Corruption: a 21st Century Security Challenge

Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Foreign Service Journal
Washington, DC
June 1, 2016

In a world of globalized threats, bad governance is a liability. Poorly governed areas provide not just a safe haven, but sometimes even a justification for non-state actors like terrorists, traffickers, insurgents, drug cartels and criminal groups to step in and fill the void. These sinister networks thrive where the state cannot prevent or police them, and they benefit when citizens envision better futures or security in an illicit and immoral world.

By undermining state effectiveness, corruption creates openings for these dangerous actors. Corruption also gives them a tool to infiltrate and influence the state itself, further weakening governance and expanding terrorist and criminal reach. As we’ve seen in places like Honduras and Iraq, corruption is not simply an issue of rights and efficiency. The cost of corruption increasingly can be measured in security and stability.

Corruption’s Insidious Reach

Corruption feeds instability by eroding trust between people and government. It turns institutions of public service into tools for public exploitation. Left unchecked, corruption can fuel apathy and even hostility toward public institutions. In Tunisia, Ukraine, Egypt and elsewhere, it drove protestors into the streets to upend the political order.

But corruption can also undermine security in less dramatic ways. Crooked officials can make citizens believe that the system is rigged against them, creating sympathy for non-state actors promising a better bargain. In Iraq, the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh, recruits members by portraying itself as a “pure” alternative to a corrupt government. The Taliban makes the same case in Afghanistan. Research from State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations has found that citizens who personally experience corruption are more likely to engage in violent extremist behavior.

While corruption can give rise to new threats, it can also undermine the government’s ability to respond to those threats and ensure security. As Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi prepared to take on Daesh, he discovered 50,000 “ghost soldiers” on the government payroll costing Iraqis $380 million a year. When President Buhari of Nigeria took office, he inherited a military weakened by corruption and unprepared to defend against threats like Boko Haram. In Ukraine, government corruption not only triggered an international crisis but hampered the military’s ability to resist Russian intervention.

Corruption can pose an even greater danger to vulnerable populations. By corroding the rule of law, corruption gives predators more opportunities to exploit the vulnerable—from government officials targeting the poor for bribes to traffickers ensnaring children. In India, pervasive corruption weakens the enforcement of legal protections against domestic violence, leaving women more vulnerable to abuse.

As the world grapples with these issues, the Department of State is elevating anti-corruption in our work. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2016, Secretary Kerry called on the world to make corruption a “first-order national security priority” and echoed this message at the Anti-Corruption Summit hosted by the United Kingdom last month.

Taking a Broader, Bolder Approach

Answering the Secretary’s call, however, requires a broader and bolder approach to address corruption. Here are four steps the State Department is taking.

First, we are balancing law enforcement responses to corruption by strengthening efforts to prevent corruption in the first place. The latter can include creating streamlined and transparent government processes to reduce opportunities for graft, using technology to increase citizens’ access to information, or training investigative journalists and civil society leaders—who play such a critical role in detecting wrongdoing, as we saw in the wake of the Panama Papers. As funding for democracy, human rights, and governance increases this year, the department will look for more opportunities to support these preventive approaches to corruption.

Second, the State Department is going beyond law enforcement to unite a wider range of anti-corruption tools and actors. Two dozen embassies in Eastern and Central Europe have convened political and economic officers, public diplomacy specialists, defense attachés and development experts to develop comprehensive national anti-corruption plans. The department has also launched an internal anti-corruption toolkit to provide officers with a one-stop-shop for jumpstarting their anti-corruption work.

Third, the department is striving to identify and seize narrow windows for reform, recognizing how important national political will is for successful anti-corruption efforts. These windows of opportunity may include public outrage about a new corruption scandal, as we have seen in Guatemala and Moldova, or the election of reformers promising to end corruption, like President Joko Widodo in Indonesia or President John Magufuli in Tanzania. By focusing U.S. efforts on such “ripe” opportunities, we can help reinforce progress that might otherwise take generations to achieve. A recent report on anti-corruption tradecraft from the Foreign Service Institute cited the example of Paraguay, where U.S. Embassy Asunción responded to the election of a reformist government by quickly developing an International Visitors Leadership Program for new ministers focused on anti-corruption.

Lastly, we are tying these bilateral efforts to the emerging global architecture around anti-corruption. To date, 178 countries have ratified or acceded to the 2005 United Nations Convention Against Corruption, and its norms have since been embedded in regional agreements by the Arab League and African Union. In the last few years, the Group of 7, Group of 20 and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have also elevated anti-corruption as a priority. These developments underscore the global support in principle for anti-corruption efforts, and they empower U.S. diplomacy by undercutting claims that the anti-corruption agenda is simply Western finger-wagging. The reporting mechanisms baked into many of these agreements also give diplomats new tools to hold governments accountable for their anti-corruption commitments and empower civil society to provide oversight. Another tool is the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral platform that convenes governments and citizens to strengthen transparency through dialogue, exchange and new technologies.

Some of the most important work ahead does not involve launching new efforts, but simply examining how our existing operations and foreign assistance may affect corruption around the world. We will be developing a “first do no harm” policy to ask, for example, how we can better prevent the diversion of resources and equipment we provide to foreign security forces. Efforts like the U.S. Security Governance Initiative, which partners with foreign militaries to strengthen their institutions of accountability, suggest ways we can adapt existing partnerships to fight corruption and promote security.

The Foreign Service’s Role

As the State Department looks to prioritize anti-corruption, our success requires efforts of Foreign Service Officers: political officers persuading foreign counterparts to strengthen accountability for graft; public affairs officers giving voice to citizen activists fighting for transparency; and consular officers denying visas to known kleptocrats. FSOs remain some of our best tools against corruption.

As the voice of our government around the world, U.S. diplomats will be the ones to raise the tough conversations about corruption and security with foreign officials. Their direct reporting will continue to strengthen documentation about corruption in the annual Human Rights Report and Investment Climate Statements and help to identify “ripe” opportunities to advance reform. And in doing so, U.S. diplomats will not only strengthen governance and the rule of law for billions around the world, but also help make America safer and more secure.

This article was published in the June 2016 issue of the Foreign Service Journal.