This article was originally published in the Winter 1987 issue of the Harvard International Review

Since taking office in 1981, the Reagan Administration has taken aim at a number of “radical states”. Countries on the Administration’s “hit list” include Afghanistan, Angola, Iran, Nicaragua, Syria, Libya, Vietnam, South Yemen, Cuba, and Ethiopia, as well as non-governmental organizations like the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).  This policy has taken a number of forms ranging from the invasion of Grenada in October 1983 to the bombing of Libya in April 1986, to the provision of military and economic support to the Contras in Nicaragua. Indeed, by 1985 the so-called “Reagan Doctrine”—calling for active US measures to overthrow radical Marxist-Leninist regimes—had become a central element of the Administration’s policy towards the developing world.

Although the rhetoric associated with these actions is unusually strident, this policy is really nothing new.  The United States has opposed revolutionary or radical states throughout the twentieth century.  The United States refused to recognize the Soviet Union for 16 years after the Bolshevik Revolution, intervened on numerous occasions in Central America, and sought to ostracize communist China from 1949 to 1969. As US intervention in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Indonesia (1958), Lebanon (1958), Cuba (1961), the Dominican Republic (1965), and Chile (1973) all reveal, opposition to revolutionary or radical regimes has been a recurring theme in US foreign policy.

In this essay, I shall argue that this policy is misguided. Although radical states often adopt policies that we rightly deplore, the United States has consistently exaggerated the danger that these regimes pose to US interests. In addition, we have failed to recognize how US policy unwittingly encourages the very actions that we hope to prevent. These failures are based on several misconceptions about the foreign policies of revolutionary or “radical” states. The problems begin with how we define them. 

Problems of Definition

What do we mean by a “radical state?” A precise definition is elusive. If we follow the dictionary, a radical state would be one whose policies are “extreme and sweeping.” Or as a former State Department official, Anthony Lake, has suggested: radical states are regimes that exhibit “consistent immoderation”. Taking these notions a bit further, a radical regime may be defined as a government that seeks a fundamental transformation in the existing domestic and/or international order, and that uses extreme (i.e. violent) methods to achieve this goal.

Unfortunately, definitions like these are not applied with much consistency. For example, the military junta that governed Argentina was “consistently immoderate” (i.e., they murdered thousands and tried to seize the Falklands), but they were never described as “radical.”  The same could be said for South Africa, Guatemala, the Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile, or Uganda under Idi Amin, all of which have pursued extreme domestic and/or foreign policies. Similarly, states like Tunisia or Burma have adopted radical policies at home (and in the case of Burma, a xenophobic foreign policy) without being included among the usual list of suspects. To make matters even more confusing, some of the states that are considered “radical” (i.e., Angola, Syria) are probably less “immoderate” than several who have been left off the list. And a final irony is the fact that the USSR—among the most conservative, hidebound, and sclerotic of regimes on the planet, was widely seen as the guiding force behind these various radical states.

Thus the first point to recognize is that “radical state” is more a propaganda label than a precise scholarly term. More than anything else, it simply refers to certain regimes that the United States views with particular distaste. What do they have in common, apart from the fact that we don’t like them?

Similarities and Differences

First, although the details vary enormously, all radical regimes came to power by overthrowing traditional, usually pro-Western elites. This is important because it goes a long way towards explaining the suspicion with which they usually view the United States. Second, all of these states have authoritarian governments, often led by a charismatic revolutionary leader (for example Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and Iran’s Ruhollah Khomeini). Third, all “radical states” are underdeveloped, and most rely on substantial external assistance (Libya and Iran are partial exceptions, but neither of these states is remotely close to being a great power). Fourth, all of these regimes are explicitly committed to some form of revolutionary transformation, although the blueprints they follow vary widely. Most important of all, these states are all suspicious of the United States, and most are openly hostile.

At the same time, the differences among these states are striking. The first is ideological: although many “radical” states embrace some form of Marxism, others are openly hostile to Marxist ideas. Iran is an Islamic theocracy, Syria is governed by a secular party (the Ba‘th) dominated by the minority Alawite sect, and Libya is a personalistic dictatorship. Although Marxist states like Ethiopia, Angola, and Cuba proclaim their ideological uniformity, they differ considerably in how they have implemented their Marxist beliefs. Their domestic programs differ as well: Iran’s “Islamic fundamentalism” has little in common with the “scientific socialism” found in Cuba, Ethiopia, or Vietnam, while Gaddafi’s “Green Revolution” is clearly in a class by itself.

