Replacing the Rogue Rhetoric: A New Label Opens the Way to a Better Policy

Meghan L. O’Sullivan
Meghan O'Sullivan
Meghan L. O’Sullivan Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, Director of the Geopolitics of Energy Project - Harvard Kennedy School

September 1, 2000

Last June the Clinton administration formally retired the label “rogue states,” which it had long used to describe Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, and replaced it with the more innocuous “states of concern.” The change in rhetoric acknowledges the need to reevaluate current policy toward these states but stops short of formulating a new strategy. Among the challenges facing the next U.S. Congress and the new administration will be defining the parameters of a new approach.

Even while the concept of “rogue states” reigned supreme, no objective criteria defined the term. Former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake identified rogues as nations that “exhibit a chronic inability to engage constructively with the outside world.” Others described them as countries that sought to challenge international norms. Despite such amorphous characterizations, the common use of the term to describe Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea allowed observers to establish that they were countries associated with several undesirable behaviors—namely, the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, support for terrorism, blatant disregard for human rights, and vocal animosity toward the United States.

With few exceptions, Washington’s approach to changing or curbing these behaviors was to isolate or punish the country in question with comprehensive sanctions, which were complemented by the use of other punitive tools. With Cuba, for example, the United States coupled unilateral sanctions with covert action to try to force Castro from power. More recently, Washington added secondary sanctions that mandate penalties against “traffickers” of expropriated U.S. property. In addition to unilateral sanctions on Iran, Congress allocated money to overthrow the regime and legislated secondary sanctions on those who invest in the Iranian (as well as Libyan) energy sector. In the two cases of Iraq and Libya, the United States has not only sought to overthrow both regimes at one time or another, but also led successful efforts to impose some multilateral sanctions. In both Iraq and Libya, military force has also been an essential complement to economic coercion through sanctions. In the past decade, the main exception to this punitive pattern was North Korea, where despite maintaining harsh sanctions, the United States pursued limited engagement to reduce the nuclear threat on the peninsula.

A Poor Policy Record

The record of these punitive policies has been, for the most part, unimpressive. Although often exacting heavy costs in terms of lives lost and U.S. credibility jeopardized, covert action has failed to dislodge any of the targeted regimes. Qaddafi, Saddam, and Castro remain securely in power. Although presidential action has prevented any secondary sanctions from coming into effect against Europeans and others involved in Iran, Libya, and Cuba, the mere existence of the legislation has irked our allies and raised transatlantic tensions. The effect of military force is somewhat harder to assess. Although delivering benefits in terms of destroying weapons and military capabilities, the collateral costs of military force have often been substantial. In addition to the immediate human costs, the use of force in Iraq over the past several years has strained the multilateral coalition put in place after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. And some argue that the 1986 U.S. bombing of Tripoli spurred Libya to plot and execute the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103.

Likewise, the efficacy of unilateral sanctions has been called into serious question. As a policy intended to exact punishment on the offending country, the results have been mixed. Although U.S. sanctions have levied some economic costs in all instances, the impact has often been mitigated by the willingness of other countries to maintain commercial relations with the target country. For instance, the European approach toward Iran, which has involved maintaining contact with the Islamic Republic even while addressing political disputes, has undermined U.S. efforts to use economic pressure to force political change. Moreover, in many cases, the influence of American sanctions has been overwhelmed by factors beyond U.S. control, such as domestic economic management or global economic shocks. Unquestionably, dramatic fluctuations in the price of oil over the past decade have had much greater impact on countries like Iran and Libya than have American sanctions.

The punitive effect of sanctions has been more marked in the political realm. Extensive U.S. sanctions on military, economic, diplomatic, and cultural contacts have effectively isolated the target countries from the United States. In some circumstances, this “blacklisting” by America has translated into a wider international opprobrium, particularly where initial U.S. unilateral sanctions have galvanized more limited multilateral sanctions. Where rulers such as Libya’s Qaddafi envision themselves to be regional or global leaders, international ostracism can damage the interests of the regime.

So while unilateral sanctions can claim to have exacted some punitive costs, if the standard of success for sanctions involves changing the behavior of recalcitrant regimes, there is little cause for celebration. Iran, despite the recent electoral victories of apparent reformers, continues to support terrorism, oppose the Middle East peace process, and pursue weapons of mass destruction. Iraq continues to defy United Nations resolutions, preferring to bear tremendous economic losses rather than submit to weapons inspections and disarm. Although the Korean summit last June suggests the possibility of North-South rapprochement, Pyongyang continues to pursue weapons of mass destruction and remains a source of uncertainty and instability in the region. Similarly, Libya, while appearing to have moderated its support for terrorism and radical groups, still poses security questions for the United States and its neighbors. And Fidel Castro’s Cuba continues to deride the United States and flaunt international norms concerning human rights.

