The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts does not have a firm opinion on President-elect Donald Trump’s choice of ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson to be the next secretary of state. If you read Blake Hounshell’s Politico profile, you come away pretty sanguine about him. If you read Steve Coll’s take on Tillerson in the New Yorker, you come away with more concerns. The truth is that Tillerson is such a cipher on most foreign policy issues that it will be impossible to know what to think about him until his Senate confirmation hearings, which promise to be pretty interesting.

The overwhelming focus on Tillerson in recent days has been his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. That certainly warrants further scrutiny. As my Washington Post colleague Josh Rogin notes, Tillerson “has a close and personal relationship with [Rosneft head Igor] Sechin dating back over a decade.” That’s kind of a thing.

But as someone who studies economic sanctions in his day job, there’s another passage in Rogin’s story that’s worth stressing:

At various times, Tillerson has criticized the U.S. sanctions against Russia. At ExxonMobil’s 2014 annual meeting, he said, “We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensively, and that’s a very hard thing to do.”

It’s the word “generally” that caught my eye. One can debate whether the sanctions against Russia in particular have worked well — see the Atlantic Council’s latest report, for example. But Tillerson’s rhetoric on economic sanctions sounds about 15 years out of date. He’s right about comprehensive trade sanctions, but he’s wrong about the way sanctions are implemented today. As I’ve written at length elsewhere, sanctions are not a panacea by any means, but they’ve become a pretty potent tool that has strong bipartisan support. There are very good reasons to think about the proper role of sanctions in American foreign policy — but dismissing them as Tillerson does in that quote is disturbing.

Tillerson’s skepticism about sanctions mirrors that of his soon-to-be boss, Donald Trump. Here’s what he said to the New York Times back in March on the sanctions against Iran. Even as he attacks the Iran deal, his attitude about trade sanctions comes through quite clearly:

TRUMP: I would never have given [Iran] back the $150 billion under any circumstances. I would’ve never allowed that to happen. They are, they are now rich, and did you notice they’re buying from everybody but the United States? They’re buying planes, they’re buying everything, they’re buying from everybody but the United States. I would never have made the deal.
SANGER: Our law prevents us from selling to them, sir.
TRUMP: Uh, excuse me?
SANGER: Our law prevents us from selling any planes or, we still have sanctions in the U.S. that would prevent the U.S. from being able to sell that equipment.
TRUMP: So, how stupid is that? We give them the money, and we now say, “Go buy Airbus instead of Boeing,” right? So how stupid is that? In itself, what you just said, which is correct by the way, but would they now go and buy, you know, they bought 118 approximately, 118 Airbus planes. They didn’t buy Boeing planes, O.K.? We give them the money, and we say you can’t spend it in the United States, and create wealth and jobs in the United States. And on top of it, they didn’t, they in theory, I guess, cannot do that, you know, based on what I’ve understood. They can’t do that. It’s hard to believe. We gave them $150 billion and they can’t spend it in our country.

This might explain Trump’s silence on Boeing’s recently announced $16.6 billion deal to sell planes to Iran — as well as how Boeing’s has framed the deal.


There are two massive ironies built into Trump’s approach to economic coercion. The first is that the sanctions he’s complained about — the ones on Russia and Iran — have hurt the European Union way more than the United States. If Trump unilaterally lifts sanctions against Russia — which he can do come Jan. 20 — without consulting with European allies, it would be a significant foreign policy own-goal.

The second irony is even as Trump and Tillerson express skepticism about the utility of economic sanctions, Trump seems super-keen to use this tool to advance his trade policy. If a Trump administration raises tariffs by 35 to 45 percent as a way to extract trade concessions from China, for example, that’s an attempt to use trade sanctions to advance foreign economic policy goals. It won’t work, because it can’t work. No matter how many times Trump pops off about it, China is not undervaluing its currency anymore.

If there is one question that I hope a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asks Tillerson, it is about what he thinks about sanctions once he’s no longer the chief executive of ExxonMobil. Because if you read between the lines, it looks like there will be a sea change in the United States’ use of economic statecraft. In the post-Cold War era, the United States holstered its use of unilateral economic sanctions in return for World Trade Organization-approved measures to advance its trade agenda. At the same time, Washington has grown more eager about the use of economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool. Donald Trump looks set to reverse both of these trends.