World alert to corruption

Retired Gen. Olesgun Obasanjo, newly elected president of Nigeria, has vowed to stamp out corruption. In Russia, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has threatened to empty the jails to make room for economic criminals. President Jiang Zemin of China has endorsed new laws to end corruption in the military. The International Olympic Committee struggles to bring honor to its processes of choosing sites for the games.

Whatever the venue or sincerity of the efforts, leaders, whether in politics, economics, religion, or sports, are responding to broad popular resentment at the spread of favoritism and greed.

Eliminating the temptation of those in power to bend a system to benefit themselves, their families, and their cronies will never be easy or total. Even leaders desiring to be honest face pressures from friends and followers who expect rewards - traditional in many societies - for their support.

Charges of corruption are not necessarily true. Such charges have become part of the rhetoric of political opponents, many of whom, once in office, will yield easily to the same pressures. But massive corruption in a society is not hard to detect. Rights of access and investment are carefully controlled by the leadership. Even minor officials seek side payments for their services. Opulent life styles set the ruling elite apart from a much poorer population.

No society or country is exempt. US history is replete with examples at every level of government and in educational, corporate, and religious institutions. During the cold war, Washington ignored rampant corruption in anticommunist allies such as the Philippines and Zaire. Even then, many in the public and Congress were concerned that such corruption not only threatened to undermine friendly regimes but diverted resources essential for development to foreign properties and distant bank accounts.

Last year's Asian financial crisis brought home dramatically how corruption severely weakened supposedly stable regimes. An internal report of the World Bank was sharply critical of bank officials who overlooked corruption and failed to anticipate the collapse in Indonesia.

Not only officials who profit from their positions are at fault. Foreigners seeking contracts, investment opportunities, or votes have been willing to respond to demands for payments or favors. Despite concerns over such practices, Washington for many years was reluctant to restrict what US firms did, lest they be put at a competitive disadvantage abroad; Japanese and European businesses and governments have traditionally been less concerned. Nevertheless, under congressional pressure, the US in 1977 adopted the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibiting American companies from paying bribes or providing special favors for business advantage.

Since then, the US has lobbied to internationalize the corrupt practices legislation to put American companies on a level playing field. Finally, in December 1997, under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions was agreed to by the US and 32 other nations. The Senate ratified the convention last July.

The OECD agreement is a major step forward, but it is not likely to eliminate completely the complicity of foreign firms in corruption abroad. French companies are still allowed to write off certain kinds of bribes as tax-deductible business expenses.

The US is often accused of being excessively moralistic in its approach to foreign affairs. The Corrupt Practices Act has been cited as one example.

But the end of the cold war, the Asian financial collapse, and the current obvious struggles of leaders to save their countries from the ravages of corruption suggest that the US leadership in this effort is not so much moral as it is a practical recognition that favoritism and greed are genuine threats to a stable world.

* David D. Newsom, a former US ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.

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