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World: Isolating Closed Regimes Like 'Threatening Drowning Man With Lifeboat'

Would North Korea collapse without an external enemy and complete isolation? (epa) WASHINGTON, October 6, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Regimes sometimes seek to isolate their societies as a strategy for survival, believing that the less citizens know about the outside world, the less they will believe there could be better alternatives to the way their societies are ruled. How the rest of the world should react to these closed societies, particularly when their regimes bolster their isolation through a policy of hostility toward alleged enemy nations, is the subject of a new book, "The J Curve." RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully spoke with its author, Ian Bremmer, an entrepreneur and founder of the Eurasia Group -- an international consulting firm specializing in both political and economic issues.

RFE/RL: You say certain nations -- North Korea or Iran, for example -- want isolation. What do they gain?

Ian Bremmer: I would say it's a strategic imperative for North Korea to be isolated. If they [North Korea's rulers] want to stay in power, they need to keep their people closed off from the international community and closed off from each other. They have to maintain complete control over what their people see. If the average North Korean knew what South Koreans' lives were actually like, if they understood the tremendous, crushing poverty and repressiveness that they live under, the stability of the North Korean system would erode radically overnight.

But they [North Koreans] don't [know how South Koreans live]. It's critical for the North Korean government that they don't have foreign direct investment, that they don't have free-trade zones that function, they don't have tourism coming into their country. And this is true for leaders of a host of states around the world that are stable because they're closed.

RFE/RL: What, if any, are the risks a country faces in making the transition from a closed, stable state to an open, stable state? Can you give an example?

Bremmer: Whenever you move from being stable and closed to trying to become stable and open, the dangers of maintaining yourself in power are pretty large. You see this in China. The very same factors that are creating such opportunities for multinational corporations to go into China, as China starts to globalize and open itself up to global markets, is also causing great stress and instability to the Chinese government.

You see local demonstrations are picking up, riots against the Chinese government, you see NGOs that are starting up with local lawyers who are telling peasants who have been moved off their land that they have rights and they should organize. This is a direct threat to the nature of the Chinese regime. And it's a paradox, of course, for the Chinese government, but it's one of those places that the United States, I think, has been very thoughtful about in terms of its foreign policy.

RFE/RL: You say that when the United States threatens to isolate a state that's already closed, it's like "threatening a drowning man with a lifeboat." If being isolated benefits the leaders of such countries, do they take any action to encourage such threats from Washington?

Bremmer: I think they do. We certainly saw this with Cuba. When the [former] Clinton administration tried to reduce sanctions on Cuba [in 1995], the Cuban government responded by shooting down a civilian aircraft. They clearly benefited from having those sanctions in place. And I think one of the reasons why Castro has been in power for 47 years is precisely because the United States has helped to close it off.

Insecurity drives oil prices up, easing pressure on Iran's government

I think that if you look at Iran today, this Iranian government understands they need oil prices to be high. They need an external enemy. They need to be able to focus on the nuclear issue and not have local Iranians focusing on the economy, focusing on local troubles. They want to close that country.

So the Iranian government -- not the Iranian people, but [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad, Mr. [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei, the Guardians Council, and the rest -- clearly see it as in their domestic interest, narrowly defined, as actively provoking a conflict with the United States and with the West more broadly. And they're succeeding in doing so.

RFE/RL: Is it just the Bush administration that has fallen into the trap of isolating so-called rogue states, or have any of its predecessors done the same?

Bremmer: You look at oil sanctions and oil-for-food in Iraq, and that's not a [U.S. President George W.] Bush policy. Cuban sanctions have been going on for generations. This is absolutely not a 'let's-gang-up-on-the-Bush administration' [argument].

In fact, I would argue, that the Bush administration has fundamentally gotten China right. The Bush administration doesn't like the Chinese regime -- communist government, massive human rights problems, potential rogue state. Right? No. In fact, the Bush administration's response has been to support integration of China into the World Trade Organization, more investment on the ground in China, Beijing Olympics coming up -- all to the good, with the hope that the reform process will go so far and so fast that the Chinese government will effectively reform themselves out of existence.

