International Security Studies

"Rogue States" Approach Is Counterproductive, Claims Author of New Book

Jan 01, 2001

The term "rogue state," used by U.S. policymakers in recent years to refer to a group of aggressively recalcitrant authoritarian countries including Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Cuba, is counterproductive and distorts American foreign policy, argues Robert Litwak in his new book, Rogue States and U.S. Foreign Policy.

The book is an expert analysis of the conceptual basis of the U.S. rogue state policy. It traces the policy's evolution and assesses its effectiveness in case studies of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

Litwak, director of the Division of International Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center and formerly the director of nonproliferation and export controls at the National Security Council, asserted that the United States "rogue state" policy limits U.S. strategic flexibility and ultimately damages America's relations with its allies. "The rogue state policy pushes the administration into a one-size-fits-all strategy despite significant differences in U.S. objectives toward and political circumstances within this disparate group of states."

According to Litwak, the notion of a "pariah" or "outlaw" state dates back to the 1970s, but the term "rogue state" came into vogue among U.S. policymakers only during the past decade. In a 1994 article in Foreign Affairs, then National Security Adviser Anthony Lake described Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Cuba as rogue states, advocating a strategy of containment and isolation to pressure these countries into changing their behavior. Since then, President Clinton, members of Congress, and other leading foreign policy officials have frequently invoked the term to emphasize the threat these countries pose to American security interests and to argue the need for a limited national missile defense to protect the U.S. from attack.

Litwak gave three reasons why the "rogue states" approach to foreign policy is contradictory and flawed.

1. The rogue state policy is politically motivated and politically selective. Why, he asks, is Cuba -- which has not been developing weapons of mass destruction or supporting terrorism -- labeled a rogue state, while Pakistan and Syria, which have been linked to terrorism, are not? The answer is simple: Cuba is included in the gallery of rogue states because of the political influence of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans; Syria and Pakistan are excluded because their support is needed to pursue America's other important interests in the Middle East and South Asia.
2. The rogue state policy limits strategic flexibility. "Once a country is branded a rogue or outlaw state ... it becomes very difficult politically to pursue any strategy other than comprehensive containment and isolation." Litwak shows that U.S. efforts to pursue limited engagement with North Korea or a political opening with Iran have been limited by the frequent American references to these countries as rogues.
3. The rogue state policy damages U.S. relations with its important allies. In particular, unilateral American sanctions on Iran, Libya, and Cuba have become a source of great contention between the United States and its closest allies in Europe, Asia, and the Western Hemisphere.

Litwak recommended that the United States "eschew the lumping and demonization inherent to the rogue state policy in favor of targeted strategies addressed to the particularities of each case." Differentiating between these countries would bring greater analytical rigor to the debates over whether to engage or contain them and whether to develop a limited national missile defense. The United States should make these decisions, Litwak maintained, based on a realistic assessment of the threats posed to the United States by each country.

Experts & Staff

  • Robert S. Litwak // Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies
  • Tonya Boyce // Program Assistant, International Security Studies