Remarks by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC)
Good afternoon everyone. And on behalf of President Biden—I want to welcome you to Washington.
Yolaan, thank you so much for those opening words which I think really do effectively frame not only the task of this conference, but the task of this broader enterprise all of you are so deeply invested in.
I want to thank everyone gathered here, and especially leaders like Huguette, Delia, and Gary—for your commitment to combatting corruption over the years.
I’d also like to extend a special welcome to President Sandu, who has done remarkable work in Moldova to end the “rule of thieves” and push forward the rule of law—inspiring people everywhere. I think we all should give President Sandu a round of applause and a warm welcome for it.
And of course, thanks to all of you—those who have traveled here, those who are tuning into the conference virtually. This is an important moment.
I’m told that the first and last time this Summit was actually held in Washington, DC was in 1983.
That was the year of the first mobile phone. It was the year that the actual official “Internet” came on to the scene. It was the year the United States launched our second Space Shuttle into orbit. It was a year when we glimpsed, but did not fully grasp just how integrated our world was going to become.
Nearly four decades later—technology has taken us far and fast. Our people and our problems are more connected than ever. And the once bright line between domestic policy and foreign policy has grown dimmer and more blurred.
Today, we all depend on the same supply chains and feel the impact when a global pandemic brings them to a halt. We use the same cyberspace to share ideas and sell goods, and we face same the same threat of disinformation in that cyber space. We rely on the same energy and the same technology to power our everyday lives.
We not only face the same transnational problems—we feel their shared impact.
Simply put, the challenges that we are facing—whether you’re in government, in the private sector, in civil society, just in your community—are more integrated than ever before. And so our response has to be more integrated than ever before.
That has been the hallmark of President Biden’s approach to national security.
Under his leadership, a few weeks ago we released the National Security Strategy of the United States. It recognizes the fundamental reality of our time: that we face two fundamental strategic challenges at the same time.
One is the return of geopolitics. The other is the sheer scale and speed of transnational challenges that do not respect borders or adhere to ideologies. These two strategic challenges actually work across purposes with one another.
Geopolitical competition can make working together in common cause to solve the problems of our time more difficult. And these accelerating, multiplying, reinforcing problems can create greater instability that only further enhances and exacerbates geopolitical competition.
And yet we have to face this strategic context squarely as we try to deal with those threats that are undermining our security, our prosperity, and our democratic institutions.
And at the top of that list—squarely at the top of that list—is corruption.
It’s an issue that touches every aspect of our lives. It’s a health and human rights issue. It’s an education issue. It’s a governance issue. It’s a security issue. It’s an issue that crosses our borders, hollows our economies, threatens our security—empowering those who use crime to destabilize democracy and entrench autocracy.
The vastness of this challenge perfectly exemplifies the urgency that President Biden’s National Security Strategy places on integrating our work in domestic policy and foreign policy.
And in a few moments, I’m going to talk—at a conference on international corruption—about some pretty specific domestic policy reforms that United States has undertaken.
For our part at the National Security Council at the White House, we have quite literally built into the organizational structure of the NSC, and elevated focus on those issues that spill out of the traditional silos—supply chains, the energy transition, tax policy, ransomware, and yes, corruption.
Corruption hides in laws and loopholes, it’s perpetrated by both leaders and locals. It takes place in board rooms and in court rooms, and all too often leverages licit institutions for illicit gain. It relies on silent accomplices, opportunistic enablers. And unfortunately, as many of you know so well from your experience, it’s able to cross our borders with ease—cloaking itself in both criminal networks and legal shell companies.
President Biden in the past has called corruption “a cancer within the body of societies.” And it’s been the focus of his work across his decades of public service—in both domestic and foreign policy. In all its perverse forms. From the corruption and violence that corroded the communities of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, to the conflicts of interest and dark money that persist in the shadows of advanced democracies—even our own.
Shortly after taking office, President Biden issued a presidential policy directive that established combating corruption as a core national security interest and democratic responsibility.
He committed to driving this priority at his Administration’s first Summit for Democracy—trying to help lead efforts internationally to bring transparency to the global financial system and to hold accountable corrupt individuals in countries around the world.
Exactly one year ago today, we released the first United States Strategy on Countering Corruption, and in the intervening months we have driven a comprehensive, coordinated global effort behind it. We have tried to go law by law, loophole by loophole, launderer by launderer to make it happen. Because when we look across the world—we see not only corruption’s corrosive impact. We see the ways that the fight for accountability can actually motivate real, positive change—from Kyiv to Kuala Lumpur, from Lusaka to Bratislava.
