Analysis | Corruption is a threat to national security

Kelly McFarland and Emily Crane Linn

As part of our New Global Commons Working Group series on emerging diplomatic challenges, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Bridging the Gap Initiative, ISD is hosting a working group this fall on the nexus between corruption, democracy, and national security.

This blog post is the second in a series adapted from the working group’s research and discussions.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken participates in a virtual discussion with young democratic leaders from around the world as part of the Summit for Democracy. (Image: U.S. Department of State on Flickr)

The Summit for Democracy, a flagship initiative of the Biden administration, convenes this week, and the fight against corruption is center-stage. Although corruption has historically been treated as more of a bureaucratic nuisance than a high-priority threat in diplomatic and development circles, that is now changing — and for the better.

In June 2021, President Biden declared in an address from the White House that “corruption threatens United States national security, economic equity, global anti-poverty and development efforts, and democracy itself.” In the eyes of this administration, corruption is no longer a mere source of frustration, but an existential threat to U.S. interests. With that in mind, the president commissioned his national security team to create a comprehensive strategy on countering corruption, which the administration released to much fanfare on Monday.

This decision to elevate corruption to the level of a national security threat may seem hyperbolic at first glance, but in fact, corruption plays a central role in two of the most significant national security concerns facing the United States today, namely, security sector corruption and uncontrolled migration from the Northern Triangle.

Security sector corruption

In the Middle East, the United States provided almost 45 percent of the arms sold from 2000 to 2019, as it seeks to build capable allies and partners, but corruption is widespread and many governments can be repressive. As our Georgetown colleague Jodi Vittori notes, instead of building up efficient and reliable security partners, “U.S. arms have helped reinforce the corruption and rent-seeking that underpin state fragility throughout the region.” U.S. allies are complicit too. For instance, according to Vittori, “the United Kingdom documented that BAE Systems and its agents paid at least 6 billion British pounds in bribes to the Saudi royal family between 1985 and 2006. The Saudi government has recently accused Saad al-Jabri, a former Interior Ministry deputy, of misspending $11 billion of a $19.7 billion Saudi counterterrorism fund.”

In the wake of American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the desperate political and humanitarian situation on the ground underscores the corrosive effect of kleptocratic regimes and their connection to international security. Over the course of twenty years, the United States — with allied contributions — propped up a regime that was corrupt to its core, and at every level of government. As countless inspector general reports and scholars like Sarah Chayes have made clear, the rapid downfall of the Afghan military and government in August should have come as no surprise.

“Between 2001 and 2020,” according to the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock in his recent book The Afghanistan Papers, “Washington spent more on nation-building in Afghanistan than in any country ever, allocating $143 billion for reconstruction, aid programs and Afghan security forces.” This included the training of over 350,000 Afghan security forces. After inflation adjustments, that is more than the United States spent on the Marshall Plan. These sums of money, rapidly injected into a nation ill-equipped to absorb it, guaranteed a boondoggle for corrupt actors.

“These sums of money, rapidly injected into a nation ill-equipped to absorb it, guaranteed a boondoggle for corrupt actors.”

Security sector corruption in Afghanistan was particularly corrosive, but it provides a lens on the broader problem, and shows direct correlation to weak governance, democratic decline, and regional instability. Vittori provides a stark description of what this looked like:

Reliable-enough logistics and supplies for troops could not get off the ground because contracts were riddled with kickbacks (if they were fulfilled at all) and because some of the weapons, ammunition, food, and other necessities were diverted for personal gain. A corrupt personnel system meant promotions and key jobs went to politically connected Afghans or those who paid bribes rather than those most willing and able to fight. Troops faced battle knowing they may not be fed or paid because money and resources were being siphoned off. If they were wounded, they had to bribe medical staff for care and then pay for their food and medical supplies out of their own pockets. If they were killed, their widows would probably not receive their pensions without bribes or connections, leaving their families destitute.

