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Decolonizing Corruption

October 5, 2021

I’ve just finished reading journalist Craig Whitlock’s new book The Afghanistan Papers and it, coupled with the recent revelations of the Pandora Papers, has me reflecting on corruption, especially as we use (and avoid) the term in international studies.

Though I’ve never researched the topic in depth, I think it’s fair to say it’s not typically included in IR syllabi (save, perhaps, a few IPE courses) and only dealt with sporadically in leading IR journals. To be sure, there’s some great IR work out there (in particular, I’m thinking of the research of my former Cambridge mentor Jason Sharman). But corruption is an issue largely off the radar screens of many IR scholars. Oftentimes it’s dismissed as a purely local or domestic concern and, I suspect, many scholars might avoid the topic due to the difficulty of acquiring reliable data. For this reason, I’d like to offer up my own ham-fisted foray to other uninitiated IR scholars interested in using the tools of our trade to better theorize corruption and its global consequences.

Whitlock’s book is an oral history of the US War in Afghanistan, based on thousands of pages of interviews with military leaders and policymakers. The interviews run the gamut from enlisted soldiers to high-ranking officers and government officials, so the vantage points vary widely. However, a recurring theme is the corruption that permeated the Afghan National Government during the years of the US occupation. This corruption ranged from theft, bribery, and racketeering by local police officers or officials to larger scale wheeling and dealing by warlords and national level politicians in Kabul. Ultimately, if one had to distil from the book a single cause for the US failure to construct a well-functioning Afghan state, it would likely be corruption, followed perhaps by the close second of diverting US resources to invade Iraq.

The interviews Whitlock cites include unfiltered diatribes from former soldiers wrestling with difficult wartime experiences. Unsurprisingly, they contain fair number of orientalist (and, oftentimes, flat out racist) tropes about corruption being embedded in Afghan or Muslim societies and Afghans not being ‘ready’ for self-governance. But though some of the coarser language on Afghan corruption is unpleasant, in many ways it reflects what I would consider dominant attitudes about the futility of the US nation-building project in Afghanistan over the past two decades.

Thankfully, Whitlock contrasts this perspective by including insight into how misguided US policies fueled Afghan corruption “by dispensing vast sums of money to protect and rebuild Afghanistan with no regard for the consequences. Limitless opportunities for bribery and fraud arose because U.S. spending on aid and defense contracts far exceeded what indigent Afghanistan could digest.”

Whitlock includes a quote from Barnett Rubin, a political scientist and former State Department adviser, who hits the nail on the head regarding the two sides to the corruption coin: “The basic assumption was that corruption is an Afghan problem and we are the solution…But there is one indispensable ingredient for corruption—money—and we were the ones who had the money.”

This insight strikes me as particularly important, especially as stories about the Pandora Papers emerge. In the Washington Post’s coverage of the leaks, for example, I’ve noticed a lot of attention paid to leaders and businesspeople, predominantly from the global South, who’ve stashed vast amounts of money in offshore tax havens, facilitated by shady Panamanian lawyers. Because I haven’t dug through the papers themselves, I don’t know enough to say whether this represents selection bias. The reporting is highly impressive regardless.

Corruption isn’t always about breaking the law—sometimes corruption is the law.

However, the Post’s reporting also includes two interesting explanations for why American billionaires and political figures are largely absent from the leak and I’d argue these negative cases warrant consideration alongside those caught with their hands in the offshore cookie jar. First, “the uber-rich in the United States tend to pay such low tax rates that they have less incentive to seek offshore havens.” And, second, “South Dakota, Nevada and other states have adopted financial secrecy laws that rival those of offshore jurisdictions.” In other words, American politicians have made domestic law so favorable to the uber-rich that they don’t need to look offshore.

Considering the Afghan case, the Pandora Papers, and US domestic tax havens together provides a good opportunity to begin to decolonize corruption, globalizing our perspective to avoid a biased focus on those in the global south.

My first cut at such a global definition would begin with the simple idea that corruption is the perversion of systems meant for public good in pursuit of private gain. In this sense, we can see a parallel between the local Afghan police officer who takes a bribe to look away from a farmer’s poppy fields and King Abdullah II forming offshore companies to siphon what is presumably Jordanian public money to buy real estate for himself in London. Corruption can be both petty and grand.

But this definition also leaves open agent-structure questions that should be familiar to most IR scholars. Corruption often benefits discrete agents, but in many cases primary responsibility can be traced back to the loopholes built into various social, political and legal systems that facilitate abuse. So, for example, instead of focusing on local Afghan officials corrupt dealings, we can turn attention to the broken political systems imposed by US occupation forces that allowed the poor to take advantage of the even poorer. Further, rather than looking solely to King Abdullah II’s overseas investments, analysis can turn to why legal systems in the US and UK allowed his offshore companies to purchase over $100 million in homes in Malibu, Washington, DC, and London.

 PettyGrand
AgentLocal officials or individuals bribing, scamming, or cheating other individuals or small-scale institutions.Political leaders and the uber-rich taking advantage of loopholes in large-scale institutions to avoid taxes, scam public coffers or avoid scrutiny.
StructureLocal social and political institutions that facilitate prestige politics, a breakdown of the rule of law, and other corrupt relationships.Large-scale institutions and legal systems crafted with loopholes or blind spots of which only specific groups or individuals can take advantage.
A Typology of Corruption

By juxtaposing the petty-grand dichotomy and the agent-structure dichotomy, we get a 2×2 grid useful in broadening perspectives on the issue. It’s ideal-typical, so many interesting cases fall into its grey areas. Nonetheless, beyond its value in typologizing corruption, I see two additional added benefits.

First, since corruption almost always takes two (or more) to tango, it emphasizes how behind every news report or personal anecdote lies a flawed system. In the case of Afghanistan, corruption on the ground flourished not only because individuals on the ground took advantage of opportunities. Corruption also depended upon broken structures, funded with vast sums of money, imposed at every level of Afghan society by the US occupation force and the government it backed. Likewise, in the case of the Pandora Papers, corruption depended on lax laws and enforcement across jurisdictions, in both the home countries of corrupt figures and the US and Europe, where so many of them invested their money.

Second, it helps us see that corruption isn’t always about breaking the law—sometimes corruption is the law. Corruption indexes like the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International reveal that citizens of the UK and US tend to give their societies relatively high marks for controlling corruption. (This was especially the case prior to the election of Donald Trump in the US.) But individuals in these societies also tend to complain about their abhorent levels of income inequality, fuelled by tax and regulatory environments that cater to the ultra-rich. Many Americans, for example, would not include tax schemes like the stepped-up basis or carried interest as forms of corruption, viewing them instead as simply unfortunate parts of our tax code.

But perhaps these forms of ‘corruption in plain sight’ should be considered alongside the petty forms of corruption about which we spill so much ink in our retrospectives on the War in Afghanistan. Though Americans and Brits may be less likely to face threats by local officials’ racketeering, they oftentimes lose far more due to the larger corrupt systems in which they live.

Corruption, in other words, cannot be isolated to poorer societies in which many people need to bend the law to make ends meet. It is an endemic to politics at all levels and, in my opinion, deserves greater consideration in IR.

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Adam B. Lerner is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and Deputy Director of Royal Holloway's Centre for International Security (RHISC).