"Drain the swamp!” the U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shouted at campaign rallies last year. The crowds roared; he won. “Our political system is corrupt!” the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders thundered at his own rallies. His approval rating now stands at around 60 percent, dwarfing that of any other national-level elected official. Although many aspects of U.S. politics may be confusing, Americans are clearly more agitated about corruption than they have been in nearly a century, in ways that much of the political mainstream does not quite grasp. The topic has never been central to either major party’s platform, and top officials tend to conflate what is legal with what is uncorrupt, speaking a completely different language from that of their constituents.

Although the political establishment, including the justices of the Supreme Court, may cling to a legal notion of corruption, ordinary Americans’ more visceral understanding is in line with an anticorruption Zeitgeist that has swept the world in the past decade. In Brazil, huge, ongoing street protests over the course of two years have bolstered the federal police force and a crusading jurist, Sérgio Moro, as they have investigated and brought to justice high-ranking perpetrators in a web of corruption scandals. Their work has already led to the impeachment of one president, Dilma Rousseff, and her successor, Michel Temer, is also in the cross hairs. A similar movement has shaken Guatemala, where a UN-backed commission has helped prosecutors bring charges against dozens of officials, including Otto Pérez Molina—who was the country’s president until 2015, when he resigned and was arrested on corruption charges. Earlier this year, South Korean President Park Guen-hye met the same fate. 

In countries as varied as Bulgaria, Honduras, Iraq, Lebanon, Malaysia, Moldova, Romania, and South Africa, where governments haven’t been toppled, citizens have nonetheless shown remarkable collective energy in protesting corruption. Taken together, these disparate movements add up to a low-grade worldwide insurrection. Elsewhere, taking the pulse of their people, governments such as China’s have launched top-down initiatives targeting crooked officials

Corruption is not so much a problem for governments as it is an approach to government.

Despite paying lip service to the problem of corruption for decades, leaders in rich, developed countries have never treated it as more than a second-order foreign policy concern. After all, corruption is hard to measure and easy to brush away with arguments about differing cultural norms and the value of “facilitation payments” in greasing bureaucratic wheels. But lately, it has become harder to deny that corruption lies at the root of many first-order global problems, such as the spread of violent religious extremism or the civil strife and mass casualties witnessed in South Sudan and Syria—not to mention the refugee crises that have followed on their heels. Corruption also plays a major role in the one truly global existential threat: the destruction of the environment.

When speaking about the causal relationship between corruption and such issues, I’m often asked questions along these lines: “OK, corruption’s a bad thing, but is there anything that can be done about it? Are there examples of countries that have pulled themselves back from the brink?” The political scientist Robert Rotberg has surely fielded the same questions countless times during his distinguished career. He has now published a comprehensive and detailed response. 

His book’s answer to the second question is important: some places have indeed dramatically reduced corruption. A few names on that list are familiar success stories, such as Hong Kong and Singapore. Others—Botswana, Georgia, Rwanda—might surprise some readers. Rotberg examines these cases, alongside those of both poorer performers and longtime paragons such as Denmark and Finland, in order to figure out what works. His conclusions are scattered throughout the book and then tabulated at the end in a single 14-step program. 

The book offers authoritative perspectives on a variety of devices that different regimes have applied to the task of fighting corruption. But Rotberg’s analysis fails to spell out a reality that his own most fundamental conclusion suggests: corruption is not so much a problem for governments as it is an approach to government, one chosen by far too many rulers today. His suggestions may be helpful to countries that have already undergone some sharp transitions fueled by anticorruption sentiment, such as Brazil, Burkina Faso, Guatemala, South Korea, Tunisia, and Ukraine. The Corruption Cure, however, is less helpful when it comes to hard-boiled kleptocracies, such as Angola and Azerbaijan. Rotberg also downplays the role of developed countries in facilitating such regimes’ corrupt practices. And he sidesteps the rather pressing reality of developed countries—including the United States—beginning their own unmistakable slides toward kleptocracy. 

Yang Dacai, a former Chinese provincial official, listening to a verdict on charges of corruption in Xi'an, China, September 2013.
Yang Dacai, a former Chinese provincial official, listening to a verdict on charges of corruption in Xi'an, China, September 2013.


