Making Corruption a National Security Issue: How Will it Change Enforcement Dynamics?

Today’s Guest post is by Nedim Hogic. Nedim advises clients in the private and public sector on environmental, social, and governance issues. Author of many articles on corruption, international law, and the rule of law and development, he is currently writing a book on judicial anti-corruption campaigns.

Since becoming an important policy goal in the 1990s, global anticorruption efforts have gone through three phases. In the first, anti-corruption policies were considered important for economic development, driven by the belief that successful anticorruption programs would make global borrowing and spending and financial aid more efficient. In the second, spanning the first two decades of this century, it was central to the protection of the rule of law and democracy.

The current phase, and particularly that part denominated “kleptocracy,” is animated by the threat it poses to global security. The Biden Administration’s national security strategy, which followed its memorandum calling the fight against corruption a core U.S. security interest, is not the first American or indeed international document to suggest corruption is a national security threat. But it is the first to state the premise clearly and straightforwardly, thus marking a sharp change in thinking about transnational corruption. Indeed, in my view the change is significant enough to be labelled a paradigm shift.

The response to Russian aggression against Ukraine is the clearest sign yet of this change, what we might call the “national securitization” of corruption. The freezing of assets owned by oligarchs with close ties to Putin’s regime represents more than just an extension of the previous sanctions regime based on human rights violations. Rather, it is an attempt to prevent Russian weaponization of strategic corruption to influence political outcomes in different European countries. Thus, the sanctions that have been issued are not just—as was sometimes the case with earlier sanctions—a display of disapproval of one regime’s actions or punishment for wrongdoing but a preventive measure. To block the further rise of Russian influence, primarily in Europe.  

The question is whether this national securitization of corruption will find sufficient support with audiences domestic and international. Although part of the wider Biden Administration’s foreign policy strategy, which is designed to appeal primarily to the US middle class, it is unclear how enthusiastic Americans will be towards such a change (despite solid evidence of a very clear link between global corruption and US domestic issues). Support could be particularly hard to maintain when and if sanctions begin to impose costs on vocal segments of the populace.

At least initially, European allies have lined up behind the national securitization of corruption.  Most clearly in the coordinated response to the freezing of oligarch assets.  But support has so far come from governments. The legal and contextual problem with sanctions will come not with governments – here the solutions, as it has been argued, seem more solidly founded. But how long that will last remains a question mark.

Across Europe the meaning of corruption and political interference differs.  Disagreements over the nature of the corrupt influence of some of the persons, sanctioned or soon to be sanctioned, are likely, especially the sanctions affect economic interests. More importantly, there are differences among the national security priorities of European states and even among different agencies within one country. This perhaps explains the disagreements among sanction-issuing nations, (six besides the United States). The Russia Sanctions Database of the Atlantic Council reveals that many sanctioned individuals do not appear on all seven lists.    

Enforcing sanctions may also reveal due process issues. Sanctions originating in concerns about corrupt influence sanctions could face legal challenges comparable to those created by the spread of counterterrorism regulation outside the US context. If the primary goal of the sanctions is to prevent further spreading of influence, that leaves little room for retributive or restorative justice. Rather, the primary goal of such action is preventive justice, in which criminal law regulation of corruption is largely replaced with broad regulatory actions rooted in administrative law.

Legal challenges may be problematic, even if, as in the case of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, EU courts entertain a challenge on fundamental rights grounds. For a win in a European court may be of little value. Banks would still be reluctant to do business with a person targeted by the US if it put them at risk of losing access to US financial markets.

For that reason, the central role in the enforcement of these sanctions is the role of the private sector, especially the banking sector, as it is required to monitor, flag, and report suspicious transactions or face the punishment of the domestic or US-based regulators. Ironically, the consequences of treating corruption as a national security matter could bring the best and the worst from the regulation of terrorism and unilateral sanctions. Greater efficiency from the latter but overcompliance thanks to the former.

Whether the “national securitization” of corruption is merely a refocus of anticorruption policy or an important paradigm shift depends much on where one stands. To the scholars and practitioners who for years warned about the rise of strategic corruption and the need to address the rising kleptocracy not only abroad but at home, the shift may mean merely a welcome focus on a problem they long warned about. To those in developing countries, used to being an object of anticorruption interventions, the national securitization may mean even more, for it shifts the center of gravity for enforcement to actions against kleptocracy in the West.

This is why I argue national securitization is closer to a paradigm shift then merely a policy shift reflected in such matters as a change in the discourse employed by US thinktanks, policymakers, and development agencies. Much focus is now on kleptocracy and – a word rarely used before – dekleptification. This is a welcome change. The previous reductive use of the term kleptocracy was applied mostly to third world Francophone countries. Not only was it inaccurate but it implied (intentionally or not) a certain degree of racism.

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