When countries are in acute difficulties and turn to the United States for support, then they do not expect to be publicly rebuked for corruption. Now, Vice President Joe Biden on a visit to Ukraine has done just this and it may signify a change in U.S. foreign policy approaches to dealing with kleptocratic regimes.
After declaring strong U.S. support for "united Ukraine," the Vice President in an April 22 address to the Ukraine parliament said, "To be very blunt about it, and this is a delicate thing to say to a group of leaders in their house of parliament, but you have to fight the cancer of corruption that is endemic in your system right now."
Biden then elaborated in a joint press conference with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk by stressing, "I'm of the view -- and it's presumptuous to ever tell another man what his country thinks -- but I'm of the view that Ukrainians east, west, north and south are just sick and tired of the corruption."
These were not spontaneous remarks by a man whose propensity for undiplomatic off-the-cuff comments is formidable. Administration officials confirm that considerable thought went into just how the Vice President would raise the corruption issue during his Kiev visit.
Biden's statements may indicate that gradual recognition of the ties between corruption and security are starting to gain some traction in senior level U.S. administration discussions.
To be sure, both Biden and President Obama have left little doubt over the years about their exasperation over the widespread graft in the Karzai administration in Afghanistan, yet there has never been evidence that this has influenced the tactical and strategic approaches that the U.S. has adopted in Afghanistan. Senior U.S. military officers have often told the U.S. Congress that a major impediment to stability in Afghanistan is the lack of good governance, but in national security discussions over immediate Afghan problems the corruption issue has been set aside as a longer-term matter. Incidentally, Afghanistan ranks in very last position alongside North Korea and Somalia in the Transparency International 2013 Corruption Perception Index covering 177 countries.
It is going too far to suggest that senior military, intelligence and foreign policy officials are now more willing to recognize that the total unreliability of kleptocratic governments will always undermine the U.S. geo-political security goals over time. But some officials, including those in the military, are starting to acknowledge that the close relationships, fueled by enormous U.S. taxpayer spending, between U.S. administrations over the years with highly corrupt governments in Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt and Afghanistan have at best had questionable results in term of security, while damaging the reputation of the U.S. in the eyes of the citizens of these countries.
As Biden was preparing to go to Kiev, his advisors were aware of both the staggering scale of corruption in the country that has left the nation bankrupt, as well as the serious efforts of people in civil society in Kiev to move as fast as possible to formulate new laws that may reduce corruption in the future. Many of those activists who played courageous roles in ousting the former regime, have been working together and with Prime Minister Yatsenyuk to formulate new laws and government regulations.
The U.S. Vice President saw his trip in part as serving to encourage the reformers. He underscored the point at his press conference by stating, "Mr. Prime Minister, Ukraine's new law on government procedure -- procurement I should say represents a first important step in dealing with this kleptocracy. The United States is ready to help Ukraine take further steps to build transparent institutions, to win back the trust of the people."
The Vice President was well aware that many of the people in his audience at the parliament were allegedly quite wealthy as a result of scams involving kickbacks for government contracts, illicit sales of government property, and, most common of all, schemes related to natural gas sales.
While the people of Ukraine have become accustomed and cynical about the scale of corruption in government and business, they have become increasingly angry about the impact on their own lives of these crimes. All manner of basic government services, including health and education, have both declined in quality and become rising sources of extortion by officials.
I met recently in Europe with several of the Kiev reformers and they argued that public support for major regime change had been building for quite some time in their country. They suggested that, like the people of Egypt and Tunisia and other countries where citizens have used protests to oust corrupt regimes, Ukrainians have become enormously frustrated and bitter about the harshness of their lives in contrast to the flamboyant wealth of the most powerful politicians and business people in their country.
It could be, of course, that the Biden comments were just a one-off event. I hope not. The world will continue to be a less safe place so long as kleptocrats run countries that can impact regional and global security and can believe that they have total impunity to steal as they wish without this impacting their White House relationships.