The material benefits of being a former leader

Blair and Clinton highlight the growing trend for ex-leaders to enjoy highly lucrative afterlives

AndrewCooper_100Most international political economy scholars concentrate on the rationale and techniques for leaders to hold on to power.  Yet, as I detail in a new book, a wide number of presidents and prime ministers increasingly appreciate the advantages that come with an exit from formal political life.

Much of the attractiveness of embracing a second life as early and robustly as possible relates to symbolism: making up for what they did or didn’t do while in office.  Such a psychology of compensation pushes ex-leaders to go global on a wide number of public policy areas.

Yet, in privileging the political economy dimension, the material gains of projecting an alternative profile jump out.   Leaving power offers abundant opportunities to go beyond the salary structure of the office of prime minister or president.

At the top of the list of former leaders who have done well financially after leaving office must be placed Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.  Both former leaders have been paid lucrative amounts of money for speaking engagements and for writing their memoirs.  Blair reportedly made £400,000 for two speeches in the Philippines in 2009, whilst Clinton in his years beyond office up to 2013 had delivered 544 paid speeches and earned an average of US$195,000 per event.

At one level this set of activity is just an exaggerated version of the ‘dash for cash’ that has gone on for decades.  Coined to describe the behaviour of former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, whose post-political life encompassed a range of commercially directed activity, the phrase also captures the post-political profile of George H.W. Bush and John Major, who served respectively as senior advisor to Carlyle Asia (1998-2003) and chair, Carlyle Europe (2001-4) among many other positions.

What makes the extended career of Blair and Clinton so significant – and controversial – is that they have balanced the financial orientation of their ‘afterlife’ with a focus on building up personalised foundations, including the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

This blend has to some extent softened the impression that material benefits are the driving force behind the ongoing careers of Blair and Clinton and other major ex-leaders. If selective forms of public recognition are an indication, there is a view that any personal benefits are outweighed by the positive performance of these hyper-empowered individuals.  In November 2014 Blair was given a global legacy award by the US arm of Save the Children, an accolade that came on top of the GQ philanthropist of the year.  Clinton won the National Wildlife Federation’s lifetime achievement award in 2014 and in the same year was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the ‘Happy Hearts Fund’ for his work on Haiti reconstruction.

For critics, however, the extended careers of Blair and Clinton highlight the trend toward the commodification of the roles of ex-leaders.  Jimmy Carter maintained strong connections with Atlanta-based companies.  Mikhail Gorbachev has been indiscriminate in his willingness to lend his name to enterprises (including doing adverts for Pizza Hut!).  Nelson Mandela spent considerable time mobilising business support for the fight against HIV/AIDS and the promotion of education.

But none of these other leaders took on the scope and intensity of corporate enterprise featured in the activities of Blair and Clinton.  Blair operates a number of commercial companies, including Windrush Ventures Ltd. and Tony Blair Associates.  Clinton, having been quoted as saying he left office ‘not only dead broke, but in debt,’ moved into a position by 2013 where his net worth was US$55 million.  They have in effect become Clinton and Blair Inc.!

Linking these general assessments, it is precisely the dualistic nature of the afterlives of Blair and Clinton that is so striking.  Not only have they built up impressive foundations that focus on making a difference in global affairs, they have maintained connections to the ‘club’ diplomatic world.  Clinton was involved in the spectacular 2009 ‘rescue’ of two American journalists from North Korea.  Blair has maintained his position as the representative to the Quartet of Middle East mediators (the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia).

Nevertheless, the line between good work and material benefit has become blurred. Clinton’s activities comingle his foundation work, paid speeches and official activities. Blair’s foundation and diplomatic roles in Africa and the Middle East can be interpreted as loss-leaders for gaining paid consultancy contracts.

In terms of the wider implications, of course, it is tempting to see Clinton and Blair as a unique category.  After all, there is a narrow list of ex-leaders who can go global with such attention and substantive diversity in terms of the reach of their afterlives.

Most ex-leaders take a far more limited role.  To be sure, some of these roles have a controversial edge as well.  The illustration of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder jumps out, for example, through his position with Gazprom as head of the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream.

In other cases, however, it is the constructive nature of the afterlife that comes to the fore. Whilst the higher profile individual activities already mentioned are the core focus of my book, other cases keep presenting themselves.  At a conference on January 16 2015 at the White Rose East Asia Centre at the University of Sheffield, case-studies of Japanese former leaders were elaborated upon, most recently the role of Yasuo Fukuda in facilitating the ‘handshake’ at the APEC summit between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.  In part, this role derived from Fukuda’s own personal reputation, but it was also helped by his standing as chairman of the Boao Forum for Asia.

Ultimately, the comprehensive corporate track taken by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton has two detrimental effects.  On the one side, it provides some legitimisation for an extension of the ‘dash for cash’ syndrome.  Ex-leaders, looking at the choices before them, will increasingly embrace a model where it is more than possible to comingle a global role and commercial advantage.

On the other side, such commodification inevitably overshadows the alternative projects of ex-leaders.  As showcased by a much wider set of former presidents and prime ministers (some with a high profile and others not so much), this whole phenomenon – akin to the role of celebrities, civil society activists and various types of philanthropists – speaks tellingly to the current complexity of spheres of authority in the global political economy.