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Genocide Studies and Prevention: An
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Book Review: ieves of State
Hugh E. Breakey
Grith University
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Hugh E. Breakey, “Book Review: Thieves of StateGenocide Studies and Prevention 10, 2 (2016): 135-137. ©2016 Genocide Studies and
Book Review: Thieves of State
Hugh E. Breakey
Socio-Legal Centre, Griffith University
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security
Sarah Chayes
New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015
245 Pages; Price: $26.95 Hardcover
Reviewed by Hugh Breakey
Socio-Legal Centre, Grith University
We underestimate corruption. These three words sum up the driving thesis of Sarah Chayes’
Thieves of State. In fact, we—including scholars, commentators and especially Western political
and military leaders and advisers—underestimate almost every facet of corruption. We misread
its pervasive extent and its networked, systemic nature. We fail to appreciate its crushing impact
on those who suer under its yoke. We downplay the sinister social, political, cultural, and even
religious shifts it drives, and the way such dynamics fuel civil strife and armed conflict. And as
a result of all of these underestimations, the international community (and the U.S. in particular)
make catastrophic strategic miscalculations when engaging with struggling states like Iraq and
With its brave claims, gripping anecdotes and grim insights into the wheels of power from
Kabul to Washington, Thieves of State makes for an engaging read, quite suitable for a lay audience.
Despite its popular (footnote-less) format, the book boasts more than enough careful argument
to warrant scholarly aention. Chayes’ work will be of immediate interest to those who work in
corruption or governance studies: a motley array of disciplines including law and constitutionalism,
criminology, political science, and economics. But because of the link she draws between endemic
corruption and widespread civil strife, her work also will be helpful to scholars of international
relations, global security and governance, human rights, and genocide studies.
Rather than dividing corruption into pey and grand types, Thieves of State instead focuses
on endemic corruption systems or ‘Malign Actor Networks’ (136). In such networks, the entire
system of government is beer understood as a vertically integrated criminal organization: pey
bribery and extortion by local public ocials is made possible by the higher-level ‘grand’ political
corruption that protects it and prots from it—and vice versa. Money, influence, protection, power
and resources course through these inter-locking networks in complex ways, giving rise to a
toxic environment where it is integrity and honesty—rather than corruption and chicanery—that
become perilous endeavours. “Corrupt and corrupting,” as one gure sums up the atmosphere in
Nigeria (132).
Chayes leaves her readers in no doubt as to the eect on populations suering under the
authority of these malign networks. While scholars may debate the legal minutiae of understanding
endemic corruption as a violation of human rights, the vignees sprinkled through the book
present all-too-perfect expressions of arbitrary interferences with fundamental freedoms, backed
up by kleptocratic state power.
Yet Chayes’ signature claim lies in what happens next: the population’s response to the
endemic corruption. She argues that the daily, inescapable indignities of networked corruption
strip any vestige of legitimacy from the reigning political regime, and from everyone and everything
associated with it. Hardworking, peaceful citizens withdraw their support for the government: “If
I see somebody planting an IED,” vows an Afghan, outraged at the impunity for police violence
when they shook down his brother, “and then I see a police truck coming, I will turn away” (6). But
for so many others, resistance takes a more violent, proactive form. Chayes’ argument weaves from
one conflict-zone to the next, covering Iraq, Afghanistan (Chapters 4, 11), Morocco, Algeria and
Tunisia (Chapters 6, 8), Egypt (Chapter 7), Uzbekistan (Chapter 9), and Nigeria (Chapter 10). While
the particular organization of the corruption network may dier (as Chayes helpfully models in
©2016 Genocide Studies and Prevention 10, no. 2
the book’s Appendix), in each case she hammers home to the reader the decisive causal role played
by corruption and state-sanctioned theft in triggering civil strife and revolt. As much as Western
observers might prefer to conceive the population’s animus lying in familiar concerns with human
rights violations, or democratic decits, or economic inequality, or religious intolerance, Chayes
takes dissidents at their word when they rail against their leaders’ corruption and greed. By
throwing open the door to all manner of civil strife, corruption threatens global security.
The Arab Spring showed—at least in its beginnings—that such dissident movements may be
secular (Chapter 6). Yet Chayes’ perhaps most intriguing claim lies in linking endemic corruption
and puritanical religious extremism—a link she stresses is by no means constrained to Islamic
extremism, or even to modern history. ‘Corruption’ in every language implies both moral and
material depravity—and the purity of religion can often present as the best or only weapon with
which to combat it (116). From al Qaeda to Boko Haram, from Protestant rebellions to Nigerian
Pentecostal churches, the flagrant corruption of the political elites engenders a puritanical response.
From this basis, Chayes aims to inject concerns with corruption into the thinking and
strategizing of all actors in international relations and global security. One key lesson is to avoid
seeing civil strife in foreign countries through the short-sighted Western preoccupation with
terrorism and religious extremism. Civilians on the ground harbor very dierent priorities to those
of their occupiers or benefactors. Faced with flagrant criminal regimes, populations may well
countenance tyrannies or theocracies as the lesser of two evils.
