Winner of the 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest.
"I can’t imagine a more important book for our time." —Sebastian Junger
The world is blowing up. Every day a new blaze seems to ignite: the bloody implosion of Iraq and Syria; the East-West standoff in Ukraine; abducted schoolgirls in Nigeria. Is there some thread tying these frightening international security crises together? In a riveting account that weaves history with fast-moving reportage and insider accounts from the Afghanistan war, Sarah Chayes identifies the unexpected link: corruption.
Since the late 1990s, corruption has reached such an extent that some governments resemble glorified criminal gangs, bent solely on their own enrichment. These kleptocrats drive indignant populations to extremes—ranging from revolution to militant puritanical religion. Chayes plunges readers into some of the most venal environments on earth and examines what emerges: Afghans returning to the Taliban, Egyptians overthrowing the Mubarak government (but also redesigning Al-Qaeda), and Nigerians embracing both radical evangelical Christianity and the Islamist terror group Boko Haram. In many such places, rigid moral codes are put forth as an antidote to the collapse of public integrity.
The pattern, moreover, pervades history. Through deep archival research, Chayes reveals that canonical political thinkers such as John Locke and Machiavelli, as well as the great medieval Islamic statesman Nizam al-Mulk, all named corruption as a threat to the realm. In a thrilling argument connecting the Protestant Reformation to the Arab Spring, Thieves of State presents a powerful new way to understand global extremism. And it makes a compelling case that we must confront corruption, for it is a cause—not a result—of global instability.
Chayes (Punishment of Virtue) argues here that corruption among foreign governments angers local populations and thereby undermines U.S. foreign policy. Framing the narrative using medieval and Renaissance texts from the genre known as "mirrors for princes," written in Europe and the Middle East as advice to new rulers, Chayes draws from her own experiences as a reporter and aid worker in Afghanistan to show what happens when populations grow disappointed in their own governments. Most illuminating, however, are Chayes's conversations with people living under corrupt regimes that range from Nigeria, which she says suffers from a "resource curse," to Afghanistan and Syria. As she finds, problems often arise when proxies or intermediaries are able to interpose themselves between governments and the people they govern. As a result, dissent grows at the same time that politics is removed as a means of redress. Meanwhile, U.S. foreign policy, according to Chayes, tends to neglect the networks that foster corruption in favor of targeting individuals, or simply ignoring the issue altogether. Though she acknowledges homegrown American graft, she draws too little distinction between the corruption that greases wheels (such as congressional bills full of pork) and the corruption that actually disrupts progress. Nonetheless, scholars and CNN junkies alike should be intrigued by the issues Chayes brings up and impressed with the solutions she suggests.