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Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Russian metals magnate Oleg Deripaska while visiting the RusVinyl plant in Kstovo, in Russia's Nizhny Novgorod region. 

Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, the world is once again polarized between two competing visions for how to organize society. On one side are countries such as the United States, which are founded on respect for the inviolable rights of the individual and governed by rule of law. On the other side are countries where state power is concentrated in the hands of a single person or clique, accountable only to itself and oiled by corruption.

Alarmingly, while Washington has grown ambivalent in recent years about the extent to which America should encourage the spread of democracy and human rights abroad, authoritarian regimes have become increasingly aggressive and creative in attempting to export their own values against the United States and its allies. Russian President Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian rulers have worked assiduously to weaponize corruption as an instrument of foreign policy, using money in opaque and illicit ways to gain influence over other countries, subvert the rule of law and otherwise remake foreign governments in their own kleptocratic image.

In this respect, the fight against corruption is more than a legal and moral issue; it has become a strategic one—and a battleground in a great power competition.

Yet corruption is not only one of the most potent weapons wielded by America’s authoritarian rivals, it is also, in many cases, what sustains these regimes in power and is their Achilles’ heel.

For figures such as Putin, the existence of America’s rule-of-law world is intrinsically threatening. Having enriched themselves on a staggering scale—exploiting positions of public trust for personal gain—they live in fear that the full extent of their thievery could be publicly exposed, and that the U.S. example might inspire their people to demand better.

Corrupt regimes also know that, even as they strive to undermine the rule of law around the world, they are simultaneously dependent on it to a remarkable degree. In contrast to the Cold War, when the Soviet bloc was sealed off from the global economy and sustained by its faith in communist ideology, today’s autocrats and their cronies cynically seek to spend and shelter their spoils in democratic nations, where they want to shop, buy real estate, get health care and send their children to school.

Ironically, one of the reasons 21st-century kleptocrats are so fixated on transferring their wealth to the United States and similar countries is because of the protections afforded by the rule of law. Having accumulated their fortunes illegally, they are cognizant that someone more connected to power could come along and rob them too, as long as their loot is stuck at home.

Fortunately, the United States has begun to take steps to harden its rule-of-law defenses and push back against foreign adversaries. The passage of the Global Magnitsky Act in 2016, for instance, provided a powerful new tool for targeting corruption worldwide that is being increasingly utilized. But there is more to do.

In particular, the United States should make it more difficult for kleptocrats, and their agents, to secretly move money through the rule-of-law world, whether by opening bank accounts, transferring funds or hiding assets behind shell corporations. Failure to close loopholes in these areas is an invitation to foreign interference in America’s democracy and a threat to national sovereignty.

Congress should tighten campaign-finance laws to improve transparency given that U.S. elections are clearly being targeted for manipulation by great-power competitors.

At the same time, the United States must become more aggressive and focused on identifying and rooting out corruption overseas. Just as the Treasury Department has developed sophisticated financial-intelligence capabilities in response to the threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, it is time to expand this effort to track, disrupt and expose the corrupt activities of authoritarian competitors and those aligned with them.

Hardening the nation’s rule-of-law defenses is not, of course, a substitute for traditional forms of U.S. power, including military strength and economic dynamism. But it can provide an additional set of tools to bolster national security.

In the intensifying worldwide struggle between the rule of law and corruption, the United States cannot afford neutrality. Complacency about graft and kleptocracy beyond U.S. borders risks complicity in it—with grave consequences both for the nation’s reputation abroad and Americans’ well-being at home.

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David Petraeus is a retired U.S. Army general and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, is a U.S. senator from Rhode Island. They wrote this for The Washington Post.

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