How to Stop Former Western Leaders From Becoming Paid Shills for Autocrats

From Gerhard Schröder to Tony Blair, former officials have cashed in by repping autocrats and their proxies.

By , an investigative journalist and author of American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the World’s Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History, and , a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University.
A smiling Putin and Schroder move to shake hands in front of a conference table.
A smiling Putin and Schroder move to shake hands in front of a conference table.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder attend the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 21, 2012. DMITRY LOVETSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this month, as the Russian military continued to threaten a further invasion of Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin exacerbated the ongoing European Union gas crisis, a bit of news emerged that was emblematic of Moscow’s strategy to undermine a unified trans-Atlantic response: Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled energy giant, nominated former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to a new position on the firm’s board of directors.

Although we won’t know whether Schröder will ascend to the Gazprom board until the June shareholder meeting (though Putin welcomed his nomination while standing next to current German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Moscow on Tuesday), a few things are clear. First, even if Schröder doesn’t land the new position, he’ll still have a soft landing: The former chancellor is already chairman of the board of the Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft, as well as chairman of the shareholders committee of Gazprom-controlled Nord Stream AG, both of which have welcomed Schröder into their oleaginous embrace.

Second, any hope that shame and morality alone would deter former Western politicians from avoiding the kinds of contracts with authoritarian enterprises that Schröder has pioneered is dead and buried. During his visit to Washington last week, Scholz—of the same German Social Democratic Party (SPD) as Schröder—was asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper what message his predecessor’s Russian positions send. Instead of seizing the opportunity to lead by repudiating Schröder’s actions—a precedent already set by Germany’s then-Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2017—the best Scholz could muster was a flustered, “He’s not the government. I am the chancellor now.”

Earlier this month, as the Russian military continued to threaten a further invasion of Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin exacerbated the ongoing European Union gas crisis, a bit of news emerged that was emblematic of Moscow’s strategy to undermine a unified trans-Atlantic response: Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled energy giant, nominated former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to a new position on the firm’s board of directors.

Although we won’t know whether Schröder will ascend to the Gazprom board until the June shareholder meeting (though Putin welcomed his nomination while standing next to current German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Moscow on Tuesday), a few things are clear. First, even if Schröder doesn’t land the new position, he’ll still have a soft landing: The former chancellor is already chairman of the board of the Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft, as well as chairman of the shareholders committee of Gazprom-controlled Nord Stream AG, both of which have welcomed Schröder into their oleaginous embrace.

Second, any hope that shame and morality alone would deter former Western politicians from avoiding the kinds of contracts with authoritarian enterprises that Schröder has pioneered is dead and buried. During his visit to Washington last week, Scholz—of the same German Social Democratic Party (SPD) as Schröder—was asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper what message his predecessor’s Russian positions send. Instead of seizing the opportunity to lead by repudiating Schröder’s actions—a precedent already set by Germany’s then-Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2017—the best Scholz could muster was a flustered, “He’s not the government. I am the chancellor now.”

That Schröder’s Gazprom nomination could still take place amid Russia’s current threat posture shows that no amount of public shame will reverse this trend across the West. The time has finally come for democratic governments around the globe to join together to formally and legally bar ex-leaders from following in Schröder’s path and becoming symbolic henchmen in the spread of kleptocratic dictatorship worldwide.


Schröder is the inspiration for the Russian neologism Schröderizatsiya (“Schröderization), which loosely translates to “former Western leader who leaves office; inks deals with authoritarian, kleptocratic regimes; and illustrates just how shallow claims of democratic values truly are.” As former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin has pointed out, Schröder has become “the most important Putin lobbyist in the world.”

And Putin knows it. As the Russian leader quipped on Tuesday, “If German citizens don’t want to pay four or five times as much as they do for gas, they should be grateful to Mr. Schröder.” And though Scholz is right that Schröder is “not the government,” that doesn’t mean the former chancellor no longer has a voice to influence the Social Democrats’ approach to Moscow. As Spiegel revealed last week, Schröder met with prominent members of the party as recently as last month to discuss Russia policy.

