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Suchak Patel asked: What are the similarities and differences between a revisionist and a rogue state?

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  • Adil Rasheed replies: Theorists of International Relations, mainly exponents of the power transition theory, often divide countries into ‘status quo’ and ‘revisionist powers’. The so-called ‘status quo states’ refer to countries that accept the existing global order, while ‘revisionist states’ are dissatisfied with the existing international system and their place in it. Some theorists often cite present-day France, Germany and Japan as ‘status quo’ states, while countries that feel dissatisfied with the existing international system (as one that does not fulfil their nationalist aspirations, ideological orientations and vital interests), are placed in the category of revisionist states — like Russia, China and Iran.

    Meanwhile, political scientists like John Ikenberry believe that it would be wrong to always place hegemonic powers in the category of ‘status quo’ states, as the United States itself may often act as a ‘revisionist state’. According to Ikenberry, the US resorts to bringing about regime change in countries it believes do not follow Western ideals of human rights and liberal democracy and in that respect seeks to change the ‘status quo’ of the international political order.

    Then there are political scientists who believe that countries may exhibit traits of ‘status quo’ and ‘revisionism’ simultaneously. For example, China may be revisionist in striving to take centre stage in the international order, and yet it may act as a status quo power when it opposes any change in permanent membership at the United Nations Security Council with veto powers.

    Some theorist like Yoav Tenembaum throw the term ‘revolutionary states’ (often used by Henry Kissinger) into the mix, making the debate more vexed.  According to him, ‘revisionist states’ do not want to completely overthrow the existing order, but only want to make some changes or ‘revisions’ (as the term suggests) in the ‘status quo’. However, ‘revolutionary states’ like Iran and North Korea or even non-states actors like Al-Qaeda and ISIS may seek to bring fundamental ideological and structural changes to the global political order. In addition, they may seek to completely overturn and uproot the “rules-based order” established by “multi-lateral and international standard-setting bodies”. Such states should be called “revolutionary states” and not just “revisionist states”.

    It is mostly such ‘revolutionary states’ that have been branded as ‘rogue states’, mainly by the US since 1990s.  Thus, it was in the 1994 edition of  Foreign Affairs in which US National Security Advisor Anthony Lake named five countries as ‘rogue states’: Iraq, Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Libya. The usage of ‘rogue state’ was later replaced by the Bush administration with another term ‘Axis of Evil’, which consisted of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Other countries like Sudan, Libya, Syria, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan have been added or removed from the loosely formulated coinage. In theory, a rogue state is one that either seeks to obtain weapons of mass destruction, supports terrorism or severely abuses its own citizens. As a consequence, it may suffer international sanctions, even military action.

    Posted on 01 January 2023

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.