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August 28, 2000

From “Rogues” to Rivals?

The State Department’s announcement about no more “rogue states” is a policy shift worth pondering. Recently the United States has given dictatorships one break after another: paying one not to export missile technology; dropping our leverage over another’s human rights abuses; providing permanent normal trade relations; easing sanctions; pulling back from inspections; providing “respect” for those once reviled; even apologizing for America’s past mistakes.

The cold war’s central concept was containment, contested dramatically by the division of four countries: Germany, China, Korea, and Vietnam (along with Cuba, and the Florida Strait between the Cuban capitals of Havana and Miami). The collapse of communism knocked out only one: East Germany. The others survived—as did communism’s clients Iraq, Syria, and Libya—and continue to inflict misery on masses of people. With Iran’s theocracy they are forming an international proliferation league for weapons of mass destruction.

There are reasons to go easy on these regimes. There is little domestic support for a hard-line stance and lots of international displeasure with sanctions. There is a sense that ex-rogues pose no threat, harming their own people more than others. There is fear that unless we prop them up they might lash out or just disintegrate, burdening South Korea, for example, as West Germany was burdened ten years ago; better to help them make a “soft landing.” Above all is the belief that globalization will make them prosperous, which in turn will make them democratic. So we needn’t worry; history will do our work for us.

These regimes are aware of this “American theory” and determined to prove it false by acquiring economic strength while staying politically closed. With China as exemplar they can envision an alternative to America’s model in the form of national socialism, that is, fascism. Highly nationalistic, glorifying the state and “the people,” political power is concentrated in an elite always ready to use the army and police. Vast social programs enclose every aspect of life. The economy is designed to take full advantage of the global market to strengthen the state, and private economic activity is encouraged this far and no farther. “Market socialism” rules, and democracy is regarded as a menace to the strength of the nation. Russia shows signs of leaning this way.

American trade and investment, pressures to build structures of law, civil society, and free expression, can have an effect. Most of all the United States needs to see these regimes and their evolving coalition for what they are and to hold them to account. Dinosaurs they may be, but they have fended off extinction and may have perceived a new way to thrive.