A second difference is capabilities. Although none of these states could be considered a major power, there is enormous variation in their latent and mobilized capabilities. Nicaragua’s population is a mere 3 million (about a third that of New York City), it possesses neither mineral wealth nor significant industrial capacity, and it is increasingly dependent on external subsidies. By contrast, Iran has a large population (42.5 million), considerable oil resources, a surprisingly effective military, and the remnants of a skilled technocratic elite. Syria lies somewhere in between: its economy is fairly diverse and the Syrians now possess an impressive military capability. Indeed, the Syrian armed forces are formidable enough to deter the United States from going after Damascus the same way it went after Tripoli.

To summarize: if viewed in the abstract, a “radical state” is one that seeks to promote fundamental change through extreme methods. But when US statesmen describe a particular regime as “radical,” they mean regimes that are both extremist and anti-American. And even these countries differ in important ways, as Lake points out, the most important trait that these regimes share is that “they are viewed as objects of suspicion in US eyes and of attack in US rhetoric.” The question thus becomes this: what is it about these states that causes such concern?

The Indictment

Those who believe that radical states are a major threat generally make four accusations. First, they argue that these regimes tend to be pro-Soviet. Implicit in this argument is the assumption that these regimes enhance Soviet influence significantly. Second, they claim that radical states threaten Western economic interests because they will either nationalize foreign investments or deny us access to raw materials. Third, such regimes are often viewed as inherently aggressive, relying upon terrorism, subversion, or invasion to accomplish their aims. As President Reagan stated recently: “Marxist-Leninist regimes tend to wage war as readily against their neighbors as they routinely do against their own people.” Finally, such regimes are also accused of major human rights violations, thereby justifying US opposition on humanitarian grounds.

Is this indictment accurate? If radical states do tend to act in these ways, why is this the case? Most important of all, how should the United States respond? Let us consider each element of the accusation.

Are Radical States “Pro-Soviet?”

At first glance, the evidence suggests that there is a strong tendency for radical states to ally with the USSR. Of the various countries that are usually described as “radical,” all save Iran have close ties with the USSR. The Soviet Union is their major military supplier, several are supported by Cuban or Warsaw Pact troops, and the USSR often provides substantial economic aid as well. Moreover, several of these states (e.g., Vietnam, Angola, Cuba, and South Yemen) have granted the USSR access to valuable military facilities on their territory.

Despite this apparently overwhelming pattern, the assertion that radical regimes inevitably favor the USSR is misleading. First, as I suggested earlier, this pattern reveals more about how the United States defines a radical state than it reveals about how radical states behave. Because the usual list of “radical states” omits leftist regimes that are not pro-Soviet (e.g., Algeria, China,Tunisia, and Zimbabwe), and because it ignores right-wing radicals like Guatemala, Chile, or South Africa. This list makes it appear that all revolutionary or “radical” states have strong affinities for the USSR. In short, those who make this claim have stacked the deck.

Even more importantly, this argument fails to consider the different reasons why a radical state might choose to align with Moscow. Those who make this claim assume that the affinity is ideological—based on a shared commitment to Marxism-Leninism—and tend to slight the role of other factors. But other factors—in particular, US policy—are usually more important.

First, the radical regimes with the closest ties to Moscow have all faced major internal and external threats. Not only has the United States generally failed to offer support (save with lengthy strings attached), but it has usually supported their opponents or threatened them directly. With nowhere else to turn, these radical states have naturally chosen to rely upon the USSR.

The historical record is revealing. Whatever Castro’s ideological preferences, US hostility left him little choice but to seek Soviet assistance. The same is true for the Sandinistas: the steady increase of US pressure has reinforced their interest in gaining Moscow’s backing. Syria’s reliance on Soviet support is not surprising either, given that the United States sponsored several coup attempts in the 1950s and has long been Israel’s principal ally. Both Angola and Ethiopia are threatened by guerrilla insurgencies and hostile neighbors, and neither country has a viable alternative to Soviet military aid. In short, for most radical states, alignment with the USSR is as much a matter of necessity as it is an indication of ideological preference. And US actions have reinforced rather than reduced that need.

