Senior Associate Democracy and Rule of Law Program South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Defense One, 6 April 2014
As popular uprisings keep toppling governments like bowling pins, the latest round has morphed into a great power face-off — with Russia and the West glowering at each other across a divided Ukraine. Thailand, a key United States military friend in Southeast Asia, could be next on the list. Thousands of protests rock Chinese provinces each month, worrying President Xi Jinping’s still-green administration. The Egyptian and Syrian revolutions have spun off into bloody and widening strife, while extremist insurgencies in Afghanistan, Nigeria and the Philippines stubbornly challenge state stability.
What links these far-flung events, most of them high on the U.S. list of security priorities? Corruption. Not garden-variety corruption, the kind that exists everywhere. Acute and systemic corruption has taken hold in these countries. And it is driving indignant populations, who are networked and communicating as never before, to extremes. Around the world, pervasive corruption drives a list of other security risks too, such as terrorist facilitation; traffic in weapons or drugs; nuclear proliferation; theft of intellectual property; fractured financial systems; and governments that are enmeshed with transnational criminal superpowers. And yet, U.S. military and intelligence officials seem blind to both the character and the security implications of this type of corruption. Like an odorless gas, it fuels all these dangers without attracting much policy response inside or outside of Foggy Bottom.
It’s time to start paying attention. For, if military and civilian strategists agree on anything these days, it’s the need to reduce U.S. reliance on military responses to overseas crises. But to get there, containing military spending or constraining our forces’ missions won’t be enough. For starters, U.S. national security leaders urgently need a better grasp of the factors that build these crises. Then they must design and implement more precise and effective interactions with those factors upstream, before crises develop.
Acute corruption, in other words, can no longer be seen as just a nuisance or a “values issue” to be handed off for technical programming to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Even less should it be considered a factor of stability, as some maintain. Corruption is a problem that must be mainstreamed into national security decision-making. For military leaders, that means tasking intelligence collectors and analysts with new questions. It means better tailoring the terms of military assistance and the tenor of military-to-military relationships. And it means changing the ways that forward-deployed units gain access to territory and partner with locals once there.
Phi Beta Iota: Carnegie does some good stuff. What they do not do is look honestly at the US Government itself. The above piece is excellent. Corruption (and the concentration of wealth that ensue) are the primary causes of lost legitimacy by any government, and of revolution. Until we are honest about our own hypocrisy, corruption, and ineptitude, we will continue to fail our public at home and the world at large. What has changed is that we have reached peak tolerance for institutionalized idiocy and pervasive waste. It is no longer possible for the government to fool most of the people all of the time.
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