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Rogue States: Fight, Engage or Isolate?
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Rogue States: Fight, Engage or Isolate?

On March 11, the Burkle Center for International Relations hosted a conference to discuss how to deal with "states of concern."

This article was first published in UCLA Today.
By Ajay Singh

"Rogue" was once a word reserved for criminals, vagabonds and scoundrels. These days, nations that threaten world peace are referred to as rogues — and how to deal with them is a pressing issue for U.S. foreign policy.

On March 11, the Burkle Center for International Relations hosted a conference to discuss the problem. Titled "U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Rogue States: Engage, Isolate or Strike?" the daylong event was held at the James West Alumni Center.

The term "rogue states" first gained wide currency during the Clinton administration, which characterized nations according to a four-tier typology: advanced industrial democracies; emerging democracies with market economies; failed and failing states; and rogue states such as North Korea, Iran and (at the time) Libya.

But lumping nations together as rogues only demonizes them, which is why the Clinton administration replaced the one-size-fits-all label with the more diplomatic-sounding "states of concern" in 2000.

"To some extent, you don't want to define a rogue state," said Albert Carnesale, chancellor emeritus and professor of public policy and mechanical and aerospace engineering, who moderated a panel on lessons learned from U.S. foreign policy toward Libya and China. "It's sort of like pornography — you know it when you see it."

The definition should be confined to nations that are grossly repressive at home and aggressive abroad, suggested Robert Rotberg, director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Harvard University. Among a "dirty dozen" of such states, there are, he added, only three full-fledged outlaws: North Korea, Belarus and Syria.

The Bush administration redefined rogue states after 9/11, arguing that new threats derived from the very nature of these states, which are less likely to be deterred by the threat of force and more likely to not just use weapons of mass destruction but transfer them to terrorist groups, noted Robert Litwak, director of International Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq set a key precedent by showing to the world that to change a rogue nation's behavior "you have to change the regime," Litwak said, adding: "The message for Iran was, 'take a number.' " But force against nuclear aspirants often doesn't work. "It may delay a [nuclear] program and create enough disincentives but may not terminate it," said Sarah Kreps, a research fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Although engaging rogue states doesn't always work, "I'm on the side of engaging," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who delivered the conference's keynote address and regaled the audience with anecdotes about his successful diplomacy with such strongmen as Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro.

"Right now we're engaging Iran and North Korea," he said. "All rogue nations want some kind of approval from the United States." And although good diplomacy has a personal touch, "it's not just about talking to people — it's carrots and sticks," he added. Asked whom he wouldn't talk to, he replied: "Bin Laden, Al Qaeda — but that doesn't mean you don't talk to those who finance them."

During a 2005 trip to North Korea as Thailand's foreign minister, Kantathi Suphamongkhon, senior fellow at the Burkle Center, asked Pyongyang officials how they viewed Washington. Referring to Bush's 2002 remark that North Korea, Iran and Iraq are an "axis of evil," the officials replied that without nuclear weapons North Korea might suffer the same fate as Iraq.

"But we would no longer need nuclear weapons if the United States stops its hostile policy," they added. Since 2003, engaging North Korea in six-party talks has created some fruitful outcomes. As Suphamongkhon aptly put it: "How can you isolate the world's most isolated country and expect good results?"

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