Corruption Is a National Security Threat. The CROOK Act Is a Smart Way to Fight It.

Not long ago, America’s great­est adver­saries were bound togeth­er by com­mu­nist ide­ol­o­gy. Today, they most often are defined by polit­i­cal corruption—authoritarian lead­ers using the levers of gov­ern­ment to enrich them­selves and ward off polit­i­cal oppo­nents. Corrupt lead­ers cling to pow­er through patron­age net­works and exploit rule-of-law juris­dic­tions, like the United States, to con­ceal and pro­tect their stolen assets. These lead­ers are also accus­tomed to using strate­gic cor­rup­tion as a tool of for­eign policy.

Corruption has its most per­verse effects on the peo­ple who are forced to live under it. Corruption under­mines democ­ra­cy, hol­lows out the rule of law, and pre­vents the effi­cient and fair deliv­ery of gov­ern­ment ser­vices, as evi­denced in the scan­dals affect­ing cer­tain pan­dem­ic response efforts. Corruption also fuels the rise of author­i­tar­i­an oppor­tunists who seek to exploit social divi­sions, restrict free­dom, and use pub­lic office for per­son­al gain.

Corruption also pos­es a wider threat to American democ­ra­cy and pros­per­i­ty, and to the pros­per­i­ty of our allies. Almost every major transna­tion­al threat—such as human traf­fick­ing, black mar­kets, and terrorism—is inex­tri­ca­bly linked to corruption.

Slowly but sure­ly, the fight against cor­rup­tion is gain­ing momen­tum world­wide. In Russia, cor­rup­tion exposed by activist Alexei Navalny has sparked mass protests against a polit­i­cal elite that sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly steals from them. In the past three years alone, out­rage against cor­rup­tion has fueled protests in 32 coun­tries.

Despite these encour­ag­ing signs, oppor­tu­ni­ties to root out cor­rup­tion remain rare—and when they arise, the win­dow for action clos­es quick­ly. To have max­i­mum impact in this fight, the United States needs to be ready to assist anti-cor­rup­tion reform­ers on short notice.

Seizing Opportunities for Reform

The United States cur­rent­ly spends about $115 mil­lion a year on glob­al anti-cor­rup­tion pro­grams. To put this in per­spec­tive, we spend $9.5 bil­lion annu­al­lyon glob­al health assis­tance pro­grams. Unfortunately, many of the funds we put toward anti-cor­rup­tion efforts get trapped in mul­ti-year tech­ni­cal pro­grams that are unable to respond nim­bly to sud­den oppor­tu­ni­ties for gov­er­nance reform.

Scholars and prac­ti­tion­ers have demon­strat­ed that rapid action is cru­cial to mak­ing cor­rup­tion reforms stick. When the rare win­dow for reform opens, reform­ers must act quick­ly and bold­ly to cap­i­tal­ize on pub­lic momen­tum and pre­vent old-guard cronies from reassert­ing their influence.

If the United States does not com­pete in these envi­ron­ments, fledg­ing reform­ers will have an even hard­er time suc­ceed­ing, and author­i­tar­i­an klep­to­crats will gain ground. The United States needs to be proac­tive in devel­op­ing strate­gic rela­tion­ships and agile pro­grams that will keep us rel­e­vant in moments of his­toric opportunity.

Last month, we intro­duced the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act to upgrade America’s anti-cor­rup­tion efforts by tar­get­ing klep­toc­ra­cy at the source. The CROOK Act would cre­ate an anti-cor­rup­tion action fund to help activists lever­age pub­lic sen­ti­ment to achieve last­ing reform, with­out any addi­tion­al cost to tax­pay­ers. The fund would be financed through a $5 mil­lion sur­charge on enti­ties found liable for $50 mil­lion or more in crim­i­nal fines and penal­ties under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Based on data from the last 10 years, this bill would put an addi­tion­al $16 mil­lion per year toward glob­al anti-cor­rup­tion work. Funds would con­tin­ue to accrue until a his­toric win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty opens, at which point funds would be rapid­ly deployed to help estab­lish the rule of law.

Imagine if the United States had been able to inject more anti-cor­rup­tion resources into Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, or Armenia after the 2018 Velvet Revolution, or Malaysia after its 2018 elec­tion. If the United States had been ready with an anti-cor­rup­tion action fund, we could have dra­mat­i­cal­ly ampli­fied the work of coura­geous reform­ers to estab­lish last­ing change, and ulti­mate­ly make the United States more secure.

Leveraging FCPA fines and penal­ties to fight glob­al anti-cor­rup­tion is a long-over­due shift. The FCPA, passed in 1977, makes it ille­gal for a U.S. busi­ness to pay a bribe abroad and col­lects enor­mous fines and penal­ties every year—often in the bil­lions of dol­lars. Yet his­tor­i­cal­ly, these fines have gone exclu­sive­ly to the U.S. Treasury rather than being recy­cled into anti-cor­rup­tion efforts. On issues like human traf­fick­ing and child pornog­ra­phy, the U.S. gov­ern­ment already uses some mon­ey col­lect­ed from per­pe­tra­tors to aid vic­tims and help fight the crimes com­mit­ted against them. It is time for a sim­i­lar approach to fight­ing corruption.

Enhancing FCPA Enforcement

The FCPA rep­re­sents America’s com­mit­ment nev­er to export cor­rup­tion abroad. This draws a stark con­trast with klep­to­crat­ic pow­ers like China, a nation that exports cor­rup­tion skill­ful­ly and aggres­sive­ly through its Belt and Road Initiative. Regrettably, vig­or­ous enforce­ment of the FCPA—though ful­ly legal—has been a stick­ing point with some allies, who false­ly claim it is a means to line American pock­ets. The CROOK Act would under­cut these claims by redi­rect­ing a por­tion of fines and penal­ties col­lect­ed to help U.S. part­ners fight corruption.

The CROOK Act would also rebut a long­stand­ing cri­tique of the FCPA: that the U.S. unfair­ly tar­gets pri­vate com­pa­nies for offer­ing bribes rather than tar­get­ing the source of demand for those bribes among for­eign offi­cials. The CROOK Act would cre­ate a more holis­tic approach by help­ing estab­lish rule-of-law struc­tures that would restrain offi­cials from seek­ing bribes, result­ing in a more lev­el play­ing field for American businesses.

The world’s most promi­nent anti-cor­rup­tion advo­cates have all endorsed the CROOK Act, includ­ing Transparency International USA and the Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency (FACT) Coalition. Like much of the leg­is­la­tion that has emerged from the U.S. Helsinki Commission on which we serve, this bill enjoys bipar­ti­san sup­port in both the House and the Senate.

Fighting cor­rup­tion is an imper­a­tive for the United States. As a bea­con of lib­er­ty and the rule of law, it is our duty and the purest expres­sion of our val­ues. It is also a high­ly prac­ti­cal form of soft pow­er that advances our nation­al secu­ri­ty. Allocating the right resources for this fight is a small price to pay for advanc­ing good gov­er­nance abroad and cre­at­ing a more sta­ble world. Passing the CROOK Act would be deci­sive step in the right direction.

IMAGE: Opposition supporters participate in an anti-corruption rally in central Saint Petersburg on March 26, 2017. Thousands of Russians demonstrated across the country on March 26 to protest corruption, defying government bans to participate in rallies called by prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who was arrested along with scores of others.  (Photo by OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images)

Just Security by Senator Roger F. Wicker and Senator Ben Cardin

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