Assessing U.S. Use of Coercive Diplomacy

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[3]. 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[2]. 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[3].” 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[4].

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[5].” 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[6]. 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[7]. 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[8]. 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[9].” 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[10]. 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.


[1] Jervis, R. (2013). Getting to Yes with Iran: The Challenges of Coercive Diplomacy. Foreign Affairs, 92(1), 105-115. Retrieved February 17, 2020, from

[2] Missy Ryan, J. D. (2020, January 4). How Trump decided to kill a top Iranian general. Retrieved February 23, 2020, from

[3] Levy, J. (2008). Deterrence and Coercive Diplomacy: The Contributions of Alexander George. Political Psychology, 29(4), 537-552. Retrieved February 17, 2020, from

[4] Anne Gearan, M. R. (2018, April 14). U.S. and allies warn Syria of more missile strikes if chemical attacks used again. Retrieved February 2020, from

[5] George, A. L. (1991). Forceful Persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press.

[6] Chollet, D., Glover, J., Greenfield, J., & Glorioso, A. (2016, July 19). Obama’s Red Line, Revisited. Retrieved February 23, 2020, from

[7] George, A. L. (1991). Forceful persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press.

[8] North Korea. (2019, August). Retrieved February 23, 2020, from

[9] Cronin, P. M., & Art, R. J. (2003). United States and Coercive Diplomacy. Washington, D.C.: United States Inst. of Peace Press.

[10] Bender, B., Zanona, M., Ferris, S., O’Brien, C., Starks, T., & Forgery, Q. (2020, January 7). Iran retaliates with missile attacks on U.S. troop locations in Iraq. Retrieved February 2020, from


Assad Raza Assessment Papers Coercive Diplomacy Diplomacy

U.S. Diplomacy Options for Security & Adaptability in Cyberspace

Matthew Reitman is a science and technology journalist.  He has a background in security policy and studied International Relations at Boston University.  He can be found on Twitter @MatthewReitman.  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.

National Security Situation:  U.S. competitors conducting national security activities in cyberspace below the threshold of war aka in the “Gray Zone.”

Date Originally Written:  April 14, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  May 18, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of the U.S. State Department towards cyberspace.

Background:  State actors and their non-state proxies operate aggressively in cyberspace, but within a gray zone that violates international norms without justifying a “kinetic” response.  Russian influence operations in the 2016 U.S. election were not an act of war, but escalated tensions dramatically[1].  North Korea used the Lazarus Group to circumvent sanctions by stealing $81 million from Bangladesh’s central bank[2].  Since a U.S.-People’s Republic of China (PRC) agreement in 2015 to curb corporate espionage, there have been 13 intrusions by groups based in the PRC against the U.S. private sector[3].  The State Department has helped to curb Islamic State of Iraq and Syria propaganda online via the Global Engagement Center[4].  The recent creation of another interagency entity, the Russia Information Group, suggests similar efforts could be effective elsewhere[5].

The State Department continues to work towards establishing behavior norms in cyberspace via multilateral channels, like the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts, and bilateral channels, but this remains a slow and tedious process.  Until those norms are codified, gray zone activities in cyberspace will continue.  The risk of attacks on Information Technology (IT) or critical infrastructure and less destructive acts will only grow as the rest of the world comes online, increasing the attack surface.

Significance:  The ever-growing digitally connected ecosystem presents a chimera-like set of risks and rewards for U.S. policymakers.  Protecting the free exchange of information online, let alone keeping the U.S. and its allies safe, is difficult when facing gray zone threats.  Responding with conventional tools like economic sanctions can be evaded more easily online, while “hacking back” can escalate tensions in cyberspace and further runs the risk of creating a conflict that spills offline.  Despite the challenge, diplomacy can reduce threats and deescalate tensions for the U.S. and its allies by balancing security and adaptability.  This article provides policy options for responding to and defending against a range of gray zone threats in cyberspace.

Option #1:  Establish effective compellence methods tailored to each adversary.  Option #1 seeks to combine and tailor traditional coercive diplomacy methods like indictments, sanctions, and “naming and shaming,” in tandem with aggressive counter-messaging to combat information warfare, which can be anything from debunking fake news to producing misinformation that undermines the adversary’s narrative.  A bifocal approach has shown to be more effective form of coercion[6] than one or the other.

