In Box

Law & Order: Rogue States Unit

What a peek inside America's prisons can tell us about U.S.-Iran relations.

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault
Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

Despite its recent efforts at negotiation, the United States traditionally has been more confrontational in its approach to Iran than European countries, which have urged closer ties with Tehran. What explains the difference? In 2002, scholar Robert Kagan argued that the dove-hawk divide was a function of a disparity in military might: Because the United States remained a great power even as European defense budgets shrank, it was more likely to flex its muscles. Kagan wrote, "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus."

However, new research indicates that a better predictor lies in an unlikely place: domestic courts and prisons.

A study by Amsterdam-based political scientists Wolfgang Wagner and Michal Onderco found that how countries treat criminals at home helps predict how they will deal with "deviance" on the global stage — particularly by so-called rogue states. Wagner and Onderco looked at the behavior of 34 democracies toward Iran from 2002, when the country’s nuclear program became public, through 2009. The researchers compared that behavior with various factors, from military strength to economic interdependence, that might influence how one state treats another. They found that martial power only played a slight role in making a state more confrontational and that increased trade did not, for the most part, make countries put on kid gloves.

Rather, they found a relationship between a country’s level of aggression toward Iran — how hostile it might be in public statements, for instance, or how intently it might advocate for sanctions — and the percentage of that state’s population in prison. The more people behind bars, the more confrontational a state was likely to be. The same relationship held when the researchers looked at states’ approaches to North Korea.

Why should strict pursuit of law and order at home translate into foreign policy? Wagner and Onderco argue that it is a matter of cultural norms transferring across arenas. Countries with a culture of "retributive" justice — focused on punishing wrongdoing and protecting the public — will pursue more belligerent policies toward states like Iran and North Korea. Meanwhile, countries that believe in "restorative" justice — avoiding punishment that doesn’t help reincorporate the convicted into society or address the underlying factors behind crimes — will be more accommodating toward the world’s scofflaws.

Wagner and Onderco say their research shows that how countries behave toward states like Iran is part and parcel of the same cultural differences that have produced Germany’s strong social safety net and America’s strict drug laws. "Realizing that, for other states, there’s a different mindset — this could contribute to some better understanding among the Western states" of how each approaches international bad guys, Wagner notes.

So Americans may indeed be from Mars and Europeans from Venus — just not for the reason you thought.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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