The Myth of Rogue States

A year after Barack Obama relaunched America's relations with the world's rogue states, the verdict is in: from Burma to North Korea, Venezuela to Iran, the outstretched hand has been met with the clenched fist. Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest in Rangoon, Pyongyang is testing missiles, Caracas rails against gringo imperialism, and Tehran has dismissed a year-end deadline to do a deal on its nuclear program. Engagement has failed and Obama is now poised to deliver on threats of tougher sanctions, as surely he must. Right? Well, not necessarily.

What Washington has failed to fully recognize is that the world that created "rogue states" is gone. The term became popular in the 1980s, mainly in the United States, to describe minor dictatorships threatening to the Cold War order. Then, after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the main challenge to American dominance came from those states unwilling to accommodate themselves to the "end of history" and conform to U.S. values. The idea of "the rogue state" assumed the existence of an international community, united behind supposedly universal Western values and interests, that could agree on who the renegades are and how to deal with them. By the late 1990s this community was already dissolving, with the rise of China, the revival of Russia, and the emergence of India, Brazil, and Turkey as real powers, all with their own interests and values. Today it's clear that the "international community" defined by Western values is a fiction, and that for many states the term "rogue" might just as well apply to the United States as to the renegades it seeks to isolate.

The answer to those states challenging the established global order will not come in the form of carrots or sticks from Washington alone. Confronting the threats of nuclear proliferation, terror, and regional instability posed by state and nonstate actors alike will require coalitions that are genuinely willing—not forged under U.S. pressure. It is no longer possible for the U.S.—even with Obama as president—to rally international support for an American, or even a Western, agenda. What the world seeks from America is more engagement, not less, but based on partnership, not U.S. primacy. Conventional American leadership, it is now evident, is as unwelcome in the person of Barack Obama as in George W. Bush.

In the absence of a newly forged international community, a U.S.-led crackdown on the old rogues is bound to backfire. Already Western efforts have driven rogue states into each other's arms—Burma is trading military hardware and perhaps nuclear secrets with North Korea; Iran is forging closer ties to Syria; Venezuela is supporting Cuba more lavishly. Worse than these warming relations among relatively weak troublemakers is their growing support from legitimate rising powers. Brazil, Turkey, Russia, China—all are making no secret of their resistance to America's anti-rogue diplomacy.

Obama came into office thinking that a more responsive diplomacy could rally global support for the old Western agenda, but that's not enough. What's needed, more than a change in tone or a U.S. policy review, is a new set of baseline global interests—neither purely Western nor Eastern—defined in concert with rising powers who have real influence in capitals like Rangoon, Pyongyang, and Tehran. This requires a painful reconsideration of America's place in the world. But it promises real help from rising powers in shouldering the financial and military burden of addressing global threats.

Today countries large and small, well behaved and not, are looking for partners, not patrons. Where Washington looks to punish rogues, seeking immediate changes in behavior, rival powers are stepping in with investment and defense contracts, and offering a relationship based on dignity and respect. This is the story of China in Burma, Russia in Iran, Brazil in Cuba, and so on down the line. And given that the core institutions of global governance—the U.N. Security Council, the World Bank, and the IMF—are unwilling to grant the new powers a seat at the decision-making table, it's not surprising that they feel no obligation to back sanctions they've had no say in formulating.

Far from being coy about their newfound independence, the rising powers are asserting their status with increasing strength. During a recent state visit, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva stood beside President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and declared bluntly: "We don't have the right to think other people should think like us." These words resonate more deeply outside the Western world than new calls for unity against the rogues. Days earlier, Ahmadinejad had been hosted by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had embraced his neighbor at a summit of Islamic nations and insisted that Iran's nuclear program was "peaceful." Predictably, the Western press attacked both Lula and Erdogan for betraying democratic values and solidarity, missing the point entirely. Established democrats like Lula and Erdogan are not siding with Ahmadinejad, supporting his government's violent crackdown on protesters or its covert nuclear programs. Rather, they are demonstrating their intention—and, more important, their ability—to have a say in who the rogues are and how they should be dealt with.

The perils of the West's old thinking about rogue states are laid bare in a corner of Asia that is fast becoming a geopolitical battleground with no Western presence to speak of. Iran, with its nuclear program, may be the most acute rogue-state security challenge today; Sudan, with its record of a genocide overlooked, the most morally troubling; Zimbabwe, with its spectacle of a society's systematic self-destruction, the most maddening. But Burma presents perhaps the starkest and most advanced case of the failure of Western strategies aimed solely at cutting off repressive regimes. The two-decade-old policy of isolating Burma now looks like a carefully constructed attempt to weaken Western influence and open the door to China, while devastating Burma's legitimate economy and doing nothing to improve its people's human rights.

Rangoon today is a city in a time warp, with battered cars from the '50s driving down unpaved roads alongside rickshaws, and barefoot children selling Chinese-made trinkets to the few tourists walking among the dilapidated, abandoned villas of the city's faded colonial glory. Virtually no aspect of Western policy here has worked: the military junta is as firmly in control as ever; the democratic opposition is in disarray; and where Western policy toward Burma used to be primarily concerned with the regime's domestic behavior, it now must contend with the generals' suspected ties to North Korea, including in the area of nuclear cooperation.

