The idea of “the rogue state” assumed the existence of an international community, united behind supposedly universal Western values and interests, that could agree on who the renegades are and how to deal with them. By the late 1990s this community was already dissolving, with the rise of China, the revival of Russia, and the emergence of India, Brazil, and Turkey as real powers, all with their own interests and values. Today it’s clear that the “international community” defined by Western values is a fiction, and that for many states the term “rogue” might just as well apply to the United States as to the renegades it seeks to isolate. ~Nader Mousavizadeh

Mousavizadeh’s article is a timely one, as it appears soon after Secretary Clinton’s foolish threat against China that the latter risks “diplomatic isolation” if it fails to cooperate with Iran sanctions. The threat and the policy behind it take for granted that there is still some united international community that is ready and willing to impose isolation on “rogue states” and their allies. As far as Iran is concerned, such a community does not exist and has not existed for over a decade. Aside from the Gulf states and Egypt, concern over Iran’s nuclear program is purely that of major Western industrialized countries. No one else cares, even if their governments publicly profess boilerplate concern over nuclear proliferation. Almost all of Iran’s neighbors do not see or treat Iran as a “rogue,” nor do many of them regard Iran as much of a threat to them. For that matter, most European governments are not all that interested in isolating Iran, much less Iran’s more powerful allies. We have an Iran policy designed for the 1980s or early 1990s, and it is absolutely ill-suited to the world in which we now live.

Leaving aside the folly of the Iran policy that Clinton is advancing with this threat, as a matter of our relationship with Beijing this sort of talk is reckless. It’s almost as if our government had threatened the USSR with diplomatic isolation because of its support for Cuba, but it is actually much more ridiculous than that. Maintaining stable, good relations with Beijing has to be an important priority for the administration. It seemed as if the administration understood that during the President’s visit to China. Now it is unclear whether they really do understand that the U.S. has no leverage, diplomatic or otherwise, to make China do anything it does not want to do. The Chinese government probably sees Clinton’s threat as the sort of empty, desperate bluster that it is. Unfortunately, this is now what passes for a statement of administration policy towards Iran: making empty threats against a major power on which we have become financially and economically dependent. The good news is that it may have minimal effect on U.S.-Chinese relations because it is an empty threat. The bad news is that it reduces Washington’s credibility that much more in the eyes of all other states.

Mousavizadeh observes, “Conventional American leadership, it is now evident, is as unwelcome in the person of Barack Obama as in George W. Bush.” Of course, it would be. The problem was never the person or the manner in which U.S. policies were carried out, but it was first and foremost the substance of those policies. Obama has followed his predecessors in continuing U.S. foreign policy much as it has been carried out since the end of the Cold War, but he is faced with a world that neither wants nor has to put up with it as often as it once did. The best approach for a real, sustained engagement policy begins with recognition of the way the world is now.

There are multiple centers of power, their interests will sometimes diverge from ours, and the issues that we have declared to be global issues in which all states have common interests often do not matter to other major powers or these conflict with their interests in a significant way. In the future, other powers will become even more capable of advancing their interests and ignoring our demands. This means that Washington has to begin reassessing which interests are genuinely vital to U.S. security and prosperity, and which are extraneous or left over from the Cold War and the last twenty years of activist policy. Once the government does this, it should reach the conclusion that halting or limiting Iran’s nuclear program is not worth damaging or wrecking relations with major powers.

Washington should also realize that it will never begin to get any of the concessions it currently wants from “rogue states” by pursuing the dead-end of sanctions and isolation. Mousavizadeh points out how completely this approach has failed:

The two-decade-old policy of isolating Burma now looks like a carefully constructed attempt to weaken Western influence and open the door to China, while devastating Burma’s legitimate economy and doing nothing to improve its people’s human rights.

