The Summit for Democracy: What’s Next?

America is engaged in a ‘clash of civilizations’ between rule-of-law nations and autocracy, kleptocracy, and criminality. Democracy is in retreat across the world, even here in America. These twin challenges are massive.

That’s why it was so important for President Biden to host the Summit for Democracy earlier this month. The event kicked off a year of action to strengthen our democratic institutions and the rule of law, and to map out a battle plan against our adversaries in this clash of civilizations. I’m thrilled an American president elevated the fight against kleptocracy and corruption as a critical national security imperative. It’s one of my top priorities in the Senate, and it’s clearly a top priority for Joe Biden as well.

Leading up to the Summit, I laid out what’s at stake in an op-ed for the Boston Globe. The FinCEN Files and Panama and Pandora Papers exposed how easy it is for kleptocrats and criminals to exploit our rule-of-law system to pillage their people, then hide ill-gotten gains behind anonymous trusts, shell corporations, and other shady financial schemes. We aid and abet our enemies when we allow this behavior.

How we respond to this threat will determine our national security, the success of the rule of law, and America’s standing in the world. We must lead a global effort among democracies to make it harder for kleptocrats and their middlemen to move dirty money through rule-of-law financial systems, and to clamp down on corruption and criminality wherever it hides.

Before the Summit, the President unveiled the first-ever United States Strategy on Countering Corruption. The Strategy organizes a whole-of-government approach to tackling corruption and kleptocracy, and one of the pillars of the plan is curbing illicit finance.

At the Summit, President Biden announced his Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal — the new linchpin of U.S. policy to fight kleptocracy and corruption. The $424 million plan asks a range of U.S. departments and agencies to prioritize intelligence and information sharing on corrupt actors and their networks. It redoubles effort to address kleptocracy across an array of multilateral institutions. And it aims to check authoritarianism globally through support for independent media and democratic reformers working hard to expose corruption. These are all important steps.

I was pleased to take part in a pair of official Summit events hosted by the House Democracy Partnership and the Hudson Institute. At both, I gave an update on Congress’s work to fight kleptocracy and corruption, including the groundbreaking law I passed last year to collect beneficial ownership information — identifying a company’s true owners, not the shady middle men they hide behind — to root out money laundering. The Treasury Department just announced a proposal to implement my bill, so we’ll start to see the benefits of the law soon.

But there’s lots more to do. On corruption, I’ve introduced a bipartisan bill to make it illegal for foreign officials to demand bribes from Americans and I’ve put forward legislation to help international partners address sophisticated money laundering schemes by drug traffickers. On money laundering, I plan to introduce the ENABLERS Act in the Senate to extend the due-diligence requirements applied in the banking sector to Americans who act as middlemen — like legal, PR, or accounting professionals — for kleptocrats and criminals seeking safe haven for their dirty money in our financial system.

To cap off the Summit, the Washington Post published an excellent editorial charting the path forward. The Post endorsed my ENABLERS proposal, cheered implementation of my beneficial ownership bill, and called for strong, concerted action by the U.S. and our partners to deliver on the Biden strategy. The editors put it well: “the strategy, if it succeeds, will do so because it not only holds kleptocrats abroad to account, and kleptocrats here to account, but also holds the rest of the United States to account for enabling the kleptocrats.” We have our work cut out for us.

We also need to recognize creeping threats to our own democracy. The January 6th attack on the Capitol is just one instance of anti-democratic forces trying to undermine our system of government; now we’re witnessing attempts to rig elections around the country. We need a thorough accounting of the forces behind these efforts. Congress must also protect voting rights and eliminate the scourge of dark money from our politics and our courts. Our democracy depends on it.

So the clock on the year of action starts now. Congress needs to adopt the President’s agenda, starting by passing my initiatives to fight corruption, money laundering, and other avenues for criminality and kleptocracy. Meanwhile, the Biden administration must align our democratic allies and civil society to hold bad actors to account.

The stakes are high. We’ve got to deliver on the Summit’s goals. But, for the first time, America has a battle plan for the clash of civilizations. I’m excited to get to work.

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U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, the Ocean State.

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Sheldon Whitehouse

Sheldon Whitehouse

U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, the Ocean State.

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