But where Schröder was a pioneer years ago when he first joined Nord Stream’s shareholders committee, he’s hardly alone. If anything, Schröder simply ushered in a stampede of former Western politicians who realized just how lucrative linking up with authoritarian regimes can be.

Just look at the raft of former European leaders who have followed in Schröder’s footsteps. There’s former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, who left office and promptly began shilling for Kazakhstan’s former dictator. There’s former French Prime Minister François Fillon, who joined the board of Russian-state owned oil firm Zarubezhneft last June, before also joining the board of Russian petrochemicals giant Sibur in late December, according to Politico.

Add to that a former Polish president, a former Finnish prime minister, and an entire lineup of former Austrian officials who all, in one way or another, have traded their status as former officeholders for lucrative sinecures with authoritarian and autocratic regimes or state-owned enterprises that are effective proxies for those governments.

Rather than follow through on their professed support for democratic policies, these former officials willingly pad their pockets at the behest of authoritarian forces. And in some cases, like that of Schröder, they actively advance narratives in line with authoritarian propaganda tropes; just weeks ago, Schröder accused Ukraine—not Russia—of “saber-rattling” as a further invasion by Moscow looms large.

This kind of authoritarian elite capture is not a solely European phenomenon. In the United States, Republican stalwart and former presidential candidate Bob Dole left office and became one of the key lobbyists tasked with rehabilitating the images of now-sanctioned Russian oligarchs, helping to launch the broader explosion of Washington’s foreign lobbying industry. Former U.S. senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman likewise opted to trade his democratic credentials for a position lobbying on behalf of the Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE, despite concerns about the firm’s links to the Chinese Communist Party.

It’s also telling that, according to Politico last month, Nord Stream 2 AG had the fifth-biggest lobbying contract in Washington for the fourth quarter of 2021. This is a troubling revelation, as Nord Stream 2 AG is owned by Kremlin-controlled Gazprom and is a project aimed at undermining Ukraine’s national security—at a time when the Russian military has mounted a significant threat to Kyiv’s sovereignty.

Coming in eighth on that same list? Huawei Technologies USA, Inc., whose parent company Huawei has been reported to have close ties to Beijing. This sort of report should be a wake-up call for Americans concerned with the extent to which entities associated with authoritarian regimes like Russia and China are working to influence decision-making in Washington.

To their credit, no former U.S. president has opted to follow Schröder’s path. Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush have both steered clear of any foreign financial contracts following their White House tenures, and though concerns persist over anonymous wealth saturating former President Donald Trump’s portfolio and foreign finances flowing to the Clinton Foundation, neither Trump nor Bill Clinton has taken a board seat at an authoritarian state-owned enterprise.

As we have argued elsewhere: “Imagine if George W. Bush or Barack Obama were currently working on behalf of China’s Huawei. This wouldn’t just be a major political story in Washington, it would be the only story.” Especially in the context of increasing scrutiny of foreign lobbying in the United States in recent years, that kind of social pressure has thus far helped former U.S. leaders steer clear.

But the same level of social censure, unfortunately, hasn’t yet been found in European electorates. While Schröder’s, Blair’s, and Fillon’s actions were met with consternation and hand-wringing, the trickle of former Western leaders turning into authoritarian toadies has now turned into a flood. Without any real political groundswell from European voters against it, there is little political cost for former officials to follow Schröder’s path.

All of this points in one clear direction. Where shame and stigma may have once deterred former officials from becoming autocrats’ lackeys, those days are gone. And as kleptocratic regimes continue to rise—and as a new realization seeps in about how culpable the West has been in the rise and entrenchment of these regimes—the time has come for the West to unite to bar former leaders from signing up to represent autocratic regimes or related state-owned enterprises after they leave office.


