The world over, they all do it

March 07, 1997|By Jonathan Power

LONDON -- That President Clinton, commander-in-chief of the world's one remaining superpower, might dare to risk his country's financial and political prudence by personally wooing campaign contributions from Chinese, Thai and Indonesian business people with close ties to their governments, is by the yardstick of common probity boggling to the imagination.

A ''corruption eruption'' (in Moises Naim's phrase) has shaken ''every region regardless of cultural background or gross national product.''

The last 18 months have seen the fall of the secretary general of NATO over corruption allegations; indictments for corruption of one-third of India's cabinet; graft charges against Italy's most prominent post-war prime ministers and two former South Korean presidents; parliamentary investigations into financial abuses by the heads of government of Colombia, Pakistan and Turkey; graft at high levels of government in Japan -- not to mention the allegations of massive corruption against the former Mexican president and his brother and the assistance of Citibank in laundering the spoils.

As Robert Leiken observes in a fascinating article in Foreign Policy, ''The post-Cold War period exhibits the disillusionment and cynicism that result when transcendent events are followed by shabby anti-climaxes or worse. After the Glorious Revolution, Walpole's rotten boroughs; after Lincoln, the Gilded Age; after Wilson's Fourteen Points, the Teapot Dome Scandal; after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this.''

We appear to be surrounded and besieged by corruption. Organized international crime has mushroomed under the influence of the drug trade. Illicit traffic in nuclear materials threatens our very existence. Yet the decision to expand NATO and thus probably forsake the Russian ratification of the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty will put Russia's nuclear bomb-making factories back in business and with it the careless stockpiling of even more plutonium.

The urge to clinch deals

The arms trade reaches into every nook and cranny. A judicial inquiry last year showed how British government ministers connived to ignore the arming of Saddam Hussein. The murders of a leading socialist politician in Belgium and a young British investigative reporter in Chile suggest that some European arms companies, in the urge to clinch deals, don't even draw the line at homicide.

In Sweden, where probity is the most prized of all virtues, a former senior executive of the Swedish arms manufacturer, Bofors, told a national daily that he can't sleep at night for thinking there is some connection between the big bribes paid by his company in India and the 1986 murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme.

There are contrary trends. In India the voters punished Prime Minister P. Narasimha Rao's tainted government with a crushing defeat last year, and in Mexico President Ernesto Zedillo is hammering away at both bribery and drug barons. Even in Colombia, although allegations of having received drug money for his election campaign still hang over President Ernesto Samper, police and justice officials are prosecuting other malefactors with a commendable earnestness. In Brazil popular agitation pushed parliament to depose a crooked president,Fernando Collor De Mello.

Was there ever a golden age? In 1788 Edmund Burke attacked the colonial administrator of Bengal, Warren Hastings: ''Bribery, filthy hands, a chief governor of a great empire receiving bribes from poor, miserable, indigent people: This is what makes government itself base, contemptible and odious in the eyes of mankind.'' In the 18th and 19th centuries the sale of office was defended on the grounds of efficiency by Montesquieu and Bentham.

But if there was never a golden age there have been periods when corruption was much less pervasive. The sums involved were not sufficient to ''buy'' a whole government. It rarely corrupted the integrity of a government in its foreign dealings -- the charge now laid against Mr. Clinton.

Nevertheless, in many important ways, America has a cleaner slate than most. In the U.S. it is illegal to use bribes in market transactions abroad. But in Germany, as in much of Europe, if a businessman bribes a foreign government official he can claim it as a tax deduction. In Britain off-shore islands thrive on legal tax-evasion and nameplate addresses for arms sellers and such like.

It is simplistic to blame capitalist greed, or even Thatcher-Reagan deregulation. Most capitalists are not seriously corrupt. But governments too often turn a blind eye to corruption because it is convenient to do so. Governments have to set the standard. Voters as far apart as India, Belgium and Brazil have made that sentiment clear. In America, regrettably, they have missed their chance, for now at least.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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