In the Right Direction

January 3, 2007 Tags: DiplomacyPostmodernismSociology

In the Right Direction

Mini Teaser: Isolation allows rogue regimes to extend their longevity and stability.

by Author(s): Ian Bremmer

In the end, this option might not be as unsavory as it sounds. Before Iraq or Afghanistan can become a democracy, it must become a country safe enough for open political debate.

But what of our efforts to bring "rogue" states to heel? In coping with the challenges posed by North Korea and Iran, the United States has followed similar scripts.

If only Kim's government would completely, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear program, the United States would support the DPRK's reintegration into the "family of nations." Until the regime takes these steps, Washington will do all in its power to isolate North Korea.

If Iran would simply halt uranium enrichment and renounce its nuclear ambitions, the United States would consider restoring bilateral relations and help the Islamic Republic escape its international isolation. But until Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly disavows the nuclear program, Washington will do all in its power to isolate Iran.

Why should we assume this approach will work? Efforts to "punish" these states by cutting diplomatic relations or imposing sanctions usually have the opposite of their intended effect. They bolster the stability of these regimes by giving their leaders the isolation they need to survive.

After all, the governments of closed states already expend so much time, energy and capital on keeping them closed. Late last year, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad banned Western music from state-run television and radio. In May, his government announced plans to increase from fifty to 300 the number of jamming stations capable of disrupting satellite broadcasts from abroad. In September, the government acknowledged that it filters more than ten million websites.

Iran's ruling clerics are the guardians of the sacred values of a revolution that 70 percent of Iranians are too young to remember. They are investing in jamming equipment because they know they cannot win a fair fight with Western culture for the hearts and minds of Iran's large (and growing) youth population.

Odd then that the United States should try to punish Iran's government by further isolating Iran's people. Odder still that when the French firm Alcatel attempted to merge with the U.S. firm Lucent Technologies, some U.S. lawmakers complained of Alcatel's "ties with Iran." Alcatel had recently upgraded Iran's telecom network and provided the country with its first high-speed DSL Internet connections. In other words, Alcatel made a material contribution to the democratization of information in Iran, connecting Iran's people with one another and with the outside world. Far from condemning the effort, U.S. lawmakers should be trying to persuade Alcatel to sit down with Kim Jong-il.

Kim Jong-il's neo-Stalinist regime will survive only for as long as it can hide North Korea from the outside world-and the outside world from North Koreans. Decades of disastrous economic policies and political repression have crippled the country's ability to provide its people with enough to eat. As many as two million North Koreans are believed to have died of hunger and related diseases since 1995. Very few North Koreans know this, and Kim keeps it that way by isolating the country. Threatening Kim Jong-il or Ahmadinejad with isolation is like threatening a drowning man with a lifeboat.

Yet, the Bush Administration has adopted an entirely different approach toward China, one much more likely to achieve its objectives. U.S. policymakers recognize that efforts to isolate China would be fruitless and self-defeating, and that the interdependence of the U.S. and Chinese economies demands a sort of constructive engagement. Mutually assured economic destruction limits the risk that either side will privilege ideology over pragmatism.

The administration officials who designed the Bush Administration's China policy-Robert Zoellick, Rob Portman and now-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson-understand the interplay of globalization with political change and the relationship between stability and openness. The Bush team is well aware that China remains a police state, that its government denies citizens political liberties that Americans consider sacrosanct and that the state restricts its people's access to certain kinds of ideas and information. But they also know that the most effective means of promoting political reform in China is to help the Communist Party achieve its economic growth targets.

The Party leadership is increasingly willing to expose Chinese society to the demands of the global economy and the social and cultural influences of foreign investors. The Bush Administration's China specialists reason that the country's economic development relieves millions of people of dependence on their government. The social dislocation it generates creates friction within Chinese society. Both phenomena increase domestic demand for political reform. By encouraging trade with and investment in China and promoting the country's accession to the World Trade Organization, U.S. policymakers hope to help create irresistible momentum for change from within.

The growing number of increasingly well-organized and large-scale public demonstrations across the country suggests this argument has merit. According to Chinese government officials, there were 87,000 demonstrations in 2005 involving at least fifty protesters each. Over the past decade, the number appears to have grown at virtually the same rate as China's gross domestic product.

China's economic opening has also brought the Internet into the country. The 50,000 Chinese security officials who do nothing but monitor the Internet must now contend with the 100,000 Chinese who jump online for the very first time every day. Who do you imagine will win that race?

U.S. policies toward Iran and North Korea are failing for precisely the same reason that Bush Administration policy toward China shows more promise: The isolation of authoritarian states is self-defeating. If the aim is to undermine a dictatorship, one should open it to the outside world.

Is it realistic to expect the U.S. government to respond to Iran's uranium enrichment and North Korea's nuclear test by engaging these countries and by promoting investment in their economies? If enabling growth (and greater openness) in China makes good sense, why not pursue the same strategy in other politically repressive states?

The United States is going to face a number of challenges and disappointments over the next two years-Iran, Iraq, North Korea, China and Russia, among others. The first reaction of many U.S. politicians is to be confrontational. Easing tensions with rogue states and with countries perceived to be opposing U.S. policies will not win the president points with those who prefer a muscular strategy. But decisions need to be made on the basis of long-term U.S. interests, not short-term sound bites. The best reason to avoid self-congratulatory legislation that isolates rogue states to change their behavior is that we know this approach won't work.

Ian Bremmer is president of the Eurasia Group and author of The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. He is also a contributing editor to The National Interest.

Essay Types: Essay