Rex Tillerson's nomination as our next secretary of state poses major challenges, especially in two critical respects. While clearly knowledgeable about energy, the ExxonMobile CEO has very limited familiarity with many complex issues ranging from nuclear weapons to numerous treaty relationships to decades-long conflicts, and there is little sign he knows much about China. Equally difficult is his very close relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Donald Trump's nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be the nation's next secretary of state — after a protracted consideration of candidates — suggests the president-elect understands the position must be filled by a person of character, depth and vision. Mr. Tillerson leads one of the world's largest multinational companies and is accustomed to working with foreign leaders and to running a large organization often described as a "quasi-state."

But his nomination also poses major challenges, especially in two critical respects. While clearly knowledgeable about energy, he has very limited familiarity with many complex issues ranging from nuclear weapons to numerous treaty relationships to decades-long conflicts, and there is little sign he knows much about China. Equally difficult, particularly in light of reports by the intelligence community that Russia intervened in the presidential election, are his very close relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin and Exxon's billions in investments in Russia.

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The Exxon executive criticized Western sanctions against Russia's military aggression in Crimea and Ukraine. He did so from a business perspective because Exxon struck a deal in 2011 with Russia that gave Exxon access to extensive Arctic resources. But what's good for Exxon is not necessarily what's good for America.

The nominee is bound to face rigorous grilling from senators in the wake of the CIA's conclusions about recent Russian cyberattacks against the U.S., which the intelligence agency says were intended to swing the election in Mr. Trump's favor. Republican leaders in Congress condemned the Russian intervention, and in a radio interview, Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate's Armed Services Committee, called Mr. Putin a "thug, a murderer, and a killer" and later added "butcher" to the list.

Leading European nations, America's closest allies, are bound to be concerned by Mr. Tillerson's nomination, especially after a campaign in which Mr. Trump questioned the importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Recently, Germany's leader Angela Merkel called for a toughening of those sanctions due to Russia's continuing lack of cooperation in Ukraine.

Mr. Tillerson's nomination could promote U.S. interests in important areas, however, notably in nuclear proliferation. Russia has backed away from nuclear negotiations in recent years, and improved ties may enable renewed cooperation. Despite Exxon's earlier skepticism regarding climate change and potential cover up of some risks associated with it, Mr. Tillerson has acknowledged that CO2 emissions have a warming effect on the planet, and he has supported a carbon tax.

The critical role played by a secretary of state has been demonstrated time and again in the nation's history. George Marshall led the recovery of Europe with the Marshall plan, Dean Acheson helped create NATO, and George Shultz worked alongside Ronald Reagan to achieve momentous arms control agreements.

The crucial role of the next secretary is magnified by Mr. Trump's total lack of experience in foreign policy and national security. Mr. Trump is a kind of blank slate — with views on important issues that range from sensible to bizarre.

A secretary of state is a president's senior foreign policy adviser and first among equals in the cabinet. He or she must be a strategic thinker with a deep grasp of the nation's interests and the need for broad public support.

Selection of a strong secretary is especially crucial to offset the heavy accent of military personnel already chosen for the cabinet. If confirmed, Mr. Tillerson will need to be a kind of balance wheel between two generals with starkly different views on key issues: Mr. Trump's choices for defense, Gen. James Mattis, and national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

General Mattis regards Russia as a serious threat to America's interests, whereas Lieutenant General Flynn appears friendly to Russia. General Mattis now defends President Barack Obama's nuclear agreement with Iran while Lieutenant General Flynn would tear it up. "Trump needs Cabinet officers willing to stand up to him and push back when he is wrong," noted Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus. "Mattis has already done that."

In an interview in December's Foreign Service Journal, Mr. Shultz, a business executive himself before becoming Mr. Reagan's secretary of state, provides a candid assessment of the responsibility of the position. The coin of the realm is trust, Mr. Shultz said.

As a headstrong, tweet-prone leader, Donald Trump needs a smart, experienced and pragmatic secretary of state he can trust and who can help build confidence among the American people in Mr. Trump's wisdom and judgment. Will that be Mr. Tillerson?

Frederic B. Hill (fhill207@gmail.com), a former foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, later conducted wargaming exercises on national security issues for the Department of State. James E. Goodby, former vice-chair of the U.S. delegation to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty talks and ambassador to Finland, is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

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