Corruption Might Not Threaten Global Security
A review of Thieves of State: How Corruption Threatens Global Security by Sarah Chayes (Norton, 2015).
Three old ladies are talking in a developing country one day, bragging about their children, and how much money they’re going to make. The first says: “My son is going to be an entrepreneur!”
The second says: “My daughter is going to be a doctor!”
The third grins, and says: “My son is going to join the police, and run a checkpoint!”
The other two old ladies nod grimly. Her son is going to be rich, because their children are going to be the ones paying him. The punch line is that corruption is rumored to be incredibly lucrative in much of the world. The essence of the problem, as Machiavelli once put it, is that “the unarmed rich man is the prize of a poor soldier.”
In Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, Sarah Chayes argues that such seemingly petty abuses of power are more dangerous than we’ve yet realized. As she puts it, “acute government corruption may in fact lie at the root of some of the world’s most dangerous and disruptive security challenges.” Chayes makes a sweeping argument that corruption is a key driver of political instability across time and space, from the Protestant Reformation to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
That argument is already proving influential. The book was blurbed by retired Admiral Michael Mullen, Francis Fukuyama and Annie-Marie Slaughter. War on the Rocks gave it a laudatory review, and in Foreign Policy, and Maria J. Stephan and Shaazka Beyerle have used it to make the case that we can “stop extremism before it starts” by using “people power” to check corruption around the world. Louise I. Shelley, in the recent Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime and Terrorism, cites Chayes as the foundation of her case that corruption leads to extremist revolution. A new foreign policy orthodoxy is in the offing.
Unfortunately, its intellectual foundations are weak. Chayes readily admits that her book is only “a closer examination of a few emblematic countries” carefully selected to make her “intuitive” case, not a systematic evaluation the importance of corruption relative to other factors in driving insecurity and instability. Before we start putting the anti-corruption fight first, as Chayes famously advocated in Afghanistan, we must carefully consider the possibility that Chayes’ argument is wrong, and that corruption doesn’t threaten global security. As it stands, the available evidence is simply inconclusive.
Chayes explanation of how corruption “lies at the root of some of the world’s most dangerous and disruptive security challenges” is often implicit in her riveting narrative, and so it is best addressed by discussing her key case study: Afghanistan. Chayes’ novel theoretical insight, inspired by retired Army Colonel Chris Kolenda’s analysis of the Afghan government, is that the corrupt governments that are most likely to drive populations to revolt are what she calls “vertically integrated kleptocratic networks” (Kolenda never used that phrase). These are governments where everyone is on the take. Low-level officials “purchase” their positions from the senior government leaders and political figures. They then demand bribes from the people for access to government services and pass regular kickbacks to the leaders who allow them the privilege of participating in the system. They also steal whatever they can get away with, protected by their superiors. Money moves up the chain. The policeman taking bribes at the checkpoint gets rich, and the man in charge of managing a dozen checkpoints gets even richer, because he’s the one who is letting the policeman take bribes in the first place.
The idea that corruption often extends throughout governments through the “purchase” of positions is not new. What is new—and where Chayes disagrees with many other commentators on corruption—is her idea that these corrupt governments are capable of being efficient. In fact, corrupt networks are probably not very efficient. Corruption is illegal by definition, and can only thrive when corrupt activities remain a secret. This creates endless problems for would-be kleptocrats. As Susan Rose-Ackerman has argued for decades, the need for secrecy in corrupt and criminal networks increases supply costs and makes communicating prices difficult. Moreover, there will always be some officials in any government who simply cannot engage in corrupt behavior, either because they don’t know how or they refuse to. The broader problem, as Johann Graf Lamsdorff argues, is that the most important fact shaping corrupt behavior is the inability of corrupt actors to commit to honesty.
Many economists, then, would say that Chayes’ claim that an illegal conspiracy can be “vertically integrated” is implausible. A firm is vertically integrated when it owns all of the elements of the supply chain that supports its production. However, when government positions are bought and sold with illegal bribes, no reliable, legal ownership is transferred. Simply put, no one can have that much control over a secret or semi-secret system.
Chayes mounts important anecdotal challenges to the idea that corrupt actors cannot behave efficiently. She describes Kazakh villagers knowing the prices of police positions so well they pool their money in order to get their own sons into the police force, and the remarkable ability of the Afghan government kleptocracy to swiftly counter American threats to even its most lowly members. She has a gift for languages and lived in the middle of fabulously corrupt Afghanistan for years, and so she knows of what she speaks. However, given the shadowy nature of their topic, neither the economists nor Chayes has a strong empirical case for their argument. As Chayes rightly notes, we have much more to study.
