Coercive diplomacy

Coercive diplomacy or "forceful persuasion" is the "attempt to get a target, a state, a group (or groups) within a state, or a nonstate actor-to change its objectionable behavior through either the threat to use force or the actual use of limited force."[1] This term also refers to "diplomacy presupposing the use or threatened use of military force to achieve political objectives."[2] Coercive diplomacy "is essentially a diplomatic strategy, one that relies on the threat of force rather than the use of force. If force must be used to strengthen diplomatic efforts at persuasion, it is employed in an exemplary manner, in the form of quite limited military action, to demonstrate resolution and willingness to escalate to high levels of military action if necessary."[3]

Coercive diplomacy can be more clearly described as "a political-diplomatic strategy that aims to influence an adversary’s will or incentive structure. It is a strategy that combines threats of force, and, if necessary, the limited and selective use of force in discrete and controlled increments, in a bargaining strategy that includes positive inducements. The aim is to induce an adversary to comply with one's demands, or to negotiate the most favorable compromise possible, while simultaneously managing the crisis to prevent unwanted military escalation."[4]

As distinguished from deterrence theory, which is a strategy aimed at adversaries to dissuade them from undertaking an action not yet started, coercive diplomacy entails efforts to persuade an opponent to stop or reverse an action.[5] Its central task is "to create in the opponent the expectation of costs of sufficient magnitude to erode his motivation to continue what he is doing."[6] Coercive diplomacy attempts to have force be a much more "flexible, refined psychological instrument of policy in contrast to the 'quick, decisive' military strategy, which uses force as a blunt instrument."[5]


The term 'coercive diplomacy' falls under the theory of coercion as a foreign policy tool. In their book The Dynamics of Coercion-American Foreign Policy and the Limits of Military Might, Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman define coercive diplomacy as "getting the adversary to act a certain way via anything short of brute force; the adversary must still have the capacity of organized violence but choose not to exercise it." Coercion strategy "relies on the threat of future military force to influence an adversary’s decision making but may also include limited uses of actual force."[7] Joseph Nye emphasizes that coercive diplomacy depends upon the credibility and the cost of the threat.[8] "If a threat is not credible, it may fail to produce acceptance and it may lead to costs to the reputation of the coercing state. In general, threats are costly when they fail, not only in encouraging resistance in the target, but also in negatively influencing third parties observing the outcome."[8]

A strategy commonly associated with coercion theory and coercive diplomacy is the concept of deterrence, or "the maintenance of military power for the purpose of discouraging attack."[9] The term deterrence is differentiated from coercive diplomacy. In his influential work, Arms and Influence, Thomas Schelling puts forth a general concept of coercion theory as it emerges beyond deterrence. According to Schelling, deterrence is merely a passive threat aimed at keeping an adversary from acting. It is only a threat. "Initiative is placed on the opponent to take the first action triggering a response from the coercer." Schelling believes that deterrence does not present "a comprehensive picture of coercion, leading Schelling to introduce the concept of compellence."[3]

'Compellence', in contrast to 'deterrence', shifts the initiative for the first action to the coercer. While deterrence means waiting passively in hope of not seeing a response, compellence is active, thereby, "inducing his withdrawal, or his acquiescence, or his collaboration by an action that threatens to hurt."[3] When differentiating between deterrence and compellence, deterrence can be described as "drawing a line in the sand" and acting only if the adversary crosses it; in contrast, compellence "requires that the punishment be administered until the other acts rather than if he acts" as in deterrence. "Coercion composed of both compellence and deterrence is about action and inaction."[3] Alexander L. George, a scholar of international relations and former professor of political science at Stanford University, was a pioneer in the field of political psychology.[10] Like Schelling before him, Alexander George worked to create a diplomatic strategy of coercion; his was the theory of coercive diplomacy. Unlike Schelling, George's theory of 'coercive diplomacy' is different than Schelling's 'coercive warfare', in that he believed that coercive diplomacy was "a subset of coercion and compellence." He viewed it as encompassing "defensive" compellent actions only: to force a target to stop or reverse action already taken, rather than an offensive goal of forcing them to do something ... Coercive diplomacy essentially is the embodiment of a "carrot and stick" philosophy: motivation is used to induce a target to submit to your wishes, while appearing threatening at the same time."[3]

