Nationalism and corruption
By Scott Sumner
There’s been a great deal of focus on the Trump administration’s attempt to pressure Ukraine into investigating Hunter Biden. As an aside, I don’t believe Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate Biden, I suspect he pressured Ukraine to announce that they planned to investigate Biden, which is a very different proposition (and far worse).
Elsewhere, the administration has backed away from a longstanding US policy of discouraging corruption in Eastern Europe:
America’s effort to combat graft in central and eastern Europe is now in trouble. The Trump administration has given it only intermittent support. Meanwhile, the impeachment investigation is highlighting behaviour in America that resembles the practices it condemns elsewhere. The damage is “incalculable”, says a senior State Department diplomat (and life-long Republican). “It will take decades to rebuild our credibility. What other countries are seeing in this White House is everything we’ve preached against.”
This is a pity. Anti-corruption activists in former communist countries have relied on American support ever since the end of the cold war. American aid has backed independent investigative media, trained judges and prosecutors and helped set up transparent registers for government procurement. The State Department budget for Europe and Eurasia ($615m last year) is a lifeline for civil-society organisations. In Ukraine, Romania and Moldova, America has supported reformist politicians when they came under attack from oligarchs. In Poland and Hungary it has backed independent judges when ruling parties tried to subvert the courts.
I suspect that the Trump administration is losing interest in fighting corruption because it means pressuring regimes that share Trump’s nationalistic outlook:
America’s emphasis on fighting corruption began to waver in 2017, when A. Wess Mitchell took over responsibility for State Department policy in eastern Europe. He believed America’s sharp criticism of corruption was hurting it diplomatically, pushing countries like Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria closer to Russia. Mr Mitchell resigned early this year. But while many ambassadors still pursue anti-corruption policies, they can no longer be sure the White House is behind them.
Populist governments in Eastern Europe often have a high level of corruption, which helps to explain why Eastern Europe is poorer than Western Europe. These governments tend to play the nationalism card when the European Union puts pressure on them to conform to EU standards of transparency, accountability, the rule of law, etc. The Trump administration seems more sympathetic to authoritarian leaders like Victor Orban than to abstract principles such as clean government.