The policy community is perpetually ripe with causal theories about the rise of Islamic extremism and other geopolitical conflicts threatening regions around the globe. World Policy Journal caught up with security expert Sarah Chayes, a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program and the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment, to discuss her theory about the cause of these international crises. A former special advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an award-winning journalist, Chayes is the author of Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, influenced by her years living in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

In your book, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, published in 2015, you argue that corruption is an accelerant of conflict, the cause of extremism and not the result. Over the past year, has your view changed in any way or simply been reaffirmed?

Sarah Chayes
Sarah Chayes is internationally recognized for her innovative thinking on corruption and its implications. Her work explores how severe corruption can help prompt such crises as terrorism, revolutions and their violent aftermaths, and environmental degradation.
More >

Yes, it has been reaffirmed. Here are a couple of really clear examples:

ISIS’ ability to attract at least the acquiescence of a significant proportion of Iraqi Sunnis is the first. Since 2014, their rise has accelerated. You can’t take over a third of the territory of Iraq without at least the acquiescence of the population. Now, I doubt that all of those people are fanatically religious in their orientation. Therefore, there are significant other drivers that are making people susceptible to the existence of ISIS.

My own experience from Afghanistan is that there is a whole range of different behaviors with respect to an extremist group that helps it to gain traction in an area. One end of the range is hiding beneath a table and keeping your head down. The other end is actual affiliation and active participation in the violence perpetrated by that group. It is clear that ISIS’ ability to expand into territory in Iraq is related to people’s disgust at the way that their own government is treating them.

The other example is Boko Haram. When I wrote Thieves of State, I had not had the opportunity to speak to the people in the heartland of Boko Haram. Finally, in November, I was in Maiduguri, Northern Nigeria, and spent a day speaking to internally displaced persons (IDPs) and locals. Maiduguri is where Boko Haram first emerged. I asked them what Boko Haram was preaching and about their reaction. They were absolutely explicit that Boko Haram was telling the truth about the government, the shakedowns, the stealing, and the abuse. Boko Haram said it was because of the secular constitution of Nigeria that this type of governmental behavior was being perpetrated, and the people thought they were right. They said to me that they loved what Boko Haram was doing initially, with several years of attacks on largely government and police targets. Of course, they are less happy now.

For me, these conversations were a really helpful confirmation right from the horse’s mouth. In particular, they were using the English word “constitution.” I don’t speak Hausa, I had someone interpreting for me, but I could hear them. It was clear that Boko Haram was very explicitly tying the corrupt behavior of the government officials to the secular constitution. I had been saying that kind of thing for a year, and then I have people in Maiduguri confirming, almost word for word, what Mohammed Yusuf was preaching in the time of the emergence of Boko Haram.

Why do you think it is so vital that policymakers recognize corruption as a cause of extremism? How will the world change if this viewpoint is more readily accepted?

In Afghanistan, I would often get asked, what can we do about corruption? I spent a lot of time literally spelling out what the United States can do about it. In one case, when the United States was going to surge troops in Afghanistan for the second time—the surge in 2010—I wrote out an incredibly detailed plan for General Petraeus about the government surge that had to go along with the troop surge. But he kept finding fault with some detailed aspect of the plan. So I would write a whole other plan that was responding to his concern, and then he would find some fault with that. I wrote three detailed plans, including people by name who couldn’t stay in government. The problem clearly wasn’t a lack of policy instruments. The problem was a lack of an understanding that the problem was significant enough to require application of these policy instruments.

There is a mindset change that has to happen. People see it as a tradeoff. They say security first, and then we will get to government. The point of this argument is that you are not going to get the security without focusing on governance. In fact, focusing on governance is how you get security.

What would happen if this viewpoint was readily accepted is that we would no longer be trapped in this endless cycle of killing insurgents, which is basically all we are doing. We killed Osama bin Laden. Now we have Baghdadi. We now have an ISIS that is arguably more threatening to global security than al-Qaida was. So we have not advanced by killing hundreds of militant leaders. We are no closer to reducing extremism than we were 15 years ago. That is an unbelievable failure.