To fight corruption, a good domestic legal framework is “at least a start,” Rotberg writes, as long as it clearly defines illegal behavior and its consequences. In the exemplary case of Singapore, anticorruption laws include “stiff monetary fines and five-year terms of imprisonment for convicted offenders.” Civil servants found guilty of corrupt acts can “lose their jobs, their benefits, and their pensions.” Apart from punishing acts of corruption after the fact, Singaporean law also does what the U.S. Constitution was at least partly designed to do: prevent corruption before it takes place. (That was the purpose of the Emoluments Clause, which prohibits U.S. officials from receiving gifts from foreign governments—and which is currently the subject of renewed attention owing to three lawsuits charging that Trump has violated it.) In Singapore, Rotberg writes, public servants are prohibited from “borrowing money from or financially obligating themselves to any person with whom they did or could have official dealings,” whether or not they have corrupt intentions. Botswana’s expansive legislation in this area defines an illegal emolument as “any gift, benefit, loan, or reward; any office, employment or contract, any payments or discharges of obligations or loans; [or] ‘any other service,’” Rotberg writes. But too often, Rotberg notes, such laws are just words on paper; what really matters is whether and how they are enforced. 

Another remedy he examines is anticorruption commissions. In Hong Kong in the 1970s, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) made significant inroads against long-standing traditions of illicit gift giving and profiting from official positions. To help the commission carry out its enforcement responsibilities, legislation placed the burden of proof in cases of unexplained wealth on the accused. The commission’s independence was bolstered by a generous fixed annual budget and by the fact that the group reported directly to the colonial governor dispatched from the United Kingdom—an official who, Rotberg writes, was considered incorruptible because of his allegiance to London. The ICAC was also subject to oversight by a group of prominent citizens and elected officials. And the commission was charged with corruption prevention and public education, as well as the investigation of wrongdoing. Within a few years of its launch, the ICAC was investigating numerous corruption networks, in which so-called triad gangs worked hand in glove with the police. The commission’s prevention department visited government agencies, analyzed their permitting and inspection processes, and recommended improvements. Later, it helped reform the stock exchange and the professional ethics code for lawyers.

But such commissions are no panacea, either, Rotberg finds. In many countries, including several in Africa, anticorruption commissions have been worse than ineffective: they have been weaponized to punish opponents of corrupt regimes. In Malawi, for example, Rotberg reports that local observers “believed that the 2004–2006 anticorruption blitz was essentially an exercise in political persecution,” since some of its main targets were ranking members of the opposition party. 

Transparency measures, such as making asset declarations mandatory for public officials, also appear on the list of measures taken by several of Rotberg’s “most improved” countries. So do the streamlining of bureaucratic procedures (to remove red tape that might otherwise require a bribe to cut through) and increasing the salaries of civil servants (to reduce the material need to demand or accept bribes). Norms and standards promoted by international institutions can sometimes help, too. In Georgia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, eligibility requirements for EU membership, which all three seek, have catalyzed significant reforms. (Montenegro’s efforts so far, however, seem aimed more at checking boxes than at genuinely transforming the way authorities behave.)

The list of effective measures also contains several drastic steps, including staff purges at agencies widely seen as thoroughly corrupt. Rotberg reports that when Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in Georgia in 2004, “the new reformers discharged the entire staff of the ministry of education and recruited new employees by competitive examination”; they also sacked 15,000 police officers. In President Paul Kagame’s Rwanda, it was “all 503 members of the Rwandan judiciary, from top to bottom,” who got the ax, in 2004. And almost immediately after her 2006 election as Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf fired “virtually all” the civil servants who had worked in the prior regime’s Ministry of Finance.

In Singapore's Parliament House, October 1999.
In Singapore's Parliament House, October 1999.


The drastic nature of such measures reveals a fundamental weakness in the way The Corruption Cure frames its eponymous problem. Rotberg, like so many authors before him, depicts corruption as an inchoate, corrosive force that seeps into governments that readers might presume are otherwise sound. The metaphor he keeps reaching for is a medical one. Corruption is “an insidious cancer,” a “plague” that “infects,” “metastasizes,” and “cripples.” Cure the disease, as the title of the book suggests, and the healed body politic can go out and play. 

But where does the sickness come from? In explaining how such a malady might take hold, Rotberg resists the temptation to moralize, venturing that corrupt officials may be behaving rationally. “By adopting a conscious strategy of self-enrichment through corrupt behavior, they merely . . . act within the often zero-sum expectations of their class and their condition,” he writes.

