(Preface: Did anybody, and I mean anybody, see this coming? Right now, Syria’s best left untouched. Events are moving and I’m not in the room for any of the meetings. Will Assad give up his chemical weapons and be allowed to conventionally slaughter the rest of his country? Time is now going to have to tell. So we’ll take a side-step today and avoid being wrong for a few days.)
What’s in a name? Well, if somebody, specifically the president of the United States, calls you a “rogue state,” you’d best break out an alliance with Russia if you hope to survive. When the president says something, people can die. That’s the power of his chosen words.
You’ve probably heard the term a bunch, especially relating to Syria, North Korea, and Iran. But what what the hell is a “rogue state”? The implication from the term is that’s it’s a not-so-well-behaved government going around blowing up airlines and attacking discos in Berlin. Because that’s pretty much exactly what it means.
When states behaved badly, Mr. Reagan noticed
Reagan liked to paint the world with a black-and-white brush. The Soviets were evil; communism was Satan’s idea; terrorism was a spawn of Hell, etc. When Gaddafi entered the world stage as a nut job, playing around with terrorism with God knows what strategic plan in mind, Reagan referred to him as the “mad dog of the Middle East” – though technically Gaddafi was in North Africa. Gaddafi was playing into the Nasserite “Third Way” of geopolitics, trying to find some role in between Soviet and American power.
But Gaddafi was also a terrible leader, and in between his nutty Green Book and his changing the flag of Libya to the world’s simplest, he managed to piss off the United States. This was the beginning of the idea of a “rogue state” – a country that couldn’t be trusted to play along with the international system.
The end of the Cold War played hell with Reagan’s sense of evil
To those who liked to see the world cleanly split between Soviet evil and American light, the end of the Cold War muddled matters considerably. What to do with regimes like Saddam Hussein, who, despite losing his Soviet patron, was still a dick? What about North Korea, or Iran? Thankfully, Bill Clinton had the answer. Thus, in 1994, the term “rogue state” was born.
According to Clinton, a rogue state was one that threatened world peace. Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Serbia and, for some reason, Cuba, were all put on the list. This was not an international index – this was a targeting order for the Pentagon. Each of these states were non-democratic. All but two of them were dominated by a family. Some had strategic resources; some, not. What mattered was their relationship to the United States in the 1990s.
Boy, that Cold War sure was something, huh?
American strategists were caught completely in the lurch by the Soviet Union’s demise. They were in it for the long haul, not expecting their greatest enemy to vanish in a puff of dust like a mummy. With the problem of world communism neatly solved, a new question arose – what’s the problem now? The victory in the Cold War had proved that America’s economic system, for all its faults, was superior to the alternatives. Underpinning that system was trade. American military power retooled itself to put to order those bits of the world that still did not play by the global system’s rules. Hence, you got the rogue state list – a list of states that did not trade with the United States and weren’t terribly inclined to do so.
Getting off the list was as simple as saying “I do”
Gaddafi famously was removed when he finally started playing ball with the U.S. and Western powers. By opening up oil concessions and giving up any attempt to build weapons of mass destruction, Gaddafi actually came in from the cold and was allowed to become another Hosni Mubarak. But of all the rogue governments, only Gaddafi chose that path – and fat good it did him.
All other rogue states have, to this point, refused to cooperate with the American-led system. Why is that? A large part comes from their government types. Authoritarian regimes do well when their people are poor, ignorant, and likely to stay that way. Free trade creates one of two things – a clique of “rich getting richer” folks at the top or an assertive middle class. Egypt was the former; the result was a revolution. Serbia was the latter; the result was Milosevic dying in The Hague. No dictator ever prospered concurrently with his people. The incentive to cooperate just isn’t there.
America’s worldwide strategic priorities mean that every rogue state must eventually be eliminated
The United States benefits from a world that is divided and dividing (as in the case of Spain’s Catalonia or Britain’s Scotland). But it also benefits from a world that plays by an agreed-upon set of trade rules. In point of fact, the latter is far more important to the U.S. than the former. As a democracy, America must guarantee a certain level of comfort for its citizens. Its military forces deploy in attempts to open the sea lanes, defeat potential threats before they become too strong, and ensure that trade continues. While elites do exist who dream of empire, America’s citizenry have never seen much benefit from that, which is why America was never a very good imperial power in the classic sense of the term.
Despite the chaos within both Libya and Iraq, the destruction of their former regimes have now brought them into the world trading system. America’s overall interest in both has waned. Should they sort themselves, America expects them to play ball – and they’ll be left alone accordingly. Should some new Saddam come along, you can expect more confrontation as the U.S. tries to guarantee free trade in those places.
The term “rogue state” therefore doesn’t apply to the U.S.
Some people like to give the label to America. But it’s an America-centric term. Do you or do you not trade with the U.S.? If the answer is yes, you’re not on the list. This is the reason that Cuba, despite it not sponsoring terrorism or military adventures anymore, remains a “rogue state.” And this is the reason Venezuela, despite the former president’s virulently anti-U.S. rhetoric, is not.
Over time, the U.S. will support the elimination of these regimes
All of these regimes are notable for their weaknesses. Some of them are remnants of the Cold War itself and are just taking a longer death. But none of them can survive forever given their structural deficiencies. Cuba is already moving that way – we might be able to expect the end of the embargo soon (at which point Cuban cigars won’t be nearly as cool). Syria is imploding; Sudan lost half its country; North Korea’s rusting away while rattling its dirty sabers; Iran’s cars are running out of gas. How long can any of these regimes resist the powers of American-led globalization? Time will tell, but certainly, not much longer.