Assumptions Testing Series

March 4, 2021

Assumption #2: Strategies of coercion are effective

By Erica Borghard

What’s the issue?

An important assumption of US foreign policy is that strategies based on coercion are effective—that is, that the threat or use of military or economic instruments of power can change a state’s behavior in the desired direction. This is distinct from deterrence, which aims to prevent a state from taking an unwanted action by the threat of force. In this sense, deterrence is inherently oriented around maintain the status quo.

However, not only is the assumption that coercion works largely unspoken, but policymakers also tend to avoid describing strategies of coercion as such. Instead, they often depict US strategy in terms of deterrence, even when it is in fact coercive or involves a combination of coercive and deterrence elements. For instance, specific policies that involve the application of force to change another state’s behavior—in other words, coercive policies—are referred to as efforts to “restore deterrence” or “reestablish deterrence.”

Coercive strategies have a limited track record of success, and are risky, raising the chance of blowback and conflict.

This gap between how policymakers describe US strategy and the reality of US strategy is stark—so much so that, even though much of post-Cold War US foreign policy rests on coercive approaches, coercion has become a taboo term in reference to US strategy. This has led to a mismatch between how the United States describes its grand strategy and foreign policy, and how it often conducts them.

Moreover, coercive strategies have a limited track record of success. They often fail because the United States does not take into account the asymmetry of interests between it and the state it is trying to coerce. Coercive strategies are also risky, raising the chance of blowback and conflict.

The case for relying less on coercive strategies

While it may seem to be an obtuse academic exercise to emphasize the difference between deterrence and coercion, the reality is that how policymakers communicate strategy to various constituencies is an important corollary of their success or failure. This is not only because perception is an essential element of deterrence and coercion, but also because how policymakers understand, or misunderstand, the strategies they are implementing affects decision-making.

Taken together, this analysis suggests four policy implications:

  • Policymakers should be more realistic in their appraisals of the likelihood of success of strategies based on coercion, and limit coercive threats to instances in which US interests at stake are high;
  • Policymakers should commit to assessing the true costs of failures of both deterrence and coercion, including their second- and third-order implications, up front;
  • As the relative balance of international power is changing, coercion is becoming increasingly difficult; therefore, policymakers should consider investing more in capabilities for deterrence; and
  • Policymakers should avoid confusing language and clearly communicate strategy to domestic and international audiences.

Explore NAEI