States of mind: Iran and North Korea have their own, very different, 'rationality'


North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) visits a military unit on an island in the most southwest of Pyongyang in this picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang August 18, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • America's problem is in viewing Iran & North Korea as if they are rational, that they have the same objectives as us.

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  • Rogue states, terrorist groups, ideological fanatics or divergent cultures do not share American characteristics.

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  • A better understanding of the nature of our adversaries should at least help us learn from our mistakes.

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Tensions are high regarding the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs of Iran and North Korea. In dealing with both rogue states for 20 years, across three administrations, the United States has repeatedly sought to change their behavior through combinations of incentives and disincentives (“carrots and sticks” in State Department parlance).

Unfortunately, our policies have failed and continue to fail.

Many divergent factors contribute to this persistent failure. And there are obviously considerable differences between North Korea and Iran (and other threats like Saddam's Iraq and Assad's Syria) that should caution against facile comparisons.

Unfortunately, however, one of America's main problems is self-inflicted — viewing the likes of Iran and North Korea as if they are rational in our terms, that they have essentially the same objectives, thought processes, metrics, time horizons, interests and worldviews as we do.

To the extent rogue states, terrorist groups, religious or ideological fanatics or widely divergent cultures do not share American characteristics, they are unlikely to behave the way we behave. Indeed, they may and often do act in ways we find utterly inexplicable — “they are not responding the way we would, if we were in their shoes.”

In that sense, regimes like Iran and North Korea are not “rational” as we understand that word. That does not mean they are rug-chewing, foaming-at-the-mouth crazy but it does mean they follow their own rationality, one very different from ours.

Accordingly, when Washington acts as though adversaries are our “mirror images,” we not only misperceive what we are dealing with, we are potentially endangering ourselves. Mirror imaging is a serious institutional problem at the State Department, one that repeatedly distorts our policy formulation and impedes achieving U.S. objectives.

It is closely related to the phenomenon of “moral equivalence,” which sees all parties to a dispute as relatively comparable contributors to the problem. Aggressors and those acting in self-defense, for example, are both seen as equally contributing to an undesirable “cycle of violence.”

Merely because we see ourselves as reasonable, practical people looking for mutually acceptable ways to accommodate differences does not mean those across the other side of the negotiating table share that mindset. If they have very different worldviews, and see us as limp-wristed, week-kneed embodiments of a decaying civilization, for example, why should we expect them to parley as we would?

Worse, mirror imaging often leads our diplomats to believe that lack of progress in negotiations is our fault and that the solution is, therefore, further concessions from our side. As one European U.N. diplomat said to me during difficult negotiations with Russia: “Please, if we have nothing to give, then how will we make progress?”

This issue of our adversaries' “rationality” is deeply complex and hard to describe briefly. But it has enormous consequences. Take the mantra we hear repeatedly from State and the White House that this or that action by Iran or North Korea will maintain their “international isolation” and impoverish their populations. Diplomats as a profession do hate being isolated but that is no guarantee Tehran's ayatollahs or Pyongyang's Kim family dictatorship feel the same. Heaven forbid, perhaps they don't crave mingling with our leaders!

And as for the well-being of their own people, North Korea has for decades been the most heavily sanctioned country on Earth with a desperate population verging on starvation, without apparently alarming its Communist leaders. And Iran's economy has been badly mismanaged by the clerics since the 1979 Islamic revolution. That should tell us something about how different their leaders' priorities are.

Similarly, Cold War deterrence theories won't necessarily work against regimes that are irrational in our terms. Bernard Lewis famously said of Iran that “mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent; it's an inducement” for the mullahs to reach the end of times. And if Pyongyang sees the world through a Hitler-in-the-bunker mentality, or simply miscalculates, deterrence is unlikely to work with it either.

Recognizing that Tehran and Pyongyang are not rational in our sense will not alone resolve the threats posed by their nuclear-weapons programs. There are unfortunately far too many other variables involved. But better understanding the nature of our adversaries should at least help us learn from the mistakes we have repeatedly made in trying to stop them.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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