Interview: Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld on US foreign policy, corruption, and rule of law

Interview: Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld on US foreign policy, corruption, and rule of law
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Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Founding CEO of the Truman National Security Project, sat down with GRI to discuss US foreign policy, corruption, and rule of law. 

GRI: Some key U.S. allies have regressed politically during the Obama Administration. As President Obama prepares to leave office, what do you think the next President will do to chart the path forward for the next Administration (GOP or Democratic) for dealing with these allies? Is the idea of democracy losing steam?   

Dr. Kleinfeld: The issue of democracy of overseas is not a partisan issue right now. It’s not a breakdown between Republicans and Democrats. It is a split between isolationists and internationalists. The current front runners on the Republican side tend to be more isolationist. But even Dick Cheney and other Republican Senators such as John McCain and (former Senator) Jon Kyl have voiced concerns against this trend of isolationism.

On the Democratic side, Secretary Clinton made her foreign policy views clear as Secretary of State. She understands and would likely increase democracy assistance to civil society. She would probably continue President Obama’s push for opening the space and push against all the countries that are making it difficult for citizens to organize. Egypt and even India are reducing the space for civil sociey. This is becoming common all over the world with governments that find real engagement with their people problematic.

The U.S. has always had a schizophrenic policy.  We support democracy with one hand – and a small assistance budget – while spending far more and doing far more militarily with less savory countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain.  The policy is not just morally questionable, but it is equally questionable from a national security standpoint.  


The security establishment has the upper hand, and they tend to identify security and stability in a very narrow fashion. We know terrorism arises from autocracies, and the Saudi export of terror is equally well known.  Meanwhile, these countries that appear stable are not, because of their repressive nature and illegitimate standing. What we see over and over in these countries is that our so-called allies end up spurring insurgencies, which we need to help them fight. To me, that’s not real security. Until we question our basic security logic, we’re not going to see a change. The U.S. is, in some ways, like Pakistan. The Pakistani security establishment funded terrorism to act against India, which it saw as its biggest security threat. But it is those terrorists who have actually caused the greatest security problems for Pakistan. In the same way, we rest our security in the very countries that are making us less secure.

The idea of democracy is not losing steam – people want to be free.  Just look at the long lines to vote in Burma. They want democracy. They also want a government that works and is equitable. New democracies that are governed in non-inclusive ways, which benefit a small elite group – that’s the real problem. People don’t want to choose between freedom and justice.

But the issue isn’t just in developing countries.  Democracy is losing its sheen in the US and EU as well.  We are seeing demagoguery, the rise of reactionary parties. Sclerosis. And elite capture, where our laws are increasingly made by a wealthy elite. Americans feel that they know they aren’t really being represented. And the failures of democracy at home are felt in how people see democracy abroad.

GRI: Corruption threatens U.S. foreign policy interests especially along sensitive geopolitical fault lines. In Ukraine, the U.S. has played a delicate hand in shoring up the new government. Anti-corruption programs remain a central part of USAID and the State Dept’s mission. What can we expect in going forward?

Dr. Kleinfeld: All countries have some corruption, the United States included. For some countries, it’s quite serious. First, we need to have an understanding of where corruption has become a serious problem. Second, USAID’s anti-corruption program budget line has to become more strategic. Smart sanctions, visa denial (whether an oligarch’s children can go to Harvard) can be elevated to a level of state craft.

Sanctions can be targeted against the real problem people in a country, not the general population.  These tools can also be used to fight corruption. Rather than punish a whole country as it’s trying to grow, we can seize assets for organized criminal or corrupt activity. These decisions should be moved from mid-level bureaucrats in the Dept. of Justice up to a high level office with the State Department. We can identify countries that are teetering because of illegitimacy and use the U.S. financial system to help those who want a more legitimate government.

This involves working with our allies. The United Kingdom is taking corruption very seriously. Prime Minister David Cameron is sponsoring a conference next summer.

FINCEN is the international organization that focuses on corruption. The U.S. should do more to work with them but we have to be careful. Sometimes their rules can be misapplied and this, in turn, could cut off foreign funding for the very same civil society groups that are striving to gain accountability and human rights.

Finally, the WTO has rules on procurement that, if applied universally, would serve to reduce corruption in trading countries. Who are foreign governments buying their roads and construction equipment from? These rules are in place to reduce this type of crony capitalism and level the playing field. The U.S. should work to enforce these types of procurement rules.

GRI: Borders are another key component in international rule of law. In the last few years it appears that the sanctity of modern political borders is going out the window. What can be done to reestablish the norm of international borders that have more or less existed since WWII? The issue of refugees and the EU also comes to mind under the topic of border security.

Dr. Kleinfeld: Borders are very interesting right now. In the right conditions they are meant to be permeable just like a cell membrane – to keep some people in, and others out.  In some ways borders are the worst of our world. With all the security precautions we take with refugees, we’re making it very difficult for refugees to come into the U.S.

We make it very hard for international students to come into the U.S., despite all the research that shows they are likely to go back home and democratize their own countries, promote stability, and power sharing. Meanwhile we make it quite easy for terrorists to get into countries. Anyone in a visa-waiver program in the EU can get into the U.S. and we know many Europeans are going to fight in Syria and come back radicalized.

In a lot of ways, borders today are doing everything wrong and very little right. In Iraq, look at how the borders from the Sykes–Picot Agreement are disincentivizing Kurds and Sunnis from fighting ISIS. They are fighting them to some extent but there would be a much greater effort if Kurds were fighting for Kurdistan and Sunnis were fighting for something autonomous and not just to be swept back into a Shia state. It’s not so much a question of whether or not borders exist but whether they are working in the ways that keep people safe, enrich our countries, and keep the right people in and violent people out.

The Schengen Agreement was a beautiful experiment. But Schengen always had a fatal flaw: there can’t have a common agreement on borders without a common policing policy. It can’t be just Greece or Italy’s problem to deal with the refugee crisis.

The demagoguery in Europe and the U.S. is linked to economic issues. When wages are stagnating for as long as they have, along with unemployment folks look for easy answers on why their lives are not getting better. The far-right is providing those answers. Germany’s austerity measures being pushed across the EU have been counter-productive. When people feel their democracies don’t represent them, they start conspiracy theorizing and this contributes to the rise of these parties.

The rule of law is about constraining power. It is meant to prevent those with the power of violence or the power of money or the power of status from getting more power, money and status than anyone else. You don’t get to a rule of law country by imposing more laws; you get a rule of law country by sharing power amongst people.

Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld served as the Founding CEO and President of the Truman National Security Project. Named one of the top 40 under 40 Political Leaders by Time Magazine, Rachel appears regularly in the national media. Rachel now serves as a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she works on deepening the rule of law in other countries.  She has consulted for the World Bank, the EU, OECD, and multiple government agencies and private organizations on building the rule of law in weak states.

Categories: International, Politics

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is the GRI Guest Post Editor and a Senior Analyst. He has supported several US government-funded international development programs in the Middle East and Africa throughout his professional career. He has also been a guest lecturer at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIS. Christopher holds a master’s degree in Public and International Affairs from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) at the University of Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter @Solomon_Chris.