Isolation, Engagement and Confrontation

The recent announcement by President Bush that he would attend the opening ceremonies at the Olympic Games in Beijing implicates both an old debate about how to influence malign regimes. One school of thought says that beyond a certain threshold of evil, bad regimes should be isolated to hasten their collapse. The other school says that isolating measures---such as boycotts and other economic sanctions---punish the people who live in these regimes, but only stiffen the resolve of the rulers, who typically have ways of evading the sanctions for themselves, their cronies, and the military. This second school of thought says that engaging bad regimes through trade, diplomacy and cultural contact will gradually soften them.

Interestingly, the urge to isolate versus to engage is not itself strongly correlated with ideology. For example, in the U.S., left/liberals wanted to isolate apartheid South Africa but to engage with Cuba, while conservatives had the opposite preference set. Perhaps this shows that left/liberals thought apartheid South Africa but not Cuba beyond the pale, while conservatives had the opposite view.

It's also worth noting that there's sometimes a third option: confrontation. The Bush Administration has tried all three approaches with respect to the members of the axis of evil: Economic sanctions, it was said, were only hurting the Iraqi people, so the Administration confronted Saddam Hussein in Iraq; despite occasional suggestions of confrontation, and despite post-9/11 cooperation on some matters, the Administration has generally sought to isolate Iran through sanctions; and North Korea, after being isolated and occasionally threatened, is now being engaged.

The Administration made a bad call by invading Iraq, but some otherwise reasonable people thought otherwise at the time, and the argument for confrontation will sometimes be strong. Neither isolation nor engagement would have been an effective strategy against Nazi Germany, for example. Likewise, it seems that the choice between the two less bellicose options---isolation and engagement---is a context-sensitive judgment call. Apartheid South Africa's international isolation probably did hasten the transition to multi-racial democracy. But there are places where engagement works better. President Bush is almost certainly right in suggesting that China is among them: The Chinese government today is very oppressive in many ways, but Nixon's reversal of U.S. policy in favor of engagement has helped reformers in China to make it a substantially less oppressive place than it was forty years ago.

Finally, one must admit that there are circumstances in which foreign leverage is unlikely to do much good: Isolation fails, engagement fails, and military confrontation is not a realistic option. Zimbabwe under Mugabe may prove to be such a place. In such cases---and perhaps more generally---isolation may be the best policy on deontological if not consequentialist grounds: If we can't ameliorate conditions, at least we ought not to be complicit in the regime's misdeeds.

But this view itself is open to a consequentialist critique: Granted that no policy will yield good results. Still, some will yield less bad results than others. Thus, for example, buying coffee from Zimbabwe will do something to support that country's shattered economy, which may lead to marginally better conditions. The best that the deontological isolationist can say against this critique, I think, is that the claim of net good coming from trade in this case is so speculative that it's not worth acting on, while the complicity is a certainty.

Posted by Mike Dorf