Yet that portrait of widespread but uncoordinated opportunism miscasts the nature of contemporary corruption. Rather than a weakness or a disorder, it is the effective functioning of systems designed to enrich the powerful. Rotberg gestures at this fundamental reality toward the end of the book, when he paraphrases an assessment made by Guatemala’s UN-backed anticorruption commission: That country’s ruling Patriotic Party “was more a criminal gang than a political party. Its role was to ‘rob the state,’” Rotberg writes. In Guatemala, elites “constituted a criminal organization—a kleptocratic conspiracy capable of capturing a national revenue stream, a mafia running a state.” 

This is what corruption looks in at least 60 countries where I have researched the problem: the deliberate operating system of sophisticated networks bent on self-enrichment and remarkably successful at achieving it. For officials in these places, corrupt acts often do not represent rational responses to a permissive environment, as Rotberg would have it; rather, they are a professional requirement. If you are a police officer in Afghanistan or Nigeria, a customs agent in Uzbekistan, or a top administrator in the Honduran environment ministry, you owe your superiors certain things: a cut of your harvest of small bribes, certainly, and perhaps some duly signed and stamped paperwork green-lighting activities that violate regulations. Those who do not perform these allotted tasks are demoted or sidelined—if they’re lucky. Sometimes they are shot. It’s the old Mafia choice: plata o plomo, “silver or lead.” Take the money or take a bullet.

Would-be reformers must develop an inspiring vision that elevates values other than material growth and the accumulation of money.

These networks come in different forms in different countries. They can be highly structured or fairly diffuse, with varying degrees of internal rivalry and disrupting daily life where they hold sway. Depending on the sources available to them, they capture different revenue streams, including luxury tourism, oil sales, or high-end agricultural exports, such as succulent dates from Tunisia, green beans from Kenya, or the opium whose harvest absorbs much of the labor force in southern Afghanistan each spring. The networks weave together categories that people in developed countries tend to keep separate in their minds: public sector and private sector, black markets and stock markets, professional and personal. 

Consider the roles played by the Karzai family in post-9/11 Afghanistan, which I had the opportunity to observe at close quarters when I ran a nongovernmental organization established by President Hamid Karzai’s older brother Qayum. Karzai served in office for nearly 13 years. Qayum acted as a behind-the-scenes power broker, with a stake in a consortium that won millions of dollars in contracts from the U.S. government. Another brother, a self-proclaimed apolitical businessman, owned a cement factory and part of the country’s largest private bank, which was later found to operate like a Ponzi scheme. And a third brother served as both a local official and a main facilitator of the region’s prodigious opium traffic. 

In countries such as Azerbaijan, the overlap between the public and private sectors is even more complete, with the ruling family controlling no fewer than 11 banks and sprawling consortia that net the vast bulk of public procurement. In Egypt, the military’s control over the economy has vastly expanded under the presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The kleptocracy over which Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández is striving to gain control remains somewhat more loosely structured: private-sector actors, government officials, and drug traffickers exchange favors and often overlap but maintain a certain degree of separation.

In such networks, the role of members who hold public office is to craft laws and regulations and tailor their enforcement in ways that serve the network’s aims. In return, they get to loot public coffers or siphon off government revenues; they also get cuts of the bribes extorted at the street level or shares in the companies that their practices benefit. 

If their activity “destroys developmental prospects” and is “antithetical to economic growth and social betterment” in their country, as Rotberg puts it, that is of no concern whatsoever. Bettering their country’s prospects is not their objective. Making money is. 


Although Rotberg’s disease metaphors elide this reality, his suggested anticorruption program is entirely shaped by it. The first of his 14 steps for a country fighting corruption is that it “seeks, elects, or anoints a transformative political leader.” In other words, reforming a severely corrupt country requires nothing short of regime change. In this sense, The Corruption Cure offers a critical warning: once you’ve toppled your government, make sure you pick a new chief of state on the basis of his or her concrete intentions with respect to corruption. Don’t be distracted, for example, by a prospective leader’s identity as a political outsider or stance on religious law: look closely at the actual content of his or her anticorruption platform.

For although regime change may be necessary to anticorruption reform, it is clearly not sufficient. Corruption networks are deceptively resilient. Many have survived dramatic efforts to uproot them, ranging from the imprisonment of their leaders to violent revolts against their power. Sometimes they have countenanced their own decapitation, sacrificing a Hosni Mubarak (in Egypt) or a Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (in Tunisia) to the mob in order to rebound better. In other cases, such as China, they have tried to stay a step ahead of the public by initiating high-profile but self-serving anticorruption measures. 