Of course, formulating and promulgating policy is far easier said than done—and, if done right, will take time. Even if currently legal in Western jurisdictions, the practice of Schröderization can rapidly erode public confidence in Western leaders’ commitment to stand up to authoritarian nations like Russia and China in the long term. And if this slide occurs, the erosion of Western democratic resilience to authoritarian threats will not be far behind.

That’s why the first step toward finally barring this kind of authoritarian elite capture can’t be legislative. Rather, it must be a simple statement of intent. For example, the United States and European Union could immediately issue a joint statement vowing to work toward synchronized legislative actions and norms.

Such an initial statement—issued in a U.S.-EU format or via NATO or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—doesn’t need to be complex to start. It can be a simple declaration that the practice of former officials working for authoritarian or kleptocratic regimes or their related proxies after leaving office must end. These figures would still be permitted to work as lobbyists, as consultants, or in other commercial positions. But their clients could not have links to the regimes that Schröder and his ilk have flocked to. A joint statement to this effect wouldn’t have any legal muscle, but it would indicate that a new norm has been established.

Beyond that, the wheels of a legislative solution can finally start spinning. (Washington’s legislation, for example, could be called the Stop Helping America’s Malign Enemies, or SHAME, Act.) This will be a lengthier process, with valid concerns about everything from the status of existing contracts to the classification of authoritarian regimes and proxy entities.

Beyond obvious examples of certain Russian and Chinese state-owned enterprises, defining kleptocratic or authoritarian regimes and proxy entities would need to be a careful process. Well-considered thresholds would need to be set for the types of strategic corruption or repressive political actions that would trigger such a classification.

But classification and assessments of this nature are not unheard of in the U.S. context. Examples include the congressional codification of Russia, Iran, and North Korea in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in 2017 and the May 2020 executive order directing the U.S. Department of Energy to prohibit “Federal agencies and U.S. persons from acquiring, transferring, or installing [bulk power system] equipment in which any foreign country or foreign national has any interest and the transaction poses an unacceptable risk to national security.”

And just as we’ve seen with everything from foreign lobbying transparency requirements to shell company ownership registries, trans-Atlantic partners can trade and track best practices to make sure any legislation is as effective and tight as it should be.

The recent momentum surrounding foreign lobbying regulations in the United States and elsewhere is instructive. When the United States first passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in 1938, requiring those working on behalf of foreign governments to register with the Department of Justice, the lawmakers behind the legislation assumed a certain level of shame would prevent Americans from working on behalf of malign regimes.

As investigative journalist Ken Silverstein has written, “The idea [behind FARA] seemed to be that with the need for disclosure, lobbyists would find it too embarrassing to take on clients that were hideously immoral or corrupt, no matter how much money they were offered.” That aspirational belief appears woefully naive in today’s context; as notorious foreign lobbyist Edward J. von Kloberg III once said, “Shame is for sissies.”

FARA itself went largely unenforced for decades—culminating in a wave of unregistered foreign lobbying campaigns in recent years. The past few years, though, have shown just how effective actual enforcement of FARA can be. With increased resourcing, a sudden burst of new investigations, and an unprecedented rate of related prosecutions, FARA has seen a new life. And there are many additional ideas that could be floated, starting with a mandate that government pensions and benefits could be withheld from former leaders unless they resign from their unsavory positions.

FARA continues to allow Americans to work with whichever regimes and proxies they would like, meaning new legislative models to curb Schröderization would need careful consideration. But the lessons from FARA are clear: If you build the legislation limiting work on behalf of authoritarian regimes and their proxies—and you make sure to enforce it when it’s on the books—you can actually succeed where social expectation alone won’t. Given the mounting authoritarian challenges facing liberal democracies globally today, this can’t come soon enough.

Casey Michel is an investigative journalist and author of American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the World’s Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History. Twitter: @cjcmichel

Benjamin L. Schmitt is a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University, a senior fellow for democratic resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis, and a “Rethinking Diplomacy” fellow at the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies. Twitter: @BLSchmitt

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