The Cable

U.S. Losing Legitimacy as Corruption Fighter, Experts Say

Once a shining beacon, the United States now offers an excuse for behaving badly.

Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump visits his Scottish golf course, Turnberry, with his children Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump on July 30, 2015 in Ayr, Scotland. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump visits his Scottish golf course, Turnberry, with his children Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump on July 30, 2015 in Ayr, Scotland. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The United States’ position as a global leader in fighting bribery is in danger of seriously eroding, with potentially nasty consequences for clean business dealings around the world.

Anti-bribery organization Trace International on Thursday released the third edition of its Bribery Risk Matrix, which since 2014 has served as a bribery-risk scorecard. Traditionally clean countries like Sweden, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, and the United Kingdom crowd the top of the list. The United States ranks 16th, behind Germany, Canada, and Hong Kong.

The U.S. ranking remains about where it was in previous reports, but the global perception is that the United States under the leadership of President Donald Trump no longer puts a premium on fighting bribery and corruption, said Alexandra Wrage, president of Trace.

Since the late 1990s, “the U.S. has been seen as the engine for this global anti-corruption effort and it is really difficult to watch that being eroded,” Wrage said. “There is a very strong sense that the U.S. is squandering its leadership role on this issue because of the behavior of the administration with respect to conflicts of interest.”

Those perceptions, she said, are fanned by things like the president profiting from his office — a seeming violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause.

Though an increase or decrease in bribery at any level is extremely difficult to measure, Wrage said, the study aims to identify factors that enable it. Those include poor enforcement of laws against bribery, a lack of transparency when it comes to governmental functions and potential conflicts of interest, and factors that might limit the ability of civil society and institutions not only to identify and report corruption, but also to express dissatisfaction through protest.

Some of those risks seem to be growing in the United States this year. Since taking office, the Trump administration canceled ethics training for White House staff and eliminated an anti-corruption rule meant to make it hard for U.S. energy companies to pay foreign governments. Soon after taking office, Trump reportedly railed against anti-bribery rules for U.S. companies.

And that, in turn, isn’t helping the fight against bribery and in favor of transparency overseas. When Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son Hun Manith drew criticism for successive appointments as general director of the Defence Ministry’s Military Intelligence Department and a lieutenant general in the Cambodian armed forces, a government spokesman dismissed concerns — by citing the example of the U.S. president.

“When Donald Trump became president, did he ask all his children to resign from all their businesses and not promote them to have any roles?” he asked a reporter.

That worries Wrage, who spends about half her year outside the United States trying to beef up standards and rules against bribery.

“I don’t know how you restore [legitimacy] again once it’s lost,” she said. Before, in other countries, reformers would use U.S. pressure to jump-start their own efforts to fight bribery. “Now, you really do find people rolling their eyes and kind of saying, ‘Who are you to tell us?’”

“And that has degenerated very rapidly,” Wrage said. “It hasn’t taken long for that to happen.”

Photo credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Martin de Bourmont is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. He previously worked as a reporter for the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and as a reporting intern for the New York Times in Paris. @MBourmont

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