Another area worthy of careful further consideration is how corruption functions as a popular grievance. Put another way: Do people really launch revolutions because of abuses at checkpoints? Chayes repeatedly suggests that a great part of the problem is that corrupt governments are “abusive” in their day-to-day treatment of the population, and her anecdotes about the Afghan government’s transgressions, particularly at checkpoints, are appalling. However, the relationship between kleptocracy, extorting the public and public grievances against governments is far more complicated than Chayes suggests. Mike Martin, in An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, provides an alternative account of Afghan corruption as it functioned in Helmand, a province in southern Afghanistan, based on extensive interviews with Afghans. Martin contends that the three main revenue streams for what Chayes calls the kleptocracy there were profits from the drug trade, stolen development money and licit contracts to supply the International Security Assistance Forces. Little or no profit is squeezed from the people. In Martin’s diagram of Afghan corruption (p. 215 of his book), the people never appear, whereas in Chayes’ (p. 213 of hers), they are the downtrodden bottom of the system.
The available data suggest that Martin’s diagram is more accurate, and that extorting the population through petty bribery is not terribly effective or integral to the system. A wide variety of surveys, including those by Integrity Watch Afghanistan, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, and the ISAF-sponsored Human Terrain System, have all found that only about a quarter of Afghans pay bribes in any given year (I summarize these surveys, some of which are unpublished, in a previous Small Wars Journal paper on Afghan corruption). The overwhelming majority of Afghans live in grinding poverty, and there is very little that the kleptocracy can hope to steal from them. It should be unsurprising that they focus almost all of their efforts on more lucrative targets, especially given the risks Chayes identifies.
Obviously, the Afghan people still have many good reasons to be angry if Martin’s model is right and corrupt officials are stealing resources that rightly should be used to help them while ignoring their responsibility to govern. Chayes’ more significant claim is that unpublished American intelligence surveys found that the main reason that Taliban foot soldiers joined the insurgency was that they thought the Afghan government was “irrevocably corrupt”—not because they experienced corruption in their daily lives. In her mind, “the data was piling up” in support of the idea that corruption drove the Taliban insurgency by 2010. However, the most relevant publicly available data do not necessarily support Chayes’ thesis. Afghans consistently rate corruption to be one of their top concerns and their greatest grips about the government in surveys, and have for many years. In 2014, however, when the long-running Asia Foundation survey first asked Afghans to comment on the motivations of insurgents, a mere 5.6% of Afghans felt that armed opposition groups were fighting the government because of excessive corruption. They rated opposition to the presence of foreign troops, the desire to gain power, and support from Pakistan as significantly more important drivers of the insurgency. Yet again, the balance of evidence is simply inconclusive.
In her discussion of insurgency as a grievance, moreover, Chayes is ignoring previous thinkers who have addressed corruption. As Philippe le Billon argued more than a decade ago in a widely-cited paper, it seems that changes in patterns of corruption, rather than corruption itself, are the key cause of corruption-related insecurity. Corruption, then, is an elite squabble rather than a fight between the elites and the masses. This old idea has its most brilliant expression in Chinua Achebe’s 1966 novel A Man of the People. Achebe’s narrator, a young anti-corruption crusader, sums it up as violence sweeps across an unnamed African country:
Some political commentators have said that it was the supreme cynicism of these transactions that inflamed the people and brought down the Government. This is sheer poppycock. The people themselves, as we have seen, had been even more cynical than their leaders and were apathetic into the bargain. “Let them eat,” was the people’s opinion… No, the people had nothing to do with the fall of our Government. What happened was simply that unruly mobs and private armies having tasted blood and power during the election had got out of hand and ruined their masters and employers. And they had no public reason whatever for doing it. Let’s make no mistake about that.
Achebe’s novel is not the definitive explanation of how corruption drives conflict in all cases, but neither is Chayes’ highly literary account of her experiences and discoveries. Billon and other academics have made a marginally more convincing case than Chayes’ in support of the idea that changes in corruption are more dangerous than corruption itself, but it is also far from conclusive. One last time, we must simply admit that we don’t know what we don’t know.
The fundamental problem of studying corruption is that, in many cases, the available evidence is simply inconclusive. As Transparency International reminds us: “There is no meaningful way to assess absolute levels of corruption in countries or territories on the basis of hard empirical data.” We will simply never be able to conduct the sort of regression analysis of the link between corruption and insecurity that is the gold standard for demonstrating causality in political science. We can only ever hope to study corruption with new standards and possibly types of evidence, a big dose of intellectual humility, a little academic and investigatory elbow grease, and the understanding that the “kleptocrats” who know the most about corruption, if they cared to have an honest conversation with us, would probably tell the story differently than their accusers. That does not mean that we can never understand how corruption might threaten global security, but it does mean that the debate over corruption’s “threat” to global security will be intellectually challenging for all involved. Only once we have addressed its fundamental issues can build an understanding worth acting on. Chayes’ book is a fine beginning of the conversation, but it is not the end of it.
Bio: T.S. Allen is an officer in the United States Army. He graduated in 2014 from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York where he studied military history and political science. He is currently studying corruption in the Vietnam War. The views expressed in his work are his own and do not reflect the position of the Department of Defense or any other part of the United States Government. Follow him on Twitter @TS_Allen.