Merchants of Mayhem

4 minute read
Ilya Garger

Consider these disparate and disturbing facts from Illicit, a new book by Moiss Nam. There are 300 tons of unsecured nuclear material in the former Soviet Union, international terrorists itching to get their hands on it, and smugglers who may be able to help close the deal. Trafficking in women is facilitated by websites where merchants advertise and sell their wares with impunity. The global trade in stolen art has led to the disappearance of 43 Van Goghs, 174 Rembrandts and 551 Picassos. In Central Asia, children are believed to have been stolen from orphanages and killed for their organs. And money laundering accounts for up to 10% of the world’s GDP, or as much $5 trillion.

Shocking? Maybe not. Globalization’s dark side is remarkably well illuminated, at least in fragments, and anyone who reads the news is somewhat inured to facts such as these. But just because we read about them on a daily basis doesn’t mean that we understand the larger context. Indeed, it’s not obvious what all of the above phenomena have in common. Sure, they all involve illegal activities that cross national borders. But is there an underlying trend that explains why organ smuggling, money laundering and weapons trafficking have all grown dramatically in the last decade?

That’s the question Nam, the editor of Foreign Policy magazine, takes up in this valiant attempt to organize into a coherent picture the kaleidoscopic shards of information on underground trading, from music piracy to nuclear smuggling. The result is like a photo negative of Thomas Friedman’s books (most recently, this year’s The Earth is Flat) focusing on the happier aspects of globalization. The usual suspects are back in the spotlight: expanding free markets, the Internet, and the geopolitical fragmentation that followed the end of the Cold War. But in Nam’s version of the story, these changeswhich in Friedman’s telling are supposed to usher in a new, more enlightened global orderhave become accessories to vice. In the 1990s, “Not only did the hold of governments on borders weaken,” writes Nam, “but [economic] reforms amplified the rewards awaiting those who were prepared to break the rules.” And it turned out that everyone from gangsters to generals to regular businesspeople could hardly wait to grab the spoils.

They did so on such a scale that it changed the world. “Global criminal activities are transforming the international system, upending the rules, creating new players, and reconfiguring power in international politics and economics,” writes Nam. These new players are counterfeiters, shady financiers, snakeheads, terrorists, corrupt officials and other fast-adapters now flourishing beyond the reach of authorities. They have even redefined geography: as governments’ control over the flow of people, goods and information weakens, opportunists have turned places like Cambodia, Liberia and parts of Russia into “geopolitical black holes” where illicit networks can operate unchecked.

Even outside such areas, transnational crime has a way of slipping through cracks, not least because of inadequate and inconsistent laws. Turkey didn’t prohibit human smuggling until recently, writes Nam, while in the U.S. people-smugglers face a lighter penalty than those who carry marijuana across borders. International organizations often do no better: a U.N. convention on migrants’ rights was drafted in 1978, signed in 1990 and went into effect in 2003only to end up largely unenforced.

Given inadequate laws and resources, governments will need to choose their battles wisely. Legalizing marijuana, for example, would free up authorities to crack down on hard drugs, and money spent hunting down pirated CDs might be better applied to fighting more insidious forms of trafficking. But Nam points out that the line between various crimes is often hazy. In many parts of the world, counterfeiting is controlled by gangs that traffic in drugs and people.

For all its erudition and scope, Illicit has one vexing flaw: its lack of substantial original research. Nam is an armchair tour guide, relying mostly on well-worn news stories and official reports. For a book on the underground trade in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, Illicit is disappointingly dry. The climax is not a memorable glimpse inside a smuggling ring, but a raft of policy suggestions such as better coordination among government agencies and improved international cooperationhardly page-turning stuff. Still, Nam succeeds in presenting a clear account of how illicit commerce works and what its consequences are. In doing so, he sheds light on one of the most powerful forces shaping today’s world.

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