Analysis | Kleptocracy: Confronting corruption at home and abroad

ISD’s new working group on corruption

Kelly McFarland and Alistair Somerville

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, the first in a series on the topic, lays out the main issues at play.

Image: Jason Leung/Unsplash

On November 4, USAID Administrator Samantha Power gave a speech at Georgetown University, in which she laid out the Biden administration’s vision for global development. Corruption — which Transparency International defines as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain” — drives political grievances and public fury. “Of the record number of protests around the world in 2019, before the pandemic, more than half were protests against corruption and six led to changes in government,” Power said. “Corruption is basically development in reverse.”

The problem is as old as governance itself and is not just a concern in development or humanitarian circles. Corruption’s extent around the world, and the number of those who enable it, have reached new levels. These developments have focused U.S. presidential and congressional attention on the issue: in March, the administration announced in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance that it would take “special aim” at corruption. Then, in early June, it published a National Security Study Memorandum on the topic and highlighted the administration’s commitment to “tackling corruption as an economic and national security priority.” Congress has also announced a counter-kleptocracy caucus, and the State Department, USAID, and the Treasury Department have all taken new steps to bring anti-corruption efforts into the mainstream.

It is too early to tell what concrete actions will follow, but it is apparent that the Biden administration and other democratic governments correctly view corruption as a threat to national security, and to democracy itself. The planned Summit for Democracy in December, and a follow-on event next year, exemplify this new focus.

USAID Administrator Samantha Power delivers remarks commemorating USAID’s 60th anniversary and outlining her strategic vision for the agency’s approach to international development. (Image: School of Foreign Service)

A long-standing threat

Confronting corruption was not always a priority issue in U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy. For decades, democratic governments — including the U.S. — turned a blind eye to corruption around the world. Democracies pride themselves on efforts to weed out gross corruption in business and government, but the kleptocratic entitlement of certain elites at home and abroad continues unaddressed, as the recent Pandora Papers make clear. Complacency, and the tendency to use charges of corruption as no more than a political cudgel, have consequences. Corruption and kleptocracy stunt economic growth; prop up authoritarian governments; drive social inequality; feed political cynicism and opposition; propel state oppression in response; degrade the environment; and can lead to political, if not violent, instability.

Corruption’s implications also go beyond the traditional realm of national security. Corruption overlaps with existential threats like climate change, which has its own implications for global instability and human security more generally. Wherever resources are scarce and the risk of environmental degradation is high, such as in the Amazon rainforest, or where elites see natural resources as a means for economic and personal gain, as in Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, corruption can flourish. As we will see, kleptocracy threatens the very existence of democracies around the world and therefore human security, broadly defined. As a small number of elites, including in democratic countries, manipulate laws and regulations — financial, environmental, ethical — for personal gain, they feed mistrust in the democratic model, undermine the security of their populations, and fuel planetary destruction in the process.

In recent years, authoritarian and kleptocratic regimes have aggressively pushed back against democracy, the rules-based international order, and the globalized economy. Authoritarians characterize this order as hollow and exploitative, as they seek to hide their own ill-gotten wealth from public scrutiny. If, as President Biden has said, the challenge is between democracy and authoritarianism, then leaders of the rules-based order must also confront the systemic corruption that feeds the current system and continues to benefit from it.

Our goals

Corruption can be endemic at every level of government, from the police precinct to the presidential palace. ISD’s new working group will first examine the connection between corruption, democratic erosion, and national security, broadly defined. We will then look at the specific issue of weaponized corruption as a foreign policy tool. The focus of this working group will be on the larger, systemic networks of corruption that are able to either co-opt, control, or simply ignore government efforts to blunt it. A primary goal of this working group will be to map out what constitutes corruption, how its tangled web operates, and the ways in which it drives instability and conflict, and threatens democracies, if not humanity writ large. We will also consider what underlying structural issues — and systemic changes over the past decades — have led to today’s rampant corruption and created our current existential corruption challenge.

A second focus will be the strategies, policies, and steps the U.S. government and other states, along with NGOs, international organizations, and financial institutions, should implement to curb corruption. Drawing on these discussions, along with two follow-on meetings in the spring, ISD will publish a report that outlines strategies and a set of guiding policy principles and recommendations for the key actors: governments, international organizations, the private sector, NGOs, and civil society.

In the coming weeks, we will preview here in The Diplomatic Pouch initial findings from our discussions, explore case studies in corruption and its impacts, and consider possible remedies.

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.

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The Diplomatic Pouch features insights and commentary on global challenges and the evolving demands of diplomatic statecraft. Views are those of the authors and not necessarily the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy or Georgetown University. Visit for more.

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