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20

JUNE 2016

|

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL

CORRUPTION:

A 21st-Century

Security Challenge

FOCUS

ON CORRUPTION AND FOREIGN POLICY

Sarah Sewall is the under secretary of State for civilian

security, democracy and human rights. Sworn in on

Feb. 20, 2014, she serves concurrently as the special

coordinator for Tibetan issues.

I

n a world of globalized threats, bad governance

is a liability. Poorly governed areas provide not

just a safe haven, but sometimes even a justifica-

tion for non-state actors like terrorists, traffickers,

insurgents, drug cartels and criminal groups to step

in and fill the void. These sinister networks thrive

where the state cannot prevent or police them, and

they benefit when citizens envision better futures or

security in an illicit and immoral world.

By undermining state effectiveness, corruption creates

openings for these dangerous actors. Corruption also gives

them a tool to infiltrate and influence the state itself, further

weakening governance and expanding terrorist and criminal

reach. As we’ve seen in places like Honduras and Iraq, cor-

ruption is not simply an issue of rights and efficiency. The cost

of corruption can increasingly be measured in security and

stability.

By undermining state effectiveness, eroding trust between

citizens and government and exploiting vulnerable populations,

corruption has emerged as a top-priority national security threat.

BY SARAH SEWAL L

Corruption’s Insidious Reach

Corruption feeds instability by eroding trust between people

and government. It turns institutions of public service into tools

for public exploitation. Left unchecked, corruption can fuel

apathy and even hostility toward public institutions. In Tunisia,

Ukraine, Egypt and elsewhere, it drove protesters into the streets

to upend the political order.

But corruption can also undermine security in less dramatic

ways. Crooked officials can make citizens believe that the system

is rigged against them, creating sympathy for non-state actors

promising a better bargain. In Iraq, the so-called Islamic State, or

Daesh, recruits members by portraying itself as a “pure” alterna-

tive to a corrupt government. The Taliban makes the same case

in Afghanistan. Research from the State Department’s Bureau

of Conflict and Stabilization Operations has found that citizens

who personally experience corruption are more likely to engage

in violent, extremist behavior.

While corruption can give rise to new threats, it can also

undermine the government’s ability to respond to those threats

and ensure security. As Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi

prepared to take on Daesh last year, he discovered 50,000 “ghost

soldiers” on the government payroll costing Iraqis $380 million a