Bribes and Foreign Policy

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During my morning glance at the paper I noticed an article in the Business section about a local firm, Monsanto. The headline read: "Monsanto agrees to fines over bribes in Indonesia." The company has admitted to making more than 700,000 in "illicit payments to Indonesian government officials." It will pay a fine of 1.5 million to the U.S., which brought the charges against Monsanto through its Department of Justice, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

According to the newspaper, the SEC claims that Indonesian affiliates of Monsanto, apparently with the company’s acquiescence, created false, imaginary companies, which then billed the company for phony product registration fees and funneled the money — the 700,000 referred to above — to "at least 140 current and former Indonesian government officials and their family members." The wife of an official of the Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture received more than 370,000 to buy land, build a house, and buy various luxuries. That leaves 330,000 to be divided among the remaining 139 (or more) beneficiaries of this scheme: about 2400 apiece, on average. Indonesian officials come cheap!

But they weren’t complaining. Monsanto wasn’t complaining. Who complained? Well, the Justice Department, claiming its affronted sensibilities could only be assuaged by a million dollar fine, and the SEC, which settled for half that much. And what have Monsanto’s dealings with corrupt Indonesian officials got to do with the DOJ and SEC? Well, friends, it’s BRIBERY!!!! Nasty, illicit, bribery!! The dictionary defines that term: "something that serves to induce or influence." We can’t have Americans firms tending to induce or influence foreigners with money!

Well sure, except that bribery seems to be a rather slippery concept. For example, drug companies regularly sponsor junkets for Congressmen, but those, I guess, are educational experiences, not intended to influence the lawmakers. Congressmen themselves promise their constituents all sorts of benefits in return for their votes, but that, of course, is democracy in action, not bribery. Are the people in the approximately one hundred countries where American troops are stationed delighted with that situation? Maybe, maybe not. But their governments consent to it, perhaps because of the millions upon millions paid to them in one form or another. That’s not bribery, though; it’s making the world safe for democracy.

It’s interesting to see how the U.S. accomplishes its purposes, or tries to, in Indonesia. Bribery? Never! Of course not! But, of course, there have to be expenses, if our rulers are going to further the development or the Indonesian economy, promote good government, help educate children, liberate women, etc. Between 1982 and 1986, the U.S. provided 199 million in food assistance to Indonesia. It also provided 333 million in development assistance, and 172 million in military aid. In 1998, the last year for which I found data, the direct U.S. aid to Indonesia was about 44 million.

Why? Let’s listen to J. Brian Atwood, an administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development: "In many respects, (the foreign aid budget) is a bare-boned — and balanced approach that will significantly contribute to achieving the administration’s foreign policy objectives." Doesn’t that sound very much like bribery? It isn’t immediately clear — at least to me — why the U.S. should have "foreign policy objectives" involving Indonesia, but spending millions to achieve them suggests that, in the absence of that largesse, they wouldn’t be achieved. Which, in turn, means that the money was given to induce or influence Indonesian policy-makers. That, by the definition given above, is a bribe.

In the case of Monsanto, did the bribes work? I don’t know. Maybe Monsanto considered them an acceptable cost of doing business. Obviously, however, if the company’s sales in Indonesia did not warrant the expenses required to achieve them, it would have pulled out of that market. How about the bribes — er, foreign policy objective expenses — offered by the U.S.? Well, while accepting 44 million in direct U.S. aid, Indonesia voted against the U.S. 68% of the time in the U.N.

OK, maybe that was a fluke. Surely our rulers wouldn’t bribe — er, contribute to the economic development of foreign countries — if those countries did not share the U.S.’s objectives! That would be madness. So let’s see: in 1998, Egypt was the No. 2 recipient of U.S. aid: over two billion dollars. It voted against the U.S. in the UN 66% of the time. Jordan, No. 4 with 193 million, voted against the U.S. 67% of the time. Peru — No 7, with 116 million — cast 59% anti-U.S. votes. The percentage was 61% for Ethiopia, ranked 8 in aid received, at 114 million.

So let’s see if I have this straight: Monsanto spread an embarrassingly paltry 700,000 among local Indonesian politicians to further its sales in that country. This so enraged the U.S. government that it bribed Monsanto into giving it over twice as much — 1.5 million — to avoid horrendous litigation and additional fines. Remember: Monsanto’s offense was illicit payments. The U.S. would never do anything illicit — especially since it is the arbiter of what is, and what isn’t, illicit.

On the other hand, to influence the policies of foreign governments, the U.S. spends many billions every year. And most of the countries receiving most of the money thumb their noses at the U.S. when voting at the United Nations. So not only does the U.S. practice bribery — let’s dispense with the euphemisms — on a gigantic scale, it does so surpassingly stupidly, with the recipients of its bribes taking positions in opposition to those of the U.S. One suspects that the stated purposes of the aid may have little to do with the actual purposes — as is often the case in government programs — but of course, we’ll never know that with certainty.

The dictionary defines "govern" as "to limit, regulate, or control." So government is limitation, regulation, and control — of others, of course! Let’s add another synonym: "corruption." And how about "stupidity" and "dishonesty" for good measure?

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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