What is coercive diplomacy? Actors, Elements and Success

Posted on Posted in Analyses

By Olga Aristeidou, International Relations Expert

Coercive diplomacy has been used in many cases throughout history, and especially during the Cold War, as a tool of foreign policy. It is often claimed that coercive diplomacy is a contradiction in terms, given that diplomacy is generally regarded as supporting only peaceful purposes. However, this claim is misleading. Ιt does not take into account the fact that diplomacy is multifaceted and its different types interact with each other. Coercive diplomacy does present an alternative to war. True as it may be that there is a ‘’grey area where diplomacy is linked to military use, clandestine behavior and coercion” (Barston, 2006), coercive diplomacy is a peaceful option.
Coercive diplomacy is one of the terms which, even though continuously used, lacks an agreed upon definition. Nevertheless, Alexander George’s definition has prevailed and it is the most commonly used. According to George (1971), coercive diplomacy is “forceful persuasion” and “focuses upon affecting the enemy’s will rather than upon negating his capabilities. If threats alone do not suffice and force is actually used, it is employed in a more limited, selective manner.” It should be emphasized that the use of force is limited. Coercive diplomacy’s intention is to be an alternative to war; this is why it can only employ limited military power to accomplish an aim.
The coercer can come in many forms—a single country, a collective group or an alliance of states (such as NATO) or an international organization (such as the United Nations). The most common case is a single state to assume the role of the coercer. Factors like regime type, the level of power and the state’s culture, all influence a decision to adopt coercive diplomacy. The target of coercive diplomacy can also be one of the actors mentioned above; however, there is significant debate on whether international organizations, NGOs or even terrorist groups can be targets of coercive diplomacy. Furthermore, it is interesting that often states choose to channel coercive diplomacy through international organizations, like the United States has done in multiple cases (Haiti, Kosovo, Iraq) through the UN Security Council, NATO or both. This happens because of the benefits of coercion through international organizations; weak states can increase their political influence and gain technical or material assistance and powerful states can gain more flexibility, control and legitimacy. Support by the international community increases the likelihood that coercion will be successful.
It should be clarified that coercive diplomacy is not a form of deterrence, as the aim is not to prevent an action. Rather, coercive diplomacy is a form of compelling, along with blackmail. However, it is distinct from blackmail in that the purpose is to stop or undo an action that has already been initiated by the target. This means that, unlike in blackmail, the adversary (who then becomes the target) makes the first move and then the coercer issues a threat. In contrast to coercive diplomacy, the term ‘diplomatic blackmail’ usually describes a more offensive use of coercion, as it aims to get the opponent to do something (and not just stop or undo what it already does) in order to avoid the threat.
One of the most controversial issues regarding coercive diplomacy is the assessment of its success. Coercers usually have various aims that pose additional difficulties in evaluating success. We shall take into account two significant variables of a successful coercion. The first is the nature of the threat (what is demanded) and the second is how unwilling the target is to comply. As far as the first variable is concerned, as it has already been emphasized, the target may be asked to either stop or undo an action. This distinction is crucial, given that it changes the level of difficulty. Asking to stop an action is a more modest goal, compared to asking to undo something that has already been done; it is likely that the second demand will need greater pressure and stronger threats in order to be achieved.
A coercer can apply any of the two types of demand individually or both types simultaneously. An example of the second case is the US coercive diplomacy in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The blockade aimed to stop the Soviet moves in progress, such as the shipment of more missiles and bombers to Cuba, but Kennedy also asked Khrushchev to undo the fait accompli he had accomplished by removing the missiles which were already in Cuba.
In order to overcome a possible unwillingness of a target, coercive diplomacy must fulfill six criteria. The first is proportionality and refers to “the relationship between the scope and nature of the objectives being pursued and the leverage being applied in their pursuit”; the second criterion is that of reciprocity and means that there must be “a mutually understanding of linkage between the coercer’s carrots and target’s concessions” (Jentleson, 2006). This is crucial, given that if the target does not feel certain about the equal terms of the exchange, it may not feel compelled to comply. Both sides must be certain that there is a degree of common interest in avoiding any escalation of violence and the realization of the threat. This brings us to the third criterion, that of credibility; it is a prerequisite that the target places faith in the coercer and is certain that if it refuses to cooperate, it will face serious consequences. In other words, the threat should be real and credible. The fourth criterion is that of capability, meaning the coercer’s wherewithal to implement the threats it poses, and is also closely linked to the previous criteria. The fifth criterion is the necessary existence of a deadline. The target must be given a period of time to comply with what is demanded. Finally, the sixth criterion is assurance. The coercer must assure the target that there will be no more demands for the same reason in the future. The coercer must also offer several positive inducements, some ‘carrots’ along with the ‘stick.’
Moreover, there is the danger of ‘over-coercing’. Issuing the same or similar threats to a particular target often increases the ‘audience costs’, which makes it more difficult for the target to concede. This happens because leaderships want to be considered as powerful and resistant to foreign pressure, thus they may be led to a division between what is best for them and what is best for the country.
Finally, it is worth referring to Robert Art’s definition (2003) of coercive diplomacy’s success, which is based on the use or not of military force: “Wherever one draws the line between limited and full-scale use, if the coercer has to cross that line to achieve its objectives, then, by definition, coercive diplomacy has failed.” However, it is possible for a state to be already engaged in a conflict and at the same time threaten the escalation of violence. A striking example is the 1999 Kosovo Crisis, where air strikes were matched with the threat of ground invasion. Even though the ground invasion had been initially denied by the Clinton administration, it was still a possibility, and combined with NATO’s air supremacy and several diplomatic maneuvers, it contributed to the Serbian decision to withdraw.
To sum up, coercive diplomacy is among the most complex forms of diplomacy. With the threat and/or the limited use of military power, it aims to stop or undo an action. Coercive diplomacy can constitute an alternative to war. In order to be successful, it must fulfill several criteria. It should be emphasized that it exists along a spectrum and interacts with other types of diplomacy. It is usually used during crises and peace operations, combined with soft power, intelligence and often economic sanctions. Negotiations and bargaining are the most important tools utilized in coercive diplomacy.


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George L., Alexander, David K. Hall and William E. Simons: The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy: Laos, Cuba, Vietnam, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971)
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Thompson, Alexander: “Coercion through IOs: The Security Council and the Logic of Information Transmission”, International Organization, 60 (1), (2006)