‘Fighting Monsters’: Corruption and its impact on Defence and Security



Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Friedrich Nietzsche


Corruption: The Problem


Corruption is a monster that challenges all parts of every society and at every level. It is considered a key Sustainable Development Goal by the United Nations to tackle corruption if a society is to achieve stability. Whether it is driven by need to make up for miniscule salaries or by greed to gain ever more money, the effect on the nation and society can be profound. It is intended in this article to look at how corruption impacts not only on the defence and security institutions of a nation but also its impact on the very concept of security itself. However, as Nietzsche warns it is an abyss that can stare back and the toleration of corruption for short term advantage will often cause long term damage to a mission.


Corruption has many different definitions and is often used in a partisan way to denigrate opposition and there is a danger you open the debate on definition to the cul de sac of arguing along the lines of ‘one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter’. That is not the intent here and the definition used here coalesces around that used by the Non- Government Organisation (NGO) Transparency International (TI) which calls corruption ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’. Even this can be up for discussion if you decide to debate the meaning of ‘entrusted power’- is that public office? Are private companies excluded? Or what is ‘private gain’- after all has not some corruption taken place for a greater public good such as the paying of informants to prevent an atrocity? It is however not intended to debate on the ethical lines at the margins but consider the broad consensus around the idea of corruption where if it does not feel right it can probably be considered a form of corruption. One of the key factors is to remember ‘private gain’ is not just about pure financial gain but also power, influence, appointments and sexual exploitation


Corruption is notoriously difficult to measure as by definition it is hidden by those in positions of trust carrying it out. TI carry out considerable research to produce indices such as the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) , which looks at a population’s perception of corruption in their country by polling and the Government Defence Index (GI) which looks at the risk of corruption in Defence and Security institutions through their efficiency of control measures. These however are only really snapshots of one view of the risks and perceptions of corruption. The reality can often be very different as high degrees of corruption may be tolerated as ‘the way things are done’ leading to a misleading perception especially as the methodology was essentially developed in a Northern European cultural construct as that is where TI originated. There is a general consensus that somewhere between 15% and 20% of defence spending worldwide is lost to corruptionwith some countries much higher. Optimistically that means $300-$400 Bn a year goes to ‘private gain’ rather than the purpose it was intended for.


This loss can often be rationalised away as ‘facilitation’, ‘the cost of doing business’, ‘meeting a greater good’ or just part of the sort of Clausewitzian friction that exists in warfare. The reality is however corruption is far more than the ‘fog of war’ and fuels insecurity and instability. Having said how difficult it is to quantify corruption there is however considerable research carried out into the pernicious effect of corruption. There is a strong statistical link between peace and corruption. Research has suggested that as the amount of corruption increases so insecurity increases. This is shown in the Figure below extracted from Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) Report ‘Peace and Corruption':


One of the most striking aspects of this statistical relationship between the Global Peace Index and Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index is the marked presence of a ‘tipping point’. This suggests that if a country has low levels of corruption then modest increases in corruption will have little effect on overall peace and stability. However, once a certain threshold is reached, that data suggests is a CPI of around 30, then relatively small increases in corruption can result in large decreases in peace and increases in insecurity. This is also reflected in the figure below showing trends over time that as corruption has increased so insecurity has increased:



The IEP analysis identifies around 64 countries that sit in and around this ‘tipping point’ ranging from Kazakhstan and Albania through to Greece and Indonesia. These countries are those that if the corruption trend highlighted above is not tackled then these countries are vulnerable to big increases in insecurity and so potentially head down the road to becoming failed states that the conflict that implies. It could be argued that countries around this ‘tipping point’ will have the largest impact on maintaining and improving security by strong anti-corruption now to prevent cataclysmic decline.

It is a point of debate whether the relationship identified above is causal or consequential.

The argument could be made compellingly that an increase in instability provides the opportunity for more corruption and so corruption rates follow insecurity. This is often argued in the case of Afghanistan where it is often asserted that corruption flourishes because there is too much insecurity to tackle it with law enforcement focussed on terrorism. This means a blind eye is turned to corruption for higher operational imperatives and the theory being that once insecurity is tackled then corruption rates will automatically fall too.



Countries that fail to control corruption…are more prone to violent extremism and tend to witness a greater number of incidents linked to violent extremism

UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism


However there is considerable evidence to suggest this rationale is flawed. The US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in the report ‘Corruption in Conflict’ reflecting on the lessons of US involvement in Afghanistan was clear in stating ‘Corruption undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan by fuelling grievances against the Afghan government and channelling material support to the insurgency’. The report was clear that it was corruption that drove the instability and not instability that drove the corruption. The case to tackle corruption for security reasons is therefore a more compelling one than hoping corruption will decline as security is imposed. The experience from Afghanistan in fact suggests that the nirvana of security is impossible to reach unless corruption is tackled.

Why this may be is often not clear and open to debate but generally factors fall into three broad areas. Firstly the forces of law and order are weakened through corruption creating a vacuum. This was recognised in the UK Anti-Corruption Summit Final Communique of May 2016:

When security institutions are undermined through corruption, they are unable to protect people, defeat terrorism and organised crime, or defend national sovereignty. Corruption in the military, police and border forces also causes people to lose faith in legitimate authority and opens up a vacuum that terrorists, drug traffickers, human traffickers and other organised criminals exploit

The resilience and integrity of defence and security forces and their ability to resist corruption is essential to global stability. Low levels of security institutional integrity create the opportunity for corruption to fuel instability as organised crime exploits the vacuum and can in extremis develop into criminal insurgencies that threaten the existence of the state or form a nexus with violent extremism that politically threatens the state.

The second area is that corruption in governments feeds an opposing narrative. As the IEP recognises there seems to be a level of corruption that while illegal is often tolerated as ‘the way things are done’. This seems to have a minor impact on insecurity up to the ‘tipping point’. Beyond that point is where it is no longer accepted as the ‘way things are’ and that opposing narratives become more compelling. These may manifest themselves over an often small scandal or event but has a disproportionate effect on public dissatisfaction. This has been seen in the Arab Spring and the ‘Colour Revolutions’ where the strategic narrative rapidly shifts. It is this that Violent Extremist Organisations can tap into, with corruption often providing the ‘casus belli’ for the use of terrorism and violent means.