by Thomas H. Henriksen
Palgrave MacMillan, 2012, 240 pp., $30Outlier States: American Strategies to Change, Contain, or Engage Regimes
by Robert S. Litwak
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012, 256 pp., $50
North Korea’s ongoing nuclear brinkmanship and Iran’s accelerating nuclear program underscore the failure of successive U.S. administrations to dissuade outlier regimes from pursuing the world’s most destructive weapons. For more than twenty years, the bloodless phrase “post-Cold War world” has been the default descriptor of the era. A more compelling label might be the Age of Rogue States. In the several centuries before the collapse of the Soviet Union, grand strategy focused on managing the balance of power among major sovereign states, ideally by diplomacy and occasionally by war. This first-order strategic demand ended (albeit temporarily) with the advent of a unipolar world. But a new danger arose, posed by mid-sized, authoritarian powers seeking regional and global influence through asymmetric means, including sponsoring terrorism and pursuing weapons of mass destruction. How to contain, deter, confront or transform such outlaw states—some of them qualifying perhaps as “crazy states”, as Yekhezkel Dror memorably wrote—remains a huge headache for U.S. national security officials.
Two recent books by prominent foreign policy thinkers—Thomas H. Henriksen’s America and the Rogue States and Robert S. Litwak’s Outlier States—seek to clarify the threat posed by such regimes, evaluate U.S. policy responses, and propose new, more effective strategies. Of the two, Outlier States is superior in every important respect. It is logically organized, conceptually clear, analytically robust and practically useful. America and the Rogue States disappoints on all these counts.
enriksen’s first omission is a failure to define his object of study either rigorously or consistently. To be sure, he suggests a few common characteristics, such as “a propensity for terrorism, megadeath arms, and warlike threats”, as well as dictatorial governance and egregious human rights abuses. Rogues, we read, are “fiercely defiant, self-consciously isolated, and truculent states.” Instead of comporting with norms of international society, “rogues menace . . . it by exporting terrorism, seeking nuclear weapons, and disrupting peace in their respective regions.” But such attributes are mentioned only in passing, rather than accorded the in-depth treatment they deserve. And rather than justifying “rogue state” as a useful catch-all category, Henriksen takes it as a given.
His second missed opportunity stems from the decision to structure the book around three self-contained, country-specific chapters, on Iraq, Iran and North Korea. (A fourth and final chapter addresses “Lesser Rogues and Troublesome States”, with short capsules on Libya, Syria, Sudan, Cuba and Venezuela). Had he adopted a self-consciously comparative approach, he could have used his three main case studies (and the lesser examples) to great effect, achieving new analytical insights and distilling useful policy lessons.
Indeed, the book’s table of contents screams for what the late Stanford political scientist Alexander George termed a “structured, focused comparison.” This methodological approach—about as basic as it gets in social science—simply requires the author to pose a similar set of questions for each of the selected case studies. A few obvious ones spring to mind: What makes this particular country qualify as a rogue? What norms or rules does it seek to challenge? How does its roguish behavior manifest itself? What is or has been the basis for the regime’s hold on power? How do the country’s domestic political dynamics flow into its global behavior, and vice versa? How do regional dynamics constrain or enable its policy choices? How have the great powers responded to its provocations? And so on.
Henriksen’s separate chapters contain (or at least hint at) answers to some of these questions. But he fails to interrogate his cases in any consistent way, or even to offer chapter conclusions permitting cross-case comparisons. The unfortunate result is trio of chapters that proceed in chronological, blow-by-blow fashion, documenting U.S. (mis)adventures with each separate country, without any connective tissue to make sense of the whole. The reader is left to wonder whether anything really binds this class of states, why behaviors and outcomes differ across cases, and whether one can make any useful generalizations at all.
With no deliberate explicit comparative framework, it is no surprise that America and the Rogue States is notably weak on policy guidance. Rather than distill lessons for U.S. decision-makers, Henriksen simply ends the book. The final three pages, headed “A Few Concluding Observations”, only scratch the surface of potential policy options.
Nonetheless he makes a few bold parting claims: “The only viable approach is one embodying containment and deterrence to confront the threats emanating from rogue states.” But why this is true or how it should be done remains a mystery. He adds to the confusion in the book’s final paragraph, which calls on the United States to harness “the innovations of the so-called liberation technology movement sweeping the planet.” He declares in the book’s final line, “The single best antidote to rogue regimes is democracy.” That’s probably true, generally speaking. But the assertion raises the question of how U.S. policymakers should balance the pursuits of containment, deterrence, regime change and democracy promotion—and under what conditions it should incline in one direction or another. No answer is spelled out.
