The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s anti-corruption plan appears to have some teeth. Here’s hoping they bite.

President Biden speaks at the White House in Washington on May 10. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
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Corruption is the global reality of our time. The power of the nation-state wasn’t replaced by terrorist groups, or corporations, or international organizations flying black helicopters, as people have variously theorized. It was supplanted by the anarchic rule of oligarchs and crooks who have created a transnational empire of thievery.

President Biden introduced a big idea into the global debate Thursday when he declared that combating corruption is a “core U.S. national security interest” and “essential to the preservation of our democracy.” He directed every agency of the U.S. government to mobilize for this battle against the kleptocrats — including the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Treasury Department and the military.

Warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the dozens of other klepto-dictators around the world: This means you. The U.S. intelligence community has just been tasked to investigate how and where you hide your money.

If Biden is serious — and frankly, that’s still a big “if” — this could mark a significant turn in U.S. foreign policy. For the sad truth is that the corrupt oligarchs of the world do their business in dollars. U.S.-trained lawyers create their shell companies; U.S.-educated bankers help them hide their assets; U.S. foreign policy often tolerates or even encourages their thievery. This is one crusade that truly must begin at home.

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A memorandum issued by the White House on Thursday concedes that the United States helps enable this invisible network of graft. “Anonymous shell companies, opaque financial systems, and professional service providers enable the movement and laundering of illicit wealth, including in the United States and other rule-of-law based democracies,” it says.

U.S. efforts to combat international corruption aren’t new. During the Clinton administration, the Treasury Department launched a Financial Action Task Force to “name and shame” money launderers. The Obama administration tried to strengthen the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which, in theory at least, prohibits U.S. companies from paying bribes overseas. But global crooks have proved to be more adept than U.S. law enforcement.

If you travel the world, you hear the outcry against the well-heeled thieves almost everywhere you go. Street protesters brought down a government in Lebanon; they defied an Iranian-backed regime in Iraq; they braved riot police in Russia and Belarus.

What’s the common demand of these protesters, when you strip away the local rhetoric? They want a fair deal, in which the fruits of peoples’ work aren’t skimmed by powerful business or political interests.

One of the clearest expressions of this anger I ever heard was from an Iranian scientist during a trip to Tehran some years ago. He talked of a technological breakthrough he’d achieved in his lab. When asked whether he was going to start a company to develop this breakthrough, he shook his head sadly. Corrupt government officials would have demanded such a large cut in the business that it would not have been worth it.

U.S. foreign policy often begins with the noble goal of advancing democracy and freedom. But those abstractions have little meaning if you’re an honest citizen and you see the big shots (with friends at the U.S. embassy) stealing from the national treasury and your own business. From what I’ve seen over the years, this gross corruption is the biggest single reason our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan went so wrong. Rather than fostering democracy, they enriched a new class of thieves.

If you want to see where a lot of the money spent during the “endless wars” went, pay a visit to Dubai, or the French Riviera, or Miami, or the fanciest apartment towers in Manhattan. No wonder Americans have gotten cynical about “nation building.”

The new push against corruption may seem to have appeared out of thin air, but Biden and national security adviser Jake Sullivan have been developing these themes in articles over the past several years.

Biden co-authored a January 2018 piece in Foreign Affairs arguing that Putin was “weaponizing information, cyberspace, energy, and corruption.” Sullivan co-authored a September 2019 piece in The Post that said bluntly: “The United States has become one of the world’s leading destinations for hiding and legitimizing stolen wealth” and that “foreign corruption is a threat to our democracy, our security and our values.”

The initiative announced Thursday should give heartburn, and worse, to some bankers and lawyers in places such as Geneva, the Cayman Islands and, yes, New York City. It proposes better intelligence collection about the crooks, new tools to expose their shell companies and new penalties for illicit activity.

Biden’s anti-corruption plan appears to have some teeth. Here’s hoping they bite.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: A democracy-based national security agenda must start at home

Paul Waldman: How Trump’s epic corruption reveals hidden weaknesses in the system

The Post’s View: Ukraine’s anti-corruption push is stalled. Biden can help get it going again.

Amol Mehra: My law degree wasn’t meant for money laundering. But boy, it would make it easy.

Natalie Duffy and Nate Sibley: Five myths about kleptocracy