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Threat to peace: Kleptocrats and diversionary wars

In her excellent book, Thieves of State, Sarah Chayes argues persuasively that foreign corruption is a threat to U.S. national security because it drives people to radical Islam. There is an additional aspect to this problem: corrupt regimes are a national security threat because they start wars in order to divert attention from their own corruption.   

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, the dying King Henry tells his son, Prince Harry: “Be it thy course, to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out, may waste the memory of former days.” Many real life princes have heeded this advice.   

In his article, The Diversionary Theory of War: A Critique, Jack Levy notes that historians have interpreted the Crimean War as an attempt by Louis Napoleon to win support among French Catholics by supporting Catholics in Jerusalem against the Russian backed Greek Orthodox. He also cites the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 and quotes the then Russian Minister of Interior who said “What this country needs is a short victorious war to stem the tide of revolution.”   

More recently, in 1982, Argentina’s junta seized the Falklands in an attempt to divert attention from the country’s economic problems. Many see the current crisis in Ukraine as a response to Russia’s domestic corruption.  When asked about Putin’s motivations in Crimea, Karen Dawisha, author of Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? explained “By 2014 Russia’s economy was already facing a slowdown. The social contract the Kremlin had previously agreed to — you let us steal and we will improve your standard of living a little — was coming unraveled. How to reduce the public space for legitimate protest against corruption? A popular and no/low-cost foreign war.” 

Of course, such ploys are effective only as long as the war is successful. Military defeat typically means the end of the regime, as it did for the Argentine junta in 1982. Therefore, survival requires victory, making such conflicts extremely difficult to resolve peacefully.

Chayes has made a real contribution to discussions of both anti-corruption and national security by linking the two and explaining why anti-corruption should play a central role in U.S. national security policy. Her book cries out for a “top down” companion piece, analyzing how the “thieves of state” maintain power by fabricating enemies and conflicts and the consequent implications for U.S. national security.  

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Thomas Firestone is a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Baker & McKenzie. His practice focuses on international white collar criminal defense and compliance, with a special focus on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. He previously spent 14 years at the U.S. Department of Justice, first as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York and then as Resident Legal Adviser and Acting Chief of the Law Enforcement Section at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

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