Fighting Kleptocracy in an Era of Geopolitics

February 27, 2024 02:00 pm - March 27, 2024 03:00 pm


by Ariane GottliebIn February, the Forum published a new report by Ben Judah, and launched the paper at an online event featuring the author, Brett Carter (University of Southern California and Hoover Institution), Zoë Reiter (National Endowment for Democracy), and John K. Glenn (International Forum for Democratic Studies). The report analyzes how geopolitical considerations impact the international fight against kleptocracy and why the two issues are interconnected.As author Ben Judah explains, “democracies will not be successful in advancing either their geopolitical interests or combating kleptocracy unless they recognize that these challenges are deeply related. “The anti-kleptocracy agenda has been shaped by geopolitical concerns across three spheres of foreign policy: great power confrontation with Russia; the superpower challenge from China; and the competition for influence in the Global South.” Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, measures that anti-kleptocracy activists could previously only dream of were rolled out with unprecedented speed. Judah asserts that “for decades, Russia had weaponized kleptocracy against the West; and after the invasion, the anti-kleptocracy agenda was being used to push back in earnest against the Kremlin.” Oligarchs’ assets, status, and privileges—tools that might have fueled the Russian war machine and undermined Kyiv and its allies—have been immobilized and seized. Yet, such measures in isolation are not a panacea to Moscow’s aggression. “The wider geopolitical analysis we can draw from the deployment of the anti-kleptocracy agenda against Russia is that it is principally defensive. It can protect the West, but it is not transformative; it cannot break hardened great power autocratic regimes.” This is, in part, because Russia is not solely a kleptocracy, but a resourceful autocracy which exploits kleptocracy to undermine the democratic world.  Beijing similarly weaponizes kleptocracy to undermine democratic institutions. The CCP has a network of shell companies at its disposal that enable industrial espionage, specifically in the realm of intellectual property. Moreover, the PRC’s state-connected firms and financial institutions have been deployed to subvert democratic sanctions targeting Iran and North Korea. Yet, democracies have often failed to prioritize combating Beijing-backed kleptocracy adequately or understand how these kleptocratic tactics serve as a conduit for the CCP’s global influence. As Judah states, “downplaying kleptocracy grants China an advantage on the global stage by allowing it to operate under its own, preferred set of rules,” again highlighting the linkages between the counter-kleptocracy agenda and broader geopolitical competition with Beijing. Systemic political and economic governance failures in certain African countries further illustrate the necessity of mainstreaming counter-kleptocracy strategies into a broader geopolitical agenda. During the online report launch, Brett Carter explained the importance of asserting a strong “value proposition to Africa’s democracies,” amid the rise of opaque PRC investment in Africa. Liberal governments must step in to fill infrastructure and investment gaps, with terms of engagement that bolster transparency and benefit citizenries. As Carter argued, democracies have an obligation to “live up to their collective values,” rather than pursuing geopolitical agendas that ultimately prop up kleptocratic entities. The anti-kleptocracy community should develop a “geopolitics for anti-kleptocracy,” in which dismantling kleptocracy is a mainstay of democracies’ overarching geopolitical agenda. According to the NED’s Zoë Reiter, it will be crucial to bring together “intersecting threads” of anti-kleptocracy work by mobilizing a networked response to the challenge. Doing so will require leveraging the advantages of independent media and CSOs, scaling up investigative capacities, and pushing for transparency and accountability within global supply chains.As Ben Judah unequivocally states, “we must become much more assertive in rooting out corruption and standing up for democracy. There is no time to lose, and the tools we need to act are ready and waiting.”For more on this topic, read the Forum’s latest report, “Fighting Kleptocracy in an Era of Geopolitics” or tune into the launch event featuring remarks from Ben Judah, Brett Carter, and Zoë Reiter.