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Countering Corruption

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The Biden administration recently released the first-ever United States Strategy on Countering Corruption (PDF). I’m not an expert on the technical side of anti-corruption efforts, but my quick read of the document is that it’s pretty good. The very fact that it exists in the first place is a good thing. It’s a very welcome development for those progressive journalists, policymakers, and academics who have spent years arguing for the mainstreaming of anti-corruption goals in U.S. foreign policy.

A lot of what we know about globalized kleptocracy comes from the efforts of journalists and whistleblowers, a good number of whom risk their freedom – and too often their lives – to expose corruption. So it’s laudable that the strategy emphasizes support for journalists, non-government organizations, and others who expose corruption.

Of course, there’s a big gap between a “strategy paper” and actual policy. There are plenty of reasons for skepticism. Globalized kleptocracy may undermine U.S. security, but it does so in indirect ways – such as via oligarchs and kleptocrats buying influence in Washington. The downside risks of anti-corruption policies are more obvious.

Getting serious about corruption means antagonizing, and perhaps even destabilizing, a number of U.S. partners and allies. Conditioning assistance on anti-corruption measures will make it impossible for the U.S. to compete for influence in some countries. China and Russia, for their part, are perfectly happy to deal with corrupt governments; both countries export corruption.

More robust anti-kleptocracy measures, for a variety of reasons, pose a real threat to the Russian regime – a much bigger one than, say, the expansion of NATO into the Baltic states; U.S. sanctions enacted in the wake of the 2014 invasion of Ukraine helped motivate Russian support for Trump in 2016. Additional sanctions, whether on Russia or other kleptocratic regimes, will further increase interest in circumventing the SWIFT system and U.S. financial institutions.

When it comes to corruption, the United States has a long history of looking the other way. It’s not obvious that the organizational changes proposed in the strategy will change that. There’s at least a vague family resemblance here with efforts to ‘bake’ human rights into U.S. foreign policy. Given the… spottiness… of the recent-ish U.S. record on human rights, it’s easy to dismiss those efforts. But they are a net positive. The problem is that it won’t take that many exceptions to start punching a big hole in broad anti-corruption efforts, particularly involving financial flows.

Another problem is that the United States itself is a non-trivial source of corruption. Yes, that means there’s a lot the U.S. government can do on the domestic front. But it’s also a symptom of the many domestic interests that could derail anti-corruption efforts. Any meaningful crackdown will hit the financial sector, the luxury real-estate market, and states – such as Nevada and South Dakota – that profit from serving as tax havens.

Corruption is bipartisan. Support for anti-corruption measures is less so. It doesn’t take very much for reforms to crash into Republican opposition to regulation. The GOP’s de facto leader, Donald Trump, is a fan of the same kind of neo-patrimonialism that characterizes kleptocratic regimes. In fact, there’s a danger that Trump, or someone like him, could weaponize anti-corruption measures to selectively target political opponents.

Does any of this mean that we should give up on ambitious anti-corruption efforts? Of course not. Most of the downside risks are unlikely to leave things worse than they are in the status quo. If a future reactionary populist wants to weaponize anti-corruption tools against political opponents, there are already plenty of tools at their disposal. So let’s hope that Washington follows through on an ambitious anti-corruption agenda.

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