By focusing heavily on personal leadership, Rotberg implicitly acknowledges such phenomena without directly grappling with their implications. He thus circles around a crucial question: What is the relationship between kleptocracy and democratic practice? Modern democracy, after all, was developed as a means of guaranteeing government in the public interest. And yet an uncomfortable number of the leaders of Rotberg’s “most improved” countries are authoritarians. If firm leadership from the top is so critical to reform, is it even possible for a democracy that has grown systemically corrupt to change course? 

Hamid Karzai, then Afghan president, during a news conference in Kabul, November 2009.
Hamid Karzai, then Afghan president, during a news conference in Kabul, November 2009.
Ahmad Masood / REUTERS

The United States has become a testing ground for that question. The country’s slide into a kind of genteel kleptocracy began many years ago, arguably in the 1980s, when deregulation fever hit. The lobbying profession exploded, and industries began writing legislation affecting their sectors; public services such as incarceration and war fighting were privatized; the brakes on money in politics were released; and presidents began filling top regulatory positions with bankers. An economy of transactional exchanges took hold in Washington. 

Last year was a watershed in this process. In June, the Supreme Court dramatically narrowed the legal definition of bribery when it overturned the corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. Meanwhile, supporters of the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton—including many progressive advocates of campaign finance reform—could be heard defending the propriety of questionable foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation. Although Trump’s supporters may think otherwise, his victory and ascent to the White House did not represent regime change; they represented very much more of the same, with a president who has invited top corporate executives not merely to provide advice or draft legislation but also to actually join his team. Such a presidency will only cement the system rigging Trump once decried.

For Americans, as for the people of so many of the countries Rotberg discusses, the expulsion of one individual at the top will not be enough to repair the damaged republic. Americans should not fool themselves into thinking that all they must do is see Trump impeached or get out the vote for a standard Democratic or Republican alternative in 2020. The network that Trump is anchoring in Washington is exploiting a system that Americans have all allowed to evolve and from which they have averted their eyes. That network is empowered now and will prove resilient.


I am a bit skeptical of “tool kit” approaches to fixing such deep-seated problems. But if a committed reformer (or, ideally, a network of reformers) were able to capitalize on the widespread indignation at the United States’ brand of kleptocratic governance and gain power, he or she should focus less on punishing overt corruption after the fact than on establishing behavioral norms that would head off such wrongdoing before it takes place. This reform movement would bring an end to the practice of writing the rules of the political and economic games in ways that favor those who have already amassed excessive power in both domains. It would craft and enforce the rules so as to afford a dignified living to those who perform underappreciated tasks (schoolteachers, those who care for the elderly, small farmers) or who have chosen to build their lives around nonmonetary values.

A policy program to achieve that kind of change would begin with placing sharp curbs on campaign contributions and ending the anonymity that many significant political donors enjoy. Shifting to public-only financing for campaigns may seem radical, but that would be the best solution. Lobbying regulations must be tightened and fiercely enforced. Conflicts of interest must be defined more broadly. Ethical breaches must be swiftly sanctioned in a rigidly nonpartisan fashion, so as to change the incentive structure that currently rewards impropriety and not simply single out isolated offenders. Recent events have demonstrated that the gentleman’s agreement governing the ethical practices of officeholders is toothless in the face of a determined violator. Unfortunately, it is now clear that the U.S. Office of Government Ethics needs disciplinary, not just advisory, powers. In general, federal regulatory agencies must be provided with more resources and independence, not less.

But behavioral norms are not just a matter of legislation. They are a matter of culture, and those who would seek to improve the integrity of the U.S. government must address the cultural shifts that have made the slide toward American kleptocracy possible. For example, they could devise a detailed integrity pact and pressure elected officials across the political spectrum to sign it. It could include a pledge to release all tax filings and disclose all outside affiliations, to spend a certain minimum amount of time interacting with ordinary constituents, and to work for more stringent campaign finance, conflict-of-interest, and oversight legislation and enforcement. Voters could use such pledges as a base line for rating the performance of their representatives.

Most important, would-be reformers must develop an inspiring vision that elevates values other than material growth and the accumulation of money—a vision that celebrates being satisfied with having enough, for example, or the effort to repair battered people and things, or the nurturing of the beauty around us. They must seek to transform the way Americans understand and measure the success of their society.


An earlier version of this article provided the wrong date for when Mikheil Saakashvili became president of Georgia. He took office in 2004, not 2008. 

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