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The Threat of “Rogue States” and the Use of Force: The case of the Obama Administration

The Threat of “Rogue States” and the Use of Force: The case of the Obama Administration The Threat of “Rogue States” and the Use of Force: The case of the Obama Administration
To cite this article: Lampas, Nikolaos, “The Threat of “Rogue States” and the Use of Force: The case of the Obama Administration,” Infinity Journal, Volume 6, Issue 1, winter 2018, pages 32-35.


Ever since the threat of “rogue states” emerged, following the end of the Cold War, they quickly became a major concern for the international community. Decision-makers have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to come up with answers on how to properly deal with this new type of threat. Countries such as Iran and North Korea are considered a threat due to their aspirations to acquire WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction), their continuous support for terrorism, their defiance towards international norms and regulations, and the fact that their aggressive behavior threatens the stability of their respective regions. Consecutive U.S administrations and its allies have applied a wide range of policies such as sanctions, diplomacy and military force in an effort to “modify” the behavior of “rogue states” and reintegrate them in the international community.

The most pressing concern of American decision-makers regarding the threat of “rogue states” was always whether the use of force could reduce the threat they posed for the international community. The nature of the threat, as well as the risk of military intervention escalating into a full-scale war in sensitive regions such as the Middle East and South East Asia further complicated the decision-making process. Despite the numerous occasions where the behavior of “rogue states” threatened vital American interests or even the stability of the international system, American presidents were usually reluctant to apply military force. Even when the United States decided to intervene militarily, as in the case of Iraq, the behavior of the Bush administration was far from cohesive. This inconsistency has been a major characteristic of American Foreign Policy towards “rogue states.” For example, both the Clinton and Bush administrations chose to militarily intervene in Iraq while opting for a more diplomatic approach towards North Korea and Iran. Similarly, the Obama administration chose to diplomatically engage with Iran while on the other hand imposed a policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea, which included the gradual escalation of sanctions in an effort to force North Korea to negotiate.[i] Thus, it becomes evident that apart from the case of Iraq, consecutive U.S administrations were reluctant to employ force in order to counter the threat of “rogue states.”

The goal of this article is to address the puzzle of the variation in the United States foreign policy towards “rogue states.” There are many ways to analyze the decision of a country to apply force. We chose to focus, primarily, on the perception of American decision-makers, during the Obama administration, regarding the threat of “rogue states.” The goal of this article is to empirically assess the perception of the Obama administration regarding the threat of “rogue states” in an effort to understand the reasons behind their decision to avoid using military force.

In order to assess empirically the perception of the Obama administration regarding the threat of “rogue states” we constructed a database of all uses of the term based on documents collected using the search engines of the CIA, Department of State, Department of Defense, and the White House. We then conducted a search of all the documents which contained the terms “rogue” and “outlier.” The search yielded 629 documents (46 from the CIA, 262 from the Department of State, 215 from the Department of Defense and 106 from the White House) regarding the term “rogue” and 121 documents (4 from the CIA, 31 from the Department of State, 22 from the Department of Defense, and 64 from the White House) regarding the term “outlier”, covering the period from January 20, 2009 till January 20, 2017. Thus, the collection includes all the publicly available documents of the major foreign policy agencies of the executive branch of the Obama administration, which mention the term “rogue” and “outlier.” Due to the nature of the search the majority of the documents are transcripts of speeches or press conferences by President Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, and Ashton Carter, Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn, the Director of the CIA, the Joint Chief Staff and other officials. Originally, this methodological approach was used by Paul Hoyt on his article regarding the image of “The Rogue States” in American Foreign Policy in 2000.[ii] Building on his work we applied this methodological approach in the case of the Obama administration.

The threat of Use of Force and “Rogue States.”

Many academics and analysts have attempted to provide answers regarding the reluctance of the United States to employ force against “rogue states.” The most frequently cited reason relates to the fact that the potential use of force against “rogue states” would escalate into a full scale war in their respective regions with catastrophic results.[iii] This view can potentially explain the decision of the Clinton administration not to intervene militarily during the crisis with North Korea in 1993, where the reclusive state threatened to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. According to Michael Mazarr, the Clinton administration briefly considered the possibility of military intervention, the potential escalation of the attack into a full scale war between North and South Korea and the uncertain results on the North Korean nuclear program discouraged its decision.[iv] A similar view asserts that due to their marginalized position in the international system “rogue states” are in constant fear for their survival. Hence, they are always looking ways to improve their conventional or unconventional military capabilities. This increases the potential risk of an attack.

