You probably didn’t think, that time you downloaded an MP3 online or bought a bootleg DVD of the latest Hollywood release, that you were tied into one of the most dangerous and potentially destablizing political and economic forces on the planet…
Illicit by Moises Naim, takes a long, hard look at a new phenonoma in the international arena – the role of traffickers and trafficking networks in transforming politics, economics and borders. Naim, the Editor of Foreign Policy Magazine, has penned a darkly intriguing look at the underground economy of trafficking. Illicit looks a the intricate, intertwined worlds of smuggling, illegal migrants, narcotics, organ-legging, the international sex trade, slavery, the arms trade, money laundering, weapons of mass destruction and counterfeit goods.
Naim makes a strong case that the same value-chain enabling technologies that permit the Wal-Marts of the world to exist, have also given birth to illicit and illegal networks and enterprises – from Al Quada to pirated software. He traces the connections between points of international instability, legitimate trade, weak governments and porous borders and the rise of highly flexible, de-centralized networks that transcend state boundaries.
These networks are not Pablo Escobarean-style structures, run by a single boss, but rather a loose and ever-changing adaptable network of illegal and legal enterprises that can recombine, shift and take advantage of the restrictions inherent in states and state bureaucracy. They are, in essence, entrepenuerial power set free. They are networks — connections — the goods being trafficked are secondary to the linkages and capabilities the traffickers demonstrate.
One example Naim cites is the underground nuclear trade network of Abdul Quadeer Khan, Pakistan’s father of the Islamic bomb. Khan’s commercial network shipped centrifuges to Libya (uncovered in 2003) using, among others, a Malaysian enginnering firm, a Swiss engineer, a Sri Lanken intermediary, and a partially-owned British-owned Dubai corporation. The centrifuge was shipped on a German-registered ship.
The ability of these networks to heighten political instability, particularly in regions with marginal governmental / state controls or in regions where those particular states are weak, corrupt or permeable, is very high. Columbia, Peru and Bolivia for cocaine; Afghanistan for heroin; South Africa and Israel for illegal organs; China for counterfeit goods, software, DVD’s, clothing; migrants from Africa and Asia; prostitutes from Hungary; optical disks from Ukraine…the list is endless and it is not just consumer goods but commercial industrial goods and medications.
Here’s a quick excerpt description of Transdniester, a breakaway region of Moldova:
“Weapons are to Transdniester what chocolate is to Switzerland or oil to Saudi Arabia. Some countries export oil and gas, others, cotton or computers. Transdniester exports weapons – illegally. What kinds of weapons? Vast quantities of Soviet shells and rockets. Newly manufactured machine guns, rocket launchers, RPGs, and more, produced in what are described as ‘at least six sprawling factories’”.
Moldova has little to no authority over Transdniester. The region, which holds much of Moldova’s industrial capacity, is essentially run by a family-owned company – the Sopranos writ large. They supply endless streams of weapons clandestinely around the world, a function previously controlled by and occupied by state players, now gone entreprenurial in the post-Cold War world of the 21st century.
Naim links the rise in trafficking networks of all types with other transnational networks such as Al Quada and offers the strong suggestion that where one is found, the other is not far behind. He also outlines the difficulties in fighting these criminal networks with the highly centralized, nation-based bureaucracies that now exist (i.e. Homeland Security) and the frictions and problems they face manifest in the fact that they are merely states. For the illicit networks of the world, borders and regulations spell opportunity. They are not going away. They are driven by high profits and markets not by morals. Like it or not, the Sprawl is now here.
In short, Illicit is probably one of the most important books for anyone looking to understand this “brave new world” which we inhabit, and the new influences and players operating within it. I seriously recommend you crack it open…it will make you think carefully about connections the next time your download your tunes.
I also recommend cracking open The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman. Reading both books gives you a fairly complete picture of the impact, both legal and illegal, that freed-up, easily-moving capital and supply can have on the world’s economies and on political stability.
Wondering where Moldova is? Wonder no further….