EACH week brings new revelations of malfeasance in Italy. Earlier in the year, a series of scandals contributed to the unseating of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party.
While the world's attention is focused on the threats to the stability of nations posed by fundamentalism and nationalism, another virus is at work: corruption, the exploitation of an official position for personal gain. Scandals have erupted in every corner of the world, including the United States.
Corruption is more than the passing of money or granting special privileges. In many countries it involves favoritism leading to monopolies, profits, and bank accounts that sap a nation's resources. The regime of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines carried this to a high art. President Mobutu Sese Seko reportedly diverts much of the profit from Zaire's rich resources directly into his personal coffers and those of his friends. At the lowest level is the poorly-paid clerk who holds a drawer open for a donation before providing the necessary authentication or exit visa.
Once the practice is embedded in a society, it is difficult to root out, especially in developing societies. Italy and Japan have demonstrated that laws, officials, and democratic institutions can challenge large-scale, high-level corruption. Italy's political system has nonetheless been severely shaken. In the poorer areas of the world, if a ruler should be inclined to reform, his family and cronies who benefit from the riches of power oppose such efforts. They fear not only the loss of privilege, but prosecution and, in some societies, death.
The existence of corruption represents a strong barrier to change. Even if a transition in government takes place, the new government may be tempted by the same opportunities, whether created by the awarding of government contracts, foreign assistance, drug trafficking, quid pro quo for political favors, export and import licensing, or shares in joint business ventures.
Corruption is listed as one of the principal problems in mobilizing the limited resources of the newly free states in the old Soviet bloc. Observers of the Middle East peace process fear that, without adequate controls and understandings, the millions scheduled to be funneled into the region to assist in establishing peace could fall prey to patterns of corruption.
US interests have suffered from corruption abroad. Widespread beliefs that regimes were corrupt undoubtedly undermined regimes friendly to the US in Iraq in 1958, Libya in 1969, Iran in 1979, Nicaragua in 1979, and the Philippines in 1984. In many cases, evidence of wealth accumulated by rulers to the detriment of their peoples was unmistakable; in others, the suspicion of corruption was enough to weaken a government.
The US Congress in 1977 passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, making it illegal for US businesses to give excessive payments, favors, or bribes to gain business. Yet what the US can do officially to discourage corruption abroad is limited. US diplomats have no authority to enforce the Act abroad; that is a Department of Justice responsibility. Foreign diplomats produce either denials or the assertions from leaders that ``others may be involved; we are not.'' Corruption is not a popular subject for diplomatic discourse. The argument that such practices run serious risks of destroying a government falls on the deaf ears of those more worried about their immediate gain.
Some in the United States believe that foreign corruption is not our affair. ``That is the way of the world,'' they say. Many business executives oppose the corrupt-practices legislation, saying that it disadvantages US business abroad. This is shortsighted. The virus of corruption threatens the vitality and credibility of even the most stable political systems. In the current period of radical change in certain fragile societies, faith in the future and stability will depend on the establishment of democratic states with free markets. The success of that transition will be in serious doubt if those seeking to encourage a positive evolution ignore, or, worse, condone practices of greed and favors.