Coercive Diplomacy in U.S. Foreign Policy

By McCready, Douglas | Military Review, September/October 2005 | Go to article overview

Coercive Diplomacy in U.S. Foreign Policy


McCready, Douglas, Military Review


Coercive Diplomacy in U.S. Foreign Policy

Coercive diplomacy is the use of military power short of war to effect a change in a target country's policies or political makeup. This includes positive inducements as well as negative sanctions (a carrot as well as a stick, although the carrot should be dangled only after the stick has been vigorously brandished). As the studies in The United States and Coercive Diplomacy, edited by Robert J. Art and Patrick M. Cronin (United States Institute of Peace Press, Washington, DC, 2003), demonstrate, coercive diplomacy is a difficult endeavor with a low success rate. Often, it is the last step before resorting to force.

The book's table of contents reads like today's newspaper. Case studies examine U.S. attempts to employ coercive diplomacy between 1990 and 2001 in the Balkans, Somalia, Haiti, North Korea, China-Taiwan, and Iraq. The authors of the studies are experts in their subject, and several were involved in the cases they examined. Two theoretical essays about the nature and utility of coercive diplomacy bracket the seven case studies. Alexander George, who developed the concept of coercive diplomacy, contributes a foreword. His expertise on the subject is so significant that all the essays defer to his pioneering work.

An Alternative to War

In the introduction, Art and Cronin explain: "The need to back U.S. diplomacy with force will not go away; consequently, political-military coercion short of all-out war will remain a highly attractive option to U.S. leaders. Therefore, these leaders need to understand what coercive diplomacy can and cannot accomplish."

Although coercive diplomacy is an alternative to war, it is a risky way to use military force. Failed coercive diplomacy leaves a state with only two options: back down or go to war. The worst situation to be in is attempting coercive diplomacy when the other side has a much higher stake in the outcome than you do.

Coercive diplomacy is particularly difficult in humanitarian interventions. Art and Cronin list eight elements in coercive diplomacy, two of which are essential to success: the opponent's fear of unacceptable escalation and the coercer's stronger will to prevail. The paradox is that it is often difficult to communicate the coercer's resolve without actually going to war. The editors also warn that military superiority is no guarantee of success, as was demonstrated in Somalia in 1993.

To evaluate the success of U.S. coercive diplomacy, the editors reorganized the 7 case studies into 16 cases. They find five successes, eight failures, two mixed results, and one case wherein the relation between coercion and result is ambiguous. Two of the failures led to war (Iraq [1990-1991] and Afghanistan [2001]). In two cases (North Korea [1994] and China [1996]), the coercion was mutual, and neither situation is more stable now than before.

Mixed Results in the Taiwan Strait

Possibly the most interesting of the cases was the crisis in the Taiwan Strait during the run-up to Taiwan's first free presidential election in March 1996. …

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