President Joe Biden has declared fighting corruption a core national security interest, and last month, the White House released a strategy to combat corruption globally. These are welcome moves, but to effectively impede corruption around the world, America needs to take a serious look at how our government inadvertently facilitates it too.
Corruption, the abuse or misuse of state resources or positions of authority for personal gain, is endemic in many countries across the globe and remains a fundamental obstacle to better governance and better standards of living worldwide.
Low-level corruption, like the bribes demanded by police at roadside checkpoints or by civil servants, increases the costs of transport, trade and essential commercial goods, such as food and medicine. High-level corruption — when political leaders steal vast sums of money from the public coffers — costs all of society by impairing the provision of basic social services.
Both kinds of corruption impede governance and undermine the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the public. This is why corruption is so dangerous to democracies and why fighting corruption is so essential to President Biden's democracy promotion agenda.
In a globalized world, it is also directly in our interest that other countries can effectively address health crises, facilitate business and trade, and implement the rule of law. Pandemics cannot be managed in countries where individuals or businesses can bypass safety and health measures with a bribe. American businesses cannot compete when standards and laws are applied unequally, or when bribes or special relationships are required for access. When public funds are stolen, the lack of services or security can drive conflict and crises that spill over borders.
The administration's new strategy to counter corruption is sound, but three of President Biden's four predecessors also had anti-corruption initiatives. To be effective, this strategy must be a higher priority than anti-corruption has been in the past, and its provisions must be implemented.
The strategy first calls for better coordination on anti-corruption efforts across U.S. government agencies, including the Departments of State, Commerce and Treasury and the U.S. Agency on International Development. It also focuses on tightening regulations and enforcement in the U.S. financial system, such as increasing transparency in real estate transactions often used to launder illicit funds.
It has provisions for supporting, defending and protecting those who expose corruption, and establishing a kleptocracy asset recovery rewards program to identify illicit funds held in U.S. banks. It also seeks coordination to improve transparency and anti-corruption measures within other countries and with international institutions like the G7 and G20.
Finally, the strategy calls for safeguarding assistance dollars from inadvertently supporting corrupt actors.
This point is essential. If treated as an afterthought, the role U.S. assistance dollars play in fueling corruption in fragile states across the globe could easily undermine the benefits of the rest.
Take Afghanistan. The United States flooded such vast sums of money into Afghanistan in the name of security efforts that its systems were incapable of absorbing it, and we turned a blind eye to the results.
Successive administrations were aware of this problem for years. The 2016 report of the special inspector general of Afghanistan reconstruction confirmed that U.S. assistance fueled corruption by pouring tens of billions of dollars into the local economy, "using flawed oversight and contracting practices, and partnering with malign powerbrokers." And yet we continued to fund them generously and to pretend these actors were the good guys.
American money was used to prop up a corrupt government with no legitimacy in the eyes of the public and to buy off warlords, justified in the name of stability that was never achieved.
Trillions of U.S. dollars later, the government and military we had funded from scratch regardless of its performance simply disappeared in the face of the advancing Taliban. U.S. support not only failed to save Afghanistan from this fate but directly facilitated it.
Afghanistan is an extreme example but not unique. America's plans for promoting stability, democracy and development in fragile states worldwide frequently fail to take into account what is possible and wait too late to acknowledge what isn't working. Too little attention is paid to local dynamics that hundreds of millions of dollars can't help but disrupt. Security assistance and financial support are often seen as too essential to pause, leading to a high tolerance of foul play.
Extinguishing corruption is not a realistic goal, and the choices corruption offers are stark. For example, paying off bad actors to reach hundreds of thousands of desperate people in need of lifesaving humanitarian support is a trade-off frequently made to deliver essential humanitarian needs. There are times when bribes are better than the alternative.
But to be a credible champion of good governance and democracy, America must make fighting corruption a higher priority and call it out even when we cannot stop it. If we continue to turn a blind eye to it routinely in the name of short-term security interests, our support is not only futile but makes matters worse.
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously a U.S. diplomat and is author of "The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age." This article was first published by the Chicago Tribune.