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Shame on you, Exxon

August 31, 2011: 2:12 PM ET

Exxon landed a big deal with Vladimir Putin. Should shareholders be concerned?

FORTUNE -- Are we a nation of people willing to climb into bed with any strongman just to make a buck? First we learn that a swath of software companies helped Libya's Moammar Gadhafi chase down Libyan people who disagreed with him. Then we find out that Oracle (ORCL) is being investigated for possibly violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in making payments to people who matter in Western and Central African countries. Whatever happened to making money the old-fashioned way?

But there's no better evidence that shareholders of publicly-traded U.S. companies are helping foreign autocrats keep their stranglehold on power than the news this week from ExxonMobil (XOM). CEO Rex Tillerson stood beside Russian kingpin Vladimir Putin yesterday morning to announce that the oil company had cut an awesome deal with Russia to find new arctic oil reserves.

Putin, of course, is no longer president of Russia, but as Prime Minister he retains all the traits inherent in any dictator. And he uses the same playbook of nationalizing assets as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Has no one at ExxonMobil heard of Yukos? As part of the deal with Tillerson and his gang, Russia's state-owned oil company, Rosneft, has taken an equity stake in some of Exxon's U.S. projects. Exxon surely has no plans to steal those stakes back in a few years, but there's every reason to believe that's what Putin will do to Exxon's investment in the Russian arctic.

BP (BP) is the loser in this deal, even though all it lost out on was being the favored partner of a dictator.

"Others can weigh in on the legitimacy of  various governments," Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers says. "We are not doing  business, as far as I'm aware of, with anyone with which we are prohibited from doing so."

He's right, and Exxon employees are actually proud of their partnerships with the likes of Putin. A recent posting on an Exxon blog declared that "Americans benefit both from ExxonMobil's U.S. and global operations in the form of taxes, jobs, and shareholder returns." It's that last part that gets at the nub of the issue: at what price do we seek profit? I usually sit back in awe at Putin's Machiavellian tactics—he's one of the more entertaining dictators around—but I'd never partner with the man.

How about the idea that we might not want to deal with countries that screw shareholders out of their ownership? Last I heard, Exxon had taken a principled stand against the kind of government that appropriates other people's assets when it feels like it. Venezeulan dictator Hugo Chavez made a power grab for Exxon's local oil assets five years ago, and the company and country have been stuck in international litigation ever since. ExxonMobil lost about $12 billion of shareholders' money in that experience, but it's not clear Tillerson learned anything from it. A new deal with Chavez can't be too far in the offing.

Look, I'm no bleeding heart ninny who looks at the world in black-and-white. We've partnered with Middle Eastern autocrats for decades because it helped keep the U.S. engine going. I understand that shaking hands with dishonorable leaders comes with the job of running a global company. I spent part of my childhood in Saudi Arabia, right next to the ARAMCO compound. I saw the devil's handshake up close.

But to commit nearly half a trillion dollars to working with them? Should American companies—or American shareholders—really be doing deals with the likes of the Russian government? I say no. I've got no problem selling them Big Macs or iPads. But lining Kremlin insiders' pockets in exchange for access to their oil fields? Aren't we better than that?

Rex, might I introduce you to the real Vlad Putin? He's the clown who claimed to have discovered ancient urns in six feet of water last week. (For some reason, he wore scuba gear to get to them, adding hilarity to hilarity.) Perhaps he'll take you on a dive trip to find your next oil well.

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About This Author
Duff McDonald
Duff McDonald
Contributing Editor, Fortune

Duff McDonald is a contributing editor at Fortune. He has also written for New York, Vanity Fair, Condé Nast Portfolio, GQ, WIRED, Time, Newsweek, and others. In 2004, he was the recipient of two Canadian National Magazine Awards -- best business story (gold) and best investigative reporting (silver) -- for "Conrad's Fall" in National Post Business. Last Man Standing, his biography of Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, was published by Simon & Schuster in October 2009. He is also the co-author, with Owen Burke, of The CEO, a satire.

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