When Donald Trump asked me to be his secretary of state, I was honored to be given such an extraordinary opportunity to serve my country. I was confident I could transition from my job as the CEO of ExxonMobil to become America’s chief diplomat. But after 10 months in my new role, I’m beginning to think that maybe settling complicated disputes between historically hostile groups of people is quite a bit different than drilling for oil.
As it turns out, the two occupations really don’t have much in common at all.
Discovering new oil reserves and finding ways to extract them is one thing, but serving as a mediator in foreign conflicts between dozens of warring factions whose discord goes back years, if not centuries, is actually another thing entirely. I figured the four decades I spent locating places to drill for oil would translate extremely well to navigating the complex histories of other cultures in order to negotiate delicate compromises that prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. I thought there would be some similarities there, but apparently that’s just not the case. Seriously, I was way off on that one.
Truth be told, when I walked into the State Department on Day 1, I was convinced I’d be well-equipped to deal with ISIS and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, having previously worked with submersible pumps to draw hydrocarbons buried deep within the earth up to the surface for eventual refinement and sale. But come to find out, bringing peace to Syria has a lot to do with understanding the dozens of shifting alliances between various government forces, armed rebel groups, and supranational jihadist militants, and very little to do with, say, selecting the proper drilling fluid. I know that now.
I’m really very sorry.
In retrospect, this should have become clear to me much sooner. When I met Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi back in March, he kept talking to me about strategies to rein in Kim Jong-un’s nuclear program, and I kept waiting for the discussion to turn to techniques for boring through bedrock to find hidden caches of petroleum. Well, it never did. To be honest, I’m not really sure why I thought it would.
To be sure, there are times during diplomatic negotiations when oil does come up. Just last month, when I visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar, oil was alluded to on multiple occasions. But it was really only mentioned in passing. Any time I tried to dive into specifics like surveying an area for potential sources of oil, conducting seismic tests to find underground reservoirs, setting up rigs, drilling multilateral wells, or injecting steam into fields to extract heavier crude, none of the other diplomats at the table showed much interest.
In fact, pretty much every time I bring up the subject of oil these days, people seem to want to talk about something else.
Look, I never thought absolutely crucial tasks like going to the U.N. to address the representatives of the nations that are party to the Iran nuclear deal would be easy. I just thought it would be a lot like drilling for oil or, at the very least, distributing petroleum products to the 11,000 ExxonMobil-branded service stations across the United States. But it isn’t, so I’m kind of at a loss here.
The more I think about it, though, there is one similarity: If I really screw up a diplomatic dispute, we’re ultimately going to just walk away from it, same as we do with an oil spill.