Second, ideology is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for alignment with Moscow. Neither Libya nor Syria embraces Marxism-Leninism, but both view the USSR as a useful ally. And Marxist states like China, Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe (and more recently, Mozambique) have rejected alignment with Moscow and moved closer to the West, in part because the United States was willing to overlook their “radical” pasts. In short, the apparent affinity between the USSR and some (but not all) “radical” states may be more the result of traditional balance of power politics (“the enemy of my enemy is my friend”) than of abiding ideological conviction.

In sum, although many “‘radical” states do prefer to ally with the USSR, this is not inevitable. Although ideological affinities undoubtedly play a role, the apparent association between radical states and the Soviet Union is also due both to the way the United States defines radical states and to the ways that the United States and its allies have acted with regard to radical states.

Are Radical States Hostile to Capitalism?

The second accusation directed at “radical” states is that they pose a significant threat to Western economic interest. Once again, a cursory inspection is misleading. Many of these states have installed socialist forms of economic planning, most use “anti-capitalist” rhetoric, and all proclaim a desire to be free from economic “imperialism”. Several (e.g., Cuba, Vietnam) trade primarily with the Soviet bloc and rely heavily on Soviet economic support. Yet taken as a whole, the record is quite reassuring.

First, most radical states have been quite willing to maintain economic ties with the West. In fact, many of them prefer to deal with the capitalist countries than with the Soviet bloc. This is exactly what one would expect, because the West has the biggest markets, the best technology, and the largest supply of private and public capital. After some notorious failures, even avowedly radical states have learned that attempting to develop outside the world capitalist system is difficult. Thus radical regimes from Cuba to Zimbabwe now compete for Western markets and investment, and they recognize that these investments must be protected. Indeed, one of the more revealing ironies is that a US multinational corporation—Gulf Oil—has its Angolan facilities guarded by Cuban troops in order to protect them from US-backed guerrillas!

Second, when economic relations between the United States and a radical states have been cut off, that has usually been our decision, not theirs. It was the United States that chose to sever economic relations with Cuba, Nicaragua, Libya, and Iran, all of whom trade quite happily with our capitalist allies. In short, radical states are often less hostile to the capitalist United States than we are to them.Third, the belief that radical states are a special threat to our economy ignores the fact that non-radical states are rarely passive or altruistic partners. It was conservative leaders like King Faisal and the Shah of Iran that engineered OPEC’s price increases, with at most minor assistance from leaders like Gaddafi. Developing countries of every kind have sought better economic arrangements with the industrialized countries in general and the United States in particular. All play hardball when they can, either by nationalizing foreign multinationals, imposing import and export restrictions, threatening to default on loans, or organizing raw material cartels. To claim that radical states are especially threatening is misleading, especially because they lack the leverage to do much damage.

This reveals a final point: concern over the economic policies of radical regimes greatly exaggerates our dependence on the third world. Alarmists often point out that the United States imports a large percentage of certain “critical raw materials” (e.g., cobalt, chrome) from several potentially vulnerable regimes (e.g., Zaire, South Africa). Accordingly, they fear that a radical black regime might cut off our supply. This view ignores the existence of substantial US stockpiles, overlooks the fact that alternative sources are readily available at a modest cost, and fails to explain why a future radical regime would choose to go bankrupt by refusing to sell us its only valuable commodities. Even in the case of oil (where Western dependence is more serious), the radical regimes in Iraq, Libya, and Iran have been more willing to sell to us than we have been to buy.

In short, the accusation that radical states threaten important economic interests is unfounded. Like anybody else, we can expect such regimes to seek the best deal they can get. But because most of them have great needs and relatively few assets, they have few alternatives. Opposition to radical regimes must rest on other concerns.

Are Radical States Unusually Aggressive?

One of these concerns is the fact that radical states seem to be more aggressive than other states. The record is not encouraging: Vietnam has overrun Laos and Cambodia. Iran supports Shi’ite extremists in Lebanon. Libya and Syria have provided financial and logistical support to a variety of terrorist groups, and Nicaragua and Cuba have backed revolutionary Forces in El Salvador. Virtually all “radical” states direct hostile propaganda at their various enemies, and all have recently engaged in violent conflicts with other states. 

