Western policymakers rarely mention “corruption,” “defense,” and “military operations” in the same sentence. Inclined to view state-level corruption as a distinctly third-world phenomenon, they underestimate the risks that it poses both to their defense institutions and their expeditionary operations. But corruption — abuse of entrusted power for private gain — is real, expensive, and dangerous for NATO partner and member states.
Not only does defense corruption cost, on average, $20 billion annually worldwide; it undermines operational preparedness and performance on the ground, as when armed forces find themselves with sub-standard equipment and personnel hierarchy — distorted by a lack of robust hiring and promotion procedures.
Over the past year and a half, we at the Defence and Security program at Transparency International ranked NATO member and partner states’ vulnerability to corruption on a scale from A (low risk) to F (critical risk). We found surprisingly high vulnerability across the 32 governments’ military operations, which received, on average, a grade of D.
In Afghanistan, for example, corruption had a corrosive impact on military operations. It undermined the legitimacy of the Afghan government, aided insurgent recruitment, and hollowed out the national military and police forces slated to take over from NATO troops. The International Security Assistance Force, mandated to create sustainable security in the country, undermined its own objectives through its initial inattention to the problem.
Now, a year after the end of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, NATO nations are only marginally better prepared to tackle corruption — and their own contribution to it — during expeditionary operations. Out of the 22 NATO member states, only four – the UK, U.S., Norway, and Greece – address corruption in their military doctrines. France, which currently deploys over 10,000 troops on operations and trains peacekeeping troops in African countries, has no anti-corruption doctrine. The country received an E grade (“very high risk”) for its vulnerabilities in operations, placing it among NATO’s worst-performing members.
Only five countries – Denmark, Belgium, Greece, Germany and the U.S.– systematically deploy monitors to make sure their own troops and officials are (first) not themselves corrupt, and that they are aware of the possibility of local corruption. Most countries do not have specific guidance for operational contracting; the United States is only country to have carried out a comprehensive review. Generic contracting guidelines, which may or may not take into account the ways in which missions can foster corruption when procuring supplies in theatre, are unlikely to meet troops’ needs during actual deployments.
Lack of awareness and preparation for mitigating corruption risks make it likely that mistakes from Afghanistan will be repeated. In order to counteract corruption, armed forces first need to know how to recognise, identify, and report it.
The alliance also faces domestic challenges in accountability and transparency. In line with NATO members’ commitment to democracy and human rights, most member states have instituted strong parliamentary accountability systems. Nine member states have overall low corruption risks (a B grade) in their military and defense agencies; the UK was graded as having very low risks (A grade). Significant gaps in oversight do exist, though. In seven countries, parliamentary oversight is impeded by only aggregated information being made available to parliaments; in only five countries do parliamentarians receive full information on classified spending, including that on intelligence agencies.
However, given NATO members’ commitment to increase defense spending to 2% of GDP, perhaps most surprising are gaps in oversight of procurement and protection of whistle-blowers. Such gaps make it harder to attain disciplined, effective spending of defense budgets. While all NATO countries have passed public procurement laws, 17 apparently perform little to no independent oversight of contracts exempted from these procedures under national-security concerns. Only four countries – the U.S., Bulgaria, Greece and Norway – require that companies bidding for significant contracts institute their own anti-corruption compliance programs and no member state has a comprehensive, robust system of whistle-blower protection. Two countries, Greece and Spain, have applied disciplinary sanctions to whistle-blowers. Even in the UK, which has overall very low corruption risks, only 40% of Ministry of Defence staff trust that the system will protect them if they make disclosures.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is the world’s most powerful military and political alliance: six of its members were among the top-15 defense spenders last year, and 10 among the top 20 arms exporters. Its collective military power is peerless and its influence on other countries — through an extensive networks of partnerships and though expeditionary operations — is unmatched. But NATO’s credibility and effectiveness depends, in part, on whether its members are prepared to hold themselves to the highest defense accountability standards and to address corruption in the countries where they are engaged.