What can diplomatic engagement with so-called rogue regimes achieve? According to the established view, even fruitless talks allow diplomats to learn about an adversary, which can, in turn, yield useful results. But the evidence, cogently laid out by Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, tells another, and disastrous, story. Rubin exposes such received wisdom as complacently wrongheaded, presenting multiple case studies involving (among others) Libya under Qaddafi, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, and North Korea.

Engaging rogues, Rubin demonstrates, harms U.S. interests by granting undeserved legitimacy and, in many cases, financial payouts to hostile regimes and groups. The Islamic Republic of Iran epitomizes this problem: Decades of diplomatic overtures have emboldened this sponsor of terrorism and would-be nuclear power.

Book Review: “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes”

Throughout, Rubin questions key assumptions underpinning such diplomacy: Does an adversary’s willingness to talk evince a willingness to reach a negotiated settlement or rather a desire to pocket bribes and concessions? Does the tactic of trying to mire an adversary in endless diplomatic maneuverings really nudge tyrants toward becoming peace-loving statesmen?

Rubin’s case studies are replete with officials downplaying, whitewashing, and evading their adversaries’ flagrant duplicity and brutality. Western officials across the political spectrum recoil from acknowledging that certain regimes seek goals beyond the bounds of morality. They do so at their peril, warns Rubin: “When U.S. presidents embrace diplomacy and incentives as the solution to rogue behavior—when hope trumps change—the United States does not win peace, but hastens conflict.”

Rubin’s argument is compelling, though additional discussion of Nixon’s diplomacy with China and Reagan’s with the USSR would have bolstered it. The author leaves open the possibility (with qualifications) of successfully engaging certain rogues while correctly suggesting that some regimes are beyond the pale. The book brilliantly underscores the urgency of grappling with, rather than skirting, the difficult issue of assessing a regime's character.