With such deeply-rooted corruption in the Afghan security sector, it is no wonder government forces evaporated in the face of the Taliban offensive. Meanwhile, ordinary Afghans watched as their governmental leaders embezzled money to purchase estates in Dubai, while the president’s half-brother expelled citizens from their land outside of Kandahar in order to sell it off for personal gain, and the 2009 election was so egregiously fraudulent it shocked nearly everyone.

Chayes describes how kleptocratic systems in places like Afghanistan work, and how they can drive people to violent revolt. Officials received kickbacks as payment for appointments, which helped to ensure top cover for corrupt acts from the highest levels of government. “Two surveys conducted in 2010 estimated the total amount paid in bribes each year in Afghanistan at between $2 billion and $5 billion — an amount equal to at least 13 percent of the country’s GDP.” The Afghan system, like many others, prioritized self-enrichment, not governance.

Security sector corruption is rampant in many countries beyond Afghanistan, and has had, and will likely continue to have, serious consequences. As Rachel Kleinfeld points out, “the Pentagon and security experts pay attention to potential allies’ security sectors — but often give governance short shrift, focusing instead on training, equipment, and capabilities.”

The United States and its Western partners spend money and effort to build up partner nation security capabilities, but often remain unable to reach their security objectives. Not only do many of these regimes use their security forces to repress their own people, which undermines democracy, but the forces are usually incapable of providing security beyond that. As we have also seen in other places like Yemen, massive corruption creates instability, repression, and denuded security forces.

Central America and the Northern Triangle

This region is high on the list of the Biden administration’s foreign policy priorities due to the confluence of illegal drug production, gang violence, food insecurity, and corruption, which drives ever larger numbers to America’s southern border. The Nicaraguan government, for instance, is becoming more authoritarian by the week, as the Ortega family seeks to solidify its long-term control of the country. The regime crushed massive anti-government protests in 2018, triggered in large part by corruption surrounding the family’s control of the country’s media and energy sectors, along with financial stakes in countless other areas of the economy. Nicaragua’s kleptocracy, therefore, has contributed to “a notable rise in the number of Nicaraguans arriving at U.S. borders” in recent months.

The Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are a major focus of the administration. All fare poorly in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. In fact, “the region loses $13 billion, or more than 5 percent of gross domestic product, every year.” Vice President Harris has the lead on policy toward this region, and she underscored to Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei the importance of a robust and independent judicial system when she visited Central America in June.

Giammattei has received criticism for the waning of democratic values in Guatemala. The criticism seems warranted, as his government has taken measures that undermine anti-corruption efforts over the past few months. First, its attorney general, Maria Consuelo Porras, removed prominent lawyer Juan Francisco Sandoval as the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), an anti-corruption unit. This gesture erodes the rule of law, and tens of thousands of Guatemalans protested in the streets to call for Giammattei and Porras’ resignation. In light of Sandoval’s removal from office, the U.S. government paused on further cooperative efforts with Guatemala.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch commentary, the suppression by the government of anti-corruption efforts is not unique to Guatemala. The U.S. government also took additional steps to address the increasing presence of corruption within the highest echelons of El Salvador’s government as well. Per Section 353 of the U.S.-Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act, the United States sanctioned the incumbent attorney general, along with five magistrates accused of violating El Salvador’s constitution to pave the way for the president’s re-election on September 30. In this case, the U.S. government banned the officials from entry to the United States.

These cases demonstrate the direct threat that corruption has posed and will continue to pose to U.S. national security interests. They make clear the need for renewed resources and attention to combat corruption across the world. The question is now whether the U.S. national security apparatus can position itself through its new Strategy to respond to this threat meaningfully in the years to come.

Kelly McFarland is a U.S. diplomatic historian and the director of programs and research at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Follow him on Twitter @McFarlandKellyM.

Emily Crane Linn is a research assistant for the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. She is in her second year of her Global Human Development master’s degree at Georgetown, with a Certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies. Emily is also one of ISD’s inaugural McHenry Fellows.

More from ISD’s Fall 2021 working group on corruption:

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