So I today want to talk to you about two main ways that we’re transforming this plan into progress.
I could describe these two main ways in kind of fancy words, or technical jargon. But it really comes down to: helping the good guys, and going after the bad guys. And I want to talk about each of these two important lines of effort.
First—helping the good guys. And I mean that in a gender-neutral way—guys, generically. The good people. Helping the good people going after the bad people.
That starts with lifting up the leaders who themselves are tackling corruption. By leaders, I don’t just mean political leaders. I mean leaders in the true sense. People who are leading on this issue—and many of them are here in this room or watching virtually. Journalists, like Yolaan, who are risking their careers—even in some cases their lives—to uncover government graft. Activists—many in this room today—giving their all to push for transparency. And yes, remarkable political leaders too who are putting everything on the line to rid their countries of corruption—from bribes, to buyoffs, to embezzlement.
So the United States—working with many other countries and with civil society—we are doubling down on funding to protect and train investigative journalists around the world, and we’re asking our partners to join us in the effort.
We’re supporting the creation of a new fund to help provide journalists with defense counsel, so they don’t have to worry as much about the threats of litigation designed to discourage them from doing their jobs.
Around this time last year, President Biden opened that first Summit for Democracy with the words, “All around the world, democracy needs champions.”
The fight against corruption, as part of that fight for democracy, needs champions too.
So to lift up these champions, we launched the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal. It’s a nearly half-a-billion-dollar initiative that will help empower democratic reformers, change-agents, and whistleblowers to combat corruption in all of its forms.
And critically, we’re standing with courageous leaders around the world. Some of them here today—including President Sandu.
In 2020—after decades of entrenched corruption and rule under the thumb of pro-Kremlin oligarchs—the people of Moldova spoke up for change.
They spoke up for a European future. For reforming the judiciary and raising living standards. For dismantling state capture by corrupt elites.
We have been proud to be President Sandu’s partner in creating a modern judicial case management system that will fairly and effectively uphold the rule of law.
President Sandu is demonstrating a rare combination of political will and personal courage.
And she isn’t alone.
In Zambia, for example, the President is leading what he has called a “New Dawn”—including reforms that protect press, promote accountability, and reject corruption and crime.
These leaders—and others around the world—are breathing new life into the old adage, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
But of course, if we want to bring about lasting change, we have to level the playing field and raise the costs of corruption—and this brings me to the second line of effort: going after the bad guys. The bad people.
Because it’s not just good enough to help our friends. We’ve got to make it harder for those who want to use corruption as a tool to weaken and corrode the societies and democracies that we’re seeking to support and help thrive.
We have to ensure that our systems serve as a check, rather than an accomplice, to corrupt behavior.
And for us in the United States, that means taking steps to make it harder to exploit the U.S. financial system to advance corruption globally.
Many of you well understand that for decades, corrupt actors have looked to the US financial system—the tools, the rules, the loopholes—to try to move money, to move ill-gotten gains to further their corrupt endeavors—using layers of shell companies to obscure, launder, and legitimize those ill-gotten gains.
We’re not talking about corporate entities that contribute to our economy. Shell companies can have legitimate purposes, but they are also a favored way for criminals of all stripes—from kleptocrats to arms dealers—to hide their identity as they move assets through our financial system.
So, early last year, with thanks to leadership from those inside our Administration and across this room, the U.S. Congress passed a landmark bipartisan law—the Corporate Transparency Act—that requires companies incorporated in the United States to disclose information about their true owners.
It was a huge step. And the most significant update to our anti-money laundering architecture in decades.
Two months ago, yeah I think we should—I think it is worth pausing and in giving some applause for this, you’re applauding also the work of a lot of people who put blood, sweat, and tears into making that major advance on behalf of anti-corruption efforts through the passage of this important law.
And just two months ago, the Treasury Department issued the first regulation to implement this law. And the final reporting rule—which goes into effect a year from now—will maximize our opportunities to track down corrupt actors, while minimizing the burden on small business and other reporting companies.
But we’re not going to stop there.
As the world’s largest economy, an engine of global innovation and progress—we bear particular responsibility to identify and address our own regulatory vulnerabilities.
