Briefly Noted

| September 9, 2015
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Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, Sarah Chayes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015), 272 pp., $26.95 cloth.

In Thieves of State, Sarah Chayes offers an engaging and persuasive analysis of kleptocracies as a historical and contemporary root of insecurity and violence. Her narrative prose, use of personal anecdotes, and ability to distill issues of corruption and patronage takes the reader on a captivating trip through history and across the globe.

Chayes spent ten years in Afghanistan, first as a foreign correspondent, covering the fall of the Taliban for National Public Radio in 2001, and, later, working as an entrepreneur and a government advisor. She witnessed the pervasiveness of corruption in President Hamid Karzai’s government firsthand, and began to trace a relationship between the kleptocratic system of patronage that completely and deliberately circumvented the needs of Afghan citizens and the rise in violent (often religious) extremism as the only recourse to justice.

The international mandate in Afghanistan only focused on mitigating violence against civilians by insurgents—not on violence brought about by the government itself. This perpetuated the cycle of conflict by focusing on a symptom of corruption rather than the cause. As Chayes argues, “Corruption, in army-speak, was a force multiplier for the enemy.” Violent extremism has historically been the response of citizens whose needs are frustrated and whose lives are dictated by government corruption. Chayes shows how this process works through an overview of the militarykleptocratic complex in Egypt, the bureaucratic kleptocracy in Tunisia, the post-Soviet kleptocratic autocracy in Uzbekistan, and the resource kleptocracy in Nigeria.

In one especially thought-provoking chapter, Chayes makes a historical parallel to the Protestant Reformation—in particular its genesis as a response to the rampant corruption of the Catholic church—to explain popular support for movements like Islamic State, Boko Haram, and other religious extremists. She points out that “in periods of acute, self-serving behavior on the part of public leaders, Christians and Muslims alike have often sought a corrective in strict codes of personal behavior derived from the precepts of puritanical religion. And they have imposed it, if necessary, by force.” In such environments, religion is often seen as the only way to impose morality on a corrupt system.

The book’s penultimate chapter offers an extensive list of “remedies” to address corruption. High-level meetings with leaders and representatives of corrupt states can be limited; financial and legal systems can more vigorously target corrupt individuals and their assets; aid packages can require more careful evaluations of recipients, independent monitoring, and strict conditions (and repayment requirements if they are not met); businesses can be more selective of where and with whom they operate; and citizens can draw attention to corruption. But, she acknowledges, her solutions are not simple and cannot be achieved quickly or easily.

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Category: Briefly Noted, Issue 29.3

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