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Defense Against Corruption Is Nice. Offense Against Corruption Is Better.

For decades, authoritarian regimes have been using corruption to destabilize the free world. It's time democracies fought back.
December 27, 2021
Defense Against Corruption Is Nice. Offense Against Corruption Is Better.
USSR. Moscow. CPSU Secretary General Yuri Andropov. (Photo TASS / Vladimir Musaelyan; Eduard Pesov / GettyImages)

Autocracies are increasingly coordinating their efforts to undermine the liberal world order. One such effort is strategic corruption, whereby they promote corruption abroad to undermine liberal political systems and weaken their financial stability. The State Department’s announcement earlier this month of a new anti-corruption coordinator position is therefore a welcome development. But to be successful, this effort mustn’t limit itself to defensive anti-corruption measures but should turn foreign corruption into a tool for democracy promotion.

The Biden administration is right to identify corruption as a national security threat. To his credit, Joe Biden was an early convert to combating strategic corruption when he was vice president. Foreign governments are exploiting criminal networks, illicit finance systems, and vulnerable sectors of the economy to erode the rule of law in the free world. Under Vladimir Putin, this strategy is a major part of the Russian regime’s ongoing political warfare, but Russia is by no means alone. In June 2020, Eric Edelman, Philip Zelikow, Kristofer Harrison, and Celeste Ward Gventer warned that

In recent years, a number of countries—China and Russia, in particular—have found ways to take the kind of corruption that was previously a mere feature of their own political systems and transform it into a weapon on the global stage. Countries have done this before, but never on the scale seen today.

The result has been a subtle but significant shift in international politics. Rivalries between states have generally been fought over ideologies, spheres of influence, and national interests; side payments of one kind or another were just one tactic among many. Those side payments, however, have become core instruments of national strategy, leveraged to gain specific policy outcomes and to condition the wider political environment in targeted countries. This weaponized corruption relies on a specific form of asymmetry. Although any government can hire covert agents or bribe officials elsewhere, the relative openness and freedom of democratic countries make them particularly vulnerable to this kind of malign influence—and their nondemocratic enemies have figured out how to exploit that weakness.

Under the leadership of the new “coordinator on anti-corruption,” who has yet to be named, the office of the under secretary of state for public diplomacy should begin a campaign to actively illustrate—not simply expose with numbers, but also with stories, photos, and videos—the corruption of America’s autocratic foes to their subjects. This requires coordination with the intelligence community and the Treasury Department—exactly the kind of cooperation the new coordinator will be in the perfect position to facilitate. The Department of Justice, working with Interpol, should also crack down on autocratic corruption and freeze their foreign assets—an effort Secretary Janet Yellen and Attorney General Merrick Garland have already initiated—which might have the additional benefit of turning some autocratic elites against the regimes on which they rely for their ill-gotten wealth.

There is enormous value in exposing the billions of dollars of wealth that Vladimir Putin, Ali Khamenei, Xi Jinping, Raul Castro, and Nicolas Maduro, as well as their cronies, have accumulated at the expense of their peoples. But that is not enough. Very often, pictures speak louder than words. The U.S. government should work with dissidents, intelligence assets, and civil society groups to investigate and publicize the autocrats’ lavish lifestyles—the palaces, villas, and dachas; the luxury cars and vacations; the children who study at elite, expensive American and British universities.

The damage that exposing corruption can do to the world’s worst regimes is indicated by how far those regimes will go to keep their stolen fortunes secret. Aleksei Navalny became one of the most important political figures in Russia despite holding no office, not by championing the philosophical underpinnings of liberal democracy, but by exposing the corruption of the Putin regime. Silencing him—by intimidation, prosecution, persecution, attempted assassination, and incarceration—has been a years-long effort for the Kremlin. That’s a lot of time, resources, and attention to pay to a guy who makes YouTube videos, but Putin and co., judge the expense worth it, so potentially damaging were his exposés of private palaces and personal duck ponds.

This story in Iran is largely the same. The lavish lifestyles of the elites draw a gut-wrenching contrast with the deteriorating living standards for the average Iranian. The children of the wealthy, politically connected elite, mockingly referred to as aghazadeha—literally, born to gentlemen—cruise posh neighborhoods in half-a-million-dollar cars, study in American and British universities, and go on vacation in the most expensive corners of the world or their multi-million-dollar villas in Iran, while the average Iranian can hardly afford chicken and probably hasn’t tasted red meat in years.

Herein, history could repeat itself. Dissatisfaction with corruption has brought down more tyrannies than a commitment to liberal ideas. It was corruption with the Soviet elite that led Yuri Andropov to launch an anti-corruption campaign, which acknowledged and further exposed the problem without resolving it, thereby exacerbating it. Similarly, anger at the selfishness and self-dealing of the Shah’s court brought together nationalists, communists, and Islamists in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Before being deposed, the Shah had, like Andropov, instituted a cosmetic anti-corruption campaign that succeeded only in eating up more of his people’s patience. One of Xi’s first endeavors after consolidating power was a crackdown on the “princelings,” the spoiled children of the wealthy elite. But that campaign seemed to focus more on marginalizing Xi’s political rivals than on restoring good government.

Cuba, Venezuela, or any other autocracy with a tanking economy faces the same challenge. It’s even more urgent in Turkey, as the country is facing hyperinflation, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his cronies have taken Turkish corruption to new heights. As China’s economic growth, the key source of the Communist Party’s legitimacy for four decades, slows down and shows severe signs of sickness, it is inevitable that these contrasts will become a major problem for that regime, too.

Apart from the inherent moral advantage to fighting corruption, it’s also shrewd politics to use America’s adversaries’ thievery and dishonesty to wrong-foot them. Even if exposing pilfered fortunes doesn’t result in immediate democratic transitions, instability and disquiet at home would distract autocrats from—and caution them against—adventurism abroad, including meddling in the American political system, if not also in those of their neighbors.

Increasingly, autocrats are spreading disinformation in the free world, exploiting the openness that comes with liberalism to weaken free societies. It is time to give them a taste of their own medicine.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.