So last December, the Treasury Department launched a regulatory process to tighten the ability of illicit actors to launder dirty money through our real estate sector.
We will also continue to work with Congress on further measures to enhance transparency and accountability. The Biden Administration fully supports the bipartisan Establishing New Authorities for Business Laundering and Enabling Risks to Security Act. That’s a mouthful—many of you know it better as the “ENABLERS” Act.
As its name suggests, the ENABLERS Act would level the playing field by imposing anti-money laundering requirements on accountants, lawyers, and investment advisors.
It makes good business sense. It makes good sense for our security. It makes common sense—and we encourage Congress to enact it into law as soon as possible, and we will work with you to get that done.
We aren’t going at this alone.
Taking on the corrupt actors around the world is something that each of us has to do, you know, in our systems. But also something we need to rally our partners to do through collective action as well.
So we’re increasing our collaboration with other countries toward this end.
We’ve trained thousands of criminal justice officials to better prosecute corruption cases. We’ve worked with courts around the world to improve efficiency and effectiveness. We’re supporting our G7 partners as they advance their own beneficial ownership reporting regimes and anti-corruption regulations.
And—in turn—the G7 is coming together to collaborate with a range of partners to curb transnational corruption, including by supporting our African partners in setting up 15 additional registers that will help keep track of who really owns and controls shell companies and other legal entities.
But, just as it’s not only about helping lift up the good guys, it’s taking after the bad guys. It’s not only about playing defense against the movement of money, it’s about going on offense too.
In the wake of President Putin’s brutal aggression against Ukraine, we teamed up with our G7 partners to exclude him and his accomplices from the global financial system.
And in coordination with our Allies and partners we established the Russian Elites, Proxies, and Oligarchs Task Force, or “REPO,” to go after their ill-gotten gains and make sure they’re not benefitting off the suffering of the Ukrainian people.
So far, the REPO Task Force has frozen more than $30 billion worth of assets— that’s billion with a “b”—from super yachts to skyrise apartments.
All the while, we’re using the full range of our toolkit—including criminal prosecutions, civil forfeitures, sanctions—to send a clear message to corrupt actors everywhere: steal from your people at your own peril.
And in the months and years ahead, we’re going to supercharge our agenda—bringing the fight directly to criminals, cronies, and kleptocrats wherever they seek to hide.
To help lead these efforts, we’ve established a Global Coordinator for Anti-Corruption at the State Department—alongside task forces at USAID and the Departments of Treasury, Commerce, and Justice—to integrate and elevate counter-corruption efforts across all of our agencies.
We’re also making the fight against corruption a cornerstone in all of our strategic engagement in every critical region of the world. To take an example, along with a number of economies in the Indo-Pacific, we launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework—which includes more than a dozen regional partners representing 40% of global GDP—and the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity. And in both of these efforts—anti-corruption efforts, efforts to reinforce the rule of law, to put in place the kinds of measures I’ve just been describing—are front and center as part of the overall architecture for international economic engagement that the Biden Administration is pursuing and will continue to work in tandem with our partners to pursue.
And finally, we’re prioritizing combatting corruption in all of our multilateral engagements.
Next year we’ll host the 10th Conference of State Parties to the UN Convention Against Corruption, bringing together experts from around the world in pursuit of a common vision. And we will again make corruption a pillar of the second Summit for Democracy, which President Biden will co-host in March with Costa Rica, the Netherlands, the Republic of Korea, and Zambia.
Let me close with this final point:
We’ve got to be in this fight for the long haul.
Whether we’re lifting up the leaders fighting corruption, or isolating the actors perpetrating it—we’re not going to let up. We can’t let up. We got to keep going for as long as it takes.
We know that meaningful change often comes slowly. More slowly than any of us would like. We know it doesn’t emerge out of a vacuum.
It comes from countless hours of activism and advocacy. It comes from tireless research, reporting, reforms—sometimes incremental, sometimes sweeping. It comes from brave witnesses and courageous whistleblowers who put everything on the line. And it comes from the service and sacrifice of people across this room who have dedicated their lives to uncovering truths and exposing lies.
As I said, change can come slowly. It can come too slowly for any of our satisfaction. But it comes. It comes because of your work.
So we promise to stand with you. And together, we will make significant, genuine, real, tangible, recognizable progress on this massive problem. And we will do it together. And we will do it in support of the efforts that all of you have devoted your lives to. And I thank you for the opportunity to address you today.