President Joe Biden gestures as he meets with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the White House Sept. 1.

Biden’s one big test for military support of a country

To justify the pullout from Afghanistan, the president cited high corruption in Kabul. How does that fit with U.S. backing of other countries striving for honest governance?

In an Aug. 31 speech justifying the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden cited corruption in the Afghan government and a need to stop the “era” of American military support “to remake other countries,” or nation building. Indeed, before the Taliban took over, Afghanistan was one of the world’s most corrupt countries, ranking 165 out of 183 in a global index.

Yet how honest must a country’s government be to gain U.S. military support, even an implied assurance of American defense? On Sept. 1, a day after his speech, Mr. Biden gave a clue.

At the White House, he hosted President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, a country that also ranks low on the corruption index, or 117 compared with Afghanistan’s 165 on Transparency International’s rankings. The president promised $60 million in new security assistance to Ukraine beyond the more than $400 million pledged this year. 

Why the different treatment for Ukraine? One reason is that defending the former Soviet state from Russian aggression fits a strategic U.S. interest of protecting Europe and the West’s democratic values. Yet a big reason is that Ukraine has seriously tackled its corrupt political culture since a democratic revolution seven years ago, improving its corruption ranking more than Afghanistan’s.

“There’s a recognition that Ukraine has already made tremendous progress on governance, rule of law, and anti-corruption reforms since 2014,” said a Biden administration official.

For countries either supported militarily by the U.S. or seeking support, one lesson from the withdrawal from Afghanistan is this: Honest governance pays off. If a country’s citizens don’t rally against corruption, the U.S. has a difficult time defending it.

In June, President Biden announced that the battle against corruption was a “core” U.S. interest in the world. One place that knows this well is Taiwan, an island nation increasingly under threat of a takeover by China.

Since becoming democratic more than three decades ago, it has tackled corruption by fits and starts but especially since the 2016 election of its first female president, Tsai Ing-wen. While corruption still exists in Taiwan, such as the sway of organized crime on influential families, the country ranks a high 28 on the global index, or close to the U.S. ranking and far better than China’s 78. Its clean governance was a big reason for its relative success against the COVID-19 pandemic.

As with Ukraine, Taiwan does not have a formal defense treaty with the U.S. But as a model of democracy in a Confucian culture – a counternarrative to communist-led China – it has wide bipartisan support in Washington. And in a July poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 52% of Americans support U.S. defense of Taiwan against a Chinese invasion – the highest support ever. That figure is up from 19% in 1982 when the question was first asked and Taiwan was a corrupt dictatorship.

Ukraine may soon join Taiwan in gaining strong U.S. support while Afghanistan has now lost support. The U.S. can do only so much in nudging a country toward clean governance. Integrity at home invites support of integrity from abroad.

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