from previous years due to low oil and gas prices during the period.
If you compare that revenue to a list from the World Bank of gross domestic product around the world last year, you see that ExxonMobil would be the 41st biggest economy in the world if it were a country. While it's far smaller than the United State or China, it's only just behind Pakistan and the Philippines and a little bigger than Chile, Ireland and Finland.
That enormous revenue comes from ExxonMobil's vast oil and gas resources. Earlier this year, it was estimated that the company was producing the equivalent of 4.1 million barrels of oil per day. That would probably make ExxonMobil the fourth-largest oil producer in the world, ahead of Iran (3.5 million barrels a day) according to recent figures, though its production is smaller than the amount of oil coming from Russia (10.5 million), Saudi Arabia (10 million) and the United States (9.2 million). It's just behind Iraq (4.3 million).
Working out an ExxonMobil country's population would be a little more tricky. According to its own estimate, the company employs 75,300 people. If we were to think of that as a country's population, that isn't so big: It's a little less than the Isle of Man off the coast of the British Isles and slightly more than Dominica, the Caribbean island.
However, that may not be the right way to think about those employees. Perhaps they are more like an ExxonMobil state's government employees. This is still a low number of government employees for a state, though it is more than double the number of State Department employees (more than 34,000).
To really estimate an ExxonMobil state's population, it may be better to think of it in terms of shareholders — the people to whom Tillerson is ultimately responsible. This is tricky too, however. There are over 4 billion outstanding ExxonMobil shares, but many shareholders own multiple shares and large institutional investors, such as pension funds, own significant chunks of the company. This still means that many people, likely millions, are directly or indirectly influenced by Tillerson's policy decisions.
A global influence
Much has been made of Tillerson's international links. In particular, his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin — Tillerson received the Order of Friendship from Putin in 2013 after working closely on a number of oil deals — is already the subject of scrutiny.
These links may be the best way of understanding ExxonMobil's international clout: It doesn't exercise power as a state but as a web of economic relationships. Former Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll dubbed the company a “private empire” in an exhaustive 2012 book on ExxonMobil.
By ExxonMobil's own count, the company has operations in 58 countries. It recruits people from the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA to help manage its own foreign policy. It has an extensive lobbying operation in the District, though it is often willing to flout Washington's foreign policy, such as when it undermined Baghdad by agreeing to an independent oil deal with Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government.
While Tillerson is already close to powerful figures like Putin, in other cases the countries ExxonMobil works with do not have so much heft. Consider its complicated relationship with the African nation of Chad, for example, which has a GDP of $11.1 billion — less than a 20th the size of ExxonMobil's revenue. In 1999, a cable from the U.S. Embassy there said that Exxon was ignoring American diplomats. “And why should it be otherwise?” the note then asked. “Exxon Mobil’s investments in the Chad-Cameroon oil project would amount to $4.2 billion. Annual aid to Chad from the United States was only about $3 million.”
This October, Chad hit ExxonMobil with a fine five times the size of its own GDP — $71.65 billion — over underpaid royalties.
Self-interest has pushed the company to take stances at odds with much of the world. The company also become notorious over the years for pushing climate-change denial before Tillerson's leadership, though it has stepped back from that position over recent years — shortly before the election, ExxonMobil issued a statement in support of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Such pragmatism may be a mark of Tillerson's leadership as head of the ExxonMobil state. As Coll notes in a recent appraisal of Tillerson for the New Yorker, under his leadership ExxonMobil is a “rule-bound” company that has avoided charges of corruption, even while behaving in an aggressive and purely self-interested way all around the world.
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