Framework for coercive diplomacy

According to Alexander George, coercive diplomacy seeks to achieve three objectives. First, it attempts to persuade an adversary to turn away from its goal. Second, it seeks to convince an adversary to reverse an action already taken. Third, it may persuade an adversary to make "fundamental changes in its government."[11] When constructing a coercive diplomacy strategy, policymakers must consider certain variables or "empty boxes" that must be filled. They must decide "what to demand of the opponent; whether and how to create a sense of urgency for compliance with demand; whether and what kind of punishment to threaten for noncompliance; and whether to rely solely on the threat of punishment or also to offer conditional inducements of a positive character to secure acceptance of the demand."[6]

Alexander George developed a framework in which a number of "variants" or methods of using coercive diplomacy could be deployed to achieve these objectives. These variants include the following:

  1. Ultimatum
  2. Tacit Ultimatum
  3. Try-and-See
  4. Gradual Turning of the Screw

The first variant of the 'coercive diplomacy' strategy is the classic 'ultimatum'. An ultimatum itself has three distinct components: "a demand on the opponent; a time limit or sense of urgency for compliance with the demand; and a threat of punishment for noncompliance that is both credible to the opponent and sufficiently potent to impress upon him that compliance is preferable."[6]

The second variant of coercive diplomacy, 'Tacit ultimatum', is similar to 'ultimatum' except that it doesn't set forth an explicit time limit.

The third variant of coercive diplomacy, the 'Try-and-See', addresses strictly the first component of the 'ultimatum' variant, "a demand on the opponent." There is no time limit set, no sense of urgency conveyed, instead the coercer makes a single threat or takes a single action "to persuade the opponent before threatening or taking another step."[6]

Finally, the 'Gradual Turning of the Screw' approach is similar to the 'Try-and-See' method in that it makes a threat but then “relies the threat of a gradual, incremental increase of coercive pressure rather than threatening large escalation to strong, decisive military action if the opponent does not comply.”[6]

When using the coercive diplomacy strategy, it is important to understand that policymakers may shift from one variant option to another depending on the success of each step taken.

Requirements for success

Among the numerous theories on coercive diplomacy, Peter Viggo Jakobsen's (1998) ideal policy succinctly identifies the four key conditions the coercer must meet to maximize the chance of success to stop or undo acts of aggression:

  1. A threat of force to defeat the opponent or deny him his objectives quickly with little cost.
  2. A deadline for compliance.
  3. An assurance to the adversary against future demands.
  4. An offer of inducements for compliance.

The first requirement in Jakobsen's 'ideal policy' is to make the threat so great that non-compliance will be too costly for the resisting actors.[12] The second requirement demands that after maximizing the credibility of the threat, the coercer must set a specific deadline, as failure to set a deadline for compliance "is likely to be interpreted as evidence that the coercer lacks the will to implement the threat."[12] Assurance against new demands must also be carried out for greater chance of success. Jakobsen points out that the incentive to comply with the coercer's demands will be significantly downgraded if the resisting actor fears compliance will merely invite more demands. The last requirement for successful coercion is the effective use of inducements, which are important facilitators used to give more credibility and assurance.[12]

Coercive diplomacy case studies


President John F. Kennedy used coercive diplomacy successfully in 1962 when he was able to bring about a peaceful resolution to the Cuban missile crisis and avert possible warfare between the United States and the Soviet Union. When Kennedy learned of the Soviet Union's attempt to deploy forty-two medium-range and twenty-four intermediate-range ballistic missiles into Cuba, he established a naval blockade and threatened an invasion of Cuba with force to remove the missiles already there.[5]

