Sarah Chayes has written a new book — Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security (Norton, 2015), in which she argues that corruption is a driving force behind many of the social upheavals around the world today.
Chayes is a senior associate at the Democracy and the Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
She was an NPR reporter based in Paris from 1996 to 2002. Then she spent almost a decade in Afghanistan, documenting the corruption there. We met Chayes at GWU Law School last week where she was the keynote speaker at a conference — Drivers of Corruption and Institutional Responses.
Across town, at almost the same time, the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, was addressing a joint session of Congress, promising to crack down on what he called the “cancer of corruption” in Afghanistan.
We asked Chayes whether Ghani is the real deal when it comes to fighting against corruption in Afghanistan.
“I don’t think he’s the real deal,” Chayes told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “I doubt it. Look at who he appoints. Look at what he does. Look at what enforcement efforts he makes.”
“I don’t believe in the description of corruption as a cancer. That implies that you have a functioning government whose objective is to govern the people decently and that government is being attacked by this disease of corruption.”
“That’s not what I saw in Afghanistan. I saw a government that was structured deliberately around the objective of maximizing personal gain for the members of its networks, which of course included some private sector actors.”
“I saw a government that was functioning effectively as a criminal organization, not a government that was trying to govern and was being hampered by corruption. I saw a government whose objective was to be corrupt. Governing was a kind of front activity.”
“Ghani’s characterization of corruption is inaccurate. Second, he came to office by way of massive electoral fraud. I have a hard time taking at face value the law and order principles of a person who massively violated electoral law in order to gain office.”
“Third, I am concerned about the appointment he made to the high office of oversight. It was a person who was widely known to be incredibly venal and corrupt. That might be just his reputation. But you don’t hire a person who has such a reputation to run your office of reform and anti-corruption. And people might say — that’s a way of getting him out of the way. But I’m talking about the public messaging that you are sending. You are saying, even at best, this is a phony structure, because I’m going to put this notorious person in charge of it.”
“And lastly, Ghani made some dramatic anti-corruption moves in the province of Herat, sacking the entire provincial administration. They may have been totally corrupt. Most of the border provinces in particular are corrupt. I just think it’s interesting that those are non-Pashtun, non-members of his own winning coalition. I find it a little bit troubling that the first targets of his anti-corruption efforts were the support base of his opponent.”
“Do I entirely trust that Ghani is what he says he is? No I don’t. I didn’t at the time. And I don’t know. But he might be. All I can do is look at the evidence. And to date, there is no evidence that he is a reformer. I don’t have x-ray vision.Like anybody else, I have to look at what he actually does. I know enough about Afghanistan to know that it is important to discount what people say.”
Chayes is critical of groups like Transparency International and organizers of anti-corruption conferences that focus their firepower solely on corruption in Third World countries.
“Where is the United States on this corruption continuum?” Chayes asks.
“Even when we talk about corruption in America, we tend to talk about the aberrant — Governor McDonnell in Virginia or Chicago — little microcosms. We’re failing to understand the deeper systemic corruption that the United States is becoming subject to.”
“There is quote that I love to repeat by John Locke, the political theorist. He says that when there is a barefaced wresting of the laws to serve the purposes of a man or a party of men, war is made on the sufferers.”
Chayes says that there are four or five parties of men in the United States that have wrested the laws to serve themselves — Wall Street, the health industry, the energy industry and the military and associated industries.
“What is most dangerous is the way that those groups of people have managed to shape the legal environment in ways that suit them, including campaign finance, which allows essentially for legalized bribery in this country.”
“Transparency International chapters are supposed to focus on the countries in which they are resident,” she says. “Transparency International Columbia works on corruption in Columbia. Transparency International USA is constantly focused on corruption in Third World countries. It’s ridiculous. You would have thought that Transparency International USA would have been at the forefront of ensuring that the criminal bankers that gave us the financial collapse in 2008 would be criminally prosecuted. And maybe Transparency USA should have investigated the relationship between the Treasury Department and the banking sector. But I didn’t see any of that.”
“When you see the good analysis of the financial crisis of 2008, it’s all been from independent economists like Simon Johnson and James Kwak and Paul Krugman and even the TARP IG Neil Barofsky. I don’t see any Transparency International USA focus on those issues. And the financial crisis of 2008, which threw three million Americans out of their houses, had repercussions around the globe — that was a result of corruption. And I don’t see Transparency USA very active or vocal in any of that.”