Stumbling Blocks to Better Policy

The realization that punitive measures—sanctions in particular—had not achieved their aims, or had done so only at extremely high costs, catalyzed the U.S. search for alternative strategies. Yet, policymakers struggling to offer more promising ways of dealing with the so-called rogues faced a major impediment: the concept of “rogue states” itself. The label was a pejorative designation, not an analytical one. It was therefore useful in fomenting domestic support for hard-line policies, but, by implying that these countries were beyond rehabilitation, it restricted policy options to punitive measures only. Other approaches that might serve American and global security interests by engaging the target country—rather than isolating it—were simply incompatible with the rogue framework.

That framework was also unable to accommodate important differences among states. Rather, it encouraged a standardized policy of isolation toward all, regardless of how different they might be in terms of regional ambitions, strategic capabilities, and domestic politics. The now-abandoned strategy of dual containment toward Iran and Iraq is only the most glaring example of this tendency. Moreover, the rogue paradigm failed to distinguish between a country’s regime and its often reluctant citizens, thus precluding the United States from engaging nonstate actors. Finally, rogue rhetoric hampered U.S. efforts to gain multilateral support for its policies, as it was seen by Europeans and other allies to indicate an American preference for punitive approaches.

Replacing Rogue Rhetoric

Limited in its policy options and increasingly feeling the need for greater flexibility, the Clinton administration officially abandoned the rogue label. This welcome change could open the way to a more effective approach toward problem countries, one whose approach is not “one size fits all” and whose goal is rehabilitation, not isolation.

Such a strategy would require critical changes in U.S. foreign policy, some of which are tentatively under way. First, policymakers would have to reconceptualize America’s relationships with problem countries. Adopting the “states of concern” terminology is a useful beginning. A next, and more meaningful, step would be to classify certain behaviors—rather than particular regimes—as “rogue” or “demanding of concern.” This approach would signal that rehabilitation is possible for countries that abandon offensive actions, thereby offering them one powerful incentive for changing their behavior.

Sanctions policy must also change, with sanctions used less as rigid measures to exact punishment and more as a means of defining a bargaining framework between the United States and the country in question. Sanctions regimes, often viewed as monolithic structures to be lifted once a country complies with all U.S. demands, should instead be configured so that incremental improvements in behavior can be rewarded by the gradual easing of sanctions. For instance, if Libya were to give full cooperation to the ongoing trial of those suspected of bombing Pan Am 103, it could become a candidate for measured rehabilitation. The same principle would hold for a Cuba that provided greater political freedom for its people.

Certain reforms could make the use of sanctions more flexible and responsive. For example, all sanctions legislation passed by Congress should include executive waivers, to give the president flexibility to react to events that create important openings for American diplomacy. Congress can maintain its leverage in these circumstances by specifying that a joint resolution of Congress—signaling its overwhelming disapproval—would require the executive branch to reverse its actions. In addition, the placement of a country on the State Department’s terrorism list should be divorced from the automatic penalties that now accompany that designation. The objective fact that a country is supporting terrorism needs to be separated from the subjective judgment that imposing a predetermined spate of economic sanctions would improve the situation, rather than exacerbate it. Lastly, when policymakers first impose sanctions on a country, they should delineate an “exit strategy” charting the steps the state must take for sanctions to be removed. In short, the process of “de-sanctioning” should be as important as that of sanctioning.

Finally, policymakers must give much greater consideration to engagement, or the use of incentives, in dealing with problem countries. Engagement need not mean making unwarranted concessions to regimes that repeatedly flout international norms and pose risks to American security interests. Engagement—in the form of well-defined steps whereby verified changes in the behavior of a country are rewarded with incentives (including the lifting of sanctions)—could help moderate recalcitrant regimes by holding out the offer of rehabilitation, instead of continued incrimination.

While no policy tool will be universally applicable, initial moves toward limited engagement with North Korea suggest the value of this strategy in at least some situations. The 1994 Agreed Framework signed by North Korea and the United States set forth a series of choreographed steps designed to lead to the denuclearization of the North. Although not without its complications, the agreement offers the best prospect for a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons and has provided the backdrop to a possible thaw in relations between Pyongyang and its neighbors and the United States.

Simply abandoning the “rogue state” label in itself is not a fundamental policy change. But with the passing of the term went the presumption that Washington should use only punitive tools in dealing with countries with which it has substantial disagreements. Removing this obstacle to the pursuit of engagement opens the possibility of a dramatic departure in how the United States treats countries that have so far proved impervious to U.S. policies of punishment.