Sarah Chayes explained why corruption is the key factor in major international security crises. Many states resemble glorified criminal gangs, whose sole aim is to extract resources for personal gain, creating a fertile ground for revolts and breeding extremist movements—and thus undermining any progress toward political or economic transition. She offered her solutions on how to counter these kleptocratic practices—from examples in Nigeria to Afghanistan to post-Arab Spring countries. “Corruption generates rage,” said Chayes: the Dutch Revolt, for example, saw ordinary citizens rebelling against the corrupt Spanish Crown; the Protestant Reformation was partly a backlash against the excessive wealth and corrupt practices of the Catholic Church. More recently, the revolutions of 1989 and the Arab uprisings were triggered by anger at corrupt political systems and crony capitalistic networks. Chayes argued that corruption is partly responsible for the development of violent religious extremism. “Corrupt governments bring plain old opportunity for extreme religious leaders” to criticize their state and its practices. But instead of addressing the root causes of terrorism, Western governments prefer using security measures—sometimes even aligning themselves with corrupt governments in the process—and see anti-corruption as a secondary issue. Yet “If we do not address corruption, we cannot treat terrorism”, said Chayes.

Looking at ways to tackle corruption, Chayes pointed out that although local, home-grown anti-corruption movements are vital, the West also has a role to play. The West is the first provider of “corruption services” to corrupt governments around the world by helping them launder their money either directly or indirectly. Going against those types of investments would go against many economic interests, but would be very effective. That is why it so important to consider the security impact of facilitating corrupt practices against the economic benefits.

Combatting corruption requires a detailed and sophisticated approach, as well as a rigid moral structure. It requires carefully mapping the corruption networks, the various revenue streams, and the political trade-offs, and being in contact with the civil society movements on the ground. Most importantly, we need to understand the cultural context as corrupt practices take various shapes.

Chayes concluded that corruption is not the only driver behind political crises, but it is certainly an accelerator. Total impunity in the context of corruption should no longer be tolerated.

The discussion was moderated by Anne Applebaum, Director of the Legatum Institute's Transitions Forum.



  • Sarah Chayes, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment


  • Anne Applebaum, Director of the Transitions Forum, Legatum Institute

About the Speaker

Sarah Chayes is the author of Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security (2015). She is a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program and the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment. She was previously a reporter, and covered the fall of the Taliban for NPR. She is currently a contributing writer for the Los Angeles Times. Her first book, The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban, was published in 2006. Chayes served as a special adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as an expert in kleptocracy and anticorruption, South Asia policy and civil-military relations.

The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.