Perhaps the most prominent issue regarding the use of force against “rogue states” relates to the inconsistency of the United States strategy against “rogue states.” For example, in 1994 in his famous article in Foreign Affairs, the former United States Secretary of State Anthony Lake outlined this new type of threat. He argued that “the United States, as the sole superpower has a unique responsibility for developing a strategy to neutralize, contain and through selective pressure eventually transform backlash states into constructive members of the international community.”[v] However, in his statement the former Secretary of State did not specify whether the means of containing “rogue states” also included the use of force. Even the National Security Strategy of the Clinton administration, though it did recognize the threatening behavior of “rogue states” it did not specify whether the United States would employ force. During the Bush administration, the threat of “rogue states” gained renewed momentum following the State of the Union Address of President Bush in 2002. In his speech the President characterized Iraq, Iran and North Korea as members of an “axis of evil” which threatened vital American interests. During the Bush administration the United States strategy changed with the introduction of the doctrine of “preemption.” According to this doctrine the United States would wage war against a potential threat even before the actual threat materialized, as we witnessed in the case of Iraq. However, the Bush administration decided to wage war only against Iraq. According to Daniel Lieberfeld, the reluctance of the Bush administration to intervene in Iran or North Korea as opposed to Iraq, related to the fact that their “advanced weaponry made them much more difficult targets for invasion.”[vi] However, not all academics and analysts share the same view that the potential use of force against “rogue states” would have negative effects. In 2012, Matthew Kroenig, argued that though complicated a potential attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities would benefit the United States in the long run.[vii]

The variation in the behavior of the United States regarding the threat of “rogue states” further complicates its decision to use force. This is the primary reason why in this article we focus the analysis in the perception of threat as opposed to the objective threat of “rogue states.” Unless we can understand how the United States perceives the threat of “rogue states” we won’t be able to understand and analyze its foreign policy decisions and particularly the decision to use force.

Obama Administration’s Perception of “Rogue States”

Initially, we determined the salience of the threat of “rogue states” of the Obama administration. In order to examine this question we analyzed the database of documents both qualitatively and quantitatively. First, we looked for statements which outlined the views of the administration regarding the threat of “rogue states.” Secondly, we analyzed quantitatively the number of mentions over time in order to identify any trends in usage. Regarding the perception of the Obama administration, we coded documents with regard to whom utilized these concepts. We devised a table with the list of speakers and the number of documents, which contained the term “rogue”. Table 1 shows the results of the analysis.

Table 1: Frequency of Use of Term “Rogue” by Speaker

The results of the analysis are surprisingly spread. The combined statements of the top executives of American Foreign Policy amount to only 39.67%. This means that top executives of the Obama administration were largely unwilling to discuss the issue of the threat of “rogue states.” By qualitatively analyzing the documents of the database we uncovered several issues pertaining to the perception of the Obama administration concerning “rogue states.” The majority of the statements from American decision makers recognized the threat of “rogue states” not only for the United States but also for the international community. However, surprisingly they were more cautious in designating a particular state as “rogue.” This was primarily evident in the statements of President Obama who never once mentioned a specific state while mentioning the concept of “rogue state.” Though in his statements he did focus on the potential threat of these countries for the interests of the United States he never made any specific remarks about which countries he perceived as “rogue.” This could be the result of his personal characteristics as president or his intention to avoid marginalizing certain states, which could potentially damage his efforts for reconciliation as evidenced by his diplomatic initiative to resolve the issue of the nuclear program of Iran. However, it does pose a very interesting question regarding the way that the Obama administration defined “rogue” and “outlier” countries.

Defining “Rogue States” Countries Associated with the term “rogue.”

In order to determine the countries which the Obama administration associated with the term “rogue states”, we performed a frequency count on the database aggregating the number of times members of the Obama administration associated the term “rogue” with a specific country. The results are presented in table 2. Surprisingly, the results of the frequency count show that in 62.70% of the mentions the term “rogue” was used to characterize the threatening behavior of a country but was not associated with any specific country. Regarding the use of the term “rogue” to characterize a specific country North Korea comes second with 19.84%, Iran is in the third place with 15.08%, in the fourth place Syria with 2.38%, and lastly Russia with 0.79%. The only mention of Russia as a “rogue state” comes from Peter Harrell the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counter Threat Finance and Sanction, during the BAFT 24th Annual Conference on International Trade on November 13, 2014.[viii]

Table 2: “Rogue States” (as Mentioned by American Policy-makers).

The results of the analysis indicate a number of things. Firstly, the fact that the term “rogue” was most frequently used without being associated with a specific country can mean one of two things. Either the term “rogue states” has evolved, in the perception of the Obama administration, as a unique type of threat irrespective of specific countries or the Obama administration was reluctant to designate a country as “rogue” for fear that it would alienate the country and would jeopardize its efforts for rapprochement. The case of Iran can be considered as an example of the latter. Secondly, the continued characterization of North Korea as a “rogue state” and the absence of Sudan, despite the fact that the former is not included in the terrorist sponsor list and the latter is, questions the reasons behind the existence of the list and its usefulness for American Foreign Policy. In order to determine the reasons behind the inconsistency, we analyzed which policies the Obama administration associated with “rogue states.”

