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Book Review: Thieves of State

By (January 20, 2015) No Comment

Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Securitythieves of state cover

by Sarah Chayes

W. W. Norton, 2015

Former National Public Radio war-zone reporter and special assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (specializing in Afghanistan) Sarah Chayes has many years of first-hand experience living in societies balancing on the brink of fracture, and her new book, Thieves of State, born of these experiences, is a thunderbolt hurled squarely into the powder keg of realpolitik phlegm.

Chayes has served for years as an advisor to power, talking mainly about the problems inside Afghanistan, and Thieves of State reads with the same kind of vividness and lean control as a colorful presentation being made to a president or prime minister with very little time to spare. There’s a long precedence for such works, and, delightfully, Chayes is acutely aware of this history; she spends considerable time in her book talking about the sub-genre of “Mirrors for Princes,” manuals written by knowing docents for the instruction of rulers, books like the Enchridion of Erasmus or, most famously, Machiavelli’s The Prince. These treatises have always been slim and almost desperate calls for restraint in the face of brute strength, as Chayes eloquently puts it:

There is a slight problem with this whole body of literature, reiterating down the ages thoughtful, often detailed, and colorfully phrased warnings against corrupt practices. Other than threats of divine punishment in the afterlife, these manuals fail to suggest any systematic means of redress against corrupt governance. What if their royal readers were to ignore their advice? What would happen then? Disaster – collapse of the state through tyrannicide or revolt – hangs behind their words like a dark thunderhead. For what other options remain for the aggrieved people? To whom should they appeal?

Perhaps the single most amazing thing about Thieves of State is that it actually earns its place in the company of its illustrious genre forebears; Chayes and her colleagues have been delivering her message in many venues for a long time:

Moving away from the humanitarian terrain where it often resides, we made corruption relevant to war fighters by explaining its centrality to prospects of victory. “Afghans’ acute disappointment with the quality of governance … has contributed to permissiveness toward, or collusion with,” the Taliban, we wrote, laboring to stultify our language with a credible amount of jargon.

“In plain English,” she goes on, “why would a farmer stick out his neck to keep Taliban out of his village if the government was just as bad?”

The through-line here is so simple it’s almost suspicious: the worse a regime’s visible corruption is, the worse becomes the atmosphere of resentment and anger among its people. The more a regime indulges itself in corruption, in other words, the more it endangers itself. Chayes cites not only great stretches of history but also clinical experimentation to underscore what seems to be a bedrock human resistance to perceived unfairness:

Laboratory experiments over the past several decades have demonstrated humans’ apparently irrational revolt against such unjust bargains. The experiments, known as “ultimatum games,” allocate a sum of money to one player, with instructions to divide it with another. If the recipient accepts the offer, the deal goes through. If she rejects it, both players get nothing. Economists had presumed that a recipient, acting rationally, would accept any amount greater than zero. In fact, in experiment after experiment – even with stakes as high as a month’s salary – roughly half of recipients rejected offers lower than 20 percent of the total sum.

That tendency to resent corruption, to want fair treatment, is not only inherent but cumulative: resentments fester and can become generational. Chayes quite naturally sees this played out mainly in terms of post-2001 Afghanistan, but her examples range far more widly, from England to America to Nigeria to the Arab Spring, and they converge on the same disarmingly straightforward set of insights:

Western governments must begin systematically analyzing the costs of not addressing corruption, which currently go unweighed in national security decision making. More time and effort should be spent identifying “least bad’ alternatives to enabling alliances with kleptocratic rulers.

She rounds out her book not just with admonitions but with advice, detailing broad outlines of how the community of nations could work to diminish corruption and police its excesses, with “international partners and proxies” being encouraged to emphasize corruption issues and work on them. This kind of advice brings Thieves of State as close as it comes to being explicitly a mirror for our princes, and if it simultaneously points to the probable uselessness of Chayes’s enterprise, it also points to the book’s nervy valor.