June 9, 2020 | Foreign Affairs

The Rise of Strategic Corruption

How States Weaponize Graft
June 9, 2020 | Foreign Affairs

The Rise of Strategic Corruption

How States Weaponize Graft

Excerpt

Graft is nothing new; it may be the second-oldest profession. Powerful people and those with access to them have always used kickbacks, pay-to-play schemes, and other corrupt practices to feather their nests and gain unfair advantages. And such corruption has always posed a threat to the rule of law and stood in the way of protecting basic civil and economic rights.

What is new, however, is the transformation of corruption into an instrument of national strategy. 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.

Philip Zelikow is Professor of History and Professor of Governance at the Miller Center
at the University of Virginia. A former U.S. diplomat and Executive Director of the 9/11
Commission, he has worked for five presidential administrations. Eric Edelman is Counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and Senior Adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served as U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy from 2005 to 2009. Kristofer Harrison is a financial and political risk consultant. He was an adviser to the U.S. Departments of Defense and State during the George W. Bush administration. Celeste Ward Gventer served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush administration. Beginning this fall, she will be a Fellow at the Albritton Center for Grand Strategy at Texas A&M University.

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Issues:

China Iran Iran Politics and Economy Iran Sanctions Russia Sanctions and Illicit Finance Turkey