Back when Donald Trump was first elected, a lot of people—me included—worried about the implications of his presidency for US leadership in the global fight against corruption. Some of the dire predictions have not (yet) come to pass; for example, so far US enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) does not seem to have abated despite Trump’s well-documented and ill-informed hostility to that statute. But even if US enforcement of the FCPA has proceeded without much discernible effect (so far), there are other, less easily measurable respects in which the Trump Administration’s foreign policy, and its own cavalier disregard for ethics, may be undermining US leadership on anticorruption issues, and consequently undermining anticorruption efforts and bolstering those who would seek to undermine such efforts.
As just noted, much of this effect is diffuse and hard to observe directly, but there are a few examples where the Trump Administration and its allies are undermining the global fight against corruption is more evident. Perhaps the most striking and disheartening is the situation unfolding in Guatemala, ably documented in a compelling piece by Colum Lynch on Foreign Policy’s FP Blog earlier this month. Long story short: The Trump Administration and its allies in Congress appear to be supporting, or at least tacitly accepting, the efforts of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales to shut down Guatemala’s UN-sponsored anti-impunity commission, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG, which has proved instrumental in fighting high-level corruption in Guatemala, and forced the resignation of President Morales’s predecessor, Otto Perez Molina. President Morales campaigned on an anticorruption platform, but he now wants to shut CICIG down, apparently because it’s investigating his own family members and associates. And the US, which had supported CICIG in the past and pressured President Molina to renew its mandate when he was inclined to terminate it to protect himself, seems to be backing Morales rather than CICIG.
I won’t go into all the details here, as the story is ably laid out in Mr. Lynch’s excellent piece. I’ll just highlight some themes that emerge from the reporting that Mr. Lynch and others have done, which illustrate connections—some direct, some indirect—between the Trump Administration’s approach to government and the dissipation of US leadership on anticorruption issues, as illustrated by the CICIG debacle.
- First, the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is characterized by an ideological opposition to internationalism and international institutions—especially though not exclusively anything connected to the US—coupled with an emphasis on loyalist-ideologues and a denigration of the expertise of career diplomats and regional or issue-area experts. This theme comes through quite clearly in Mr. Lynch’s piece on CICIG: Despite traditionally bipartisan support for CICIG and a clear sense from the US diplomats on the ground, as well as State Department subject-matter experts, that CICIG was having a significant positive effect, Trump Administration officials—including Vice President Mike Pence former Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley—undercut the career officials and pushed a strong pro-sovereignty anti-CICIG line, motivated in part by an instinctive suspicion of anything connected with the UN. Most egregiously, a former senior State Department official named Mari Stull—who had no relevant international experience, but rather was a former lobbyist for agribusiness and grocery stores, as well as an activist with a conservative political action committee opposed to US support for international organizations, and whose main responsibilities at State appeared to be compiling a blacklist of “disloyal” (i.e., non-Trumpist) State Department employees—pushed senior State Department officials to let Morales do what he wanted with CICIG, in the name of “sovereignty.” This problem is likely not limited to the Guatemala situation: The fight against corruption requires international cooperation, strong international institutions, and often international involvement in what we might otherwise think of as “domestic affairs,” especially in countries where systematic impunity has been a persistent problem. Indeed, a couple of years ago many—including many in the US government—were not only hailing CICIG’s success but touting it as a model for other nations, such as El Salvador and Honduras. And of course fighting corruption effectively requires expert knowledge of each particular country’s situation, institutions, and history. This is not to say that internationalism is always the best solution, nor that our existing international institutions aren’t in need of reform. And it’s certainly not to deny the importance of political oversight of unelected diplomats and bureaucrats. But a simplistic “sovereignty good, international organizations bad” orientation, coupled with the unqualified elevation of ideological loyalty over competence and pragmatism, is a recipe for failure when it comes to leading the fight against global corruption.
- Second, the Administration’s alienation of traditional US allies and its proclivity to engage in provocative, controversial, often symbolic moves without having first cultivated broad support, makes the US more desperate for support from any quarter, and hence more willing to overlook the corrupt conduct of leaders willing to back the US in its more controversial foreign policy moves. This phenomenon is evident in the reporting on the Guatemala situation: The Morales government managed to curry favor with the Trump administration by, among other things, immediately following the Trump Administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president. Now, it happens that, despite my general antipathy for the Trump Administration, I think (probably controversially) that both of these US foreign policy decisions are defensible, perhaps correct. But the US failed to cultivate support among its traditional allies, and the Trump Administration’s generally unilateralist, antagonistic posture left the Administration seemingly hungry for any sort of international support—which give the Morales Administration an opportunity to ally itself with the Trump Administration, thus dampening the latter’s willingness to focus on the former’s corruption problems. Now, it’s often the case in international diplomacy that countries face tough trade-offs, and may refrain from criticizing certain governments for their domestic conduct, including corruption concerns, in order to secure their cooperation on a broader foreign policy or national security agenda. This was pervasively true during the Cold War, and during the current fight against international terrorism, and I do not take the absolutist position that the US should adopt a “zero tolerance” policy toward corrupt regimes in its foreign relations. But through its clumsy unilateralism and fixation on symbolic issues, the Trump Administration has put itself in a position where these sorts of compromises are both more common and less necessary. Corrupt regimes that want to convince the US to turn a blind eye toward their corruption don’t necessarily need to be crucial partners on a vital national security issue; they just need to back up the US administration when it does something that alienates most of the other Western democracies.
