We Americans have a strange idea—by now spread over much of the world—that law enforcement is a sort of natural drive, as if the hungering and thirsting after righteousness in the Beatitudes were literal. One of our most prolific TV series (in fact, a multi-generational franchise) is Law & Order, which flogs the fantasy that certain people’s job is to be solemnly outraged by a single case of cruelty or exploitation at a time, and to devote themselves to tracking down, shaming, and punishing in some exemplary way the exemplary monster who is at fault.
As I read J. C. Sharman’s account of the legal struggles to trace and recover vast sums looted from developing countries and laundered abroad, I pictured myself gobbling old Law & Order episodes in a South African living room, as an American exile. Outside, throughout Cape Town’s suburbs and “black townships,” I kept having experiences that drove me back to polyurethane nirvana rather than suggested practical ways of nurturing the rule of law; because the latter project is—as Sharman demonstrates with thoroughness and balance—very, very hard. Human beings are in reality no more instinctively drawn to make coherent rules and obey and enforce them, mainly for the benefit of people unrelated to us, than we are to make sushi or grow orchids; and maybe a lot less.
Consider the looting of the developing world, from Sharman’s angle: not how or why the looting has happened, but how the West has regarded and changed (or, mainly, tried to change or made a pretext of changing) its relationship to the looters and the loot. Human drives and the typical structures of our societies (right across continents and hemispheres) seem to work against justice at every turn, so that a better question than “How on earth do people get away with all this?” might be “How could any wronged citizenry ever get even a little of its own back?”
Here’s another South African scenario, one in which I’m representing the West’s ethics (and this is not a prideful claim). I’m at an NGO board of directors meeting that’s starting to raise my hair. A group of employees has come forward to accuse their colleague, a former revolutionary activist, of charging both us and another NGO for the same work. I suggest that we look at the colleague’s time sheets and pay stubs from both organizations; because, in a long discussion, there hasn’t been a word about evidence yet.
The accused stands up, in hot offense: Where do I get off asking to see the paperwork and sit in judgment on him? In his background, in the “struggle [against apartheid],” nobody kept records. I look around for support; the veteran South African anti-apartheid campaigners, pillars of the sponsoring church, aren’t going to tell a rising black man that he is full of it, that the NGO will go under without bookkeeping—so he must clean up his act or leave. A respected activist originally from England does back me up, but the accused gets away with deriding him as a meddling foreigner.
The next day, I submit an angry letter of resignation to the board. Over the years, my predictions come true in spectacular fashion. There is not one corruption scandal, but several. Finally, the finance director—hired on the strength of a single reference, several years old, from a clergyman—is blackmailed by Nigerian fraudsters, who steal all the NGO’s liquid assets, hundreds of thousand dollars, and wire them to Malaysia. The full plunder takes more than a year, but during this time the board’s finance committee doesn’t look at a single bank statement and so doesn’t notice anything until the money is gone and bills are meeting oblivion. Yikes, the European government funders say, we’re out. The NGO still exists today, but with a tiny staff, a comical reputation, and evanescent programs.
So why didn’t I, why didn’t anyone who knew what was going to happen prevent it? And why didn’t anyone come in afterward and pursue restitution and reform? I can speak only for myself. I even worked for the NGO for a short time, I was so close to it; but striving elsewhere as an (untrained) medical editor, a (barely supervised) investigative reporter, and a (trained but jobless) translator of ancient Greek and Latin was clearly going to be easier than trying to force certain issues inherent in development economics; I wasn’t going to batter my head against that wall for long, even though it was a wall that was supposed to concern me, a Quaker—Quakers are famously keen on material equality.
You can tell newly liberated and “empowered” people that they’re not skilled enough or conscientious enough to run things. You can point out the well-documented truth that oppression isn’t a source of wisdom and virtue (as in fairy tales and Law & Order Special Victims Unit) but of stupidity and vice. You can tell the long-oppressed that perhaps their children or grandchildren will be able to take full advantage of the rights won now. But it’s damn hard.
