Kleptocracy in America: Corruption Is Reshaping Governments Everywhere

By Chayes, Sarah | Foreign Affairs, September/October 2017 | Go to article overview

Kleptocracy in America: Corruption Is Reshaping Governments Everywhere


Chayes, Sarah, Foreign Affairs


Kleptocracy in America Corruption Is Reshaping Governments Everywhere The Corruption Cure BY ROBERT I. ROTBERG. Princeton University Press, 2017, 400 pp.

"Drain the swamp!" the U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shouted at campaign rallies last year. The crowds roared; he won. "Our political system is corrupt!" the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders thundered at his own rallies. His approval rating now stands at around 60 percent, dwarfing that of any other national-level elected official. Although many aspects of U.S. politics may be confusing, Americans are clearly more agitated about corruption than they have been in nearly a century, in ways that much of the political mainstream does not quite grasp. The topic has never been central to either major party's platform, and top officials tend to conflate what is legal with what is uncorrupt, speaking a completely different language from that of their constituents.

Although the political establishment, including the justices of the Supreme Court, may cling to a legal notion of corruption, ordinary Americans' more visceral understanding is in line with an anticorruption Zeitgeist that has swept the world in the past decade. In Brazil, huge, ongoing street protests over the course of two years have bolstered the federal police force and a crusading jurist, Sérgio Moro, as they have investigated and brought to justice high-ranking perpetrators in a web of corruption scandals. Their work has already led to the impeachment of one president, Dilma Rousseff, and her successor, Michel Temer, is also in the cross hairs. A similar movement has shaken Guatemala, where a UN-backed commission has helped prosecutors bring charges against dozens of officials, including Otto Pérez Molina- who was the country's president until 2015, when he resigned and was arrested on corruption charges. Earlier this year, South Korean President Park Guen-hye met the same fate.

In countries as varied as Bulgaria, Honduras, Iraq, Lebanon, Malaysia, Moldova, Romania, and South Africa, where governments haven't been toppled, citizens have nonetheless shown remarkable collective energy in protesting corruption. Taken together, these disparate movements add up to a low-grade worldwide insurrection. Elsewhere, taking the pulse of their people, governments such as China's have launched top-down initiatives targeting crooked officials.

Despite paying lip service to the problem of corruption for decades, leaders in rich, developed countries have never treated it as more than a second-order foreign policy concern. After all, corruption is hard to measure and easy to brush away with arguments about differing cultural norms and the value of "facilitation payments" in greasing bureaucratic wheels. But lately, it has become harder to deny that corruption lies at the root of many first-order global problems, such as the spread of violent religious extremism or the civil strife and mass casualties witnessed in South Sudan and Syria-not to mention the refugee crises that have followed on their heels. Corruption also plays a major role in the one truly global existential threat: the destruction of the environment.

When speaking about the causal relationship between corruption and such issues, I'm often asked questions along these lines: "OK, corruption's a bad thing, but is there anything that can be done about it? Are there examples of countries that have pulled themselves back from the brink?" The political scientist Robert Rotberg has surely fielded the same questions countless times during his distinguished career. He has now published a comprehensive and detailed response.

His book's answer to the second question is important: some places have indeed dramatically reduced corruption. A few names on that list are familiar success stories, such as Hong Kong and Singapore. Others- Botswana, Georgia, Rwanda-might surprise some readers. Rotberg examines these cases, alongside those of both poorer performers and longtime paragons such as Denmark and Finland, in order to figure out what works. …

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