- Third, and related to the previous point, there’s another way in which corrupt foreign administrations can avoid pressure from the US on their graft problems, and that’s by aligning themselves with the administration ideologically. the Trump Administration’s strong ideological orientation, and tendency to see foreign politics through the lens of US domestic political cleavages, seems instinctively sympathetic to conservative (and, better yet, evangelical Christian) leaders—or, more broadly, enemies of “the left”—and are thus willing to overlook serious corruption allegations against those ideological allies. That theme emerges clearly in Mr. Lynch’s reporting on Guatemala, and we may be seeing something similar in Brazil, Hungary, and elsewhere. I’m not so naïve as to believe that US policy ever was, or ever could be, non-partisan or non-ideological. But in the past, it seemed like foreign corruption was an issue that was at least somewhat less partisan, especially in countries where the domestic political cleavages, at least to a knowledgeable observer, don’t correspond neatly to US political cleavages. But the Trump Administration’s emphasis on political ideology, coupled with a resurgence of scaremongering about “socialism” and “collectivism,” provides a convenient escape for corrupt foreign administrations that can plausibly position themselves as right-wing enemies of socialism—even as corrupt left-wing governments may find themselves more likely the target of US rhetoric about the evils of graft.
- Fourth, though the use and abuse of lobbying, and funneling money to lobbying firms known to be close to key decision-makers, is hardly unique to the Trump Administration, the current administration and its allies in Congress seem especially susceptible to this sort of influence-purchasing, including by the well-heeled allies of corrupt elites. As Mr. Lynch’s story documents, a number of Guatemalan politicians aligned with the current government, as well as a shady anti-CICIG organization with unknown backers, signed lucrative lobbying contracts with a couple of Republican-connected US lobbying firms—one of which is co-run by a top fundraiser for Vice President Mike Pence, the other of which used to employ Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and which is a major contributor to Senator Mark Rubio, who has emerged as a major CICIG critic. Again, I want to be careful not to overstate the point here, because the practice of foreign governments and organizations hiring US lobbying firms with close ties to US politicians—of both parties–has a long and disreputable history. Yet there’s also suggestive evidence that attitudes toward the use of money and personal connections to influence decision-making has become much more, shall we say, relaxed under the current administration. The perception that the administration and its allies in Congress are more susceptible to this sort of influence likely increases the confidence of corrupt leaders, like President Morales, that they won’t face serious consequences for undermining anticorruption institutions in their countries.
The larger point here, and perhaps the only way in which this post adds anything to Mr. Lynch’s piece, is that the Guatemala story isn’t just about Guatemala. It’s about how the Trump Administration’s ideological, unilateralist approach to foreign policy, coupled with its greater-than-average susceptibility to the influence of money and connections, is threatening the United States’ position as a global leader in the fight against corruption.
Before concluding, it’s worth mentioning one additional factor in play in the Guatemala story, one that doesn’t fit quite as neatly into the broader narrative I just laid out, even though it’s connected to the Trump Administration, albeit indirectly. The orchestrated attacks on CICIG in the US have included an attack, supported by anti-Putin billionaire Bill Browder and several members of Congress, that alleges CICIG is a tool of the Putin regime that has been used to persecute Russian dissidents. This claim emerges out of CICIG’s investigation of a wealthy Russian family that fled Russia to Guatemala after a conflict with the Putin regime (a conflict that involved credible allegations of some truly dreadful behavior by the Russian authorities, including not just economic expropriation but physical and sexual violence). The problem was that, after fleeing to Guatemala, the family (allegedly) illegally purchased fake passports and other false identity documents, leading to a CICIG-led prosecution that resulted in harsh (some would say excessively harsh) prison sentences. I don’t know enough about the case to have a view on whether the prosecution was justified. But allegations that CICIG is a tool of the Russian government seem far-fetched. Russia strenuously opposed the creation of CICIG in the first place (apparently out of a concern that it might set a precedent that could be used against pro-Russian elites in countries of the former Soviet bloc), and Russia has never provided any funding or other sort of support for CICIG. And in fact the United States cooperated with CICIG in the prosecution of the Russian family at the center of the controversy. But the controversy swirling around Trump’s Russia ties, and the legitimate concerns about Russian interference in foreign governments, have created an environment where accusations of Russian interference get more traction in Congress, including among Republicans, than they might under other circumstances.
Again, though, the larger point here is that what’s going on with CICIG seems to me to be just the most obvious, glaring example of what I suspect is a more pervasive problem. Under the current administration, corrupt foreign leaders (at least if they’re the right kind of corrupt foreign leader, double meaning intended) can be more confident that the the US will not only look the other way, but will tacitly or even overtly support their efforts to undermine anticorruption institutions in their countries. And it makes clear just how much US leadership matters on these issues, and how much it’s missed.