Still, Henriksen’s book contains insights. One is that Cold War legacies have shaped the trajectory of pariah states, including as proxies for the Soviet Union (in the case of Syria) or China (North Korea), and another that the survival of such mid-level trouble-makers has typically depended on the continued patronage of a powerful external actor. Another is that the radicalism of rogue regimes is often integrally related to America’s own checkered history with these countries; Iran (where the United States helped depose Mossadegh and supported the Pahlavi regime) is the most obvious example. A third is that pariah states frequently invoke foreign bogeymen (not least the United States–) to silence internal critics and cement nationalist support. Finally, whatever the exaggerations of an “axis of evil”, rogue states have sometimes made common cause.
obert S. Litwak takes a different approach in Outlier States, with commendable results. The nation’s premier “rogue scholar”, Litwak is vice president for programs and director of international security studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His book is the third in a trilogy examining regimes that flout global norms and U.S. efforts to bring them to heel.
His first installment, Rogue States and U.S. Foreign Policy (2000), critiqued the term “rogue state” as an unhelpful catch-all category that elided differences among rule-defying regimes and, by demonizing them, constrained and distorted U.S. policy options. Litwak commended the Clinton Administration for (belatedly) jettisoning the term for the more nuanced “outlier states.” His sequel, Regime Change: U.S. Strategy through the Prism of 9/11 (2007), bemoaned the resurrection of “rogue” rhetoric under President George W. Bush and critiqued his Administration’s commitment to eliminating regimes rather than altering regime behavior as misguided and impractical. As Iraq revealed, implementing such a strategy could exact heavy costs—financial, diplomatic and human. And where the United States proved unwilling to pay such a price, as with Iran or nuclear-armed North Korea, regime change offered little policy guidance.
Litwak’s third book continues the story into the Obama Administration. During his presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama promised to speak with the leaders of any nation, regardless of their pariah status. Once in office, he trumpeted a foreign policy of “engagement.” This included speaking directly to Tehran and Pyongyang in his first inaugural, pledging to “extend a hand, if you are willing to unclench your fist.” The suitor’s advances went unrequited, forcing Obama toward more conventional strategies of containment and deterrence. These shifting sands of U.S. “rogue state” policy—from containment under Clinton to regime change under George W. Bush to engagement under Obama—allow Litwak to sift for lessons about the efficacy and limitations of each approach.
Litwak gets a big payoff from his analytical and organizational choices. To begin with, he places the challenge of assimilating outlier states in a suitably broad historical and sociological perspective, depicting it as part of a centuries-long effort to socialize and integrate the world’s sovereign units into an expanding “international society” bound by certain broadly shared (though continually evolving) norms of state behavior. Borrowing from the great British political theorist Hedley Bull, Litwak jettisons the notion of an austere “international system”—that barren crypto-Copernican world of self-contained, billiard ball-like states so beloved of U.S. foreign policy “realists”—and embraces the concept of an “international society” whose constituents are “conscious of certain common interests and common values” and “conceive of themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another and share in the working of common institutions.” These shared understandings, and not simply the distribution of brute power, are part and parcel of any international order.
By embedding his analysis within this “international society” (or “English School”) perspective, Litwak lends historical heft to his treatment of outlier states. “Although the focus of this study is contemporary”, he writes, “the central issue it engages is one of the most traditional in world politics: the challenge to international order posed by states that defy its governing norms.”
Historically, the main threats to international society have arisen (as Henry Kissinger observes in A World Restored) when one or more great powers challenges the legitimacy of current arrangements by adopting a “revolutionary” foreign policy, at once ideological and imperialist. (Napoleon’s France, Hitler’s Germany, Lenin and Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China are prominent cases that come to mind.) Today, fortunately, there is no major revolutionary power bent on overthrowing the international system. “Instead, the challenge is posed by a set of relatively marginal states—Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Burma, and Zimbabwe, among others—that violate international norms and threaten the stability of their regions but lack the capacity (unlike Nazi Germany) to bring down the system itself.” The objectionable behavior of contemporary outlier states can be internal, in the form of massive human rights violations, or external, in the pursuit of catastrophic weapons and sponsorship of terrorism. Or it can, and often enough does, involve both.
Litwak’s first chapter describes how U.S. policy toward “rogue” states shifted during the late 1980s from a focus on internal (mis)treatment of citizens to dangerous external actions, notably pursuit of WMD and sponsorship of terrorism. Despite this new focus, the “rogue” state concept remained “analytically soft and selectively applied against a diverse set of states that were hostile to the United States.” It also trapped U.S. officials in a diplomatic straitjacket, since once a regime earned the label, Administration critics could easily tar efforts to moderate that state’s behavior through negotiation or incentives as a putative deal with the devil. Seeking greater flexibility, the Clinton Administration in June 2000 adopted the more nuanced if infelicitous phrase “states of concern.”