In terms of informing policy, especially in military engagements like Iraq and Afghanistan,
Chayes stresses how state corruption works as a force-multiplier for insurgents. In supporting
and protecting existing governments, foreign troops become entangled in their extortion, and are
viewed by the local population as complicit in the ensuing shake-downs, extortions, land-grabs and
theft of national resources. A similar theme holds for diplomatic, development and humanitarian
action; shrugging o claims of humanitarian neutrality Chayes avers that in the context of endemic
corruption, “economic or even capacity-building support is always political” (198). Ultimately,
international actors must be as willing to challenge corruption as they are to call out human rights
violations and democratic decits.
Yet wariness about corruption need not drive a blanket rule to disengage. In her nal chapter,
Chayes considers a wide array of remedies, including tools in the hands of international leaders,
diplomats, business and civil society, that can increase the costs and risks of corruption by
developing country governments. While her recommendations here should be required reading
for all international actors, Chayes oers less advice about internal eorts to combat domestic
state corruption—though her Epilogue rightly reflects on the Global Financial Crisis, showing that
systemic corruption networks are not purely a developing world problem.
In terms of evidence and argument, much of the book’s persuasive force comes from stories
and experience accrued in Chayes’ life and research on the ground in these geopolitical hotspots,
particularly Afghanistan. Since 2001, Chayes worked as a journalist, ran an NGO, and then was
called upon in 2009 to serve as special adviser to ISAF commanders. Her thesis dovetails with the
grim recent history of the Middle East, and in particular with the failures of the U.S. to grapple with
the problems beseing Iraq and Afghanistan, including its all-too-late realization that corruption
fueled the strategic threats of insurgency and extremism.
As well as this hands-on experience, the work is shot through with intriguing scholarly
argument and historical evidence. In Chapter Two, Chayes scours the ‘mirrors’ for ‘Princes’;
guide-books wrien by hopeful advisers to their monarchs, spanning from the eight century to
the sixteenth, wrien by Islamic and Christian scholars. Chayes draws one persistently recurring
admonition out of this trove: the advice that monarchs shun the theft of their subjects’ possessions,
lest they drive the population to insurrection. As she observes, even Machiavelli—hardly a political
theorist drawn to unnecessary moralizing—upheld this prohibition in The Prince.
Chayes returns to the history twice more. In Chapter Twelve she reflects on the Dutch revolt
against absolutist monarchy and its corrupt envoys, which fed into later aempts to create limited
government, through John Locke in England and then the founding fathers of the United States.
The next chapter moves further back in time, highlighting Luther’s challenge as an indictment
of the Catholic Church’s corruption. The history, Chayes stresses, tells a consistent message.
Book Review: Thieves of State
©2016 Genocide Studies and Prevention 10, no. 2
Whatever else they may put up with, the masses chafe under flagrant, corrupt, thieving rule—
whether temporal or spiritual.
Like any work that hones in on a single causal factor, Chayes’ focus on corrupt kleptocracy
risks under-emphasizing other triggers driving civil strife—a limitation she explicitly notes (187).
So too, more empirically-minded social scientists may wish for further, quantitative evidence to
demonstrate the correlation and causation existing between endemic corruption and civil strife.
But it would take a stern critic not to be persuaded by Chayes’ fundamental thesis that corruption
deserves more consideration in conversations about global security.
Several elements of Thieves of State carry relevance for scholars of genocide and atrocity
crimes. To be sure, concerns with corruption are not unknown in this context. The United Nations
OSAPG’s Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes lists corruption as a circumstance that impinges
on state’s capacity to prevent atrocity crimes. But if Chayes is right about the causative link between
kleptocracy and civil strife, then corruption may warrant inclusion as a prime factor placing states
under stress and making them vulnerable to social breakdown.
The key question in this context is whether in stripping resistance to insurrections and violent
terror, endemic corruption contributes to the wholesale breakdown in social functioning that
often characterizes atrocity crimes. While further research on this question beckons, Chayes’ work
provides some prima facie reasons to think it does.
First, Chayes argues that endemic corruption fuels puritanical religious extremism, with
normative ideas about purity seen as an answer to secular government’s moral and material
depravity. Such extremism can feed into the type of identity politics, and beliefs about the moral
impurity of others—both within and outside one’s sect—that can foment violent solutions.
Second, kleptocracy gives rise not only to rebellions, but ones who have lost faith in all
institutions associated with the rampant corruption. All too often, secular government, economic
development, democracy, western-style education, and human rights are tarred with the same
brush (115). The rejection of these ideas and institutions may strip societies of vital cultural
resources capable of stymieing their collapse into ethnic or religious violence. So too, subsequent
international interventions, for example through oces of the United Nations, will be viewed as
unwelcome and illegitimate. Cosmopolitan, international and secular actors are seen as complicit
in the very problem that drove the insurgency.
Finally, peacekeepers and humanitarians can be important actors in genocide prevention
eorts. Yet these groups are routinely forced to work alongside existing governments, supporting
and protecting their interests. As such, many of the concerns with complicity Chayes canvassed
with respect to U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan will be relevant here, giving force to
recent work on the challenging questions arising between peacekeeping and corruption.
In all, anyone who deals with the conflict-related harms, human rights violations and atrocities
that can follow from the wholesale collapse of civic trust will prot from a careful reading of
Thieves of State. In conversations and action on works on global security and international aairs,
we can no longer aord to underestimate endemic corruption.
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