Biden’s Blueprint for Tackling Global Corruption

USAID now has a playbook to check bad actors.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden in front of a "Summit for Democracy" sign
U.S. President Joe Biden in front of a "Summit for Democracy" sign
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a virtual democracy summit at the White House in Washington on Dec. 9, 2021. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms since its 2014 revolution offer a model for emerging democracies seeking to slough off the legacies of corrupt regimes and have likely helped to harden the country’s defenses against Russia’s invasion, according to a new guidebook set to be pushed out by the U.S. Agency for International Development to its missions and partners around the world on Wednesday. 

The new guide on “dekleptification” looks for new ways to assist countries seeking to dismantle governments and political systems dominated by corrupt elites, and it draws heavily on Ukraine’s reform efforts in the eight years since a popular uprising in 2014 ousted the corrupt regime of the former President Viktor Yanukovych. 

The guide offers a window into the Biden administration’s broader anti-corruption efforts around the world, which have been an overlooked but quietly revolutionary tenet of its foreign policy. 

Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms since its 2014 revolution offer a model for emerging democracies seeking to slough off the legacies of corrupt regimes and have likely helped to harden the country’s defenses against Russia’s invasion, according to a new guidebook set to be pushed out by the U.S. Agency for International Development to its missions and partners around the world on Wednesday. 

The new guide on “dekleptification” looks for new ways to assist countries seeking to dismantle governments and political systems dominated by corrupt elites, and it draws heavily on Ukraine’s reform efforts in the eight years since a popular uprising in 2014 ousted the corrupt regime of the former President Viktor Yanukovych. 

The guide offers a window into the Biden administration’s broader anti-corruption efforts around the world, which have been an overlooked but quietly revolutionary tenet of its foreign policy. 

In December 2021, the administration released the first U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption, which seeks to curb illicit finance by closing loopholes in the U.S. regulatory system, bolstering efforts to support civil society organizations and journalists around the world that expose corrupt actors, and creating senior anti-corruption positions within key government agencies including at USAID, the Treasury, and the State Department. As countries such as Russia and China increasingly look to use ill-gotten wealth in their foreign policy to influence the politics and policies of other countries, Joe Biden became the first U.S. president to make anti-corruption a national security priority. 

While USAID has historically focused on administrative corruption, which undercuts development programs, the agency is taking a much broader lens on kleptocracy and its corrosive effects and seeks to address the increasingly brazen toolkit used by corrupt officials. 

“The problems that this guide addresses involves kleptocracies repurposing the same corrupt actors, resources, and networks that they use to prevent democracy and the rule of law from spreading in their own countries—they use that to also undermine democracies abroad as a tenet of their foreign policy,” said a USAID official speaking on background on condition of anonymity. 

In the context of Ukraine, Russia has long sought to leverage its energy chokehold over the country and the influence of media, political parties, and oligarchs aligned with Moscow to kneecap the country’s efforts to reform and move out of the Kremlin’s orbit. When Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014 and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, it encountered a demoralized military that had been hollowed out by years of corruption and under-investment. 

Reforming Ukraine’s armed forces was one of the priority areas following the uprising known as the Revolution of Dignity. While that process has at times been halting, Moscow’s forces in its latest invasion encountered a highly motivated and disciplined military that, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, has surprised the world as it successfully repelled Russia’s advance on Kyiv. 

“The sides are flipped today in Russia’s war on Ukraine: The forces of kleptocracy struggle in their military invasion against a great power of dekleptification,” the guide notes. It also acknowledges that corruption has played a significant role in paving the way for the Taliban advance in Afghanistan, as the militant group was able to pay off local officials who were uninterested in fighting on behalf of a government widely viewed as corrupt. 

Dislodging kleptocratic regimes from power is notoriously difficult, and such opportunities tend to arise only once in a generation, coalescing around popular uprisings or a groundswell of support for reform movements. The guide acknowledges that the United States cannot force such moments to a head but must be nimble in responding as they arise. 

“Overcoming the resistance of spoilers and breaking through the widespread expectations that ‘everyone is corrupt’ can only happen amid the disequilibrium of ‘big bangs,’ which bring about transformational political will,” it states.

The new guidance from USAID underscores the importance of laying the groundwork ahead of time, mapping corrupt activity and the networks through which they operate ahead of time, and nimbly responding to support reform-minded governments, journalists, and civil society organizations once such “big bangs” do arise. 

USAID, like many international donor organizations, operates on lengthy and often inflexible funding cycles. To respond more quickly to openings such as Ukraine’s 2014 revolution or the election of a reform-minded government in Moldova in 2021, the agency announced the creation of its Anti-Corruption Response Fund to support countries in moments of political openings as well as to experiment with new and innovative anti-corruption mechanisms. 

The new handbook offers a somber assessment of the fragility of democratic openings in corrupt states: “all too often reform momentum dissipates within a couple years. At that point, corrupt elements retake power.” In these instances it includes a series of recommendations to hold the local government accountable through increasing diplomatic pressure and continuing to support reformers and journalists facing legal harassment from oligarchs and corrupt governments.

As part of a package of initiatives announced last December during the Summit for Democracy, USAID announced the creation of a global defamation defense fund to protect investigative journalists from frivolous lawsuits intended to silence them.

“Colleagues in missions have been telling us that corruption is often the single biggest impediment to progress they’re seeking on other development issues, on health, on education, on climate,” said a second USAID official speaking on background under ground rules set by the agency. “They’re very eager to step up their work in this space and often are feeling that it’s been a historically underfunded part of our work.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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