Instead of resorting to a strictly military strategy to forcibly remove the missiles, Kennedy decided to use coercive diplomacy. He initiated this strategy by first using the 'Try-and-See' approach. The giant naval blockade, along with a massive buildup of U.S. military forces, was a message to Nikita Khrushchev to persuade him that the U.S was able and willing to use force if needed to remove this missile threat from Cuba.[13] The blockade limited the showdown to Kennedy and Khruschev rather than develop into all-out war. Because of Kennedy’s tough naval blockade, Khruschev "directed all Soviet vessels carrying missiles and other military equipment to Cuba to immediately turn back."[5]

To intensify the coercive diplomacy strategy, Kennedy shifted from the 'Try-and-See' approach to a hybrid of a virtual 'ultimatum' and a carrot-and-the stick approach.[6] Kennedy addressed the sense of urgency about the growing hostile situation by standing firm and tightening the naval blockade as well as conveying to Khruschev the continued threat of a possible invasion of Cuba. As a result of Kennedy's successful use of coercive diplomacy added to negotiated concessions, Khruschev agreed to remove missiles in place and to discontinue the deployment of new missiles into Cuba while the U.S. agreed to remove its Jupiter missiles stationed in Turkey and to call off any invasion of Cuba.[6] [14]


During the 1990-91 Gulf War, coercive diplomacy failed to persuade Saddam Hussein to exit Kuwait and move his military forces back to Iraq; though the use of deterrence effectively convinced the Iraqi president that he could not invade further south into Saudi Arabia, it did little to expel him from Kuwait.[5] Initially, the Bush administration along with the United Nations issued sanctions to pressure Iraq to withdraw troops inside Kuwait. The UN Security Council placed economic sanctions by imposing an embargo on Iraq's imports and exports. This initial stage of the crisis was the United States' attempt to use the coercive diplomatic variant, 'Gradual Turning of the Screw' to apply pressure on Saddam Hussein to comply to the demands to leave Kuwait.[6]

Then the Bush administration, along with the UN Security Council, used the variant 'ultimatum' by setting a deadline of January 15, 1991, for the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait. When this deadline came and passed, without Saddam Hussein's compliance, Operation Desert Storm commenced and military force was used to remove Iraq's forces from Kuwait. Despite the massive build-up of U.S. forces along the Saudi Arabia/Kuwait border, economic sanctions, and a declared deadline for withdrawal, Saddam Hussein failed to remove his forces.[6] In this instance, coercive diplomacy failed, leading to the Gulf War, which concluded with the United States and coalition forces succeeding in removing Saddam Hussein's troops from Kuwait. Thus, when implementing coercive diplomacy not only the benefits but also the aftermath must be considered. Especially in 21st century, every nation is interdependent so other forces by state actors may affect a nation's diplomacy.


  1. Robert J. Art and Patrick M. Cronin, The United States and Coercive Diplomacy United States Institute of Peace Press, Washington, DC 2003
  2. Carnes Lord, "The Psychological Dimension in National Strategy," with comments by Paul A. Smith, Jr., and Richard G. Stilwell, in Barnett and Lord, eds., Political Warfare and Psychological Operations (National Defense University Press, 1989)
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Major Lisa A. Nemeth. "The Use of Pauses in Coercion: An Explanation in Theory"
  4. Jack S. Levy. "Deterrence and Coercive Diplomacy: The Contributions of Alexander George"
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 George, Alexander and William Simons. The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy, 2nd Rev. ed. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, Inc. 1994
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 George, Alexander. Forceful Persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press. 1991
  7. Byman, Daniel and Matthew Waxman. The Dynamics of Coercion: American Foreign Policy and the Limits of Military Might New York. Cambridge University Press. 2002.
  8. 1 2 Nye, Joseph S. (2011). The Future of Power. New York: PublicAffairs. p. 45. ISBN 9781586488925.
  11. 1 2 3 Jakobsen, P.V. (2007). "Coercive Diplomacy", Contemporary Security Studies, (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  12. Coercive Diplomacy in the 21st Century: A New Framework for the "Carrot and Stick"
  13. Coercive Diplomacy: Scope and Limits

Further Readings

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