Of course, one presumes this was not the goal of cutting Burma off from the West, but it has been the result. This is what everyone should have expected when one applies the rationale behind the medieval treatment of lepers to the practice of foreign policy. There is an idea at the core of every sanctions regime that “rogue states” are morally tainted, impure and not to be touched. Furthermore, there is an idea that these states can somehow pass this contagion on to states that enter into normal relations with them. This idea endures despite considerable evidence that it is through diplomatic contact, normal relations and trade that “rogue states” begin to be influenced by other nations and new ideas, which can ultimately lead to regime collapse or at least some beneficial internal changes.

Mousavizadeh’s attention to the Western failure of isolating Burma should make us remember that Western governments are now considering pursuing the same useless approach with respect to Iran. Burma today is what we can probably expect for Iran in 20 or 30 years if the pro-sanctions crowd has its way: a government more firmly in control, a nation more fully under the influence of other major powers, a people even more powerless, and even less Western influence than there was before.

Mousavizadeh writes:

This is not to say that the sanctions haven’t had an impact—only that they have been entirely counterproductive. In a series of recent conversations with civil-society leaders, businessmen, and foreign diplomats in Rangoon, a grim picture emerged: a middle class decimated and forced into exile; an educational system entirely unable to develop the country’s human capital; a private sector hollowed out, with only the junta’s cronies able to profit from trade in the country’s natural resources.

This has consistently been the pattern in authoritarian regimes sanctioned by and cut off from developed nations. This is what advocates of sanctions on Iran will produce if they are at all successful in imposing a new round. The lesson is a simple one, but for many Americans it seems not to have sunk in: imposing sanctions on a state to punish the government does far more to punish the people in that country and helps to keep the people weak vis-a-vis their government. Not only do sanctions not compel targeted regimes to change their internal or external behavior, but they actually free up the regimes to become even less responsive to outside influence and grievances.

The good news for the people of Iran is that fewer and fewer states around the world accept the goals and methods of pressuring Iran. Mousavizadeh continues:

As the U.S. narrows its view of Iran to focus exclusively on nukes, the rising powers see the nuclear issue as only one facet of their relationship with Iran. In Burma and Iran—no less than among the other rogues states—decades of Western sanctions have achieved a perfect storm of deprivation for the people, wealth and job security for their rulers, and strategic influence for those countries unmoved by complaints about human-rights abuses. Indeed, in isolating repressive regimes, the West often hands them an excuse to block the forces of reform most likely to undermine their rule, and even to rally their people behind a hated government in the name of opposing foreign intervention.

What continues to baffle me is why the U.S. does not approach Iran in the same way that rising powers have been. Even if one wants to insist that the nuclear program is a major issue, it cannot be the main or sole issue defining the relationship with Iran. What is even harder to understand is why the administration has given up on engagement so quickly when the failures of policies of isolation are countless.

Whenever engagement with Iran is raised, there are the usual objections that the current Iranian regime needs anti-Americanism too much to ever give it up, which supposedly means that Tehran will never make a meaningful deal with our government. It has always seemed odd to me that the people who say this are also the ones most intent on seeing the current regime overthrown. One would think that nothing could be more fatal to regime propaganda and its deployment of anti-Americanism than a U.S. policy towards Iran that offers full normalization of relations, commercial and educational exchange and an end to thirty years of isolation. Few things could be more useful to the current regime than being able to portray the U.S. as it sees fit and to be able to point to ongoing U.S. policies aimed at cutting off Iran from the outside world. Not only have sanctions not worked, and not only have they made the regime stronger than it would have been otherwise, but they are an impediment to pursuing the one course of action that has some chance of undermining and/or changing the Iranian government. This change is what many in the pro-sanctions crowd always say that they want, but they have chosen one of the worst ways of achieving it.

As a political matter here at home, such extensive and full engagement with Tehran is naturally a non-starter. Too many Americans in and outside the political class remain wedded to a model of global order in which Washington proposes and the rest of the world is supposed to fall in line. Anything other than this is viewed as capitulation, weakness or appeasement. Eventually, Washington will be unable to ignore that the world does not work this way, but that may not be before our government plunges into yet another disastrous conflict or embarks on dead-end policies that will continue to strengthen all the “rogue states” it is trying to punish.

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