The U.S. Treasury Department must make it a priority, Malign Finance Fellow Josh Rudolph argues in Foreign Affairs.
Combating corruption and kleptocracy has traditionally been an afterthought in U.S. foreign policy: a goal that most policymakers considered laudable but hardly a priority. That attitude is no longer acceptable. In recent years, countries such as China and Russia have “weaponized” corruption, as Philip Zelikow, Eric Edelman, Kristofer Harrison, and Celeste Ward Gventer argued in these pages last year. For the ruling regimes in those countries, they wrote, bribery and graft have “become core instruments of national strategy” through which authoritarian rulers seek to exploit “the relative openness and freedom of democratic countries [that] make them particularly vulnerable to this kind of malign influence.”
Strikingly, one particular form of financial aggression—covert foreign money funneled directly into the political processes of democracies—has increased by a factor of ten since 2014. Over roughly the same period of time, American voters have become highly receptive to narratives about corruption, and politicians across the ideological spectrum now routinely allege that the economy is rigged and deride their opponents as crooked and corrupt. Thus, the needs of U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics have neatly aligned to offer a historic opportunity for a sweeping anticorruption campaign that would institutionalize transparency, resilience, and accountability throughout the United States and in the international financial, diplomatic, and legal systems.
President Joe Biden, his closest foreign policy advisers, and an increasingly active cohort of lawmakers are intent on carrying out precisely that kind of effort. But there is one big problem: leaders in the Treasury Department and some of the officials running international economic policy in the Biden administration are not fully on board. Their reluctance to focus on corruption could severely hinder the mission, because they control the most powerful tools that Washington can bring to the fight.