Why are radical states prone to conflicts with others? Part of the explanation may lie in the domestic politics of these regimes. Having gained power through extreme and violent methods, a radical elite is likely to view these methods as both effective and justified. Moreover, because revolutionary activity is risky and uncertain, radical groups often sustain discipline and morale by promoting a Manichean world view in which they are portrayed as totally virtuous while their opponents are viewed as absolutely evil. Once in place, this perspective helps justify support for radical movements elsewhere (of course, such tendencies are not unknown among US leaders either). Furthermore, because a radical domestic program will create internal opposition, a radical state may exaggerate external threats either to divert internal opposition or to justify its repression. These external threats may not be hard to find. If nearby states are threatened by the revolution (i.e. if they fear that it will spread), they may take action to oust the new regime before it can consolidate its power. The Iraqi attack on Iran and Saudi Arabia’s unsuccessful efforts to overthrow the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen illustrate this tendency nicely.

Although the bellicosity of most radical states is worrisome, the danger that they impose is more ambiguous. Not all radical states have adopted aggressive foreign policies (Angola and Ethiopia, for example, have enough to worry about at home), and several have moderated their behavior substantially over time (e.g., Algeria, China).

More controversially, part (though by no means all) of what radical states do is not as objectionable as is often portrayed. Thus the brutality of the revolutionary forces in Central America (supported by Cuba and Nicaragua) seems neither more nor less acceptable than that of the death squads that they are opposing. Similarly, the support given to the African National Congress by the radical regimes in Mozambique or Angola is understandable and even laudable, given the barbarism of apartheid and South Africa’s repeated attacks. It is harder to condemn Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia when we realize that this removed the genocidal Khmer Rouge from power. Even Arab support for the PLO is consistent with the ideals of national self-determination, however deplorable the methods. It should not be forgotten that the founding of Israel—itself a “revolutionary act”—was accompanied by widespread terrorist acts against both the British and the Arabs in Palestine.

The point is not to whitewash these regimes or defend what they do. Instead, it is to place their “radical behavior” in perspective. Put simply, the fact that they use extreme methods is less worrisome if we recognize that some of their goals have some legitimacy. After all, the United States used “extreme methods” against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and few of us would doubt that we were justified.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that these states have achieved very little. And the fact that many of them rely upon terrorism is in fact a confession of weakness; despite all the attention it has received, terrorism remains a minor problem. North Korea has neither conquered nor subverted the South, and Libya has failed to expand in Africa, restore Palestine, or unify the Arab world under Gadda ’s banner. Although Syria has retained its “veto power” in Lebanon, it has yet to regain a single inch of the Golan Heights. Ethiopia and Angola face tremendous internal challenges, South Yemen is riven with fratricidal quarrels, and even Cuba can count few successes in the quarter-century of Castro’s rule. Vietnam is the principal exception—they did win their war of independence—but they have since entered a quagmire of their own in Cambodia.

This last example reveals an important point: the bellicosity of radical states may make conflict among them more likely. Once the United States withdrew from Indo-China, for example, the age-old rivalry among China, Vietnam, and Cambodia erupted anew. The radical regimes in Syria and Iraq are bitter enemies, and China and the USSR still confront one another warily. There is little reason to suppose that revolutionary states will get along well with each other, except when other states provide a unifying target. This reduces their ability to threaten Western interests even further.

Do Radical States Threaten Human Rights?

The final item to consider is whether radical states are guilty of gross violations of basic human rights. The evidence strongly suggests that are, according to Amnesty International, many of these states detain citizens without trial, practice torture on a routine basis, and have conducted mass executions or military atrocities, including brutal attacks on internal opponents.

Alas, this should not surprise us either. After a difficult struggle to gain power, a revolutionary regime is likely to seek revenge on the former rulers. At a minimum, they are likely to treat potential challengers with severity so as not to jeopardize their hard-won position of power. Even more important, their efforts to implement a radical domestic transformation will create considerable opposition and require considerable brutality to suppress. For all of these reasons, radical states are unlikely to possess a flattering human rights record.

