The world’s major arms exporters have a conflicted approach when it comes to dealing with what are effectively kleptocratic governments.

The great thing about working on corruption is that it has forced people to look at foreign policy questions through a completely different lens. And the problem with the way that much of the foreign policy community looks at violent extremism is that it almost entirely ignores the exploitative governing structures and state predation that enables these groups to thrive.

Transparency International has been researching the link between corruption and violent extremism for some time. In our recent report, the Big Spin, we looked at a range of ISIS materials propaganda, Twitter posts by sympathisers, and interviews conducted with former and present members. Corruption was a powerful and persistent feature. Powerful because it tapped into legitimate grievances around nepotism, bribery, and theft of public funds — and not only at the micro level. And persistent because ISIS regularly referenced the systemic or grand corruption by governments in the region — dividing the world between virtuous defenders and the corrupt, tyrannical governments supported by the West and its allies.

But corruption doesn’t just drive public anger and extremism. It’s also an important enabler. Links to organised crime on the one side and to corrupt officials on the other hand facilitate financial and arms flows. In Libya and in Iraq, ISIS operations relied on smuggling, criminality, and the corruption of officials even as they portrayed themselves as an alternative to the abusive, corrupt systems in power. Meanwhile, corruption has very often undermined those states seeking to defend themselves. With 50,000 ghost soldiers on the payroll, the Iraqi army stood little chance of challenging ISIS as it took over Mosul. A similar story could be told of Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram. So what’s all this got to do with export controls?

Well if there’s one lesson from the Arab Spring, it’s that political elites that fail to respond to the basic demands of their people represent a threat to international security and are dubious partners in the long term. Governments which lack legitimacy can be much more fragile and unstable than they appear. The ones bent on are accumulating significant military capabilities are particularly dangerous. After all, when defence fails: it fails big.

The problem is that global defence spending is rising rapidly across the globe – about 15% in the last 10 years, but its rising most rapidly where levels of accountability and transparency are weakest. Take the MENA region as an example: military expenditure as a percentage of GDP is the highest in the world – averaging around 5%. In the case of the Gulf Cooperation Council, this translates to an increase in arms imports by 71% in the last decade. But according to our research, the $120billion or sospent across the MENA region is matched by a near complete absence of independent scrutiny or accountability. Without a national security strategy in place or without transparent acquisition plans, vast proportions of public funding are being spent in opaque ways and not necessarily on things that improve security.

This creates two major security risks: first it means that a significant proportion of resources are being spent on defence, without any reference to public priorities. And much of the money that is poured into these opaque systems is often used to sustain the corrupt power structures that ISIS capitalises on. Second, the consequence of corruption in the defence sector is disastrous. Again, think of Mosul, or the arms flowing across the Libyan border, or the potential for WMD programmes to escape state control.

Many of the world’s major arms exporters have a conflicted approach when it comes to dealing with these military-minded kleptocratic governments. On the one hand, many invest heavily in first rate development programmes and dedicate considerable time and energy to counteract the effects of corruption when planning for complex operations in places like Afghanistan or Iraq. But at the same time though, many of the countries are exporting vast quantities of military equipment to states where the risk of corruption is high with little thought for where/how those weapons might be used. The UK, for example, sends around 80% of conventional weapons exports to countries which have very low levels of accountability or transparency over their defence sector.

Export practices need to catch up where corruption is concerned. In many cases, the policy is already there – it’s just not being applied. For example, the EU Common Position on arms export control has a number of commendable criteria, albeit with highly questionable enforcement. Take Criterion Four, for example. It requires the “consideration of possibility that equipment would be used for purposes other than national security and defence, and impact on regional stability – taking into account the balance of forces and their relative expenditure on defence.” However, it’s hard to imagine how to affect said consideration when national defence budgets/strategies largely don’t exist. Lack of institutional oversight similarly makes it all but impossible to prevent non-proliferation or diversion – key objectives of Criterion Six and Seven respectively. Criterion Eight commits exporters to consider a recipient country’s relative levels of military and social expenditure. But again, when budgets are opaque, purchases are not linked to strategy, and the public are not involved in meaningful debate over defence policy, who is to say what constitutes a legitimate security need? Again, greater transparency and accountability in the defence sector is a pre-requisite for making this judgement.

Of course implementing the EU Common Position properly is more than a question of effective practice or tactics. It’s a fundamental foreign policy choice. And one that’s worth considering much more seriously. Rather than focussing on counter radicalisation, Western governments need to rethink their relationships with the Gaddafis, Assads and Malakis of the future. Many of the leaders to whom Western governments instinctively turn are far from friendly forces in the fight against terrorism. Superficially they may look like an alternative to instability. But in the end, corrupt governments are the architects of future security crises. And until we address this, we shouldn’t be surprised that the narratives of ISIS show foreign forces as complicit in – and sometimes drivers of – corruption in governments of the region.

Written by Katherine Dixon
image: (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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TI Defence & Security