Some Encouraging Signs from the Recent White House Statement on Global Anticorruption

A couple of weeks ago, the White House published a “Fact Sheet” on the U.S. Global Anticorruption Agenda. Though I don’t normally ascribe all that much importance to documents like this — they’re mostly for PR, after all — there were a few things about this particular release that caught my eye, and that I found fairly encouraging.

Perhaps most notably, although the release includes some obligatory–and deservedly self-congratulatory–discussion of the U.S. leadership role in enforcing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and pushing for stronger enforcement of anti-bribery laws through the OECD Convention, most of the Fact Sheet focuses on what many in the anticorruption community have emphasized as important, cutting-edge issues that go beyond traditional anti-bribery law, including:

  • Asset recovery and anti-money laundering as a top priority (including the recognition of the need to close loopholes in U.S. law and strengthen international cooperation in this area);
  • Closely related to this, the Fact Sheet emphasizes the importance of preventing the abuse of anonymous shell companies–including a discussion of recent regulatory initiatives on this front that we’ve noted elsewhere on this blog.
  • A special focus on the extractive sector
  • Emphasizing the importance of engagement and cooperation with the private sector, in particular the announcement of an intention to develop a “National Action Plan to promote and incentivize responsible business conduct, including with respect to transparency and anticorruption, consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises.”

Of course, concrete action matters more than high-minded general statements, and I know many in the anticorruption activist community have reasonable concerns about whether the U.S. is prepared to do what it takes to make good on these pledges. Still, one must give credit where credit is due–not only to the U.S. government, but to the civil society activists and others that have succeeded in changing the conversation about global anticorruption in ways that are reflected by the White House document.

One other quick thing to note about the Fact Sheet: At one point it declares that the U.S. government “will hold responsible governments that tolerate or commit corrupt practices in contravention of international norms, including by adjusting our bilateral relations and advising our businesses and investors accordingly.” It’s not clear what, exactly, this means. Maybe it means nothing significant. But if the U.S. is serious about “adjusting [its] bilateral relations” with countries that tolerate or contravene international anticorruption norms, that might actually represent a significant departure from past practice. After all, though the U.S. routinely condemns corruption, I’m not aware of any cases in which another country’s failure to adhere to anticorruption norms has had broader collateral consequences for U.S. foreign policy toward that country. Again, maybe this doesn’t really mean much–what does “adjusting” relations mean, anyway?–but it would be interesting to see whether the U.S. (or perhaps some in the U.S. who had a hand in drafting the Fact Sheet’s language) want corruption concerns to start to play a role perhaps more similar to concerns related to human rights abuses.

6 thoughts on “Some Encouraging Signs from the Recent White House Statement on Global Anticorruption

  1. I, too, am skeptical that any sort of negative foreign policy adjustment will come to fruition in response to corruption. The White House’s assertion to that effect is undercut by its recent commitment to business development in Africa (aired at the Africa Summit in August) and its pivot to Asia (intended to be a hallmark of Obama’s presidency). The U.S. government seems to feel that it has fallen asleep at the wheel and must catch up to China in these growth areas, which are largely rife with corruption. I hardly see the administration turning away now, especially in response to a problem that has long existed and for which the Chinese government has a higher tolerance.

    I am interested, however, to see if and how the White House positively adjusts foreign policy based on foreign governments’ responses to corruption. To continue the human rights analogy: Myanmar’s sudden, apparent commitment to democratization in 2011 generated favorable changes in bilateral relations, which, in turn, led to further reform. The White House Statement has a flavor of “we won’t let the bad guys get away with it” but I think it would be beneficial – and more plausible – to reward the good (or, at least, the better) guys, as well.

    • Agreed that one shouldn’t get too excited by self-serving PR, especially when the fine-sounding words aren’t consistent with recent actions. Still, it was nice to see so much attention paid to asset recovery, AML, and associated issues like beneficial ownership. The anticorruption activist community has been pushing hard on these issues in recent years, and so it was nice to see the influence that’s had, at least on the rhetoric. But let’s see how the US follows up. What happens with the recently-proposed Treasury rule on beneficial ownership might be a bellwether.

    • I’m inclined to agree with you, Liz, as far as “adjusting relations.” At the risk of overgeneralizing, governments seem to criticize another state’s corruption mostly when they are already predisposed to criticize that state–that is, corruption-based critiques seem to largely be toothless and/or “point-scoring” directed at states that we already want to criticize for another reason. Your U.S. vs. China analysis seems really spot-on, and your idea that reinforcing “good behavior” (rather than punishing the bad) might be somewhat more politically realistic is intriguing. This is a somewhat tangential point, but if the U.S.’s eagerness to reward Myanmar was somewhat out of a desire to have some positive example of democratization to cling to (since the reforms arguably don’t seem all that complete), I wonder if we’re also at risk of the U.S. potentially going too far too fast if another country shows signs of beginning to clean up corruption–especially if the economics seem likely to work in our favor.

  2. I found it interesting that the press release, which did a great job of emphasizing the degree to which the White House is prioritizing anti-corruption work, nonetheless grounded it’s approach in the economic rather than human elements of the problem (recovering the proceeds of corruption through FCPA prosecutions; improving due diligence methods for financial institutions; helping governments draft complex contracts).

    If the White House and/or civil society want to mould the corruption narrative to reflect human rights discussions, thereby making it something worthy of political support even if the numbers do not justify action, their actions (and press releases) will need to more directly address the human element. As you noted, Matthew, if the US is serious about adjusting bilateral relations with nations that contravene international corruption norms, that would be a significant step. But the fact that the commitment was followed by a commitment to ‘[advise] our businesses and investors accordingly’ makes me think that the White House is talking about ramping up existing pressure, rather than reframing the debate as a whole.

    • I’m not sure I completely agree with this criticism. Although the press release focuses on economic _means_ for fighting corruption (FCPA prosecutions, due diligence, asset recovery, etc.), that’s not inconsistent with _ends_ that go beyond economic considerations and emphasize things like human rights (or human welfare more generally). A lot of the leading anti-corruption organizations that emphasize more of a human rights angle, like Global Witness, strongly support going after kleptocrats’ assets, cracking down on bribery, etc. — precisely because going after the money hits the bad guys where it hurts.

      That said, you’re right that the White House press release does not really mention, let alone play up, the idea that corruption might be (re)conceptualized as a human rights issue. It’s not clear to me whether that would be a good thing, though, and I’d certainly be interested in others’ views on that issue.

      • Regarding the framing issue: I wonder whether reconceptualizing the anticorruption fight in human rights terms could be a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, even low-stakes corruption harms individual people, and folks at the bottom of the income ladder are often most negatively impacted. So garnering political support for all anticorruption measures, not just lucrative ones, is important. On the other, focusing on the economic cost and benefit (and using that frame to–hopefully–effectuate broad changes) is a bit more value-neutral than the human rights angle, and may for that reason garner broader support. While the human element is key, I’d imagine it is helpful to point to tangible gains ($$ collected by DOJ in fines etc.) in order to maintain support for an aggressive anticorruption regime.

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