What a difference a decade makes in international politics. Just ten years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed, China seemed mired in domestic concerns, and the United States appeared headed for a carefree era. Pundits pontificated about a security vacuum while Washington slashed defense spending.
At that time, the so-called rogue states, like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, were the only clouds looming on the horizon. Isolated internationally, these pariahs demonstrated a propensity for internal cruelty and external threats. They coveted weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear and biological warheads, and missiles to deliver their deadly payloads. Unpredictable and erratic, they entered Washington’s consciousness solely as insular but containable troublemakers.
The United States paid little heed to Moscow or Beijing as it groped for policies to engage or contain rogue states. Our approach fluctuated from confronting Iraq through sanctions, ostracism, and occasional bombing to engaging North Korea through rewarding perceived nuclear restraint with concessions in hopes of changing Pyongyang’s behavior.
By the end of the 1990s, the rogue regimes no longer looked so isolated from the major powers. Russia and China sold arms and technology to them, took up their cause in the Security Council as Washington sought to enforce United Nations sanctions against them, and, more recently, reestablished or deepened diplomatic ties.
A series of events dramatically announced this turnaround. China’s uproar following the accidental bombing of its embassy in Belgrade during NATO’s Kosovo air campaign demonstrated that Washington could not lead an attack on rogue-like Serbia without big power consequences. Another example surfaced when North Korea’s leader, Kim Jung II, first consulted with Beijing before agreeing to the historic summit with his South Korean counterpart last June. The recent Russian and Iranian agreement to strengthen military ties is another illustration of this trend.
Rogue states and their former patrons are cooperating for reasons vastly different from their cold war collaboration. Then, Moscow sought to spread communism in the Third World. Devoid of ideological objectives, Russia and China now seek to expand arm sales and exert leverage with Washington for geopolitics, pure and simple. Beijing can turn up the heat on the United States for supporting Taiwan—which China considers its territory—by improving Iraq’s air defense systems and selling missile technology to Pakistan, Libya, and Syria. Because Moscow resents U.S. influence in the Balkans and its spearheading the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into Eastern Europe, it exports tanks and artillery to Iraq and cooperates with Iran to build a nuclear power plant. By confronting the United States asymmetrically, Russia and China can redress their military and political weakness vis-à-vis the sole superpower.
These transformed political realities demand a rethinking of American policy. Washington must see the world in global terms, not through a narrow lens trained on a lone maverick. A strategy for undoing the rogue-patron affiliations should also be incorporated into U.S. relations with Moscow and Beijing. Whatever the mix of diplomacy and force, Washington cannot be complacent with the emerging rogue-patron collusion.