At the same time, we should also recognize that the so-called “radical states” are not the only, or even the worst, offenders. Although Nicaragua has forcibly evacuated Miskito Indian tribes (a policy they have since reversed) and suspended a number of civil liberties, this pales in comparison to the tens of thousands of Guatemalans that have been killed since 1966, or the tens of thousands of Argentines who disappeared during the late 1970s. Human rights violations were common in Iran before the revolution, and Zimbabwe’s record—though it is by no means perfect—is an improvement over the white government of Ian Smith. Although Syria, Ethiopia, Iran, Cuba, Vietnam, and Libya are all guilty of torture and extralegal executions, the following US allies commit similar violations as well: Chile, China, Sudan, Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico, South Korea, South Africa, Turkey, and Pakistan. And even this list is not complete.

The lesson is clear: human rights practices throughout the third world are often abysmal, irrespective of whether the regime is “radical” or not. It is unwise to single out “radical” states on this basis, although it is appropriate for the United States to condemn such behavior and to seek to modify it. By itself, the human rights record of various radical states is not sufficient to justify US military intervention, either directly or through proxies like the contras or UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). Not only do these forces practice equally brutal methods (i.e., attacking innocent civilians), but there is no reason to believe that they would behave better than the current regime should their efforts to gain power succeed.


What does this discussion reveal about US policy towards so-called “radical” states? Four things primarily. First, although it is clear that “radical” states will often act in ways we find distasteful or bothersome, the threat that they pose to US interests is generally exaggerated. Most radical states combine significant internal weaknesses with widespread regional unpopularity, which greatly limits either their value to the Soviets or the damage they can do to us. As a result, how we respond is more important than what they do. By exaggerating the threat that they pose, we run the risk of squandering resources in unimportant areas. Thus the first lesson is to keep the threat from these regimes in perspective.

Second, it is also clear that the United States does not understand radical movements and radical states very well. As I have tried to show, our opposition to these regimes is based on several misconceptions, i.e. that such regimes are inevitably pro-Soviet, bellicose, or hostile to capitalism. Even more important, the US’ unremitting opposition merely reinforces these tendencies. Radical movements are overwhelmingly likely to resist efforts at coercion because the revolutionary experience has taught them that steadfast resistance pays off, because their legitimacy is usually based on standing up to external enemies, and because they fear additional demands should they concede to pressure at all. Whether we like it or not, radical states will usually resist our efforts at forcing them to behave.

Third, such efforts are not always necessary. Our tendency to view all radical states as part of a single international cabal has obscured the fact that they have very different capabilities and interests. As a result, the United States has probably missed several opportunities to fashion reasonably cordial relations with several radical states. As I have already noted, both Nicaragua and Angola have demonstrated their interest in reaching a modus vivendi with the United States. This would provide profitable avenues for US investment and encourage both states to maintain a greater distance from Moscow. In short, by viewing these states on a case-by-case basis, we can begin to tailor our actions to the interests and objectives of each “radical” state. That is what we did with Egypt, China, and Zimbabwe (at least until recently) with considerable success.

Finally, this is not going to be easy. Given our record of past opposition, the United States has a considerable legacy of suspicion to overcome. Even where a modus vivendi is possible, it will require patience and consistency to bring it about. Unfortunately, neither trait is in abundant supply. US politicians find it easier to condemn such regimes than to bargain with them, and the usual vacillations that appear inevitable in the United States will merely reinforce the suspicion with which the United States is viewed. The same is true in reverse, of course. Therefore, although a policy of accommodation may often make sense, it is unlikely to be tried. Even if it is, it may not be given sufficient opportunity to work.

As this brief summary suggests, our understanding of how radical states act in the international system is still limited. It is marred by biased definitions, inadequate empirical evidence, and little awareness of the different motivations that influence their conduct. We know we don’t like them much, but we don’t know what to do about it. Clarifying these matters is certainly in order, which means that students and scholars have plenty of work left to do.

Note from the Editor

STEPHEN M. WALT, then at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, wrote an article in the January 1987 edition of the Harvard International Review on radical states.  The prevailing school of thought at the time held that some states behaved in a less ethical, less acceptable, or less legitimate way, and were therefore ostracized from the international community; arguably, the same remains true of thinking in international relations today. Walt challenged this view. Recognizing that the United States, as the dominant force in international affairs, plays a prominent role in defining the international community, he instead proposed the defining feature of a radical state was not connected to the character of its government, its international actions, or its threat to the US. Instead, what sets apart a radical state is how the US chooses to engage with it.