Kleptocracies do not stop at their own borders. The same actors, networks, tactics, and resources that they wield to prevent democracy and rule of law from sprouting at home are also repurposed for foreign aggression. While cronies, oligarchs, and lesser operatives do get rich in the process, “strategic corruption” is chiefly a geopolitical weapon directed by autocratic regimes to secretly undermine the sovereignty of other countries. The three most common manifestations of strategic corruption vary on a spectrum of how directly and boldly they violate sovereignty and subvert democratic processes.
Starting with the most indirect and chronic form of strategic corruption, Russia and China invest “corrosive capital” throughout Eastern Europe and the Belt and Road Initiative, respectively. They use corrupt patronage networks and opaque business dealings to spread their kleptocratic model of authoritarian governance.
Those corrupt investments are usually also supported by tactics of “malign influence,” like when a minister or politician receives bribes or economic threats until they censor their political speech, advance a foreign policy initiative, or otherwise subordinate the legitimate sovereign interests entrusted to them by their own people in favor of the interests of a foreign power.
Finally, the most direct and acute form of strategic corruption involves financial methods of election interference and other tactics of corrupting democratic processes. Often funded with the proceeds of kleptocracy, election interference through covert political financing has become the bailiwick of Kremlin-directed oligarchs.
Separate from those three manifestations of strategic corruption—corrosive capital, malign influence, and election interference—China and Russia try to hide their dirty money and malign activities by pressuring foreign journalists into silence through surveillance, thuggery, and lawsuits.
Western foreign assistance has not yet offered a coherent response to kleptocracy and strategic corruption, but that is starting to change under the Biden administration. Building resilience to this transnational threat through foreign aid will require four new approaches that are more political and coordinated than traditional development assistance.
First, aid should be informed by local political analysis. More important and less used than technical reviews of laws and institutions, political analysis should center anti-corruption efforts around known corrupt activity. That starts by asking sensitive questions about which individuals, institutions, and sectors are the most corrupt, how extensively their networks of wealth and power span, and which corrupt figures must be held accountable to thoroughly purge grand corruption.
Second, aid should be responsive to political shifts, scaling up and down, respectively, in response to windows of opportunity for anti-corruption reform and times of backsliding toward kleptocracy.
Third, aid responses to kleptocracy should be coordinated at the regional and global levels, similarly to how grand corruption operates across borders through transnational networks of actors and tools.
Fourth, anti-corruption programming should be deeply integrated across the traditional sectors of assistance, particularly health, infrastructure, energy, climate, and security.
Some of these new approaches are already being prioritized under the Biden administration’s new strategy to combat corruption, particularly coordinating across tools and sectors to fight transnational corruption. But operationalizing this mission will be no small endeavor, given that anti-corruption assistance is delivered through a notoriously technocratic and apolitical bureaucracy built during the Cold War to aid socioeconomic development in individual countries steadily over decades. But getting this right offers the key to defending democracies from autocratic aggression, showing how democracy can deliver, and even helping bring foreign policy and domestic politics into alignment for the first time in a generation.