Policies Associated with “Rogue States.”

What type of policies are associated with “rogue states”? As we saw from the results analysis above, North Korea and Iran are considered both as “rogue”. However, what does it mean to be considered a “rogue country” in the perception of the Obama administration? In order to determine this, we looked at statements from American policy-makers to assess what types of policies they associated with this category of countries even when they are not specifically mentioned. Hence, we coded all the documents in the database for specific actions of policies relating to “rogue” behavior. In total, we coded 89 distinct policy actions regarding “rogue behavior.” We then clustered the results into five broad categories: aspirations to acquire or develop Weapons of Mass Destruction and missile capability, the threat of cyber-attacks, defiance of international norms and regulations, international terrorism and the threat they pose in their respective regions and globally. Table 3 shows the results of the analysis.

Table 3: Policies Associated With "Rogue States"

In total 89 statements were coded from high-ranking American officials regarding certain policies associated with “rogue behavior.” Regarding “rogue states”, their aspirations to acquire weapons capabilities and missile technology comes in first place with 76.4%. This is no surprise considering the fact that North Korea continued its illicit proliferation activities and the Obama administration devoted serious efforts in reaching a deal regarding the nuclear program of Iran. Surprisingly, in second place came the potential threat of cyber-attacks with 11.2%. This shows that the Obama administration recognized the potential threat of the use of the cyberspace. Thirdly, the reluctance of “rogue states” to adhere to the rules and regulations of the international community, especially regarding the non-proliferation regime. Another surprising result relates to the fact that terrorism came in fourth place behind the potential threat of cyber-attacks and challenging international norms. The last policy which American foreign policymakers associated with “rogue states” is the threat they pose to their respective regions and globally. Having identified the perception of the Obama administration regarding the countries which were considered as “rogue” and the types of policies associated with them we then proceed to analyze the policies they were considering in order to counter this type of threat.

Conclusion: “Rogue States” and the threat of use of force.

So why is it that the Obama administration was reluctant to apply military force in order to counter the threat of “rogue states”? The findings of the analysis suggest that the perception of the Obama administration regarding the threat of “rogue states” lacked cohesion. The empirical results showed that the top American foreign policy executives were rather unwilling to discuss the threat of “rogue states.” Though the discussion did reach the top echelons of the Presidency they were very cautious in their statements. They always outlined the potential threat but they were always very cautions to avoid “branding” a particular state as “rogue.” As we mentioned before, this could be a result of the overall efforts of the administration for reconciliation, particularly in the case of Iran. The apparent unwillingness of the administration to discuss issues pertaining to the threat of “rogue states” made us wonder about the way they defined “rogue states.” As the analysis showed, in more than 60% of the statements members of the Obama administration avoided designating a particular state as “rogue.” However, these findings raised more questions than they answered. Hence, we continued the analysis on a deeper level in order to establish what types of policies did the Obama administration associate with “rogue states.” The results were even more surprising. The issue of nuclear proliferation remained at the very top of the statements from members of the Obama administration. This partially explains their major efforts to strike a deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program. However, it does not answer why they applied the policy of “strategic patience” towards North Korea. Secondly, the fact that the threat of cyber-attacks replaced the threat of terrorism in the perception of the Obama administration is also an important finding. It shows that the Obama administration recognized the potential that cyber-attacks have in this heavily globalized international system. Also, the replacement of terrorism as the number two threat of “rogue states” signals a departure from the long-standing narrative regarding the threat of “rogue states”. The analysis does not make any grand claims regarding the reluctance of the Obama administration to employ force. It merely suggests that the Obama administration did recognize the threat but there was no consensus amongst American decision-makers.


[i] David E. Sanger, Choe Sang-Hun, and Jane Perlez, "A Big Blast in North Korea, and Big Questions on U.S. Policy," The New York Times September 9, 2016.,, accessed on 24/10/2017
[ii] For more information see Paul D. Hoyt, "The ‘Rogue State’ Image in American Foreign Policy," Global Society 14, no. 2 (2000).
[iii] For more information see, Michael J. Mazarr, North Korea and the Bomb: A Case Study in Non-Proliferation(London: Macmillan Press LTD, 1995).;
[iv] "Going Just a Little Nuclear: Nonproliferation Lessons from North Korea," International Security 20, no. 2 (Autumn 1995).p.113
[v] Anthony Lake, "Confronting Backlash States," Foreign Affairs 73, no. 2 (1994).p.46
[vi] Daniel Lieberfeld, "Theories of Conflict and Iraq War," International Journal of Peace Studies 10, no. 2 (Autumn/Winter 2005).p.3
[vii] Matthew Kroenig, "Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option," Foreign Affairs 91, no. 1 (January/February 2012).p.6
[viii] Peter Harrell, "Remarks at the Baft 24th Annual Conference on International Trade,",, accessed on 9/12/2017