You can tell people who have devoted their lives to working on an equal footing with oppressed people and chucking all condescension that they’re being had. But this too is damn hard. You can insist on top-to-bottom reform, but this is beyond hard. You won’t be allowed to try, because where corruption is established, it pervades and rules and defines institutions.
You will struggle to run an orphanage, even a brand new one staffed by Scout-ish foreigners, if the local police are in on child prostitution; and you can’t reform the police (not your mission, but just say that you have the will and the resources) without emptying every station of staff. And forget about complete renewal. Western mentorship, ground-up reform? Nobody will go more rapidly and more thoroughly corrupt than neophyte protégé, whose purity is a total lack of experience; who, say, cannot file because they don’t know the alphabet and of course can’t admit and amend that, and so have to cover (somehow) for lack of access to documents that might have been arranged just as well by pitchfork. The choice I became familiar with was between, on the one hand, having passive relationships with underdevelopment, and so tolerating corruption and being involved with it to a certain extent; and, on the other hand, having no relationships with underdevelopment. Proverbially, in a globalized world the latter is less and less practical, no matter where you live or what you do. Why not just do what any sane person would be inclined to do, and keep your head down and think about something else?
These are the deep realities behind Sharman’s four case studies of important recipient countries dealing with plundered and laundered millions and billions over recent decades. Clearly, what I got to know in Cape Town does extend, in big webs of inertia, across oceans and through giant corporations and powerful governments. Dread of having to render (or just act out) the verdict, “Your society is not qualified to retain and use its own resources” swirls into a batter of Western self-interest; but far more than “political incorrectness” (mere emotional discomfort or clever pretext) is at play; rather, the difficulties are real and built in.
First, in the absence of criminal convictions or even extant paperwork in the robbed countries, the legal basis for repatriating money is weak; and the humanitarian basis is weak without enforceable agreements on how that money will be spent: it might feed yet more corruption, which in turn feeds arms purchases, environmental devastation, catastrophic income divides, repression, and destabilization.
Among the four countries Sharman uses as case studies—the United States, Switzerland, Great Britain, and Australia— Switzerland proves the most vigorous reformer, but the reform is gapingly partial. The Australians, whom Sharman places in fourth place, remind me of guys sourcing the grain alcohol and strippers for a fraternity party:
One wire transfer payment routed through a major Australian bank to New York had an associated message, “This is for the jihad mother-fuckers.” When the bank employee in Australia responsible for screening suspect wire transfers for terrorist financing risks was asked why he hadn’t flagged this, he replied that he didn’t know what “jihad” meant. . . . At a presentation to another major bank’s board, one board member suggested that international sanctions on North Korea and Iran presented the bank with a highly lucrative commercial opportunity to “play in this space” and sell services to these countries, considering the complete lack of competition.
Shocking as the abuses are, most reform worldwide smells of printer ink rather than the sweat of worry and effort, let alone the pants-soiling fear of careers ended, ruinous fines, or jail. Many commonsense laws are in fact in place. Overseas bribery is now a crime rather than a deductible business expense; banks are bidden to know their customers and not accept dubious large deposits. Due-process pretexts for inaction have been weakened, and in the future the universal standard may be that a prosecutor doesn’t have to prove that a specific sum came from a specific crime (a hopeless assignment in typical circumstances); instead, a mere fabulous discrepancy between assets or lifestyle and admitted sources of income may be decisive. Investing money overseas—or investing it at all—doesn’t feel like a natural right, and should (and may well) join taxpaying, boarding a plane, adopting a child, and many other activities in which, tough, you have to prove yourself innocent a priori. But for now, even in countries where ignoring the law isn’t usual, it is the default reaction to ignore new statutes, judicial precedents, and related administrative guidelines wherever they pertain to money laundering.