Furthermore, if it doesn't work, the U.S. has a hedging strategy: Build strong relations with countries that are like-minded in their concerns of the opportunities and dangers of China -- like Japan and India -- where the U.S. has better relations right now than at any point in recent memory."

RFE/RL: How would you recommend that the Bush administration approach a country that it views as a rogue state -- Iran, for instance?

Bremmer: In Iran, frankly, Bush should play the oil card. Bush should try to lower oil prices. Just by talking down the Iranian threat with President Bush's speech at the General Assembly at the United Nations a couple of weeks ago and by saying that diplomacy, they're going to give a longer chance, oil prices tumbled over $10 a barrel. If the United States could convince the Saudis to go along with high levels of production and the U.S. could say they're going to [maintain the diplomatic approach with Iran], invite President Ahmadinejad to a direct, no-cameras summit -- heck, invite him to the ranch in Crawford, cook him breakfast, do what you can to bring the oil price down.

And at the same time, continue to support covert means of promoting opposition parties and the rest within Iran itself. In the hope that over the next six, 12, 18 months you create real instability against this Iranian regime. If it doesn't work, ultimately the military option is still on the table. You hate to use it, it's incredibly dangerous, but give yourself a shot of getting this Iranian regime out in the nearest term. And the way you do that is not by punitive measures that only increase the oil price and help the Iranians stay in power.

RFE/RL: How would you summarize your recommendations for dealing with rogue states?

Bremmer: If you want to destabilize that country, if you want to change the regime, and if the military-strike option is impossible or too dangerous, then the way to do that is by trying to globalize them. The way you destabilize the existing government is by bringing them into the global community. The U.S. consistently, I think, has this knee-jerk reaction -- and other countries do, as well -- that when a rogue state behaves badly, that the way you punish them is by isolating them. And what we need to understand is that isolation does play into the hands of these regimes."

RFE/RL: Right now, the West -- particularly the United States -- is involved in isolating several countries to varying extents. They include Iran, North Korea, and Cuba. Do you see any other states who may soon become U.S. or Western targets of isolation? Uzbekistan, for example?

Bremmer: Not really, and I say that, in part, because it's tiny and there are economic relations that exist, of course, both within Central Asia but also with the Russians and with the Chinese. So, you know, U.S.-led isolation with a couple of other countries on board -- say Japan, say some Europeans -- for Uzbekistan wouldn't mean that much. The Uzbeks, of course, have also provided some support to the United States in the war on terror in terms of military intelligence, provision of some bases, historically all of that.

So, yes, there's no question that you've seen [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice and others come out much more critical of crackdowns in Uzbekistan than, say, in neighboring Kazakhstan, where [Kazakh President Nursultan] Nazarbaev was just treated pretty well [on September 29 in Washington] by the Bush administration. But I think there's not enough there [in Uzbekistan] to really make a difference.

The Structure Of Iran's Government

The Structure Of Iran's Government

INSIDE THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC: Iran is a theocratic Islamic republic governed under a 1979 constitution that was revised in 1989, when presidential powers were expanded and the prime minister's post was abolished.
Appointed -- not elected -- offices and bodies hold the real power in the government. The supreme leader, who serves as a chief of state would, is appointed for life by an Islamic religious advisory board that is called the Assembly of Experts. The supreme leader oversees the military as well as the judiciary and appoints members of the Guardians Council and the Expediency Council.
The Guardians Council -- some of whose members are appointed by the judiciary and approved by the parliament -- works closely with the government and must approve political candidates and legislation passed by the parliament. The Expediency Council is responsible for resolving legislative disputes that may arise between parliament and the Guardians Council over legislation.
The president, who is popularly elected for a four-year term, serves as the head of government. The legislative branch is made up of a 290-seat body called the Majlis, whose members are elected by popular vote for four-year terms...(more)


RFE/RL's coverage of Iran.