Forceful Persuasion or Half-Hearted Diplomacy?

By Manulak, Michael | International Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Forceful Persuasion or Half-Hearted Diplomacy?

Manulak, Michael, International Journal

Lessons from the Kosovo crisis

In the first two years of his administration, US President Barack Obama has sought more cooperative relations with Iran and North Korea as a means of halting nuclear proliferation. While the US has backed these efforts with coercive measures such as targeted sanctions, critics contend that these efforts at coercive diplomacy have been weak and ineffective. This debate raises important questions about the conditions and strategies that favour coercive diplomatic success as well as the relationship between coercive means and broader negotiating ends. A chief method of evaluating present efforts at forceful persuasion is to interrogate and derive lessons from critical recent cases. The 1998-99 Kosovo crisis is one such case.

NATO's involvement in the Balkan conflict illustrates the perils of employing coercive diplomatic strategies when the target state is highly motivated and willing to incur significant risks. Just as Iran and North Korea regard their nuclear programs as fundamental to their national interests, Yugoslavia sought to protect its territorial integrity from an unwelcome NATO intervention. The passage of time, furthermore, has allowed a significant amount of information on the Kosovo case to enter the public realm, enabling the detailed case study analysis necessitated by the subject.

This article will use former Stanford University professor Alexander George's analytical framework as a means of assessing NATO's approach to the Kosovo crisis.1 In examining George's criteria that favour coercive diplomatic success, it will demonstrate that the model holds great power for understanding when and how coercive diplomacy can be used most effectively in conflict management. The article will provide background on the conflict, including NATO's and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia's primary interests in the south Serbian province. It will then assess NATO's application of coercive diplomacy in three connected, yet distinct, episodes. NATO's first coercive diplomatic effort took place in the autumn of 1998 and led to a substantial withdrawal of Yugoslav security forces, the creation of the Kosovo verification mission, and a political process. This stage represented a modest success for coercive diplomacy. The second stage, which took place in February- March 1999, resulted in an unsuccessful mediation and the commencement of a NATO bombing campaign. This phase was a clear failure of coercive diplomacy. The final stage, which took place from April to June 1999, was an ambiguous success inasmuch as it led to Yugoslavia's acceptance of the terms of United Nations security council resolution 1244, but at considerable human and military cost. The three cases present an opportunity for a relatively systematic comparison because many contextual factors and conditions remained constant through the three stages. The article will conclude by deriving four principal policy lessons from the case and analyzing their implications for understanding coercive diplomacy in the present context.


George suggests that coercive diplomacy is employed "in hopes of securing a peaceful resolution of a serious dispute" by persuading an opponent "to stop or undo his effort to alter the status quo situation."2 Critics of coercive diplomacy point to the limited historical effectiveness of the strategy and suggest that leaders should instead employ decisive force to undo or precipitate a rapid end to an undesirable action. Proponents of the strategy, such as George, argue that coercive diplomacy offers a valuable, though beguiling, crisis management tool that sometimes fails in its implementation.

Coercive diplomacy has four variants. The first, labelled the "try and see" approach, refrains from overt threats while seeking to persuade the target state to alter its behaviour. The second variant, called the "gradually turning the screws" approach, is characterized by an incremental intensification of pressure on an adversary. …

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