Do you think the problem is a lack of understanding or that policy leaders are hesitant to recognize a link between corruption and extremism?

I think it is both. I think that people literally don’t understand how you get from point A to B. How do you get from corruption to someone picking up a gun with a religious framing of the problem? There is a very important sort of conceptual shift that has to take place.

I think they don’t understand for two reasons. One is because they don’t experience corruption the way people in these countries do. Westerners have this tendency to talk about petty corruption. We also talk about how it is part of the culture over there, and so we insulate ourselves from what it actually feels like to have this done to you. It is not the part of anybody’s culture. I have not had a single person in any of these countries—Nigeria, Uzbekistan, Tunisia, or Afghanistan—tell me I’m trying to impose my Western norms on them or that corruption is how they do things. It has only been Westerners who say that.

The other thing that people don’t understand is how you get from that indignation to religious expression. So, I just had someone yesterday at a panel, and she made a contrast between Boko Haram as an ideological movement and something that was striking back against corruption. I looked at her and said “Have you ever read the New Testament?" What makes someone think that religious ideology is separate from social justice aspirations? That is a really prevalent counterfactual division that a lot of people working this problem make. Ideology on one side and plain old justice on the other side.

I also think you are right that there is a lot of hesitation to addressing this, largely because there is this institutional tendency in governments in general to maintain diplomatic relations with counterpart government officials. I get that, but my point is how do you work with them? I think that the hesitance to do anything is because anything feels like everything, and because people are really worried about the pushback, the backlash, and the countermoves.

In your book, you illustrate how rigid moral codes have become an antidote to corruption, from Afghans returning to the Taliban to the Egyptians overthrowing the Mubarak government. What do you say to critics who would argue that corruption exists in many states without breeding extremism? How do you convince others that the link between kleptocracy and extremism is a real and global phenomenon?

It doesn’t obviously breed extremism everywhere. But it does breed a variety of other significant security crises. The indignation that corruption causes has bred about eight revolutions since 2011. You have the whole Arab Spring, plus Ukraine. Those revolutions then spun off into very significant security crises in a number of cases. So, you get revolution. Why do you suppose gangs have run rampant in Guatemala and Honduras? Partly because corruption in the government is so significant that gangs move into territories that otherwise ought to be controlled by the state. Some people turn to the gangs as Robin Hoods. It is a structure that gives you a sense of dignity and personal power. The refugee crises that is hitting both the U.S. and Europe is ALSO very directly linked to corruption. Then you have symbiotic alliances between corrupt government networks and transnational superpowers. I am not saying that corruption is the only cause. I’m saying that it is a significant factor that has been systematically downplayed or ignored.

In 2016, what is your current definition of corruption? Has it changed at all since you have returned to the United States? Do you think that corruption comes down to a formula or is it unique to every country and people?

I think there are variations around the edges from country to country, but I think the basic content of corruption is very well understood everywhere I have researched. It has to do with is the abuse of public office for personal gain. That means when you have to be paid money on the side to do your job, or you can be paid not do your job. It means the monetization systematically of public service.

I actually asked Afghans what corruption means to them. What I got is a narrative: “When I have to pay to get some administrative task accomplished or an administrative form filled out. I don’t have the money and someone else does. Then I am trampled under foot.” I found that language incredibly powerful. It gets at the other side of corruption that I think is really important, which is that it does have a moral dimension. It is not just a material thing. There is a very morally offensive way that that money is often spent. As I have been doing this work, I am more and more convinced that the United States is on this continuum. The feeling I have is that we really have to start at home with corruption within our own political system and then, of course, corruption overseas. We have a lot of industries whose business model is predicated on servicing corrupt foreign officials. How the United States gets a grip on the issue of corruption is rising on my own personal agenda.

Do you believe that if there is enough of a global consensus on the definition of corruption that this would change anything?

I don’t think so. Because there are too many leaders, both political and business, and so on, that are too invested in corruption. They have too much at stake. I actually don’t think that it is a matter of definitions, I think it is a matter of courage. This is not for the faint hearted.