Degrees of progress adhere closely to national interests. During the Cold War, the US was a leading repressor of accountability for its anti-communist client despots. The end of the Soviet empire allowed more freedom to maneuver, but—and this is my judgment, rather than Sharman’s—our country’s vaunted idealism tends to crash up against our lunatic version of corporate personhood: that is, a company here can have every civic right its owners can imagine a use for, but the legal and moral accountability of a ghost.
In practical terms, which The Despot’s Guide does lay out, a tyrant’s nephew can visit a specialist US law firm and real estate agency and develop a “wealth management” plan for hiding a billion stolen dollars, and the advice will remain confidential and the ownership of the shell corporations closed to public scrutiny. As a middle-class American citizen, I don’t see how I could acquire or keep as much as an outhouse as the fruit of crime. Through the deeds registry, anyone may know what property I do own and enforce all my legal duties, clear down to hedge trimming.
Still, Switzerland’s recent experience is cheers me up a little. The strict banking secrecy law, the status of tax evasion as a mere administrative offense and not a criminal one (greatly restricting prosecutorial authority), and other factors gave little hope a couple decades ago. It’s not in fact entirely clear why in 2005 Switzerland could achieve such exemplary justice as returning to Nigeria $505 million, to be spent on development under World Bank supervision.
Though Sharman holds that the threat of bad publicity seldom plays out, I can’t help remembering an American late-night comedian, a number of years ago, departing from his topic to taunt a Swiss diplomat about his country’s collusion in stashing assets the Nazis stole from Jews. The guest’s expression was the most Swiss thing I have ever seen: super-polite, but behind it an entire super-cohesive society was reckoning on necessary adjustments in dealing with the rest of the world. Such a reckoning is not of course shared with professors in international relations who are researching books.
And Switzerland can do its reckoning in a sort of empyrean realm; it has virtually no foreign policy, certainly no tough foreign entanglements, no domestic analogies to the great conflicts and inequalities abroad. Not so the US and Australia, of course; and mixed and ambiguous results in reform in the United Kingdom are transparently related to the country’s long, complicated imperial history.
But entanglements can also be a friend of reform—maybe. Sharman seems to have been unlucky in his publication date early this year. The manuscript was likely finished months before, and then he would have seen no basis in current events for considering how quickly and how decisively the type of crimes that most of us used to consider remote, and of only sentimental interest, could change in our eyes. Money laundering has now come home to us, and helped elevate a national leader of bewildering corruption and terrifying brutality.
We couldn’t be sort of involved in money laundering, involved just to get the benefits (the billions in investments; the sleazy, easy, cheap access to other nations’ natural resources courtesy of their sell-out leaders; the rush of talent and brains here, where there was relative meritocracy), without in time being really involved; without being threatened with living the way the victims always have: dispossessed, abused, fearful, furious, helpless, taking it out on anyone whose reputation the powers-that-be chose to manipulate. We will be the type of country whose ravaging we used to find so boring or so ridiculous.
Or we will act bravely and sacrificially to restore the rule of law—not, again, that this is a natural, instinctive way to act: that way is to sit and dream that things will get better on their own. Yet we do have certain traditional expectations, fundamentally more persuasive than Law & Order, to urge us otherwise: Justice, the daughter of Zeus, coming slowly, limping, but never failing to arrive; and our indifference to the weak turning into implacable anger against us on a day of judgment.
The West at its best says, “This is all real and immediate; it’s not an axiom or an abstraction or just a story about other people—it’s us. God exists and is exigent because everything that happens is connected.” Now, along with millions of other people who were cynical and disaffected before, I pay the newspaper subscription fees, I put up with the commercials on network news, and I give diligent attention to the facts as they appear. Chiefly: where the money came from, where it went, and why.
And I prepare to take responsibility, because at last I know that, if I don’t, I will pay: through a leering security operative reading the stroppy emails on my phone at an airport and grounding me, taking a hatchet swing at my livelihood; through a licensed and officially incited yahoo with an assault weapon, wiping me off the fair face of his imaginary country; through the hammering fist on my door in the middle of the night.