Foreign Policy Blogs

What Wikileaks has to say about corruption

The latest Wikileaks revelations are too extensive for any single person to have yet sifted through, and they pertain to so many aspects of foreign policy that it is difficult to know where to focus. Here are some of the highlights related to corruption.

In the category of “I knew just as much simply by keeping up with the news,” the leaked diplomatic cables revealed overwhelming corruption in Afghanistan. One lonely Afghan minister was singled out for being “the only minister that was confirmed about whom no allegations of bribery exist.” He happens to be the agriculture minister, which hopefully is a positive sign given Afghanistan’s difficulties ending opium farming. But the scale of corruption cited in the cables is indeed disheartening. It is not the regular reports of bribes paid and skimming off the top, but the fundamental emphasis on personal gain over the national good that most bodes ill. For example, one minister, who incidentally is not cited as the honest one, said that “these political leaders are only thinking of dividing up the spoils rather than the quality of government needed to tackle Afghanistan’s problems.” If this is indeed the case, Afghanistan is facing a bleak future.

The cables also elucidate the tightrope that the United States is walking between security and corruption in Afghanistan. One report describes an Afghan border official who is regularly accused of illegal trafficking and taxing. However, he operates in an area that is a crucial transportation zone for NATO convoys, and he has always been cooperative with NATO leadership. U.S. and NATO officials don’t want to be seen as complicit in his corruption, but their primary objective is security, not fighting corruption. It is such competing interests in Afghanistan that pose the greatest challenge to integrity.

shifty look

shifty look

Another case that may seem obvious is Russia. As Reuters eloquently put it, “Vladimir Putin rules Russia by allowing a venal elite of corrupt officials and crooked spies to siphon off cash from the world’s biggest energy producer.” Putin has denied the rumors that his leadership position has brought him extreme wealth. And rightly so: the cables are reports from diplomats on the information they are gathering, and we should not take any of them as confirmed facts. At the same time, the diplomats likely would not include something in the cable if they had no more basis for believing it than Putin’s shifty look.

Perhaps more troubling that these revelations, however, is how the cables will impact the United States’s efforts against corruption. For example in Kenya, the U.S. ambassador has been outspoken regarding what has sometimes been a rocky road towards integrity. Late last month he called for both Kenya’s chief justice and attorney general to be replaced, and for corrupt ministers to be jailed. But Wikileaks has revealed disdain on the part of the ambassador towards Kenya’s leaders. It is doubtful whether he can continue to be a voice of authority among people who now believe he holds them in contempt.

Finally, the leaks have led some people to depict the functioning of U.S. diplomacy itself as corrupt. For example, one website says “WikiLeaks shows the American and European governments used monetary incentives, threats, and even espionage to advance their ‘climate’ agenda at the COP15 global-warming summit in Copenhagen last year and beyond.” While what it goes on to describe sounds more like typical diplomatic negotiation and does not demonstrate the kind of private personal gain normally associated with corruption, headlines like “WikiLeaks reveals corruption in the climate change treaty” certainly harm diplomatic efforts.

If Wikileaks is still holding a document that provides evidence confirming any of the world’s many corruption rumors, I encourage them to publish it immediately. In the meantime, the site does not seem to have done much yet for the world’s fight against corruption.

p.s. Happy Anti-Corruption Day! I personally don’t get much out of designated days like this, but I thought it was worth mentioning.