“Fighting corruption is not just good governance. It is self-defense. It is patriotism, and it’s essential to the preservation of our democracy and our future.” These bold words from U.S. President Joe Biden marked the June 2021 release of a policy memo in which he declared the fight against corruption a national security imperative.

This declaration reflects a long overdue recognition of the importance of anti-corruption efforts to the U.S foreign policy agenda, not to mention its relevance to Biden’s commitment to forge a foreign policy that serves the American middle class. If early days are any indication, the U.S. government intends to match rhetoric with action.

Early Strides

In addition to staking out new policy ground, Biden’s recent memo initiated a 200-day interagency process to review existing anti-corruption approaches and make recommendations for bolstering U.S. action. This process will dovetail with the development of deliverables for Biden’s upcoming Summit for Democracy, where anti-corruption efforts are one of the agenda’s three planks.

Abigail Bellows
Abigail Bellows was a nonresident scholar in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
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U.S. government agencies are already taking the cue. U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power announced a new task force on anti-corruption to elevate the topic and mainstream the issue, as well as a $50 million request for new resources. The State Department launched an International Anti-Corruption Champions Award, which celebrates reformers and activists pushing for change—even in some major partner countries like India. Meanwhile, the Treasury Department recently identified corruption as a top anti–money laundering priority and requested additional funds for relevant units. The State and Treasury Departments are issuing regular anti-corruption visa bans and asset freezes, including recent action against Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyy.

This flurry of activity in the executive branch runs parallel to an uptick in interest in the subject on Capitol Hill. Last month, members of Congress established a new Congressional Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy, spearheaded by the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Caucus members have authored a raft of new legislative proposals and have reintroduced the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act, which would create a rapid-response fund to support anti-corruption reforms in key countries.

High Stakes

The current buzz in Washington reflects a more enduring truth: corruption undermines a range of U.S. interests and harms people around the world. For many years, the United States has grasped the economic costs of corruption and has confronted foreign bribery as a market distortion that makes it harder for law-abiding U.S. businesses to compete overseas. Development professionals have contended with the pervasive administrative corruption that limits public services and weakens trust in government. The United States has also long recognized the link between corruption and transnational crime, including drug trafficking and illegal migration into the United States. Under former secretary of state John Kerry’s leadership, the State Department also reckoned with corruption’s role in fueling terrorist recruitment and conflict.

More recently, U.S. officials have highlighted two newer aspects of international corruption. First, corruption has become an existential threat to some unaccountable regimes. Social media, transparency laws, and massive data leaks—which are then mined by international networks of investigative journalists—are exposing shocking instances of government malfeasance that previously remained shrouded. And citizens are getting angry. The year before the coronavirus pandemic, mass pro-democracy protests reached an all-time high, and half of them were driven by grievances about corruption. These protests were not restricted to authoritarian states but extend to democracies as well, as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Global Protest Tracker has documented. As a result, corruption is shaking the legitimacy and stability of U.S. allies, stoking political turbulence, and providing openings for populist authoritarians—who thrive on hollow promises of law and order.

Second, the transnational aspects of corruption have become ever more salient. Domestic boundaries have slowly been eroded by an increasingly global network of criminals, kleptocrats, and their enablers. But more recently, corruption has also been weaponized by Russia, China, and other U.S. competitors to buy off politicians, win contracts, and “interfere in democratic processes” in the United States and elsewhere (as acknowledged by the White House). In this way, “strategic corruption” is a new tool of statecraft deployed by authoritarian states.

An Agenda for Moving Forward

In spite of the recent burst of attention being paid to corruption’s old and new manifestations and some encouraging early steps, Biden’s team has a formidable task ahead. Recalibrating U.S. foreign policy to tackle corruption should start with directing agencies to undertake a rigorous diagnostic process that identifies the reasons anti-corruption has not been more of a priority to date. These reasons may include inadequate resources, limited understanding of corruption’s impact, a lack of technical know-how about how to respond to it, and the perceived risk of harming other aspects of bilateral relationships. Soliciting honest feedback about these constraints from the rank-and-file may take considerable effort, but doing so is essential if the administration is to address the root causes of those constraints in a sustainable manner.

In addition, the National Security Council should encourage each agency to take a hard look at the strengths and limitations of current approaches. When the United States does decide to take on corruption, how well does it do? What lessons from past experience could improve future approaches? This reflection could be based on a combination of self-assessment and input from outside experts and partners.