As a crusader against corruption, what do you say to those who would call you an idealist and to those who believe corruption is part of the human and governmental fabric?

The propensity to do wrong is certainly part of the human fabric. So is the propensity to do right. First I would recommend that they read the work of Frans de Waal on primates. He has some really interesting findings that show when an alpha male primate arbitrated systematically in favor of his friends, he got deposed by the rest of the troop. He got kicked out. When you are arbitrating settling cases consistently in favor of your friends, that is corruption. Chimpanzees are really not happy about corruption.

On idealism, ask yourself what is the most realistic thing that we are worried about in terms of U.S. national security. It is probably violent extremism, right? The approach that has been taken to violent extremism to date has not been at all realistic, because it has failed spectacularly. Why then should I be accused of being not realistic? We should take into consideration that killing extremists has gotten us nowhere. Let’s at least experiment with this approach. We have not even tried it.

Can you name two top priorities for addressing international corruption in 2016?

Number one: Start at home in the West. The West has very little credibility with respect to these issues, so long as some of the most significant places to hide and use the proceeds of corrupt practices remain in the West.

Number two: Collect information in a much more systemic way about the structure and functioning of kleptocratic networks overseas. For the moment, we see corruption sort of as a practice that people do, but we do not think of the fact that the people doing this practice are very often structured into sophisticated and obviously very successful networks. Those networks typically include both public and private sector actors.

The U.S. law enforcement agencies of various stripes are really good at analyzing criminal networks, but nobody is analyzing government corruption networks. Nobody is merging this type of capability to get a real picture of what the integrated networks look like. If you take, for example, Uzbekistan: The cotton sector and the telecom sector belong to the kleptocratic network. So if you are the U.S. Department of Commerce and you understood that, you might be a little more careful about how you promote our direct investment into Uzbekistan. You might not encourage people to get into the telecom sector because it will be both problematic for that company and it will also facilitate the corruption network.

Can you describe your vision of an “anti-corrupt” state? Which state in the world today, in your view, is closet to an “anti-corrupt” state?

First, “anti-corrupt” and “uncorrupt” aren’t necessarily identical. They are different. I think several Scandinavian countries are pretty indistinguishable in terms of the low level of corruption at home. That doesn’t make them very effective “anti-corrupt” countries, for the following reasons:

Number one is that they are a little bit complacent, so I think that they underestimate corruption risks in their own country. For example, in Finland, which is probably one of the least corrupt countries on the planet, they are privatizing more and more elements of public service. But because of their corporate secrecy laws, it means that the public has no visibility of the size of the budget used for trash collection in Helsinki, as a hypothetical. Because these countries have a certain atmosphere because they are not corrupt, they are actually exposing themselves to the risk of corruption at home.

A number of these countries are also completely under performing in terms of proper oversight and monitoring of both their private sector and international aid budgets. I mentioned Uzbekistan telecoms—there is currently a gigantic scandal that involves the Finnish and Swedish telecoms company, TeliaSonera. TeliaSonera got involved with a straight “pay to play” arrangement with Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov. This has become a huge criminal case in Europe.

Secondly, they also often provide international assistance with very little oversight as to how that money might be financing and facilitating kleptocratic networks in the recipient countries.

If you could write a follow-up book to “Thieves of State,” what would you choose to include?

SC: I think, without any question whatsoever, climate. The most important issue facing the human species as far as I am concerned is climate. It trumps everything else. The relationship between corruption and climate and other types of environmental degradation is very tight. From corrupt deals with extractive industries to logging of the Amazon, there has been a devastation of this landscape that we are so fortunate to live in. That is not really an issue that I addressed in Thieves of State, but I believe that climate is a security issue. Actually, in a funny way, I think that climate is the security issue. So the issue that I feel compelled to devote a lot of the rest of my working life to is how corruption is contributing to climate change and other types of very distressing environmental degradation.

This interview was originally published by World Policy Journal.