The incoming George W. Bush Administration had few qualms about resurrecting the rogue state rhetoric, and after 9/11 it fixated on such regimes as the primary threat to U.S. national security and the main target of a seemingly new doctrine of “preemption.” In an age of catastrophic weapons and rogue states, the National Security Strategy of September 2002 declared, the United States could no longer await for dangers to materialize fully before taking decisive action. Given the shortcomings of traditional containment and deterrence, the nation must be prepared to act against “emerging threats before they are formed.”
The new approach, which bore a resemblance to aspects of strategic nuclear weapons postures in earlier decades, also posited a direct connection between the external behavior of a regime and its domestic character. Specifically, it suggested that regime change offered the only guarantee of eliminating potentially existential threats. Although the Administration described preemption (really “preventive” war) as a natural extension of established practice, the “Bush Doctrine” was a revolutionary innovation at least in the sense that it declared that the sovereignty of other countries was contingent (notwithstanding the non-intervention principle in Article 2.7 of the UN Charter), while also establishing de facto the unlimited sovereignty of the United States to pursue unilateral, preventive war (despite UN Charter provisions regarding the collective legitimation of armed force). Such considerations motivated the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.
And yet regime change was hardly the entire story during the Bush years. Litwak usefully juxtaposes the military invasion of Iraq (which turned out to have no WMD stockpiles, only programs in escrow) with the Bush Administration’s diplomatic approach to Libya, which culminated in Muammar Qaddafi’s renouncing his WMD programs in late 2003. Although experts debate what prompted Qaddafi’s about-face, Litwak makes a compelling case that the decisive factor was “the Bush Administration’s tacit but clear assurance of security for the regime” if it ceased its proliferation and terrorist activities.
These alternative approaches to non-proliferation during 2003, the former involving a change of regime, the latter of regime behavior, “provided the political backdrop for the escalating nuclear crises with North Korea and Iran.” Ultimately, the Bush Administration was unwilling to assume the high costs of invasion to overthrow regimes in either country as it had in Iraq, and prospects were dim for significant change from within. At the same time, it refused to offer either country tangible security assurances that might have influenced calculations in Tehran and Pyongyang. In the end, the Administration was hoist on its own rhetorical petard, encapsulated in Vice President Dick Cheney’s hardline stance, “We don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it.” Trapped between the Iraq and Libya models, the Bush Administration watched helplessly as the two remaining members of the “axis of evil” (and arguably a few others) accelerated their nuclear programs against the example of Iraq.
The new Obama Administration promised a new course, one in which the United States would focus on changing regime behavior rather than the regime itself. This approach was designed to end the “mixed messages” that had been emanating from Washington. The Administration adopted a dual track of engagement and sustained pressure (including tightened sanctions), with the promise that these countries could gain the benefit of reintegration into international society in return for compliance with international norms. In Litwak’s words, the United States was offering outliers a “structured choice.”
Litwak’s second chapter usefully distinguishes four distinct pathways by which past outlier states have been reintegrated into “the community of nations.” These scenarios include the assimilation of a defeated power (as with Germany and Japan after World War II); the mellowing of a revolutionary power (as with the Soviet Union under Gorbachev or China under Deng); regime change from without (as in the Vietnamese overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia); and regime change from within (as in the transition from the apartheid regime to a multi-racial South Africa). Based on these distinct pathways, Litwak identifies three sets of factors that may encourage or discourage the assimilation of former outlier states. The first set comprise evolving norms of sovereignty and intervention. The second concern the dynamics of intra-elite bargaining in the target country. And the third have to do with opportunities to apply “conditional reciprocity”—that is, chances to trade the benefits of integration for compliance to norms. Litwak’s pathways and generalizations usefully permit policymakers, at least in theory, to distinguish among outlier states and promising (or unlikely) paths for assimilation.
Would-be tamers of outlier states face a strategic choice: focus strictly on the regime’s external conduct regardless of how it treats its people, or insist on internal decency as well. This is not an easy decision, since either option carries costs. Ignoring domestic misconduct may make it easier to persuade the regime to conform to global norms regarding terrorism and WMD, but likely implies a pact with the devil. Demanding an end to human rights abuses, on the other hand, may require a policy of regime change to effectuate and, in the meantime, may generate more resistance from the target regime on other issues than would otherwise be the case.
