Today’s guest post is from Joe Powell, the Deputy Chief Executive Officer for the Open Government Partnership.
The corruption continued to the end. A cast of convicted fraudsters, tax dodgers, and money launderers littered President Trump’s final pardon list. One clemency went to Elliott Broidy, a former top fundraiser for Mr. Trump who had been implicated in illegal lobbying in connection with Malaysia’s multi-billion dollar 1MDB embezzlement scandal. Trump’s final official act as President, taken minutes before the official transfer of power, was to pardon the tax evading ex-husband of one his favorite Fox News hosts, Jeanine Pirro.
None of this was remotely surprising after four years in which ethics, conflict of interest, and the rule of law did not seem to apply to the executive branch of the U.S. government. Contrast this with the extraordinary act of bravery from Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who despite being jailed on his return to Moscow after his near-fatal poisoning, released a viral documentary last week about the construction of President Putin’s palace on the Black Sea. The film, which within days had racked up nearly 100 million views, details the corruption, bribery, and opaque corporate structures used to fund what Navalny claims is the world’s most expensive real estate project, with an estimated price tag of at least $1.4 billion. The funds come from Putin’s oligarch friends who dominate the top positions in many of Russia’s biggest companies, and drain state resources that could improve the lives of ordinary Russians. A single gold toilet brush and toilet paper holder, purchased for one of Putin’s wineries near the palace, cost more than the average annual state pension in Russia. No wonder Putin is so desperate to silence Navalny.
What ties Trump’s pardons and Putin’s palace together is the insidious effect of corruption on democracy. Globally, corruption has been one of the main drivers of 14 years of consecutive decline in civil and political liberties around the world. This democratic recession has affected long-standing and emerging democracies alike, and has spurred street protests and civil society campaigns in many countries. Hungary is a textbook example. Prime Minister Orbán has used state funds for patronage, ensuring that only close supporters receive high value government contracts, and threatening to veto the European Union budget over any checks on his power. Throughout the world, dark money has increasingly fueled online disinformation and a decline in press freedom, which has made accountability harder to achieve.
To turn the tide on this democratic backsliding, a major global effort to combat corruption is needed. President Biden is well placed to help lead the charge.
The first step is getting America’s own house in order. One of President Biden’s first executive orders, on new government ethics rules, puts restrictions on the “revolving door” of lobbyists joining government, and senior officials in turn joining lobbyists to cash in on their contacts and expertise. The order has been hailed by President Obama’s ethics lead Norm Eisen as “the strongest, most ambitious swamp-draining plan ever.” The Biden Administration can also ensure effective implementation of the new provision in the National Defense Authorization Act to tackle the abuse of anonymous shell companies, and the Administration must resist the efforts of lobbyists to weaken the final rule with exemptions.
A serious initiative to tackle corruption will take a global coalition. The Obama-Biden administration founded the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in 2011 to help bring like-minded countries together with civil society leaders to implement the tough reforms that tackle vested interests and elite state capture. Now ten years old, OGP members have made over four thousand commitments, including to reforms such as opening up of government contracts, increasing transparency in lobbying, and providing open data on government spending so that auditors, citizens, and civil society can follow the money and help ensure it’s well spent. President Biden can apply those principles to the next round of COVID recovery funds, and can challenge other countries to do the same.
This will set the stage for the Summit for Democracy, one of President Biden’s key foreign policy proposals for the coming year. But all too often, summits of heads of state result in little more than warm words and empty promises. To avoid this, and to ensure a more meaningful summit, the Administration should ensure that civil society is engaged throughout the process. Indeed, the price of admission for any country to participate in the summit should be that the leaders in attendance meet with domestic civil society groups in advance, and should be expected to make substantive commitments at the summit on anticorruption and democracy-promotion. The U.S. government should further support the efforts to follow through on these commitments by providing resources to assist low income countries with their implementation plans.
To save democracy at home, and build a stronger global coalition of democratic allies, the financing for authoritarianism must be made ever harder. Only a strong, diverse coalition of countries and civil society champions, with renewed US engagement, can achieve that goal.