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World: Analysis From Washington--A Metaphor That Matters

  • Paul Goble



Prague, 18 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Since the end of the Cold War, diplomats and political leaders increasingly used the term "rogue states" to describe those countries such as Iran, North Korea and Serbia that flaunt international standards of behaviour.

Beyond any doubt, this term is useful in calling attention to and putting pressure on the countries whose governments seem unwilling to play by the rules.

But the frequent invocation of the term "rogue states" entails three serious consequences, each of which has a major impact on the way in which Western democracies deal with the world but none of which has so far attracted much attention.

First, the application of this term to what is typically a relatively small group of countries gives implicit support to the notion that all other countries are basically similar and law abiding.

In contrast to the bad behaviour of the rogue states, the behaviour of most other countries does in fact look both relatively good and relatively similar. That in turn has consequences.

On the one hand, many countries whose behaviour is anything but exemplary on a variety of questions claim to be good international citizens precisely because they are not on anyone's list of rogue states.

And on the other, many Western leaders appear less willing to focus on the often bad behaviour of states they do not label as rogue states and thus lose some of the moral leverage on these countries to change their ways.

Second, the use of the term "rogue states" demonizes these countries in a way that inevitably detracts attention from possible changes in them.

Just as the dichotomy between communism and anti-communism had the effect of keeping many in the West from paying attention to changes in many communist countries, so too the category of rogue states has kept many people from focusing on changes within them.

Under the influence of the earlier dichotomy, many analysts and leaders denied the possibility that the Soviet system could produce a Mikhail Gorbachev until very late in the game.

Under the influence of the current one, many analysts and political leaders have been unwilling to attend to the often very real changes that have occurred in the "rogue" states.

Thus, for example, few in the West have yet been willing to take the election of a relatively moderate Iranian president as signifying a major change there.

And third, the use of this term tends to detract attention from geopolitics in the post-Cold War environment, from the need to create regional and sub-regional balances of power to promote stability.

The implicit vision lying behind this term is that the world consists of an overwhelming number of good citizens and a few bad apples and that the transformation of those states into good international citizens will usher in a period of universal peace.

That vision has its roots in the conception of what a civil society is like within one country. But the extension of this idea to the international system seems at least premature if not entirely unwarranted.

At a minimum, this term distracts attention from the all too real and continuing competitions among states for power and influence over their neighbors. And consequently it has the effect of preventing many leaders from focusing on the uncertainties and complexities of post-Cold War geopolitics.

But even more, widespread acceptance of this often unexamined term may have the effect of blinding those leaders to specific challenges by states not on the rogue list until it is too late to counter them effectively.

To the extent that happens, a term intended to promote greater international harmony by putting pressure on a few states could have the effect of opening the door to anything but harmonious behaviour by countries not now on anyone's list of rogue states.
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