Last Thursday, 29 nations agreed to outlaw the bribery of foreign officials. This is the most important anti-corruption initiative yet that is directed at the supply side of corruption, said Fritz Heiman, counselor to the General Electric Company. These nations, all part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), agreed to set guidelines for what is acceptable and not acceptable in bribing foreign officials to receive government contracts.
This treaty comes as rather a surprise in two ways. The negotiators were happy and surprised that members finally agreed on the treaty, since Germany, Austria and Finland had resisted accepting laws that went beyond their own domestic policy. To most of us unacquainted with international business, it is a surprise because bribery was assumed to be "bad" throughout the world. Certainly, it was unexpected that some countries still allow bribes to foreign officials to be written off as tax-deductible business expenses.
Of course bribery exists, and Republicans are hard at work following the trail of money that went into the presidential campaign coffers. But not only is it illegal, it is frowned upon. Even if Republicans are not able to find anything particularly revealing in their investigations, they are hoping to tarnish the image of the Democratic party before the next elections.
At this meeting in Paris, American officials wanted to make bribery illegal and increase the punishments when an individual or corporation was caught. However, the treaty falls somewhat short of that goal, simply delineating what is considered to be a crime and recommending possible punishments.
But on what moral ground can the United States spearhead the movement to end bribery in international business? American officials wanted this treaty to be modeled on the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. However, even though many companies were charged with violating the act, no executive was ever convicted. If the U.S. cannot enforce its own law (which contains built-in punishments) it is less clear how effective this new international measure will be without any force behind it.
Even less clear is how the U.S. expects to be perceived by the outside world. Although Americans tried to push the treaty to cover money given to political parties as well, others pointed out that the distinction between legitimate donations and bribes is less clear. The U.S. itself is having trouble drawing the distinction, not only at the White House, but also within Congressional elections. Donations from lobbying groups tend to be suspect, because the whole reason for the existence of lobbying groups is to influence legislation.
The U.S. cannot even distribute its own budget equitably. Even in the wake of a new, more streamlined government, pork barrel politics still play a role in the Senate and House where recently Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and other members of Congress pushed forward lucrative defense contracts that just happened to be located within their home state. Pork-barrel politics is not considered tarnishing here. But it is not that different from bribing local voters to re-elect certain representatives.
This treaty is wonderful in that countries with international business interests have finally realized that it is time to set guidelines for ethics and fair business dealings. But for those of us surprised that there was need for such a discussion or disappointed that there were no teeth to the legislation, let's not get haughty: we can't even seem to keep our own country on high moral ground.
Tanya Dutta's column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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