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By George Friedman

Italy’s top court has acquitted a man on corruption charges after he tried to bribe a police officer, according to Italian website The man had offered the officer 100 euros to avoid being convicted of drunk driving. The Court of Cassation ruled that a bribe of 100 euros ($108) is too small to be considered corruption. The court also said that since the man who offered the bribe was drunk, he was not of sound mind. According to news website The Local, Italian law says that, for a bribe to be defined as corrupt, “It is necessary for the offer to be made with appropriate seriousness” and it must be shown “that the attempt is able to psychologically unsettle the public official.” Ultimately, the man was convicted of drunk driving, which carries a fine of up to 6,200 euros, as well as a license suspension for a maximum of 12 months and a prison sentence of up to 12 months, depending on the person’s degree of intoxication.

In Italy, trying to bribe a police officer is much less serious than driving drunk. In the United States, depending on prior convictions, an attempt at bribery might bring a much more severe sentence. An attempt to corrupt a public official is seen as a fundamental challenge to the integrity of the system in the U.S. From the Italian point of view, however, the integrity of the system can withstand a 100-euro bribe.

It may appear to some that the Italian system is unprincipled or irrational. However, this case also raises the interesting possibility that the Italians have actually developed an alternative approach to corruption and perhaps a more sophisticated one. During the Eisenhower administration, one Bernard Goldfarb gave Sherman Adams, the president’s chief of staff, a vicuna coat as a lavish gift. Adams was driven from office and was lucky that he didn’t incur even worse repercussions. The logic behind banning public officials from accepting gifts is that people, such as the chief of staff of the United States, must be assumed to be so venal that they would betray their duty to the public in exchange for an extremely expensive coat. This assumes that human beings are inherently corrupt and that only an absolute ban on all gifts will prevent them from giving in to their immoral instincts.

Certainly, a powerful case can be made for the idea that any level of enticement can cause men to betray their oaths. The United States, among other countries, makes anti-corruption campaigns a fundamental part of its foreign policy. I recall in my younger days visiting the Paris Air Show while I was under contract with the U.S. Air Force. Jimmy Carter was president and had introduced rules saying that people employed by the U.S. military, including myself, could not visit the British Aerospace pavilion, which provided lavish — and I mean lavish — surroundings, food and other items. It was assumed that, because I could not buy what they were selling, I could not be corrupted. The idea that I would betray my country for some expensive goodies was insulting. The idea that I would accept a fighter plane as a gift was insane. I couldn’t even accept pens. Yet, the principle was absolute. I could not accept anything worth more than $5. To be honest, I went in anyway. But the idea that I was so weak that I was at risk of corruption was, I thought, a craven view of humanity and implied an incredible lack of respect for the price I would demand for being corrupt.

This is not an argument for corruption but a consideration of its complexity and subtlety and the need for perspective. I learned this lesson once in China. I was working for an American company that was trying to figure out why its facility was not making money. It was discovered that everyone who worked there was a relative of the Chinese manager the company had hired to run the place. Few of them knew what they were doing, and most didn’t need to care since they were not going to be fired by their third cousin.

I had a chance to speak with him and asked him how he could have done what was to me disgraceful. His answer was interesting. Essentially, he said that we Americans are moral degenerates. Americans would refuse to hire their own blood, he said, hiring strangers instead, merely because they could make more money for the company. Americans have no love for family and are devoid of human decency, he added. He wasn’t kidding.

It was one of those conversations that was really stunning. It had not occurred to me that I indeed believed that making money was more important than caring for my family. One of the huge differences between us was our definition of family. I love my children and would not put making money ahead of them. But I couldn’t even think of the terms used to identify the family relationships this guy had with some of his relatives working at the facility. And that was the point. The definition of intimacy and obligation was wildly different. He recognized obligations that I didn’t. But he did not regard himself as corrupt in any way. He saw himself as decent and me as inhumane.

The definition of corruption seems to me to rest on one’s vision of the human soul. Americans, I suspect deriving from the Puritan heritage or a certain self-awareness, see the human soul as susceptible to appetites so powerful that they would betray obligations if someone satisfied them. The Italian court, drawing on the Medicis I suspect, did not deny this, but simply said that corruption must have a reasonable price to be taken seriously. The Chinese facility manager brought in another variable, which was that corruption consisted in betraying your obligations, and his obligation to his American employer, simply on the basis that the company paid him, was less important than his obligation to his family members, however distant they might be.

So one question that needs to be addressed when defining corruption is, how weak are we, as human beings? And the other question is, what are our real obligations? When we demand an end to corruption, we are referring to the American absolute definition of corruption. But being susceptible to bribes is not the only form of corruption. And I have never forgotten or regretted going into the British Aerospace pavilion at Le Bourget. I proved Jimmy Carter wrong about me.

George Friedman
George Friedman is an internationally recognized geopolitical forecaster and strategist on international affairs and the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures. Dr. Friedman is a New York Times bestselling author and his most popular book, The Next 100 Years, is kept alive by the prescience of its predictions. Other best-selling books include Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, The Next Decade, America’s Secret War, The Future of War and The Intelligence Edge. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages. Dr. Friedman has briefed numerous military and government organizations in the United States and overseas and appears regularly as an expert on international affairs, foreign policy and intelligence in major media. For almost 20 years before resigning in May 2015, Dr. Friedman was CEO and then chairman of Stratfor, a company he founded in 1996. Friedman received his bachelor’s degree from the City College of the City University of New York and holds a doctorate in government from Cornell University.