- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Tillerson Shares Experience, Insight as Secretary of State

Fall/Winter 2019-2020

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shared a number of insights on negotiation and diplomacy while visiting Harvard on September 17 to participate in the American Secretaries of State Project (SOSP). Professors Nicholas Burns (HKS), Robert Mnookin (HLS) and James Sebenius (HBS), who launched the project in 2014, have now interviewed all living former U.S. Secretaries of State with the exception of John Kerry, who is expected to participate in the program in this academic year.

Secretary Tillerson discussed a wide range of topics, from negotiating with Vladimir Putin to his sometimes-contentious relationship with President Donald Trump to how his private sector experience informed his service as America’s chief diplomat. “Every successful negotiation,” the 69th Secretary of State argued, “is defined by both parties leaving with an acceptable outcome.” Throughout his visit, Tillerson stressed how this approach to negotiations helped him during his tenure as CEO of ExxonMobil and as Secretary of State.

For example, Tillerson discussed his initial sense of cautious optimism that he could help lead the way to progress on the IsraeliPalestinian conflict. He believed that there was between the leaders in the Arab world and the Israelis a “willingness to actually talk to one another and, in very quiet ways, begin to try to overcome the long historical differences.” Once President Trump appointed Jared Kushner to lead these negotiations, the Secretary of State’s role became to assist Kushner and his team to “identify obstacles or gaps to the plan to give it the highest chance of success.” On recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Tillerson observed that “I didn’t necessarily agree with the timing of that. I felt like there was more value to be had in a negotiation by using that once you were actually into the talks.”

Tillerson noted that 80 percent of his time as chief diplomat was spent preparing for a negotiation—including intensively studying the social and cultural backgrounds of his interlocutors (the “journey” that these negotiators have “been on that brought them to this point”). This preparation, he explained, enabled him to build the kind of relationship with his negotiating partners that allowed him to understand their core interests: “What is it that they really are trying to get here [in addition to] what they put on the piece of paper.”

At the end of the event, Tillerson shared how the current polarization of the country was difficult to bear. He parted with a sense of hope, saying, “I go back and I read Lincoln’s words, and my great hope is that [those words are] still defining of the American people, that we will call upon the better angels of our nature, that we are not enemies.”

Read more about the American Secretaries of State Project at belfercenter.org/SOSP.


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

"Tillerson Shares Experience, Insight as Secretary of State." Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. (Fall/Winter 2019-2020).