Who says all good policy changes come in with a bang?

Who says all good policy changes come in with a bang?

Sometimes important shifts in U.S. policy come quietly. They don’t make the evening news. They don’t reverberate in the blogosphere. They just creep in and gradually take effect. But their consequences can be far-reaching.

Today, speaking at Brookings, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an address discussing U.S. priorities for the UN General Assembly meeting next week. She focused on non-proliferation and, naturally, by extension, Iran. But then, in answer to a question, she gave an answer that one top State Department official characterized as “historic” because it “for the first time characterized corruption as a national security rather than just as a ‘good governance’ issue.”

The comment resonates on several levels. On the one, perhaps closest to today’s headlines, it ties in directly to the McChrystal Report which identifies abuse of government power in Afghanistan as an equal threat to the insurgency. As such it sends a very powerful message to the Karzai government that unless they seriously clean up their act they could go from being a central beneficiary of allied efforts in their country to being a target of our efforts to promote change.

Next, there are broader implications. Corruption is the life’s blood of many of the most substantial national security threats the United States faces. Whether the concern is illegal arms sales or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism or insurgencies, government stability or functioning free markets, public health or public safety, drugs or human trafficking, if you don’t identify and battle corruption true progress is impossible.

As such, to shrug it off as a “civil society” issue — thus guaranteeing it never once gets the attention of senior officials or the resources required to address it — or worse, to simply suggest it is endemic the world over and simply a way business gets done among elites, especially in the emerging world, is simply reckless.

Further, to fight it … particularly when it is a central element of top national security threats … requires far more than mere police efforts or the worthy but limited capabilities of NGOs like Transparency International. It is a job that on the one hand requires intelligence community resources to identify and track targets and on the other demands the involvement of top policymakers because many of those who are the offenders, like Karzai, are senior officials, top businesspeople, heads of terrorist or criminal syndicates. These are the not-so-super members of what I called in my last book The Superclass. They are also the planners, enablers and beneficiaries of some of the most dangerous types of corruption worldwide.

Simply by underscoring the message to Karzai and Company, Clinton’s remarks are important. But if she and the administration plan to systematically go after the corruption that is linked to many if not most of our greatest international concerns, if her casual remark is indicative of a new resolve to confront this threat (best described for the world in FP editor-in-chief Moisés Naím’s definitive work on the subject Illicit) then it is one of the few examples I can think of “smart power” that real deserves that description.