Sarah Chayes Confronts Ethics In the Context of Global Corruption

On Tuesday, October 20, the Winston Center For Leadership and Ethics of the Carroll School of Management, in conjunction with the Islamic Civilization and Societies, presented a lecture entitled Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, featuring Sarah Chayes in Gasson 100 at 6:00 p.m.

Chayes, author of the eponymous novel, served as a special assistant to the top U.S. military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. She participated in Cabinet-level decision-making procedures on Afghanistan and the Arab Spring, and traveled with Mullen frequently to the region. Her novel discusses the systematic bullying of the marginalized by corrupt officials and explains that three key necessities of the age—resilience, security and the reduction of poverty—are consistently mitigated and weakened by structural theft on a much larger scale, operating across powerful corporations, governments, military establishments and civil services.

Chayes, who spearheaded the discussion, identified issues that have inhibited the establishment of sustainable democracies in the Middle East.

“One key reason the United States and its allies have struggled to create democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq is that the governments of those countries are mired in graft—organizations like the Taliban have a stronghold on the people,” Chayes said. “If we, as the United States, were going to make it clear that our battle was against the Taliban and not the Afghani people, we had to help rebuild the [infrastructure] and homes that the Taliban had destroyed.”

Tori Fisher / Gavel Media

Chayes explained that the U.S. approach to intervention in the Middle East, although geared toward pre-emption, is also aimed at targeting enemies of the peace. “In the aftermath of eliminating oppressors, corrupt officials have had pockets of opportunity to bend things to their advantage,” Chayes said.

Chayes, in discussing a correlation between the stagnation of democracy and the rise of extremism and governmental conflict, pinpointed corruption as the root cause.

“The objective of corrupt governments is to maximize net gain for their members—criminals, government officials, and even terrorists, can all be part of the same underlying network,” Chayes said. “Governments, in this case, repurpose the objectives of the State to maximize net revenue.”

Corruption, Chayes described, can be seen as the root cause of the destruction of the most well endowed governments. “Countries like Ukraine, Nigeria and Afghanistan—nations that we would understand as having lots of wealth concentrated in small places, have all seen their governments collapse—they are victims of the kleptocratic network [of corruption].” In this sense, development resources that have been funneled through a corrupt system have not only reinforced that system by helping to fund it, but have increased the feelings of injustice that have driven people toward insurgency.  

Chayes, in closing, elucidated the need for a model of foreign policy that not only addresses the needs of the marginalized but corrects the abuse of human rights while remaining cognizant of the true nature of corrupt governments.

“We are living in a period in which we are acquainting wealth with virtue much more than we have in recent years—where people do use money to benefit more righteous causes, in some countries, wealthy people are members of a government that does not fundamentally act in the interests of its people,” Chayes said. “The problem we have is one of ethical confusion, and taking steps to fix this will better enable the U.S. to help.”

Ms. Chayes is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in the Democracy and Rule of Law and South Asia programs. Her work utilizes the security implications of acute corruption as a focal point for the assessment of the efficacy of currently implemented global security measures.

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