In Congressional testimony yesterday, Undersecretary of State John Bolton named Syria and Libya as "rogue states" and indicated that both nations possess weapons of mass destruction. Does the State Department maintain a formal list of rogue states?
Not exactly, and it's a little surprising that Bolton used the phrase. Throughout the Clinton era, the State Department didn't hesitate to apply the "rogue state" moniker to nations like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. In a 1994 lecture, Madeleine Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, defined a rogue state as one that actively tried to undermine the international system. But in 2000, the State Department declared that it would no longer employ the phrase and would instead lump together all potential adversaries under the heading "states of concern." "Rogue," the department reasoned, is an inflammatory word, and its use might hamper the United States' diplomatic efforts when reaching out to the Irans and Libyas of the world.
In announcing the naming change, however, then-State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was careful to make clear that there's no formal "naughty" and "nice" criteria. "We don't sit around here with a basket marked 'states of concern' and try to throw countries into it every day," he told reporters at a June 19, 2000 press briefing, with typical Beltway clarity. Boucher added that the switch did not indicate "a change in behavior or policy" and that the new term was merely "a better description."
The State Department has refused to detail exactly who it considers states of concern. But in 2000 the Center of Defense Information obtained a description of a new classification system, which breaks down 190 nations into six known subcategories. These range from "Just States" (our allies) to "States Leaving Concern" (the nations formerly known as rogues) to "States of Disrepair" (nations that have essentially broken down into anarchy). A State Department division called the Bureau of States is supposed to update the list annually and issues a classified report to Congress every April 1.
Bolton's recycling of "rogue states," then, is get-tough rhetoric rather than an indication that the State Department has broken with recent policy and created a fresh list of no-goodniks. As department spokeswoman Brooke Summers succinctly told Explainer, "It's not necessarily an official designation." She added, however, that it's no coincidence that Syria and Libya do appear on the long-standing list of state sponsors of terrorism.