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The New Iron Curtain: Negotiating with Theatre States

November 12, 2015
A commonly used foreign policy term, “Iron Triangle,” conventionally refers to the interaction between Congressional subcommittees (ex. Armed Services), interest groups and lobbyists (ex. National Rifle Association), and executive agencies (ex. Department of Justice), especially when applied to the United States government. The complex interplay between multiple parties and groups has often been the key driver of gridlock on many issues, ranging from education reform[1] to international labor mobility and migrant workers.[2] The idea has been criticized and reinterpreted countless times, but the core concept remains the same. The Iron Triangle, however, is not exclusive to the United States; a new, pernicious form is rising in other nations around the world with many implications left untouched and unturned.

The Iron Triangle 

Iron Triangle. Source: Wikemedia Commons

Many autocratic states, including North Korea and Russia, are vehement backers of the Iron Triangle, despite having seemingly strong-willed central leaders; in fact, these countries are often called theatre states because their leaders use theatrical play to solidify their political standing. Within its stringent boundaries, these autocratic leaders make their citizens keel over and bow to the established order. This constitutes a slightly modified form of the democratic Triangle[3] seen in the United States, as there is an interplay between state powers (ex. Putin), industrialists (ex. the North Korean semi-capitalist elite), and secret services (ex. the 2 million-person Chinese secret intelligence network).[4] These elements of tripartite control are a common theme in totalitarian states in the modern world, and it is these that need to be addressed by current foreign policy measures. Now is the era to pull away from the direct conflict of years past, negotiate, and use others’ domestic interests to our advantage.

North Korea’s Iron Triangle

North Korea’s fresh take on the Iron Triangle rose in the wake of Kim Jong-Un’s relatively new regime.[5] The rise of a capitalized, non-socialist class of the political and economic elite has completed the Iron Triangle in the nation. The bulk of economic growth has affected these elites, allowing them to access goods as disparate as Coco Chanel and L’Oréal.[6] The Iron Triangle manifests itself pretty clearly: the high elites pay the federal government sizeable portions of income, and in return the random inspections by government-commanded secret services of their (technically illegal, according to the letter of North Korean law) corporations tend to return positive reviews.[7] The transition to the Iron [1] Triangle has been largely ignored by foreign policy, yet sources have argued it is one of the most significant structural social changes in recent history,[8] challenging the power of the authoritarian Communist rule with a balancing system of checks and balances unlike an illusory “party.”[9] Note the easy-to-spot signs of the Triangle in North Korea: the marketization of a select group of people, often in a manner that pays off the central authority. This monetized schema gives an obvious initial recommendation for leveraging the North Korean political system. By disgruntling a capitalist upper class, the authoritarian leader will be revealed unto his people as weak when his support base falls. A key possibility in negotiations becomes understanding what this class demands, how often it is demanded, and how to therefore ensure that the North Koreans are kept within arm’s reach during critical deals using this information. This economic stratagem is neither warfare, insurgency, nor intervention; it is a negotiation tactic that the United States can and should use.

Putin’s Iron Triangle

The next regime is the Russian “Putinate,” the much-heralded Soviet Resurgence of Russia. Putin seems all-powerful and like the perfect propagandist, without need for accountability to any “man” above him. However, a Credit Suisse analysis found that 111 billionaires controlled 19% of household wealth in Russia as of 2014, while 80% of Russians have a net wealth below $10,000.[10] A Korea-esque plutocracy is visible in Russia. Ironically, when Putin was first shoved into the spotlight by Boris Yeltsin many years ago, Foreign Affairs claimed reigning in the plutocracy was Putin’s critical mission.[11] Famous impacts have included Putin’s (though not truly his own) plundering of the “public coffers” during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, during which the sponsorships earned by the plutocracy forced Putin into an unpopular decision in order to maintain the Triangle.[12] The third corner of the triangle lays in Putin’s old contacts in the KGB and Russian organized crime,[13] allowing him to enforce near-totalitarian decisions in a state appearing to be run by his equestrian figure. Therefore, Putin does not “own Russia,” so much as lead its newest version of the “party,” in which the richest men command the greatest influence. Just as North Koreans consume American products, these corporate sponsors have interests abroad. Rather than working against the two factors of the triangle largely out of control, one must ask cui bono (to whose benefit) and follow the money. Plutocrats run the totalitarian states, not theatrical leaders.

Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation 

The 2014 Sochi Olympics: Putin’s Iron Triangle at Work. Source: Wikimedia Commons. 

Therefore, obsessions with image and the theatre of politicians like Putin and Kim Jong-Un are distractions from the main goal of negotiations. Rather than having prospective Presidents dole out indictments against these leaders, the American people ought to recognize their role in the state. When powerful, connections maketh the men. In recent years, the Iron Triangle model for state politics has erupted on the scene in Russia and North Korea, causing their leaders to be accountable to their rich industrialist plutocrat friends and therefore to develop a liability. The next time that an authoritarian figure crosses the line, be it through inhumane Olympic games or nuclear infidelity, the role of the world police is not to fight the crime or to infiltrate the nation, but simply to negotiate with the leaders in terms of their own liabilities. Pulling back the curtain on theatre states to reveal the Iron Triangle within, one can discover a truly modern way to discuss peace.



  [1] Michael Q. McShane, “Turning the Tides: President Obama and Education Reform,American Enterprise Institute, September 13, 2012. 


  [2] Lant Pritchett, “Let Their People Come,” Center for Global Development, 2006. 

  [3] Pavell, Ivan. On The Wrong Track: How the West is Becoming Similar to the Soviet Union. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse Publishers, 2013

  [4] Gabe Collins, “The Limits of China’s Surveillance State,” The Diplomat, November 3, 2013.

  [5] “The Pyongyangites of Pyonghattan,” The Economist, August 12, 2015. 

  [6]“Bread and Circuses: North Korea’s New Monied Classes,The Economist, August 8, 2015. 

  [7] Andrei Lankov, “Meet Mr. X: One of the North’s New Capitalist Class,” NK News, April 24, 2015. 
  [8] John Feffer, “North Korea’s Three-Tiered Society,The Diplomat, May 8, 2015. 

  [9] Masanori Yamakuchi, “It’s Kim Jong Un vs. North Korea’s Capitalists,Nikkei Asian Review, August 11, 2014. 

[10]Jason M. Breslow, “Inequality and the Putin Economy: Inside the Numbers,PBS, January 13, 2015. 

  [11]Lee S. Wolosky, “Putin’s Plutocrat Problem,Foreign Affairs, March 2000. 

  [12]Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan, “The Sochi Olympics, From Putin and the Plutocrats to Pussy Riot,” Democracy Now, February 6, 2014. 

  [13] Dawisha, Karen. Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. 

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.



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