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How the Appearance of Conflicts of Interest in the White House will Strengthen Terrorists and Insurgents Globally
Andrew M. Kenealy
Much has been written about President-elect Donald Trump’s global business ties and their potential to harm U.S. national security. Mr. Trump’s far-reaching holdings will imbue his foreign policies with conflicts of interest that raise questions about his ability to make decisions in the public interest rather than in his own. This is why foreign payments to government officials are expressly banned by the U.S. Constitution.
But even if such a president were able to absolve himself of all of his international-specific conflicts in accordance with the Constitution, he still would jeopardize U.S. national security through the appearance of domestic conflicts of interest, nepotistic appointments, or rejections of transparency measures. Merely the appearance of such conflicts – even if there is no real underlying conflict – will undermine U.S. soft power on issues of corruption. This reduced influence, in turn, will hamstring U.S. counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism efforts around the world.
Soft power, a concept famously developed by Joseph Nye at the end of the Cold War, describes the ability of international actors to coopt and attract, rather than coerce, in order to shape the preferences of others. Soft power can help a nation generate the outcomes it wants because “other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it.” Professor Nye argued that the quality of a nation’s soft power is determined by three variables: “its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority.)”
Of course, coercive action, or hard power, is still essential in U.S. foreign policy today. American might is largely dependent on the ability of the U.S. military to effectively defend, deter, and when needed, to destroy. And throughout his campaign, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric principally focused on hard power, advocating for kinetic solutions to the national security risks posed by insurgencies and terrorists. But hard power alone is not enough to crush terrorists and insurgents. Soft power is needed too.
Insurgencies and terrorist groups gain momentum, in part, because the states in which they operate are weak, or are otherwise uninterested in destroying them. Opportunistic insurgents and terrorist groups like ISIS capitalize on states with feeble institutions and leaders with warped motives. Unsurprisingly, states that are politically unstable are statistically much more likely to experience destabilizing insurgencies and host transnational terrorist groups.
Hence, any serious attempt to stamp out insurgencies or address the root causes of terrorism will include strategies to strengthen the state as a whole. While state weakness has many causes, none is as pervasive as corruption. By corroding state institutions and hindering effective governance, corruption creates space for insurgents and terrorists to operate and advance their agendas. Accordingly, corruption is a significant national security risk, and mitigating it in conflict-zones is a stated U.S. national security objective.
Fighting corruption requires policies whose effectiveness primarily depends on the strength of U.S. soft power. International anti-corruption efforts draw upon a wide suite of tools, the most promising of which are open government initiatives. Open government initiatives seek to boost transparency, citizen engagement, and accountability to improve a wide range of outcomes, including reducing levels of corruption. Recent analysis suggests that open government initiatives are most likely to succeed if they benefit from a genuine commitment by public officials. Yet benevolent officials are not altogether necessary; their incentives can be altered. For this to work, the local people must buy in.
An important implication of this recent scholarship is that for organizations fighting corruption to effectively harness the power of open government, they must convince those affected to engage. They must credibly demonstrate both to public servants in foreign governments and foreign citizens the drastic risks of corruption as well as the sweeping benefits of mitigating it. In this sense, the anti-corruption establishment must also be its own advocate, attracting and co-opting foreign governments and foreign citizens to its cause, helping them want the same things that it wants. And the ability to attract and coopt, as Professor Nye stipulated, rests on soft power.
Mr. Trump and his administration must recognize that allowing even the appearance of conflicts to last into his tenure, as well as nepotistic behavior and rejections of transparency, will suggest that good governance is not the president-elect’s foremost goal. Rather, it implies that what Mr. Trump primarily seeks from the oval office is personal and familial gain. It presents the world with the impression of an American kleptocracy, however untrue. This perception undermines one of the key bases of U.S. soft power, which is so critical for U.S. anti-corruption efforts: living up to political values at home.
For the U.S. anti-corruption message and practice to attract international followers, and thereby reduce corruption, the United States must follow the example it espouses. Why should skeptical bureaucrats in warring nations believe that governance in the public interest is also in their own interest if the U.S. President himself doesn’t seem to agree? The scent of corruption in the White House – the locus of American power – will turn the arguments of the American businesses, NGOs, and government agencies that fight corruption around the world to hypocrisy.
Soft power is an expansive concept, and every one of Mr. Trump’s immature tweets stands to lessen U.S. credibility as the example of a moral force for good in the world, and in turn, its ability to co-opt others towards that end. But in a direct and intuitive manner, Mr. Trump’s decisions that appear to be in his own interest rather than those of the public will place the entire U.S. anti-corruption apparatus in a position of weakness.
If the U.S. international anti-corruption machinery is undermined by its president, it will not succeed. The odds are already against it. And when the United States fails to de-corrupt, it also fails to secure.