Risk:  Depending on the severity, the combined and tailored compellence methods could turn public opinion against the U.S.  Extreme sanctions that punish civilian populations could be viewed unfavorably.  If sanctions are evaded online, escalation could increase as more aggressive responses are considered.  “Naming and shaming” could backfire if an attack is falsely attributed.  Fake bread crumbs can be left behind in code to obfuscate the true offender and make it look as though another nation is responsible.  Depending on the severity of counter-propaganda, its content could damage U.S. credibility, especially if conducted covertly.  Additionally, U.S. actions under Option #1 could undermine efforts to establish behavior norms in cyberspace.

Gain:  Combined and tailored compellence methods can isolate an adversary financially and politically while eroding domestic support.  “Naming and shaming” sends a clear message to the adversary and the world that their actions will not be tolerated, justifying any retaliation.  Sanctions can weaken an economy and cut off outside funding for political support.  Leaking unfavorable information and counter-propaganda undermines an adversary’s credibility and also erodes domestic support.  Option #1’s severity can range depending on the scenario, from amplifying the spread of accurate news and leaked documents with social botnets to deliberately spreading misinformation.  By escalating these options, the risks increase.

Option #2:  Support U.S. Allies’ cybersecurity due diligence and capacity building.  Option #2 pursues confidence-building measures in cyberspace as a means of deterrence offline, so nations with U.S. collective defense agreements have priority.  This involves fortifying allies’ IT networks and industrial control systems for critical infrastructure by taking measures to reduce vulnerabilities and improve cybersecurity incident response teams (CSIRTs).  This option is paired with foreign aid for programs that teach media literacy, “cyber hygiene,” and computer science to civilians.

Risk:  Improving allies’ defensive posture can be viewed by some nations as threatening and could escalate tensions.  Helping allies fortify their defensive capabilities could lead to some sense of assumed responsibility if those measures failed, potentially fracturing the relationship or causing the U.S. to come to their defense.  Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enhanced defense systems aren’t a silver bullet and can contribute to a false sense of security.  Any effort to defend against information warfare runs the potential of going too far by infringing freedom of speech.  Aside from diminishing public trust in the U.S., Option #2 could undermine efforts to establish behavior norms in cyberspace.

Gain:  Collectively, this strategy can strengthen U.S. Allies by contributing to their independence while bolstering their defense against a range of attacks.  Option #2 can reduce risks to U.S. networks by decreasing threats to foreign networks.  Penetration testing and threat sharing can highlight vulnerabilities in IT networks and critical infrastructure, while educating CSIRTs.  Advances in AI-enhanced cybersecurity systems can decrease response time and reduce network intrusions.  Funding computer science education trains the next generation of CSIRTs.  Cyber hygiene, or best cybersecurity practices, can make civilians less susceptible to cyber intrusions, while media literacy can counter the effects of information warfare.

Other Comments:  The U.S. Cyber Command and intelligence agencies, such as the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, are largely responsible for U.S. government operations in cyberspace.  The U.S. State Department’s range of options may be limited, but partnering with the military and intelligence communities, as well as the private sector is crucial.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  Nakashima, E. (2017, February 7) Russia’s apparent meddling in U.S. election is not an act of war, cyber expert says. Washington Post. Retrieved from:

[2]  Finkle, J. (2017, March 15) “North Korean hacking group behind recent attacks on banks: Symantec.” Reuters. Retrieved from:

[3]  FireEye. (2016, June 20). Red Line Drawn: China Recalculates Its Use Of Cyber Espionage. Retrieved from:

[4]  Warrick, J. (2017, February 3). “How a U.S. team uses Facebook, guerrilla marketing to peel off potential ISIS recruits.” Washington Post. Retrieved from:

[5]  Mak, T. (2017, February 6). “U.S. Preps for Infowar on Russia”. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from:

[6]  Valeriano, B., & Jensen, B. (2017, March 16). “From Arms and Influence to Data and Manipulation: What Can Thomas Schelling Tell Us About Cyber Coercion?”. Lawfare. Retrieved from:

Below Established Threshold Activities (BETA) Cyberspace Diplomacy Matthew Reitman Option Papers United States