Assad Raza is an Active Component U.S. Army Civil Affairs Officer with deployment experience throughout the Middle East. He holds a M.A. in Diplomacy with a concentration in International Conflict Management from Norwich University, and is a graduate of The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation Command and General Staff Officer Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. He can be found on Twitter @assadraza12. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing U.S. Use of Coercive Diplomacy
Date Originally Written: February 23, 2020.
Date Originally Published: March 9, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author believes the U.S. should only use coercive diplomacy if the situation is vital to U.S. interests, and the U.S. is prepared to go to war if necessary.
Summary: U.S. use of coercive diplomacy has conflicting results. The 2018 missile strikes to compel the Syrian regime to stop using chemical weapons on civilians succeeded. The 2020 killing of an Iranian general to compel Iran to stop its aggression in the Middle East failed. To date, North Korea has not abandoned its nuclear program despite U.S. military threats, sanctions, and diplomatic talks. Coercive diplomacy’s success isn’t guaranteed and it risks escalation.
Text: Throughout history, the United States has used coercive diplomacy as a diplomatic strategy to influence adversaries’ behaviors. However, the U.S. success rate on the use of this strategy has mixed results. One example is the failed U.S. attempts to persuade the government of Iraq to cease their weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program before the 2003 invasion. A more recent example is the January 2020 U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian General Qassim Soleimani that failed to compel Iran to stop its aggression in the Middle East and provoked their retaliation, which could have quickly escalated to conflict. These two examples highlight the importance of understanding the motives and perceptions of the adversary that can limit the effectiveness of coercive diplomacy.
Coercive diplomacy is the use of military and non-military threats to primarily persuade an adversary to cease a specific action. Former Stanford University political professor, Alexander L. George, defined coercive diplomacy as a “defensive strategy that is employed to deal with the efforts of an adversary to change a status quo situation in his own favor, by persuading the adversary to stop what it is doing or to undo what it had done.” A successful example of coercive diplomacy is the 2018 U.S. missile strikes against the Syrian regime to compel them to stop chemical attacks on civilians.
When employing coercive diplomacy, the coercing power must have a credible threat for non-compliance. According to Alexander George, “…the military weaker side may be strongly motivated by what is at stake and refuse to back down, in effect calling the bluff of the coercing power.” An excellent example of this “calling of bluff” is U.S. President Barack Obama’s threats to use military action on the Syrian regime if they crossed the “red line” by using chemical weapons on civilians. Once Syria crossed this red line, in August 2013, President Obama did not follow through on his threat, thus hurting U.S. credibility. Failing to respond to non-compliance can cause the coercing power to lose credibility and negatively impact how it is perceived internationally as it did not follow through on its military promises.
Additionally, coercive diplomacy can include a mixture of military and non-military threats to influence an adversary’s behavior. Yet, depending on what is at stake, not every actor will respond to these combinations of threats the same. For example, to date, North Korea has not abandoned its nuclear program and ballistic missile testing from the combination of U.S. military threats, sanctions, and diplomatic talks. However, North Korea’s non-compliance may be due to their perceptions of the U.S. views on their nuclear program and the low risk of U.S. military actions based on U.S history towards them over the past 25 years.
One major risk of coercive diplomacy is the difficulty in calculating the adversary’s response. As Robert Art and Patrick Cronin wrote, “… mistakes are easy to make in situations where resolve is hard to estimate. …the coercer often underestimates the targets will to resist. Consequently, the coercer has to apply larger amounts of force, but then it entered the realm of war.” Two examples of this type of escalation are the 1999 North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s air campaign due to Serbian non-compliance to stop their persecution of Kosovo Albanians and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq to halt their WMD program. Hence, there are no guarantees that the use of coercive diplomacy will persuade the adversary to stop an action or, worse, the adversary’s miscalculations could escalate the situation.
As mentioned earlier, before employing coercive diplomacy, it is crucial to understand the adversary’s motivations and what is at stake for them. The January 2020 drone strike that killed the Iranian general is an example of the need for understanding motivational factors to calculate an adversary’s response. Iran’s potential loss of credibility within their own country and the region may have driven their retaliatory missile attacks at the two bases in Iraq. Although there were no U.S. fatalities, with the right miscalculations, this retaliation could have escalated past coercive diplomacy to full-on war. This example reveals the risk of employing coercive diplomacy and the difficulties with calculating adversaries’ countermeasures.
In summary, the recent use of U.S. coercive diplomacy has conflicting results. For example, the 2018 missile strikes to compel the Syrian regime to stop using chemical weapons civilians achieved its objectives, but the 2020 drone strike of the Iranian general to compel Iran to stop its aggression in the Middle East did not. Iran’s retaliation demonstrates that weaker states will respond back if they believe their credibility is at stake. Also, the use of coercive diplomacy against North Korea shows the difficulty of changing an adversary’s behavior when their most vital program for survival is at stake. Moreover, coercive diplomacy is only of value if the threat is credible, and the nation is prepared to go to war if necessary. Lastly, coercive diplomacy is a risky strategy as it depends on the adversary’s motivations, and any wrong calculation can escalate the situation to full-on war, as seen with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
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