Corruption: A 21st-Century Security Challenge

By undermining state effectiveness, eroding trust between citizens and government and exploiting vulnerable populations, corruption has emerged as a top-priority national security threat.


U.S. Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Sarah Sewall discusses links between corruption, human trafficking and illegal fishing with port security officials in Thailand.
U.S. Department of State

In a world of globalized threats, bad governance is a liability. Poorly governed areas provide not just a safe haven, but sometimes even a justification for non-state actors like terrorists, traffickers, insurgents, drug cartels and criminal groups to step in and fill the void. These sinister networks thrive where the state cannot prevent or police them, and they benefit when citizens envision better futures or security in an illicit and immoral world.

By undermining state effectiveness, corruption creates openings for these dangerous actors. Corruption also gives them a tool to infiltrate and influence the state itself, further weakening governance and expanding terrorist and criminal reach. As we’ve seen in places like Honduras and Iraq, corruption is not simply an issue of rights and efficiency. The cost of corruption can increasingly be measured in security and stability.

Corruption’s Insidious Reach

Corruption feeds instability by eroding trust between people and government. It turns institutions of public service into tools for public exploitation. Left unchecked, corruption can fuel apathy and even hostility toward public institutions. In Tunisia, Ukraine, Egypt and elsewhere, it drove protesters into the streets to upend the political order.

But corruption can also undermine security in less dramatic ways. Crooked officials can make citizens believe that the system is rigged against them, creating sympathy for non-state actors promising a better bargain. In Iraq, the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh, recruits members by portraying itself as a “pure” alternative to a corrupt government. The Taliban makes the same case in Afghanistan. Research from the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations has found that citizens who personally experience corruption are more likely to engage in violent, extremist behavior.

The State Department is going beyond law enforcement to unite a wider range of anti-corruption tools and actors.

While corruption can give rise to new threats, it can also undermine the government’s ability to respond to those threats and ensure security. As Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi prepared to take on Daesh last year, he discovered 50,000 “ghost soldiers” on the government payroll costing Iraqis $380 million a year. When President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria took office, he inherited a military weakened by corruption and unprepared to defend against threats like Boko Haram. In Ukraine, government corruption not only triggered an international crisis but hampered the military’s ability to resist Russian intervention.

Corruption can pose an even greater danger to vulnerable populations. By corroding the rule of law, corruption gives predators more opportunities to exploit the vulnerable—from government officials targeting the poor for bribes to traffickers ensnaring children. In India, pervasive corruption weakens the enforcement of legal protections against domestic violence, leaving women more vulnerable to abuse.

As the world grapples with these issues, the Department of State is elevating anti-corruption in our work. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, Secretary of State John F. Kerry called on the world to make corruption a “first-order national security priority.” He echoed this message at the Anti-Corruption Summit hosted by the United Kingdom last month.

The Challenge of Governance


The following is excerpted from the speech by Secretary of State John F. Kerry to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22.

We have to acknowledge in all quarters of leadership that the plagues of violent extremism, greed, lust for power and sectarian exploitation often find their nourishment where governments are fragile and leaders are incompetent or dishonest. And that is why the quality of governance is no longer just a domestic concern. …

Now, obviously, corruption’s not a new problem. Every nation has faced it at one time or another in its development. America’s own Founding Fathers knew the threat of corruption all too well, warning of the dangers that it posed to democratic governance. But today, corruption has grown at an alarming pace and threatens global growth, global stability and, indeed, the global future. …

Still in the United States, my friends, we continue to prosecute corruption, and [at the same time] we live with a pay-to-play campaign finance system that should not be wished on any other country in the world. I used to be a prosecutor, and I know how hard it is to hold people in positions of public responsibility accountable. But I also know how important it is.

The fact is there is nothing—absolutely nothing—more demoralizing, more destructive, more disempowering to any citizen than the belief that the system is rigged against them and that people in positions of power are, to use a diplomatic term of art, crooks who are stealing the future of their own people; and by the way, depositing their ill-gotten gains in ostensibly legitimate financial institutions around the world.

Corruption is a social danger because it feeds organized crime; it destroys nation-states; it imperils opportunities, particularly for women and girls; it facilitates environmental degradation; it contributes to human trafficking; and it undermines whole communities. It destroys the future.

Corruption is a radicalizer because it destroys faith in legitimate authority. It opens up a vacuum which allows the predators to move in. And no one knows that better than the violent extremist groups, who regularly use corruption as a recruitment tool.

Corruption is an opportunity destroyer because it discourages honest and accountable investment; it makes businesses more expensive to operate; it drives up the cost of public services for local taxpayers; and it turns a nation’s entire budget into a feeding trough for the privileged few.

And that is why it is imperative that the business community of the world starts to demand a different standard of behavior, that we deepen the fight against corruption, making it a first-order, national security priority. …

All told, corruption costs the global economy—global GDP—more than a trillion dollars a year. ... This corruption complicates, I assure you, every single security, diplomatic and social priority of the U.S. government and other governments trying to help other countries around the world. And by itself it creates tension, instability and a perfect playing field for predators.

