I’ve enjoyed Steve Coll’s previous books and was eager to read Private Empire as it seems quite timely in our current political climate. The book takes a comprehensive look at Exxon over the years and highlights just how massive its influence truly is. Larger than most countries in terms of GDP, it also has an enormous sway over U.S. foreign policy. At the same time, it freely flouts sanctions and other agreements when it feels necessary. In other words, the company is American when it needs help but multinational when it wants to make money and the repercussions be damned.

The book spends quite a lot of time on the culture of the company, which is dominated by midwestern, white, male engineers who typically join right out of undergraduate or graduate school and never leave. It is an insular, disciplined, highly competitive culture that looks down on fellow oil companies.

Out of this environment rose our current Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. It is shocking to see that a man apparently so well equipped to make deals and operate and what is essentially a sovereign power (Exxon), has been such an unqualified disaster in the political realm.

While Coll is a fantastic writer I felt the book was at least 1/3 too long. He wants to show just how much research he has done, but at the cost of repeating himself and his insights. Still it’s a well-written book and a good introduction to how modern diplomatic and corporate power works at the multinational level.