December 1997

Corruption Rules the World

Much as Fascism and Communism
plagued the 20th century, corruption
will ravage the 21st. Blame the global
economy if you wish, but above all blame
the West for allowing the crimes of
Communism to be swept under the rug.


Globalization is the buzzword of the moment. The nation-state is said to be giving way to the multinational company. A trillion dollars cross the exchanges every single day. Man is born free, and everywhere finds himself with e-mail and the Internet. History is ending, and we shall be one happy family living in regional versions of democracy.

Corruption is the specter at this feast; it is the by-product of Globalization, and perhaps its fulfillment too. Corruption of course comes in several forms, not only financial but moral, cultural and institutional; as organized crime or individual buccaneering; thriving in the absence of law or on the contrary because there is too much law. Self-reinforcing, the forms of corruption are altogether challenges to the rule of law. Another cold war is shaping in defense of democracy. This calls for an effort of will as serious as in the previous struggles against Nazism and Communism. In its latest disguise, here is that most ancient of questions -- are men to be ruled by force, or by consent?

Thanks to its tradition and values, to the free market and undisputed military supremacy, the United States stands apart, threatened by every sort of corruption, internal and external, but apparently the only democratic model in a position to offer resistance. It will have to wage the new cold war virtually on its own.

In far the greatest part of the world, absolutism and tyranny remain the human norm. The strong still seize the spoils, and their subjects go to the wall. Superior force is decisive. Saddam Hussein spoke recently for absolutism with the immortal words, "Law consists of two lines above my signature."

If democracy is to be meaningful, individuals must be as responsible as possible for themselves, and their representatives must be made accountable. Sovereignty in a democratic state is not a matter of power or independence of policy (as so often and so wrongly supposed) but consists in that common element of trust binding everyone who respects the state's particular set of laws, and so makes citizens of them.

The formative political movements of the age have been cumulative onslaughts on such concepts. Nazism and Communism were criminal associations of the strong to exploit the weak, and that twin-headed legacy is still working its way through. Communism's fractious little brothers, socialism and social democracy, aspired to erect collective societies through persuasion rather than force. Since people could not be trusted to do what was in their own best interest, government had to do it for them.

Benign as the intention here may have been, the practice instead bred either cynicism or dependency on the state. People have increasingly been unable to trust those passing and enforcing the laws and regulations which they are expected to obey. Real sovereignty unravels accordingly. Throughout Europe, its birthplace, democracy is transforming before one's eyes into something still uncertain but unmistakably absolutist.

The postwar world further set about creating a range of non-governmental organizations of one sort or another, whereby decisions affecting the citizen are taken, but without him having any effective and direct representation. The United Nations and its agencies, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, G-7, the World Trade Organization, the Pugwash and Bilderberg and many more conferences, international bodies supposedly in control of atomic energy and weapons and communications and a hundred other things, even the George Soros and other foundations, are a kind of top-down amalgam of activity, where citizens have no say, and cannot throw the rascals out. Marginalizing or bypassing parliamentary representation, this evolving form of globalizing absolutism breeds impotence and yet more cynicism.

Finally, the effort to introduce democracy into the developing world has come to nothing. In countries which once had been Western-dominated, for the most part as colonies, leaders remain synonymous with the state. Some have dynastic claims, genuine or invented. The fortune of the al-Saud family is indistinguishable from the state petro-revenues; twenty or thirty Saudi princes are multi-billionaires, and literally thousands more are multi-millionaires. The Sultan of Brunei and the Gulf emirs match them. Morocco is poor in comparison, but King Hassan and his family keep it as almost a private economic preserve.

Indonesia is virtually the property of President Suharto and his family, now in power for over thirty years. Born poor, President Mobutu of Zaire and President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya were each said to be worth $30 billion after years in power. Originally a peasant, Saddam Hussein has an estimated $18 billion in personal accounts. Also from a peasant family, Rifaat, the brother of President Hafiz Assad of Syria, has enormous assets, although the country has few resources. In the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda amassed some $50 billion.

The Pahlavi Shahs of Iran deposited billions of dollars abroad, and now the ayatollahs are doing it. A judge in a Frankfurt court earlier this year found that police in Lower Saxony had uncovered two Turkish families who controlled drug smuggling in Germany and Belgium because they enjoyed the protection of Mrs. Tansu Ciller, the Turkish prime minister. She appointed her husband into her government, and he has been accused of using the post for personal gain. A leaked document revealed that two weeks before handing over power, Mrs. Ciller had taken about $6 million from a secret government fund -- for security purposes, she said.

Pakistan is in the hands of a small group of feudal landlords, "shamelessly corrupt men" in the words of an experienced correspondent writing about its fifty years of independence. Its former prime minister, Mrs. Benazir Bhutto, was a successor in office to her father, himself wholly corrupt and hanged for it. The Friday Times, a leading local newspaper, lately described her as "arrogant, reckless, capricious and corrupt." She jobbed her husband, the son of a cinema-owner, into a ministerial post, and he is accused of extracting at least $1 billion of public funds.

Other leaders in the developing world, the likes of Kwameh Nkrumah and Abdul Gamal Nasser, seized power with promises of democracy and nationalism imitated from the West. Nothing survived of these promises, not even lip-service. Extending the old tribal loyalties in Africa, the ancient absolutism of the Islamic world, or the Confucian obediences of Asia, the new leader and his cronies plundered the state, or diverted its resources to their purposes. The secret police dealt with any opposition. The alternative to tyranny was chaos, not democracy.

This is an excerpt of "Corruption Rules the World" by David Pryce-Jones from the December issue of The American Spectator.

David Pryce-Jones is the author of The Strange Death of the Soviet Empire and The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.