NOW The White House Wants To Fight Kleptocracy

10 December 2021, 1317 EST

The Biden administration just issued the government’s first ever anti-corruption strategy. The upshot: It’s needed. It’s analytically informed. It raises the prioritization of fighting kleptocracy. The downside: It’s not all that realistic. It defines corruption so widely that it makes prioritization fanciful. And it defers most of the real work to some to-be-determined imaginary future on the other side of Republican authoritarianism.  

Eons ago, during the 2020 presidential campaign cycle, anti-corruption was a major theme in the progressive foreign policy conversation — specifically actions to confront kleptocracy and oligarchy but also just generalized dirt-baggery. Progressives — that is, Democrats who are to the left of economic neoliberals — care about global corruption and kleptocracy as part of a larger concern about economic justice.  

You don’t get the extreme inequities of today without systems of corruption. And because of the devastating effects of extreme concentrations of wealth and poverty, economic equality has been a universal principle of the progressive movement. Where the left gets into fights with itself on this issue usually has to do with whether or not (and how) the situation can be improved within capitalism

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Adviser, was a part of this anti-corruption conversation in 2020, so it comes as little surprise and a breath of fresh air that the White House has now issued an anti-corruption strategy (Sullivan, if it’s not obvious, is of the school that you can do all this within capitalism).   

Some of the best practices of good strategy (something I teach) are present in this one, and for that the administration deserves credit. The document itself prioritizes the issue of anti-corruption in a system that has overlooked it forever. The willingness even to name kleptocracy as a threat is an at least symbolic blow to neoliberalism (the ideology of the primacy of capital over labor and society), which long ago made its peace with dictators who embrace market economics. The fact that there’s actually a strategy to make good on this prioritization?  Chef’s kiss.

Good strategy has to include plausible concrete actions

The strategy also appears to be based on an underlying analysis that links corruption to inequality to poor governance to unstable societies and security threats. This is especially commendable because most of the government strategies I’ve read in my lifetime are banal word salads that show little self-consciousness about causal wagers (“By doing ABC, we expect to realize our objective because XYZ”). 

But the strategy has some major deficiencies too. 

First, it’s light on specific actions and written in a very aspirational way. Phrases like “will aspire to” and “will continue to” are scattered throughout the document. It contains many promises of “bolstering” and “strengthening” things — unmeasurable action words. And a lot of the particulars appear to be deferred to some future date. This is all problematic because good strategy has to include plausible concrete actions. It doesn’t have to have a comprehensive list of all the little things that must be done, but neither can it just blow off the specifics. If it’s a brilliant concept that requires light sabers or some non-existent technology, it’s not likely to succeed. And you can’t know that unless you specify plausible illustrative actions.

Second, the strategy’s approach consists of “pillars,” which is a common rhetorical device in strategy documents. It’s usually a sign that “I don’t know my dependent variable from my independent variable from my causal mechanism from my objective from my assumptions.”  Policymakers refer to pillars when they don’t know how to think about the thing they know they ought to think about. 

In this document, the pillars appear to be groupings of specific but hard-to-measure objectives, and then “lines of effort” grouped with each objective. The how linking lines of effort and objectives is non-existent, and there’s no grappling with critical success factors or points of leverage.  

Third, there’s no prioritization, which means little concentration of effort. Yes, the document prioritizes corruption as a whole, but it allows the scope of the strategy to be stretched the full width of what that capacious term refers to. The border guard that gets paid off for looking the other way isn’t the same kind of threat as the autocrat who stays in power by siphoning money from his people and parking it in New York real estate. The former is small, an inefficiency in a bureaucracy. That’s not nothing, but progressives were talking about the latter when they named corruption a threat.  

The global economy works for kleptocrats and oligarchs, not for workers, and in order to maintain systems of such depraved inequality, people in power need to make deals with fascists and appeals to ethnonationalism and jingoism. Fighting corruption is supposed to be a way of rebalancing power within societies and reducing sources of international conflict that result from systemic injustices. The strategy document gestures at some of that, but not at the level of actions or “lines of effort.” The goal appears to be improving market competitiveness and tax collection more than reducing inequality or facing the overt political corruption happening via the hand of the Republican Party in real time.

All this emphasis on corruption can be weaponized against Antifa or Democratic Socialists of America or your local School Board members

But these are technocratic concerns. My biggest worry is that the strategy is unrealistic — this was something America and the world needed 40 years ago. The fact that you don’t have CNBC and Fox News and K Street lobbyists up in arms rallying against the new strategy should tell you something. An effective anti-corruption drive would change how business gets done at home and abroad. The document even makes US markets complicit in global corruption. Yet interest groups vested in keeping things as they are haven’t really even taken notice of this. If they thought it real, they’d act like it.

The truth is, the strategy shows no recognition of its own political context. Corruption has rotted the global economy over a long period of time, and anti-corruption measures would need to operate over a similarly long time to undo the damage that has been done and the durable inequalities that have accumulated to autocrats and nepotists. But the world’s moving too fast and our politics are too broken. Mid-term elections and the next presidential election are just around the corner, and they may literally determine the fate of American democracy (and it’s become totally normal to shrug off evidence that the fix may be in). If a Trump 2.0 takes over the presidency — or even just the Congress — in the next few years, all this emphasis on corruption can be weaponized against Antifa or Democratic Socialists of America or your local School Board members or [insert your enemies of the new authoritarianism]. 

It’s pretty common for dictators in other countries to use claims of corruption to target political enemies. The Rain Forest-hating, far-right president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, came into power on an anti-corruption agenda, and he’s hardly the first one. By heightening the salience of corruption as a valid issue and seeking to exercise authorities to do something about it but without acknowledging the precariousness of America’s own political fate, this strategy is setting up Washington for future witch hunts.  

Maybe it’s asking too much, but I’d like to see some future-proofing against obvious existential risks facing the Republic rather than just building national security-state tools that can be turned against enemies of autocracy at some later date.