Citing Johnson and Kwak, Chayes says that “the kleptocratic capture of U.S. institutions may even have been more significant or insidious than it was” in Third World countries — “partly because it was nearly invisible.”
Well, if the United States has its own kleptocracy, and corruption leads to social instability, where is the corruption fueled instability in the United States?
“I don’t say that corruption always leads to social instability,” Chayes says. “Or another way of thinking about it is — it doesn’t until it does. Who knows what’s going to happen next? I’ve been working with a neuroscience colleague looking at — not quite looking at corruption, but instead acute inequality and how that can lead to social instability.”
“How it can lead to real upheavals? One of the things we are exploring is the role national mythology can play in dampening potential upheavals. I would submit that the impact of the Communist mythology on the elites in the Soviet Union helped dampen the manifestation of corruption. Not that the Soviet Union wasn’t corrupt. But there were some lengths you couldn’t go to under that ethos in terms of maximization of personal wealth.“
“In our case, there is this national mythology that we all get a fair shake and the people who made money are successful. It’s still seen here as a sign of virtue. The whole Reagan/Thatcher revolution was part of emphasizing and reinforcing the distorted Protestant ethic notion that if you make money it means that you are better than somebody else, not that you took advantage of an uneven playing field. There is still a real national mythology in this country that is dampening the likely social reactions to what is an increasingly corrupt structure.”
At the anti-corruption conference at GWU Law School, Chayes said that when it comes to foreign policy, American policy makers don’t like to raise the issue of corruption. They talk about women’s rights, girls’ rights, and LGBT rights, but not about corruption. What did she mean by that?
“Look at the talking points,” Chayes told Corporate Crime Reporter. “Look at what we have hammered Uganda about. We have gotten mad at Uganda over LGBT rights. We haven’t gotten mad at Uganda over wholesale corruption. Same with Nigeria. You have this $20 billion in oil money missing from the treasury in Nigeria and we don’t say anything about it. But we do get upset when there is anti-gay legislation. I’m not in favor of victimizing the LGBT community. I would just submit that the LGBT community in a country like Nigeria is something like five to ten percent of the population. But every single Nigerian is victimized by the kind of corruption that flourishes in that country. It’s a human rights issue.”
Both of Chayes’ parents were public servants and public intellectuals.
“Yes, I have great genes,” Chayes said. “My father, Abram Chayes, was a professor of international law. He served as the legal advisor to the State Department under President John Kennedy. He stayed in public life thereafter. He also represented the government of Nicaragua against the United States when the U.S. was mining the harbors of Nicaragua. That was a heavy decision for him to make — to be on the other side from his own country and government in a case of those dimensions. And he visited Nicaragua before he agreed to take the case. And he thought it through carefully. His response was — I don’t see anything wrong with holding the United States up to its own highest principles. And if there is a motto that has guided what I’ve tried to do, it’s been that. It’s out of love for this country and its principles that I’m sometimes as critical that I sometimes can be.”
Chayes dedicates her book to her mother, Antonia Handler Chayes, was is also a lawyer and was in education for a long time.
“She was Dean of Women at Tufts University,” Chayes says. “She was in the alternative dispute resolution field. She was Under Secretary of the Air Force in the Carter administration. Now, at the age of 85, my mother is a Professor of Practice of Politics and Law at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. She’s indefatigable.”
What’s Chayes’ next book?
“I’m writing a book with Kirk Meyer about the Kabul Bank, which was essentially a ponzi scheme,” Chayes says. “Kirk was the investigator who discovered this. He uncovered a nearly billion dollar hole in the Kabul Bank. The entire GDP of Afghanistan is something like $30 billion. In that context, a billion dollar hole in the Kabul Bank is a big deal. We are going to tell that tale. I hope to use it as an opportunity to explore this change in ethos that has transpired over the past 20 to 30 years. It’s about the meaning of money. Has the meaning of money changed? We are living through a period where there is an onslaught against integrity and honesty and courage and in favor of money as a value. Money has become the dominating and overwhelming value that gets you social standing, that gets you ahead in life, that gets you all the things that people want, to the detriment of some other important social values.”
[For the complete q/a format Interview with Sarah Chayes, see page 29 Corporate Crime Reporter 14(11), April 6, 2015, print edition only.]