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The Threat from Rogue States

Op-Ed, Boston Globe

November 6, 2004

Author: Robert Rotberg, Director, Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Intrastate Conflict Program

 

After Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush's foremost policy challenge is posed by rogue states, that is, states that threaten the United States and world peace. Which are the true "rogue" states? What is "rogueness" in the international arena? Do rogue states share certain common characteristics? If so, what should be done to curtail rogue states? How can rogue states be encouraged to behave less roguishly?

Washington calls Iran and North Korea rogues, but has no policy to deal with them. What about the other rogues, such as Syria? Part of the problem is that Washington uses the designation "rogue" vaguely, and has no definite criteria either for labeling or challenging such states.

Nation-states should qualify as rogue states when and if they rank high on two parallel scales: repression and aggression. Those nation-states that systematically oppress their own people, deny human rights and civil liberties, severely truncate political freedom, and prevent meaningful individual economic opportunity are easy to stigmatize. When they also starve their own people, the designation of a nation-state as a serial repressor comes readily. Darfur-like tragedies emerge from those kind of rogue states.

Along the axis of aggression, many of the most repressive nation-states in the world also rate high. If a nation-state possesses weapons of mass destruction, or seeks to attain WMD, they threaten world order and are by definition aggressive. Sponsors of terrorism are equally aggressive. Lower on the scale are nation-states that attack or threaten their neighbors militarily. Then there are those nation-states that traffic in narcotics, launder illicit funds, ship small arms illegally, interfere with the free trade of their neighbors, or otherwise behave boorishly in their sub-regions. Those nation-states, even without the taint of terror or WMD, may destabilize or poison their regional political or economic environments.

There is a cluster of nation-states that threaten their own inhabitants and stability and peace in the world. Those are the most dangerous rogue states. Or, to use language that is less emotive, those nation-states suffer from acute repressive-aggressive disorder. Nation-states with that malady pose unacceptable risks to world order -- to peace in our time.

For now, the most repressive states in the world, listed alphabetically, are: Belarus, Burma, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Togo, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe. Some are allied with Washington's war against terror, but we should be wary of being compromised by close association, and thus becoming complicit in their internal predation.

Among those dangerous and despicable states, North Koreaand Iran rank at the highest pole of aggression. Syria follows. Then there is a grouping of less threatening but still aggressive states such as Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe. Belarus, Burma, Equatorial Guinea, Togo, Tunisia, and Turkmenistan threaten their own nationals much more than they currently undermine world order. Even if one or more of this last group may harbor a terrorist cell, or engage in drug trafficking or money laundering, the scale of such operations so far is limited and not beyond "yellow" in terms of any world order alert. The first three aggressive states above, however, are much more hostile, as are the three who follow, especially in their own neighborhoods.

There are a few other nation-states that are or have been aggressive, such as Libya, but may not necessarily oppress their own people harshly. Then there are states such as the Sudan that harm their own citizens but are no longer aggressive beyond their borders. Further investigation may add several new names to the lists above. Developing tougher and more thorough quantitative criteria will be required to distinguish degrees of repression and degrees of aggression in today's troubled world.

Given a responsibility to protect the weak and the preyed upon in countries like those listed here, Washington needs to craft new policies to intervene diplomatically or otherwise before the next Darfurs occur. Bright lines of behavior need to be established across which repressive states step at their peril. (Being a repressive state is in its own way a decisive threat to a peaceful world in addition to putting an intolerable burden on a country's own inhabitants.)

There are established reactions to the most aggressive WMD and terror threats. Washington has fewer clear policies capable of curbing exporters of enmity, crime, drugs, and light weapons. But if there are nation-states that deserve to be called rogues, so there must be tough policies that Washington, Brussels, and Moscow can devise to reduce the destabilizing threats they pose and the gross human rights violations they inflict upon innocent people.

 

For more information about this publication please contact the ICP Program Coordinator at 617-496-9812.

For Academic Citation:

Rotberg, Robert I. "The Threat from Rogue States." Boston Globe, November 6, 2004.

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