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In Defense of ‘Strategic Corruption’

By Joseph Pozsgai-Alvarez


Of recent conceptual innovations in the anti-corruption field, ‘strategic corruption’ is potentially the most challenging and disputed. First popularized in 2020, strategic corruption has been defined as ‘a country’s weaponization of corruption against other states in pursuit of national goals.’ While the increasing attention to the use of corruption as a foreign policy instrument may appear rather intuitive, how significant, distinctive, and original the concept is has sparked much debate.


Far from defending the use of strategic corruption, as the title may suggest, I am in fact defending the use of this concept as a meaningful new entry in the anti-corruption lexicon. In doing so, I also aim to address some of the criticisms levelled against it in recent opinion pieces.


International corruption: past and present

The first challenge to strategic corruption questions the assumption that it represents a new phenomenon, distinct from our traditional understanding of bureaucratic or political corruption. Certainly, the definition above implicitly assumes a key characteristic shared by most modern conceptualizations of corruption—the description of an activity, behavior, or action. From this perspective, the alleged and fairly recent bribes paid by Azerbaijan, Egypt, and Qatar to decision-makers in the West would not represent a significantly different phenomenon from the behavior of Western countries in the more distant past.

 

Yet, the fact that corruption had already been weaponized does not render the concept of strategic corruption ‘old news’. The refusal to accept strategic corruption as a recent ‘transformation of corruption into an instrument of national strategy’ only hits the mark because the mark misses the point. Indeed, the use of bribery in pursuit of national interests is not new. What is new is the adoption of a specific term meant to bring attention to the problem. The introduction of strategic corruption as an analytical concept is meaningful because it describes a type of interaction between sovereign states for which the anti-corruption community did not have a proper term.


The internal and external sources of corruption

Critics further note that strategic corruption unnecessarily transfers attention to the international dimension of the problem when, in reality, domestic corruption is where the problem lies. This position comes in two flavors.

 

First is the argument that targeted countries should continue working on strengthening their own institutions. Addressing the apparent difference between strategic and traditional corruption, Carl Dolan suggests that ‘neither variety can succeed without individual lapses in integrity among the decision-makers it targets.’ However, this overlooks the fact that a system’s stability is a function of both internal conditions and environmental pressures. The quality of national institutions is evidently important in supporting the integrity of internal actors and processes, but their capacity must be understood in relation to the challenges faced, thus requiring a full and honest identification of the sources of risk.

 

Second, a slightly different argument focuses on the pervasive levels of corruption already found within those countries engaged in strategic corruption. Frank Vogl’s comment on this is illustrative: ‘…all of today’s authoritarian regimes are led by people who steal from their people. And, therefore, the victims in the first instance of their misrule are their own citizens.’ Yet, the internal corruption of those regimes does not diminish the significance of the corruption they promote in other countries. Protecting human security requires addressing sources of corruption found at home, while protecting the security of the state as a sovereign actor requires addressing those influences coming from abroad. The bribery of Western officials by authoritarian countries should be considered just as reprehensible as the bribery of public officials in developing countries by Western corporations.


"Protecting human security requires addressing sources of corruption found at home, while protecting the security of the state as a sovereign actor requires addressing those influences coming from abroad."

Apples and oranges

Another common criticism of the concept of strategic corruption has been its framing within a contest between democratic and authoritarian countries. Indeed, the U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption Implementation Plan refers to the country’s ongoing activities to ‘address the strategic use of corruption by authoritarian states to undermine democracy and good governance.’ However, the American position appears empirically valid, as the use of corruption to advance political objectives tends to take place at home long before it is wielded abroad. The connections between kleptocratic regimes and strategic corruption arise not from a Western discourse bent on the protection of the international status quo, but on the recognition that political corruption at home and the corruption of public officials abroad represent two sides of the same coin.


Over the past three decades, liberal democracies have made great efforts to advance the anti-corruption agenda. They have made significant progress in making the control of corruption a global target, and continue to do so even as a number of authoritarian leaders cement their power at home and pursue the erosion of the rule of law in target societies. From this perspective, the difference between the way democratic and authoritarian regimes engage with the phenomenon of corruption could not be starker.


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Corrupting liberal institutions

The nature of the regime is not the only key difference in the way corruption is conceptualized across countries. There is also the nature of the act in question. Although the term ‘corruption’ is defined today as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain, historically it applied more broadly to the erosion of principles and the malfunctioning of institutions. Indeed, in thinking about the corrosive effect that foreign tactics have over our democratic systems of government, strategic corruption appears to be an apt label after all.

 

The necessary revision of the definition highlights another important difference between some of the uses of corrupt incentives to secure political favors. Let’s consider Egypt’s lobbying efforts in the U.S. to secure military aid and Azerbaijan's lobbying of the Council of Europe's MPs to silence criticism of human rights abuses.

 

In the case of Egyptian influence over American foreign affairs decisions, it is evident that its actions fit the current definition of strategic corruption. Yet, it is also clear that Egypt directly sought to benefit from keeping the U.S. as an active ally and that it would be going against its own interests to cause the decline of American power. In this sense, Egypt’s deployment of strategic corruption does not significantly deviate from traditional corruption merely by reason of taking place in the realm of foreign affairs, as its objective is not in manifest contradiction with American interests. Therefore, the new concept might not offer new insights into American anti-corruption needs.

 

The same cannot be said of the Azerbaijani bribery scandal, a case in which a key foundational principle of the Council of Europe—the development and strengthening of an international human rights framework—was directly attacked through corrupt inducements. Considering the ongoing concerns about the integrity of democratic institutions in a number of liberal democracies and the well-documented efforts by Russia, China, Iran and others, to erode them, it should not come as a surprise that the concept of strategic corruption would be distinguished from the usual practice of foreign lobbying. It is in this type of cases that the concept of strategic corruption highlights the pursued erosion of a regime’s capabilities. The resulting risks for the integrity of European institutions go above and beyond the scope of traditional corruption, calling our attention to their anti-corruption needs at the system level— rather than the individual or organizational.

 

This more insidious form of strategic corruption reveals a conceptual depth that cannot be fully appreciated by reference to the standard ‘weaponization of corruption in pursuit of national goals’. To the conceptual innovation defended earlier, we may then add the value of recognizing the true complexity of a phenomenon in its late stages of development.

 

Securing liberal institutions

Ultimately, with the integrity of the rule-based international order at stake, the securitization of anti-corruption might be unavoidable. Carl Dolan concludes that this ‘will distort policymakers’ understanding of what needs to be done and lead to futile or counterproductive new policy initiatives.’ Yet, there is no good reason to believe that the strengthening of national integrity frameworks could not fit human security priorities as well as national security considerations. I believe that the anti-corruption community has grown large enough and capable enough to handle both objectives at once.



 


Dr. Joseph Pozsgai-Alvarez is the Director of the International Undergraduate Degree Program in the School of Human Sciences of Osaka University. He is the founder of the Japan Network of Anti-Corruption Researchers (JANAR) and the editor of The Politics of Anti-Corruption Agencies in Latin America, published by Routledge in 2021. He served as Consultant in the Western Hemisphere Anti-Corruption Index (WHACI) project developed by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2021. He has also been hosting the Virtual Roundtable on Measuring Corruption series since 2022.

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