Litwak’s identification of the various pathways and enabling conditions for assimilating outlier states provides an invaluable historical and comparative framework for current policy dilemmas. Still, in crafting strategies to contain, engage or change particular regimes, there is no substitute for in-depth “target-state analysis.” The gold standard in this vein remains George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” (and subsequent “X” article in Foreign Affairs). As Litwak notes, U.S. policymakers need in each and every case a clear understanding of the “sources of outlier conduct.” Components of such an analysis must include a detailed grasp of the country’s historical and geostrategic context, regime character, domestic political forces and dynamics, declaratory policy and ideology, material and other capabilities, recent foreign policy behavior, and the regional and international environment into which all these factors mix. Only with such a rigorous analysis in hand can policymakers develop tailored approaches, ranging from regime change to rollback to containment to mixed strategies of conditional engagement involving a variety of carrots and sticks.
Among these strategies, Litwak seems most optimistic about conditional engagement, but his optimism is laudably tempered. He puts his finger on a dilemma that has bedeviled the Obama Administration’s policies toward Iran and North Korea: how to persuade the target state of the benefits of compliance with global norms. The assumption behind conditional engagement is that it is possible to provide outlier states with tangible political and economic incentives to end their pariah status and economic marginalization.
But what if the target regime perceives (re)integration into international society as incompatible with regime survival? From the perspective of Tehran and Pyongyang, the principal lesson of Iraq and Libya (given Qaddafi’s eventual overthrow in 2011) is that nuclear weapons provide the ultimate guarantee for regime security in the face of expeditionary campaigns to overthrow them, and should not be bargained away lightly, or at all. And whatever its economic costs, diplomatic isolation simplifies the crushing of domestic dissent and allows a beleaguered regime to mobilize nationalist sentiment against foreign “imperialists.” By contrast, integration and interdependence are likely to increase external scrutiny and empower the internal opponents of repressive regimes. Such considerations help explain why Obama’s overtures to both countries have gotten pretty much nowhere.
Building on these insights, Litwak’s final chapter explores whether the United States can develop more effective policies to reduce the threat from “nuclear outliers.” The risks of failure, he reminds us, are high. They include potential nuclear proliferation cascades (particularly in the Middle East) and the possibility that irresponsible regimes may transfer nuclear weapons or technology to non-state actors. The starting point for developing U.S. strategy, Litwak argues, is to distinguish between “regime type” and “regime intention”—and to concentrate on the latter. Reviewing U.S. policies toward North Korea and Iran across several administrations, he attributes U.S. frustrations partly to a failure to appreciate the political incentives and internal dynamics of the ruling regimes, as well as overly optimistic assessments of their vulnerability to internal collapse. Given the minimal U.S. appetite for invading either country, and the limited results of conditional engagement, Litwak recommends a strategy of “Containment 2.0.” Such an approach would “combin[e] coercive diplomacy, deterrence, and reassurance”, while “decoupl[ing] the nuclear issue from the question of regime change and harness[ing] internal forces as the agent of societal change.”
Litwak’s recommended strategy is a pragmatic, realist one that reflects the limits of U.S. power and the reality that assimilation of outlier states ultimately depends on domestic dynamics. Still, implementing it will be neither easy nor morally satisfying. It will require, like containment of the Soviet Union, great patience from official Washington and bipartisan support to stay this course. It will also imply greater tolerance for proliferation risks, since the timetable for internal reform is likely to continue lagging behind nuclear weapons development in both countries. Finally, it will compel the United States to subordinate its longstanding commitments to the global spread of democracy and human rights to geopolitical imperatives.
If there is a shortcoming in Outlier States, it is Litwak’s failure to consider the how U.S. approaches to adversarial states should relate to broader multilateral efforts “to change, contain, or engage regimes.” This is a curious omission, since Litwak self-consciously introduces the concept of an “international society” united by common norms and institutions as the very antithesis of the “outlier state.” Rather than focusing entirely on American policy, he might have enriched his discussion of policy options by widening his aperture. A chapter assessing the past performance and future potential of collective frameworks for advancing U.S. policy objectives would have been a good idea. This would have allowed him to evaluate formal organs like the UN Security Council, NPT and the IAEA as well as more ad hoc arrangements like the P5+1 or the Six-Party Talks.
On a similar note, Litwak might have devoted more attention to the calculus of outlier state “enablers” like China and Russia (a topic Henriksen does address), and the question of whether incentives might be brought to bear to alter their policies, and so get at the target rogue indirectly. Nevertheless, Outlier States is destined to become the reference of choice for U.S. officials seeking a clear exposition of the policy dilemmas and options for bringing outlier states in from the cold. It cannot answer all the questions that will come before U.S. policymakers dealing with rogues or outliers, but, perhaps even more important, it can help policymakers to ask the right questions.
Stewart Patrick is senior fellow and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.