Analysis | Kleptocracy and national security

It’s time for the diplomats to step up

Kelly McFarland and Alistair Somerville

The following piece first appeared March 11 in American Purpose. We are republishing it here, in part, with permission.

Countries with endemic corruption have faced increasing public outrage. (Image: Nathaniel Tetteh on Unsplash)

With all eyes on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is another threat from the Kremlin: “weaponized kleptocracy.” It has become a key national security problem for the United States, and President Vladimir Putin’s war means our leaders are paying attention.

Confronting corruption lies at the heart of the Biden administration’s agenda for democratic renewal. The White House issued a National Security Study Memorandum on the topic in June of last year, then released a longer Strategy on Countering Corruption just before the Summit for Democracy in December. Some have compared it to George Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram,” which laid out his strategy for the containment of the Soviet Union. Beyond aspiration, however, the administration needs a long-term plan to push back against corruption. U.S. diplomats will be key implementers of this effort.

Such efforts must look beyond officials of other governments to confront non-governmental “enablers” like lawyers, realtors, and wealth managers. The Biden administration has re-elevated the role of diplomacy overseas to make U.S. diplomats important players in this global contest.

U.S. diplomats will be a crucial part of the coming year of action against kleptocracy. Empowered American diplomats are effective implementers of U.S. national security policy. They can explain U.S. goals and policies, understand and influence host governments and their citizens, deliver programs to foreign populations, and gather and report information to Washington for further action. Since the Cold War, U.S. diplomatic training has included democracy-building; but we need an increased focus on understanding and confronting kleptocracy, since corrupt networks are at the heart of institutional rot around the world. This focus would not require additional authorization by an often gridlocked Congress. Internal State Department reforms to political reporting and programs to engage civil society groups abroad can go a long way toward bringing change.

[Read the full piece here]

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

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.

Alistair Somerville is the publications editor at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and editor of The Diplomatic Pouch. Follow him on Twitter @apsomerville.

More from ISD’s working group on corruption and kleptocracy:

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Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy brings together diplomats, other practitioners, scholars, and students to explore global challenges