In an Op-Ed in the New York Times this past Wednesday, Alexander Lebedev, former KGB officer and current owner of the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, calls for “an international body to police corruption.” Lebedev astutely describes how “international banks, law firms and accountants” make it far too easy to hide the proceeds of corrupt activities, and far too difficult to bring the perpetrators to justice. Yet his proposed solution–an international anticorruption police force–is likely to have costs that far outweigh whatever benefits it may have.
The numbers Lebedev cites are jarring: $30 trillion “embezzled” by “crooked business people, working with corrupt officials” over the last 15 years; $4 trillion disappeared from China over the past decade; another $1 trillion from Russia. Putting aside the questions of whether the sources of these numbers are accurate – the report from which Lebedev gets his $30 trillion figure says $30 trillion had been invested “virtually tax free,” but it never uses the word embezzlement – there is a real threat that corrupt actors will hide the proceeds of corruption and evade justice. Lebedev is also right that anticorruption enforcers are often stymied by the ease with which banks, law firms, and accountants can move money from one jurisdiction to another, particularly anticorruption enforcers from countries with limited resources.
But Lebedev’s proposed solution suffers from a couple of serious drawbacks.
First, Lebedev’s proposal is too reactive; more effective responses to the problems he identifies are more likely to be preventive. The proliferation of national antibribery laws, to their credit, seek to cut off bribery before it happens. Other proposals, like modifying international tax law, seek to prevent corrupt assets from ever making it to tax havens. Lebedev’s proposal kicks in only if other measures have failed.
But the bigger problem is that a world anticorruption police force, presumably deployed only when states refuse to cooperate, would undercut state sovereignty. Lebedev’s ideal targets demonstrate this point – he wants the force to swoop into the “European Union, or Switzerland,” where allegedly corrupt Russians have resettled and now claim asylum for fear of political persecution, and presumably to seize their assets and send them back to Russia for prosecution. Regardless of one’s feelings about EU asylum law, we should take countries’ sovereignty seriously, and tread on it, if at all, only when necessary.
Furthermore, I do not think this aggression – putting aside legal concerns — is necessary. The Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (a joint project of the World Bank and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime) works with countries – instead of against them – to develop their own frameworks for recovering assets. Some states have their own asset recovery programs, and will help others get back what was stolen from them. There are limits to existing mechanisms for asset recovery. These limits, however, are reflections of practical, political, and legal boundaries. We should be skeptical of powerful, border-crossing police forces that pay no mind to these boundaries.