It is simply stunning to me ... that in the year 2016, more than 20 million people are the victims of modern-day slavery in what has become a $150 billion illicit human trafficking industry. The New York Times recently had a compelling story on its front page of a young Cambodian boy seduced into leaving his country and going to Thailand, believing he’d be part of a construction company. He wound up at sea for two years with a shackle around his neck as a slave in an illegal fishing operation. Those numbers should shock the conscience of every person into action, because although money is legitimately and always will be used for many things, it shouldn’t be hard for us to agree that in the 21st century, we should never, ever, ever allow a price tag to be attached to the freedom of another human being.

The bottom line is that it is everybody’s responsibility to condemn and expose corruption, to hold perpetrators accountable and to replace a culture of corruption … with a standard that expects honesty as a regular way of doing business.

Never forget: The impact of corruption touches everyone—businesses, the private sector, every citizen. We all pay for it. So we have to wage this fight collectively—not reluctantly, but wholeheartedly—by embracing standards that make corruption the exception and not the norm.

Taking a Broader, Bolder Approach

Answering the Secretary’s call, however, requires a broader and bolder approach to address corruption. Here are four steps the State Department is taking.

First, we are balancing law enforcement responses to corruption by strengthening efforts to prevent corruption in the first place. This can include creating streamlined and transparent governmental processes to reduce opportunities for graft, using technology to increase citizens’ access to information, or training investigative journalists and civil society leaders—who play such a critical role in detecting wrongdoing, as we saw in the wake of the “Panama Papers” exposé. As funding for democracy, human rights and governance increases this year, the department will look for more opportunities to support these preventive approaches.

Second, the State Department is going beyond law enforcement to unite a wider range of anti-corruption tools and actors. Two dozen embassies in Eastern and Central Europe have convened political and economic officers, public diplomacy specialists, defense attachés and development experts to develop comprehensive national anti-corruption plans. The department has also launched an internal anti-corruption toolkit to provide officers with a one-stop-shop for jumpstarting their anti-corruption work.

Third, the department is striving to identify and seize narrow windows for reform, recognizing how important national political will is for successful anti-corruption efforts. These windows of opportunity may include public outrage about a new corruption scandal, as we have seen in Guatemala and Moldova, or the election of reformers promising to end corruption, such as President Joko Widodo in Indonesia or President John Magufuli in Tanzania.

By focusing U.S. efforts on such “ripe” opportunities, we can help reinforce progress that might otherwise take generations to achieve. A recent report on anti-corruption tradecraft from the Foreign Service Institute cited the example of Paraguay, where U.S. Embassy Asunción responded to the election of a reformist government by quickly developing an International Visitor Leadership Program for new ministers focused on anti-corruption.

Lastly, we are tying these bilateral efforts to the emerging global architecture around anti-corruption. To date, 178 countries have ratified or acceded to the 2005 United Nations Convention against Corruption, and its norms have since been embedded in regional agreements by the Arab League and African Union. In the last few years, the Group of Seven, Group of 20 and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have also elevated anti-corruption as a priority. These developments underscore the global support in principle for anti-corruption efforts, and they empower U.S. diplomacy by undercutting claims that the anti-corruption agenda is simply Western finger-wagging.

As the voice of our government around the world, U.S. diplomats will be the ones to raise the tough conversations about corruption and security with foreign officials.

The reporting mechanisms baked into many of these agreements also give diplomats new tools to hold governments accountable for their anti-corruption commitments and empower civil society to provide oversight. Another tool is the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral platform that convenes governments and citizens to strengthen transparency through dialogue, exchange and new technologies.

Some of the most important work ahead does not involve launching new efforts, but simply examining how our existing operations and foreign assistance may affect corruption around the world. We will be developing a “first do no harm” policy to ask, for example, how we can better prevent the diversion of resources and equipment we provide to foreign security forces. Efforts like the U.S. Security Governance Initiative, which partners with foreign militaries to strengthen their institutions of accountability, suggest ways we can adapt existing partnerships to fight corruption and promote security.

The Foreign Service’s Role

As the State Department looks to prioritize anti-corruption, our success will depend on the efforts of Foreign Service officers: political officers persuading foreign counterparts to strengthen accountability for graft, public affairs officers giving voice to citizen activists fighting for transparency and consular officers denying visas to known kleptocrats. FSOs remain some of our best resources in the fight against corruption.

As the voice of our government around the world, U.S. diplomats will be the ones to initiate the tough conversations about corruption and security with foreign officials. Their reporting will continue to strengthen documentation about corruption in the annual Human Rights Report and Investment Climate Statements, and help to identify “ripe” opportunities to advance reform. And in doing so, U.S. diplomats will not only strengthen governance and the rule of law for billions around the world, but also help make America safer and more secure.

Sarah Sewall is the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights. Sworn in on Feb. 20, 2014, she serves concurrently as the special coordinator for Tibetan issues.