State Department drops the term "rogue state"—cynicism and crisis in US foreign policy

By Patrick Martin
24 June 2000

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said June 19 that the State Department will no longer use the term “rogue state” to designate the handful of countries which have been targeted for exceptionally harsh diplomatic and trade sanctions by the US government. Countries like North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Cuba and Sudan will now be referred to as “states of concern,” a spokesman for Albright explained later.

Before examining the content and implications of this decision, it is worth considering the way in which it was announced. Albright dismissed the term “rogue state” in the course of a call-in program on National Public Radio, as she told a questioner that the State Department no longer considered the term an appropriate one. This impromptu comment was then elaborated by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher in response to press inquiries.

This offhand manner underscores the cynicism of American imperialism. The US has used the epithet “rogue” to demonize countries that ran afoul of American foreign policy and commercial aims, deliberately choosing the term to conjure up an image of countries whose leaders—and people—were, as it were, contaminated with the virus of terrorism. The implication was that virtually any measures were justified against such nations.

In the name of combating the “rogue state” of Iraq, the US-led embargo has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children. Similar measures have caused economic devastation in Cuba, North Korea and other countries. The US has bombed the “rogue states” Iraq, Libya and Sudan.

But now, without any explanation to the American people, almost as an after-thought, the terminology is casually discarded, as though the matter were of no greater import than the color of Madame Albright's purse.

In fact, the abandonment of the “rogue state” category reflects a deep crisis in US foreign policy, and leaves in shambles the official rationale for the proposed building of a US anti-missile system. For the last decade the Pentagon has sought to justify a resumption of the ill-fated Reagan administration “Star Wars” program by claiming it was necessary to counter a potential missile attack on the United States by North Korea, Iran, etc., despite the fact that these countries possess neither the technological resources nor the suicidal impulse required to initiate a nuclear war with the United States.

Only last week, after the Clinton-Putin summit in Moscow, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen employed the term on Russian state television in support of the US plan to establish an anti-missile system in violation of the 1972 ABM Treaty. “I came to explain the United States's position in terms of the nature of the threat that we face from rogue states and the nature of a limited national missile defense system that would be directed against a North Korea, an Iran, Iraq, or other so-called rogue states,” he said.

The category of “rogue state” was created by the US State Department at the end of the Cold War, as the Stalinist regimes crumbled in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union disintegrated. The existence of the Soviet bloc had made it possible for nationalist regimes in Asia, Africa and Latin America to balance between imperialism and Stalinism and occasionally even thumb their noses at the dictates of Washington. As the prospect of subsidies or military aid from Moscow dried up, most of these governments quickly made their peace with imperialism. Those that held back soon discovered that the Pentagon, CIA and State Department viewed the collapse of the USSR as a green light for unrestrained American bullying and military/diplomatic intervention all over the globe.

The first regime to receive the “rogue state” treatment was that of Manuel Noriega in Panama. Noriega was a longtime CIA stooge who had tortured dissidents, massacred striking workers, supplied guns to the Nicaraguan contras and collected payoffs from drug traffickers, all with the blessing of successive American presidents, from Carter to Reagan to Bush. But as the threat of revolution in Central America receded, Noriega began to be considered a liability and his position athwart the Panama Canal a definite menace.

In a matter of months, the American media cranked up a massive campaign to demonize Noriega and justify US military intervention, which was ordered by Bush in December 1989. US troops invaded the small Central American country, arrested Noriega and brought him to the United States for trial on drug trafficking charges. A caretaker US-backed regime was installed.

An even more intense propaganda campaign was waged in the Persian Gulf War, as Saddam Hussein—also a former ally of the CIA—was dubbed the new Hitler after his seizure of Kuwait. Similar campaigns continued throughout the 1990s, to back US interventions in Somalia and in the civil war in Yugoslavia, and to maintain embargoes imposed during the Cold War against Cuba, Iran and North Korea.

Besides the specific acts of American intervention for which the leaders of the “rogue states” served as scapegoats, the existence of such states provided a pretext for maintaining virtually intact the enormous US Cold War military and espionage apparatus. US officials had maintained for decades that a huge war machine was necessary to confront the nuclear-armed Soviet Union, occupying a sixth of the globe. Now they shifted, without skipping a beat, to citing the alleged threat from tiny and relative powerless countries to justify a $300 billion US military budget, with warships, bombers and bases throughout the world.

The abrupt abandonment of the “rogue states” terminology is bound up with a shift in relations between the United States and the targeted countries. State Department spokesman Boucher cited such events as the victory of “reform” candidates in Iran's parliamentary elections, Libya's decision to turn over two suspects for trial in the bombing of Pan Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and last week's summit meeting between North and South Korea.

There is another factor, which Boucher did not mention. It is by now widely conceded within the US foreign policy establishment that the policy of demonizing countries and imposing sanctions on them has proven a failure in geopolitical and strategic terms. For American corporate interests, it has been a debacle. European, Japanese and Canadian companies have stepped up their activities in Cuba, leading to moves in the US, with the support of business interests and a section of the congressional Republican leadership, to loosen the embargo. There are similar considerations in relation to Libya, Iran and Iraq, all important oil-producers, and even Sudan and North Korea.

These events raise an obvious question: what will replace “rogue states” in the demonology of American foreign policy, as “rogue states” replaced the anticommunist mythology of the Cold War? The right-wing campaign against the China trade agreement suggests that Beijing is one possible candidate for the role of enemy number one. A recent US strategy document suggests that the Pentagon is planning actively for a major war between the United States and China by 2020.

More fundamentally, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the abandonment of the anti-“rogue state” framework, American imperialism is bound to begin targeting more explicitly and openly its main economic rivals—major imperialist powers like Japan, Germany, France and Great Britain. Already the conflicts between Europe and the United States over economic issues have reached bitter proportions, and the imperialist powers have intensified their jockeying for position in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet Union. The contradictions of capitalism as a world system are leading inexorably to the reemergence the inter-imperialist contradictions which produced World War I and World War II.