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God bless Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He is in a tough spot, but he continues to nail it. Two weeks ago, he made headlines when he correctly pointed out the Iranian government is run by “something that resembles the mafia more than a government.” The most fundamental and overlooked observation of the post-Cold War era is that all authoritarian governments, in their myriad institutional forms, operate more like criminal syndicates than the traditional Westphalian conceptualization of sovereign governance.
In “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security,” Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace uses her experience in Afghanistan to articulate Pompeo’s point. My point is that it is universally applicable: No two dictatorships are the same and neither are any two transnational criminal organizations, but there are common attributes among all of them. All engage in, and in fact depend upon, theft. Whether it is intellectual property, land, resources, foreign aid, or people that are stolen, dictatorships operate outside of internationally established rule of law traditions. The criminal nature of modern authoritarian governance is one the policy world is understandably reluctant to accept for diplomatic, trade, and security reasons. But a growing number of scholars see the writing on the walls.
Most people will accept the claim that organized crime fuels corruption. Fewer will agree on who, how, why, and when. By taking well-established measures of corruption and democracy from the Varieties of Democracy Institute and Freedom House, respectively, analyses show that non-democracies after 1991 have grown far more corrupt than Cold War non-democracies on average. This provides some evidence for the important insight that Pompeo applied to Iran, but more importantly, it informs a general logic of national security for the modern world.
All of America’s national security threats are either authoritarian states or are supported by them. I argue that all authoritarian states are kleptocracies because by definition, authoritarians maintain an artificial monopoly on the use of political power. They support their absolute power by pillaging their own and others’ economies, using the loot to purchase the support of elites in militaries, political parties, connected families, and loyalists in governments at home and abroad.
Ideology plays a part, but not like it did during the Cold War. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now functionally capitalist. Putin’s oligarchs do not support his autocratic rule because they believe it is what Lenin prescribed. It is doubtful that Kim Jong-Un’s inner circle truly believes that “Juche” (North Korea’s official ideology of self-reliance) and nuclear missiles are the most profitable and sustainable path forward. I have a hard time believing the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp wakes up every morning and thinks, “Hey, wiping Israel off the map and starting World War III sounds like a good idea.”
Surely some autocratic elites drink the ideological Kool-Aid, but arguably most do it for the enhanced living standards they receive from corrupt systems. CCP elites are the fastest growing class of billionaires. Russian oligarchs are infamous for their luxurious lifestyles. The elite in North Korea have internet access, consume Western media and whiskey, drive Mercedes, and buy smartphones. The IRGC, as Secretary Pompeo articulated, treat themselves very nicely in comparison to the Iranian people from whom they steal.
If autocratic elites do not support their regimes for personal gain, they do it out of fear. Dissent is often equivalent to a death sentence. In 2015, Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister of Russia, was assassinated just outside the Kremlin for opposing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Last year, North Korea announced the execution of five senior security officials using anti-aircraft guns, ostensibly for making false reports. Such gruesome tactics demonstrate the lengths to which autocrats will go to punish disloyalty.
Regardless of their motivations, the corruption of mafia-like elite circles are the soft spot of post-Cold War authoritarian states. American elites that benefit from a strong rule of law at home (including Democratic, Independent, and Republican voters, business leaders, moral leaders, and policymakers) would do well to recognize the generalizability of Mike Pompeo’s stylized Iranian observation. Authoritarianism is corruption. Democracy is rule of law. Mind the gap.
Keep preaching, Secretary Pompeo. The world is listening.
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