The Fletcher School’s Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life hosted author and reporter Sarah Chayes for a lecture on corruption in the U.S. government. The event was held on Wednesday, Dec. 9, International Anti-Corruption Day.
The conversation was moderated by Diana Chigas, professor of practice of international negotiation and conflict resolution, and Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, professor of practice in human security. Both are co-directors of the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program.
Chayes has won awards for her reporting for NPR in several different countries and spent nearly a decade in Afghanistan. In 2010, she became special advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She then became a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she researched corruption.
Chayes recently published a book, “On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake,” in which she draws on the lessons she learned from other countries and applies them to the United States.
Chigas introduced Chayes, expressing her belief that the role of corruption in international relations is often overlooked.
“One of the problems I think we’ve seen is that we’ve tended to see corruption as a matter of a few bad apples, a few unethical greedy people who should be pursued and sort of put into jail and convicted,” Chigas said. “Corruption isn’t the exception. It actually is the system; it is governance.”
Scharbatke-Church then gave an introduction as well, providing an example of corruption in her home country of Canada involving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“We have a prime minister that has had two official ethics violations … And yet it seems to have very little impact in terms of the electoral opinion of our prime minister,” she said. “So have we shifted our norms? Have we started to change what we expect of our leadership from the perspective of corruption?”
The discussion shifted to Chayes, who began her talk with an overview of her book. She explained how she used the skills she acquired abroad to analyze corruption at home.
“It was interesting … [to apply] the same sort of analytical framework to my own country that I had been both developing and applying to countries ranging from Afghanistan to Honduras to Nepal, to Serbia to South Korea,” Chayes said.
Chayes clarified her definition of systemic corruption, reiterating one of Chigas’ earlier points.
“That goes back to Diana’s highlight of the distinction between … corruption seen as an individual venal act of [a] bad apple, and corruption as a sort of operating system of sophisticated networks of money maximizers,” Chayes said. “I kept noticing that all these fragile and failing states were actually run by incredibly sophisticated and successful networks.”
Chayes then explained that in countries with systemic corruption, government institutions can often be hijacked by what she refers to as “kleptocratic networks.”
Chayes added that under corrupt governments, the judicial branch and military can often be repurposed in order to serve the interests of the network. She also noted that institutions which cannot be repurposed, such as the legislature, are often rendered powerless so that they cannot interfere with the network. She then discussed the various tactics by which kleptocratic networks try to stop opposition.
“One is secrecy and obfuscation … Secondly … they inject people with the money drug … And then the third really effective tactic is deploying and exacerbating identity divides,” she said.
Chayes found that one of the most corrupt periods in U.S. history lasted from approximately 1870 to 1935. The solution to the corruption back then, she cautioned, should not be repeated.
“What I had to conclude was that the only thing that shocked the world out of this kleptocratic syndrome … was a succession of global calamities that started with World War I, the Depression and World War II,” Chayes said.
She explained the crises she considers to be responsible for the solution to corruption in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“That means two world wars, two genocides, the use of the nuclear bomb, mass starvation in Europe, a pandemic that dwarfed the current one, and a global economic meltdown,” Chayes said. “That’s what it took to generate the kind of kind of survivor solidarity ethos that we all do experience in times of crisis.”
She concluded her lecture with a call to action.
“We have to gather that feeling of shared solidarity across all of our divides [and] take on our kleptocratic networks in order to ward off the calamities that are otherwise bearing down on us,” Chayes said.