The rogue states are gone. Is the world today a safer place than it was a week ago? Not exactly. The United States has simply decreed that it is removing the phrase from its diplomatic vocabulary. But the declaration shows that the U.S. has decided to break with its stereotypes, and to see hope where it once only saw menace. That could make the world a safer place.

The U.S. State Department developed the term “rogue states” to refer to seven countries — Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria — that seemed to have hostile intent toward the U.S. Their “sole purpose was destroying the system,” explained U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. There were thought to be sponsors of terrorism that targeted the U.S. and its allies. From Washington’s perspective, these governments refused to see reason and were somehow resistant to the usual diplomatic blandishments.

But earlier this week, Ms. Albright said in a radio interview that the U.S. would no longer refer to those countries as “rogue states.” Instead, they are now known as “states of concern.” Her spokesman explained that “It’s not really a change in behavior or policy or what we’re doing as much as it is finding a better description or a different description, because a single description, ‘one size fits all,’ doesn’t really fit anymore.”

The question is whether it ever did. The tag was a convenient label, but its accuracy has always been disputed. Syria was a “rogue state,” when it was peripheral to the Middle East peace process. It became less so as Damascus assumed a more prominent role in peace talks with Israel. Cuba has been more of a thorn in the side of successive U.S. governments than a threat to U.S. interests. The willingness of those same governments to do business with Beijing — a government no less repressive than that in Havana — is more proof that politics, not policy, was behind the “rogue” label.

But it is North Korea’s transformation that truly exposes the meaning of “rogue.” Right or wrong, few states have been more demonized than North Korea. No government has been more isolated. Yet the threat of a North Korean nuclear weapon program forced the U.S. to negotiate with Pyongyang. And, contrary to the stereotype, the North made a deal and kept it. It has tried to squeeze every bit of leverage it can out of a bad position, but it has stuck to the terms of the 1994 accord.

As this brief score card shows, the world is not necessarily changing, but the U.S. is. It is being forced to accept that diplomacy involves give and take — bargaining. The “rogue” label was equal parts fear and disdain. It was a way of cutting off negotiations before they ever began. If no rogue would make a deal or could be trusted to keep it, the U.S. had no need to compromise its own positions. That is the best way to kill talks.

Moreover, “rogue” states were supposedly immune to the normal range of diplomatic tools. Neither sticks nor carrots was deemed effective when dealing with these governments. That has been politically convenient. If Pyongyang was susceptible to deterrence, then there would be no need for the proposed national missile defense program that some Americans are now rushing to develop.

The decision to drop the term means that the U.S. wants to be more flexible in its diplomacy. As the State Department spokesman noted, “if we see a development that we think is in the U.S. interest, we will respond.” Often, however, you see what you look for. If Washington wants to deal, it has to create conditions that make it possible to go ahead. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung did just that with his “Sunshine policy” toward North Korea.

It will be difficult. The label might be gone, but the images linger. Individuals looking for ways to block progress will be quick to use them. The best counters to their arguments are patience and a focus on the ultimate objective.

Drawing countries into diplomatic and commercial relations alters the decision-making calculus. That is the point of confidence-building measures. They have another benefit as well. Lowering or eliminating barriers to trade and investment deprives these governments of an excuse for their own ineptitude. This week’s decision by the U.S. to allow direct flights and trade in nonmilitary goods with North Korea is a good start. There are similar signs of a crack in the U.S. attitude toward Cuba.

In the world of diplomacy, “rogues” do not exist — they are made. Unfortunately, they are harder to unmake. Doing business with former “rogues” will not be easy and it may not be pleasant. But the alternative is worse.

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