Johnson &Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky looks on as President Joe Biden delivers remarks on COVID-19 vaccine production Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Why Biden’s anti-corruption agenda should proceed with caution

The US is right to help root out graft worldwide, but it must also be aware of the unintended consequences.

Since Joe Biden’s inauguration, anti-corruption is back in style in Washington — and barely in the nick of time.

Graft-fighters from Latin America to Eastern Europe have faced a tide of elite backlash in recent years, enabled above all by the Trump administration’s indifference and even hostility. To regain lost momentum, independent prosecutors and judges need international support.

But there’s one big catch. When anti-corruption campaigns fall prey to politicization or open the door to reckless populists, they can end up doing more harm than good. Championing anti-corruption generally as a cause is easy. But the Biden administration has a much harder, more necessary task ahead: carefully assessing the integrity of anti-corruption efforts abroad and weighing the risks of providing U.S. support against potential rewards.

The new administration does not lack ambitious plans. The National Security Council set up a new leadership role on anti-corruption. The State and Justice Departments have floated plans to launch a joint task-force to assist prosecutors in Central America. Bad actors are facing fresh sanctions, from a Ukrainian oligarch who holds millions in U.S. real estate, purchased with embezzled cash, to Guatemalan elites accused of capturing their country’s judiciary. On June 2, the Treasury Department rolled out its biggest ever package of corruption sanctions, targeting 65 individuals including Bulgaria’s top mob boss.

But before the new administration goes charging ahead, a healthy dose of caution is in order. Anti-corruption campaigns have a nasty habit of producing unintended side-effects, especially in democracies with weak institutions — in other words, exactly the countries Biden wants to help.

Three particularly common anti-corruption traps could foil the administration’s well-intentioned plans if its not careful.

The first is politicization. When one political party or coalition hijacks anti-corruption institutions to serve its interests, the rule of law can emerge weaker than it started. Troublingly, politicization is not always as obvious as it sounds. Judicial institutions can appear to gain “capacity” to enforce the law, even as they fall prey to political bias.

There is no better example than Brazil’s Lava Jato, or Operation Carwash. In 2014, federal prosecutors unearthed a vast network of bribes for state contracts issued by the state oil company, Petrobras, during the decade-plus in which the center-left Worker’s Party (PT) had governed, led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula.

Investigations left no major party untouched, but as the case developed, judicial authorities singled out PT politicians for special attention, despite evidence that bribe-taking was just as common among the opposition. Prosecutors leaked key evidence — including illegally tapped phone-calls — feeding a media frenzy that contributed to then-President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment on legally dubious grounds in 2016. Then, lead judge Sergio Moro collaborated with these same prosecutors to put Lula in jail right as he was leading polls for the next presidential election. When his far-right opponent president Jair Bolsonaro came to power, Moro was named Justice Secretary, giving the allegations of bias added weight. Earlier this year, Bolsonaro disbanded the Lava Jato team, but an already disillusioned public barely took notice.

Brazil isn’t the only recent case of politicization. Colombia’s Attorney General recently opened a dubious investigation into the top center-left contender for upcoming 2022 presidential elections, Sergio Fajardo. Meanwhile, he has ignored and even sought to discredit evidence that dirty money helped current president Iván Duque win the last elections. And neither is politicization just a tool of the political right. Mexico’s left-leaning Andrés Manuel López Orbrador is also retooling his country’s anti-corruption infrastructure to go after opponents.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to prevent politicization. But the administration is equipped to send a powerful message. State and Treasury Department leaders should closely monitor the anti-corruption efforts it agrees to support, halting financial and investigatory assistance when there are signs of persistent unfair dealing.

Anti-corruption efforts also come with a second risk: they often destroy established political parties, opening the door to self-serving populists. In countries where corruption runs rampant and most parties rely on dirty money, investigations take a wrecking ball to the political class. But sometimes there are virtually no clean and competent leaders ready to fill the void. Instead, those best positioned to capitalize on the chaos are often destabilizing populists.  

Italy’s famous “Clean Hands” investigation of the 1990s is one example. Prosecutors put almost 5,000 public officials under investigation for graft, leveling established political parties virtually overnight. The resulting political vacuum was filled not by an innovating reformer, but by far-right outsider and business mogul, Silvio Berlusconi, who only made the country’s corruption problems worse in the 2000s.

Recent anti-corruption sweeps have imploded old political parties in countries as different as Romania and El Salvador, but perhaps the most ominous case is Peru. Over the past decade, Peruvian prosecutors landed all the country’s living ex-presidents in jail for corruption, often via pretrial detention, while another committed suicide before they could reach him. The country’s already weak party system imploded — not to the advantage of bright-eyed reformers, but to the benefit of ideological extremists and independently wealthy businesspeople. Unsurprisingly, the candidates facing off in June 6 presidential elections are, to different degrees, both undemocratic extremists.

This is not to say that corrupt officials in Peru or anywhere else should get off scot free. But Biden administration leaders must think about where downstream consequences of anti-graft efforts could be destabilizing. Detached from efforts to strengthen civil society and build pro-reform political parties, crackdowns on graft do not necessarily leave countries less corrupt — they leave them reeling.

But that’s not all. Anti-corruption efforts can also fall into a third, often overlooked trap: they can paralyze policymaking.

No one wants bureaucrats who are completely unafraid of being investigated. But in countries where many public servants lack adequate training and contend with byzantine rules on public procurement, anti-graft missions can so terrify public servants that policy implementation simply grinds to a halt.

I saw direct evidence of this trap in my research on local government in Colombia. Across the country, I interviewed dozens of bureaucrats and city planners who described starting their careers with bold plans to build new roads, schools, and hospitals. Few of the projects got off the ground. The problem wasn’t necessarily a lack of resources or political roadblocks — it was pervasive fear of investigation. Even if an investigation went nowhere, many told me, the legal fees and reputational damage could be devastating, so the safest path forward was to start few new projects at all.

Before the Biden administration throws its weight behind anti-corruption efforts abroad, it should evaluate whether other forms of support — for instance, assistance in simplifying public contracting procedures — might be necessary first. 

If the administration is cautious to avoid these potential pitfalls, it has a real chance of reviving anti-corruption among its democratic partners and doing so effectively. That said, no amount of rule of law-building abroad will work without a real effort to clean up corruption at home. That means cracking down on the flow of dirty money in and out of the United States and demanding greater transparency from domestic oil, gas, and minerals companies often complicit in corruption abroad. Campaign finance reform, which Biden promised on the campaign trail, is also a must. Without curbing corruption in the United States, support for anti-graft efforts abroad will ring hollow.