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Debunking the Danger Posed by Radical States

December 21, 1986|Stephen M. Walt | Stephen M. Walt, assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, is currently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing a book on radical states.

WASHINGTON — In the wake of the Iranian arms debacle, it is time to reassess U.S. policy toward the developing world. Under Ronald Reagan, policy has focused on active efforts to confront, contain and overthrow "radical states." Countries on the Administration's "hit list" included Nicaragua, Cuba, Angola, South Yemen, Iran, Libya, Ethiopia and Vietnam. Referring to them as an "international version of Murder Inc.," the President has repeatedly called for U.S. support to counterrevolutionary forces like the contras in Nicaragua or UNITA guerrillas in Angola.

We now know that the President was willing to deal with "radical" Iran. Yet the hidden agenda was more money for the effort to overthrow "radical" Nicaragua. The Administration's covert dealings should not obscure the larger question: Are the "radical" states a significant threat to America's fundamental national interests? The answer is no.

What are these basic interests? First, to prevent the growth of Soviet power, because that could endanger U.S. security directly. Second, to maintain access to raw materials for industries and markets for exports. Third, a peaceful world order, to reduce the risk of escalation and undermine Soviet influence. Finally, to promote basic human rights.

Those who believe "radical regimes" are dangerous argue that these states threaten basic U.S. objectives. They maintain that radical states are pro-Soviet, hostile to Western capitalism, inherently aggressive and have abysmal human-rights records. This indictment is misleading at best and often just wrong.

First, although some "radical" states do favor the Soviet Union, others are suspicious or even hostile--for example, Iran, Albania, Zimbabwe and Tunisia. Moreover, a number of radical states eventually abandoned the Soviet Union and allied with the West, such as China, Egypt, Indonesia and Ghana.

Radical states that do lean toward Moscow have had little choice. Most of the Soviet Union's radical clients face major internal or external threats, and the Soviets were the only ones willing to help. The United States mined Nicaragua's harbors and sponsored the contras , Syria lost three straight wars to Israel and Vietnam is threatened by China. Angola and Ethiopia face collapsing economies and internal insurgencies. Is it any wonder these countries seek Soviet help? This has little to do with ideology; it's just good old-fashioned balance-of-power politics.

Second, radical states pose no threat to the U.S. economy. In fact, most are eager trading partners. For example, 30% of Angola's trade is with the United States, 35% goes to U.S. allies and only 10% is with the entire Soviet Bloc. For Marxist Ethiopia, the percentages are 20% with the United States, 60% with Europe and Japan and only 8% with the Soviets. Indeed, when economic ties have been severed--Cuba, Iran, Libya, Syria and Nicaragua--it has been our doing, not theirs.

Radical states trade with the United States because it is in their interest. The West has the technology and capital they need, as well as the largest markets. This means they are not likely to withhold raw materials, as many hard-liners predict. Because the United States has effective substitutes and alternative suppliers, it would hurt them far more than us. And they know it. In short, the claim that radical states threaten U.S. economic interests is a myth.

What about their support for terrorism? Most radical states are too weak to cause much trouble--which is why they rely on terrorist methods. And the threat from terrorism is often overstated: In the past 10 years, roughly 4,000 people have been killed by terrorist attacks worldwide, and most weren't Americans. By comparison, more than 500,000 Americans died in car accidents during the same period. Which is the more serious problem?

In addition, it is reassuring to note how little the world's radical states have accomplished. Syria has yet to regain one inch of the Golan Heights. Moammar Kadafi's escapades have left Libya isolated and increasingly vulnerable. The Palestine Liberation Organization is further from gaining a homeland than ever. Vietnam is bogged down in Cambodia; Ethiopia and Angola are economic nightmares, and the Sandinista's have lost much of the sympathy they once enjoyed.

Finally, do they violate human rights? All too clearly, they do. According to Amnesty International, these "radical states" have been guilty of a variety of human-rights abuses.

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