The Times [UK] (January 8, 2006)
by Phillip Knightley
This is an alarming book, and meant to be so. The author, Moises Naim, is the editor of the highly respected American magazine Foreign Policy. He says that his job has involved tracking and understanding the unanticipated consequences of the new connections between world politics and economics. He writes that he soon found himself immersed in a world of illicit trade and global crime and now concludes that this is destabilising our civilisation and that it is as big a threat as terrorism — if not greater. “Illicit trade is pushing the world in new directions that so far have eluded our capacity to comprehend let alone arrest.”
If he is right, this is a serious state of affairs: everything is going to pot and not only are we failing to do anything about it, we have yet to understand what is happening to us. One reason for this is that it is not easy to get worked up about several of the types of illicit trade that the author complains about — pirated books, films, CDs, videos, music and counterfeit luxury goods. In that we all buy them at some time or another, we ourselves are part of the problem.
The author sees all this as theft, a conspiracy, a danger to legitimate trade, the first step that could take us spiralling down into other more dangerous criminality. Another way of looking at it would be as an act of revenge, a payback by consumers for all the cartels, monopolies, restrictive practices and price-fixing that manufacturers have inflicted on us all these years. Could it be that what we are witnessing is not an outbreak of criminality but the market addressing an imbalance of power? One can argue that consumers have always been willing to pay, but they wanted their music and their books and their movies and their goods to be easily available at a reasonable price, a price they considered fair. Globalisation and new technology have made this possible, and big business and governments are frightened by this.
Of course, it is not as simple in other areas this book covers — smuggled weapons, drugs, illegal immigrants and laundered money. Naim has done an enormous amount of research here, but the very nature of this illicit activity makes accurate information hard to come by and therefore the threat hard to assess. Here are two examples. Naim divides the world into “bright spots”, where law and order prevail, and “black holes”, where illicit trafficking thrives. He names Spain's Costa del Sol as a black spot because, among other factors, it has experienced a 1,600% increase in private home construction in five years because, a Spanish police inspector says, “Criminals are businessmen these days. They want good travel connections, an efficient banking sector, nice weather and anonymity. They can get all that in Malaga.”
Spain's interior minister says that organised crime is “as big a threat to Spanish security as Islamic terrorism”. But the building boom on the Costa del Sol (and elsewhere in Spain) was fuelled by the replacement of the peseta by the euro, a move that forced the Spanish middle classes, notorious tax evaders, to take their pesetas out from under the mattress and invest them — hence the building boom. And policemen and their bosses are well known for exaggerating the threats they face from organised crime because to do so is good for police budgets and morale.
Yes, the Malaga coast is known in Britain as the Costa del Crime. But this was a tabloid newspaper invention when a number of high-profile British criminals chose to live there because of lax extradition laws. I suspect that there is more organised crime in London than on the Costa del Sol. Naim says, “The more fortified and successful the bright spots become in defending themselves, the more value there is in breaching their fortifications.”
This is certainly true of the drugs trade. The more money that Britain and America spend on the war against drugs, the greater the volume of drugs on the market and the more easily they are available. The suppliers are only one part of this equation. Are the consumers to bear no responsibility for creating the demand? Illegal immigrants have been with us for a long time and, as the author admits, closing our borders has failed to stop them.
That leaves us with the illicit arms trade, the most alarming section of the book. Here Naim marshals his evidence well and his conclusions and suggestions are sensible and practical. Yes, it is long past the time when all the fissile material in the former Soviet Union should have been catalogued and monitored. Yes, the Pakistani physicist AQ Khan was able to sell nuclear technology to Iran and others only because he had the backing of the Pakistan government, an example of the author's theory that illicit trade is at its most dangerous when the profit motive and political interests coincide. (Khan and the Pakistani government would argue that they were only redressing the world nuclear imbalance.)
But there are a lot of confidence tricksters out there who offer for sale nuclear know-how and materials such as enriched uranium with no possibility that they can deliver. And when you learn from the media that an illicit-arms merchant has been caught in the act of trying to sell missiles or nuclear material, it usually turns out it was either a sting operation by the FBI or some other agency or a confidence man with nothing really to offer who is just trying his luck.
So, like the other cases in this book, the situation may not be as bad as the author makes out. I suspect he himself has a niggle of doubt about his case. He asks: “Are we fated to descend for the foreseeable future into a world of besieged fortresses and forsaken hinterlands and ghettos?” His answer: “If you believe solely and exclusively in the power of the profit motive, the answer has to be yes. If you believe that ideas can change the world, then the answer is no.”