Reflecting on these two questions—why anti-corruption is rarely a priority and how to be more effective when it is—would tee up an evidenced-based strategy with an impact that could extend far beyond any summit deliverable. In this process, policymakers will likely contend with the need for tactical and cultural shifts in at least three areas.

Developing New Assistance Approaches

As corruption drives a wave of protests and political transitions around the world, officials often seek ways for the United States to exert positive influence during the brief pivotal windows when governance norms are being renegotiated. Yet current U.S. anti-corruption assistance vehicles are too small, too slow, and too geographically rigid to be able to adequately surge to the places where such tools are most needed.

The aforementioned CROOK Act, alongside possible new USAID mechanisms, could help with these limitations. But in many ways, announcing a new fund is the easy part; developing an effective grant-making approach to concretely support reformers on the ground is a harder lift. These new approaches will likely require deep, adaptive change. The U.S. government must marshal increased risk tolerance and leverage real-time data to intervene in highly fluid environments. Enhanced interagency cooperation will be needed to effectively pair diplomacy with assistance. The success of these efforts will also depend upon U.S. humility and the ability to adapt lessons from similar initiatives elsewhere and collaborate with other donors. Finally, in many transitional settings, U.S. officials will need to deftly navigate the challenges of partnering with social movements without undermining their legitimacy.

All of this will require a great deal of care and expertise. Yet the potential benefits to citizen-activists, and to U.S. allies, could be tremendous.

Busting Silos

Corruption often falls in the bureaucratic crevices between the economic, democracy, development, and security sectors. The disconnect between U.S. foreign and domestic policy actors poses additional challenges in terms of confronting the U.S. role in enabling illicit financial flows. Biden administration officials will need to overcome, or at least mitigate, this fragmentation if they wish to deliver on their anti-corruption agenda. Particular attention should be paid to several salient cleavages:

  • the link between experts working on governance and those focused on global health, especially as post-pandemic assistance ramps up;
  • the link between the U.S. intelligence community and foreign aid providers so as to better safeguard U.S. assistance from diversion; and
  • the link between anti-corruption specialists and those handling security sector assistance, where corruption poses an acute challenge.

More broadly, the tendency for U.S. government agencies to organize their work into discrete country portfolios, often handled in near isolation, neglects the transnational aspects of contemporary corruption. It could be helpful to name a special envoy, ideally a former ambassador, at the State Department to help drive coordination across country desks, in partnership with embassies and USAID missions worldwide. This proposal could be paired with enhanced interagency coordination, led by the National Security Council, to address corruption threats that cut across national and regional boundaries.

Preparing for Pushback

Raising corruption with host governments may not result in dinner invitations. But the Biden administration must be ready to tolerate the short-term diplomatic discomfort of pressing partners on corruption and be willing to accept trade-offs on less crucial aspects of bilateral relationships, if needed. The nature and source of pushback from foreign officials can also be revealing—a litmus test for who is aligned with reform rather than opposed to it.

To urge frontline U.S. diplomats, aid officers, and security officials to take on corruption with vigor, senior U.S. officials should follow up on Biden’s recent proclamations with thematic and regionally specific messaging from headquarters. A new internal award could be established for U.S. officials advancing anti-corruption abroad. In addition, the National Security Council could lead the development of anti-corruption action plans for priority countries, with clear benchmarks for implementation, so as to keep the issue on the radar and ensure a systematic approach.

Ultimately, the best antidote to a diplomatic chill is public warmth. If the United States is transparent about its anti-corruption efforts, potential bilateral costs may be checked by public support locally for those efforts. Moreover, foreign citizens will see—and remember—that when democracy was on the line, the United States had their backs.

The Long View

Six months in, Biden’s team has set a course to fight corruption. Administration officials have the wind in their sails, with bipartisan enthusiasm from Congress and four years of pent-up energy from career government officials. Yet, as they eye a bold recalibration of U.S. foreign policy, with all the attendant bureaucratic strain, they would be wise to also look outward.

The United States is subject to the same trends of political volatility as the rest of the world, with no guarantees as to the longevity of presidential attention to anti-corruption. The best hope in such an environment is to invest not only in national policymaking efforts but also the multilateral mechanisms that can sustain this anti-corruption agenda across political transitions at home and abroad. Ideally, the planned Summit for Democracy will inject new energy into existing multilateral platforms like the Open Government Partnership, G7, and G20. Together, international engagement and national ambition can address global corruption with the forcefulness it deserves.