This is not to say that the sanctions haven't had an impact—only that they have been entirely counterproductive. In a series of recent conversations with civil-society leaders, businessmen, and foreign diplomats in Rangoon, a grim picture emerged: a middle class decimated and forced into exile; an educational system entirely unable to develop the country's human capital; a private sector hollowed out, with only the junta's cronies able to profit from trade in the country's natural resources. One Burmese businessman I spoke with put it best. "We are twice sanctioned," he lamented. "First by the regime and second by the West." Hillary Clinton recognized as much recently, stating that "the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the Burmese junta." She added, with considerably less evidence, that "reaching out and trying to engage them hasn't influenced them either." Now tentative signs of a thaw in U.S.-Burma relations suggest that engagement may well have an impact—just not one that satisfies the short-term needs of Western policymakers and their demands for dramatic concessions.

For the rogues, the rising powers provide both diplomatic cover and alternative political and economic models. In Burma, Western sanctions have provided an opportunity for China and India to gain unchallenged economic and political influence within a country they consider of strategic significance. In Iran, Western pressure has simply taught officials to become masters in the arts of forging alternative alliances—with Russia, China, and others—and of dodging sanctions. While sanctions have slowed the development of Iran's energy sector and stifled economic growth, the regime has become adept at shipping banned goods through third countries, funding its activities in currencies other than the U.S. dollar, and inviting non-Western entities to step in on commercially attractive terms in key sectors of the economy such as infrastructure, energy, and telecommunications. If the purpose of sanctions has been to halt Iran's nuclear-enrichment program and its ability to project power through regional proxies like Hizbullah and Hamas, they can only be said to have failed.

Initially, the Obama administration had the honesty—with itself and the world—to recognize the limits of sanctions, and to explore instead whether a policy of engagement addressing Iran's legitimate security interests could help persuade the regime to halt the weaponization of its nuclear program. Now, however, with a year-end deadline for progress lapsed, Obama is expected to pursue a package of "smarter" sanctions on the energy, transportation, and financial sectors, including on insurance and reinsurance on trade with Iran. The aim is nothing less than choking the Iranian economy—extracting a price even this regime will ostensibly be unable to bear. For an embargo to work, however, the rising powers will have to be on board. And that's where the problem lies.

From the outset, the Obama administration assumed that even if a U.S. offer of engagement didn't sway Tehran, its very reasonableness would bring Russia and China on board in implementing "crippling" U.N. sanctions. Now, it may be that Beijing and Moscow prefer a less trigger-happy White House (leaving aside for the moment the equally likely possibility that the two would like nothing more than to see the United States bogged down for decades in yet another costly Middle East conflict). But it has never been explained why a more conciliatory U.S. administration would alter the rival interests of Russia and China. Moscow wants a commercial relationship with Tehran, China wants oil and gas, and both want a strategic foothold in the Persian Gulf to balance U.S. dominance. As the U.S. narrows its view of Iran to focus exclusively on nukes, the rising powers see the nuclear issue as only one facet of their relationship with Iran. In Burma and Iran—no less than among the other rogues states—decades of Western sanctions have achieved a perfect storm of deprivation for the people, wealth and job security for their rulers, and strategic influence for those countries unmoved by complaints about human-rights abuses. Indeed, in isolating repressive regimes, the West often hands them an excuse to block the forces of reform most likely to undermine their rule, and even to rally their people behind a hated government in the name of opposing foreign intervention. A new strategy is needed.

Nothing would more dramatically disrupt this status quo than to provide rogue leaders with what they fear most: a complete end to broad economic sanctions, open and unfettered trade with the traditional commercial classes, educational exchanges for their students, and less restrictive travel policies on the broad population—even as arms embargoes and visa restrictions on the ruling elite are kept in place. Such a policy would stand a far greater chance of gaining support among rising and rival powers—as well as the peoples of the rogue states—and set in motion a chain of events more likely to result in greater security and accountable government.

A policy change of this magnitude would, of course, face its greatest opposition in Washington. For Obama's opponents on the right, it would be proof positive of his "appeasement" of the Axis of Evil. For his allies on the activist left, it would constitute a betrayal of their human-rights agenda. The truth—as he, better than any other U.S. leader, can explain—is that the American policy of isolating rogues has been a manifest failure, and that a new and genuine partnership with the powers that matter today stands a far better chance of promoting both security and human dignity among the rogues.

Will this approach quickly temper Hugo Chávez's rhetoric or Robert Mugabe's obstinacy, reduce Kim Jong Il's paranoia, or undermine Ahmadinejad's brutal grip on power? Unlikely. But it can begin to shape a global environment less conducive to their rhetoric of resistance and more vulnerable to the charge of illegitimacy—at home and abroad—that over time is the true Achilles' heel of any regime. Last, but not least, it would give Obama's policy of engagement meaning beyond mere words—and begin to position America as a 21st-century power leading by example, and not force.