The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer U.S.S. Barry's deployment in the eastern Mediterranean Sea was recently extended in case President Obama orders a strike on Syria.

The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer U.S.S. Barry's deployment in the eastern Mediterranean Sea was recently extended in case President Obama orders a strike on Syria. U.S. Navy

The Return of Coercive Diplomacy

It is said "the power to hurt is bargaining power." But can the lesson of Obama and Syria be felt in North Korea and Iran? By Sam Brannen

Cruel as history may be to the Obama Administration on its use of red lines, if Syria surrenders its chemical weapons, future students of international relations will study September 2013 as an effective case of coercive diplomacy. At a time when the U.S. government and its military must do more with less, this could be an outcome with immediate implications for U.S. policy on North Korea and Iran.  

In the words of its most noted scholar, Alexander George, “The general idea of coercive diplomacy is to back one’s demand on an adversary with a threat of punishment for noncompliance that he will consider credible and potent enough to persuade him to comply with the demand.”  Thomas Schelling also has been quoted many times over the past few weeks regarding his work on deterrence and “the threat that leaves something to chance.”  Few, if any, have mentioned his thoughts on compellence, in which instead of deterring an adversary not to take a specific action, you compel him to take a specific action (e.g., give up his chemical weapons).  Schelling said, “The power to hurt is bargaining power. To exploit it is diplomacy --vicious diplomacy, but diplomacy.”

Coercive diplomacy has had a lousy track record for the past two decades, and for that reason few examining U.S. options for Syria after the Aug. 21, 2013 chemical weapons attack gave it serious consideration. Efforts at coercive diplomacy against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq failed on multiple occasions, as they had against Afghanistan under the Taliban (expel al-Qaeda or be invaded after 9/11), and most recently in the case of Moammar Gadhafi, who chose the bullet over the parachute to leave power in Libya. A case can be that made coercive diplomacy also repeatedly failed against Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea as it acquired nuclear weapons.

Then again, Hussein, Gaddafi, Mullah Omar, and Kim Jong-Il can be fairly characterized as irrational and deluded. They likely could not conceive of a world in which the U.S. honored its word, or perhaps they just thought they would win the day. Bashar al-Assad may be a barbarous dictator, but he seems quite rational in comparison, staying focused on his regime’s survival and not afraid to negotiate for it when forced.

There is nothing weak about coercive diplomacy. It involves making the adversary you wish to influence believe that a gun is pointed at his head, the hammer is cocked and you have the will to pull the trigger. For Syria, this meant U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean, ready to strike multiple regime targets in a way impossible for Syria to defend against or respond to. So too, the target of influence has to believe that in return for compliance with your request, you will put the gun back in the holster and let him get on with things. Though not without inherent downsides, this was perhaps easier with Russia willing to play the role of middleman and offering a separate stream of advice to Assad that perhaps underscored U.S. resolve. The Achilles heel of coercive diplomacy is misperception or miscommunication.

Make no mistake also that coercive diplomacy can entail cutting a deal with the devil.  Assad has bought time to press his internal war, and he has not agreed to stop using conventional military forces to murder civilians. Some might even say that by making a deal, the United States legitimized his regime. It will take years to secure his chemical arsenal and inspections will always leave something to question.  While President Obama has expressed for more than a year his desire for Assad to leave power, U.S. policy has explicitly rejected any military operation that would seek to deliberately remove him from power. Only when Assad broke the international norm against the use of chemical weapons did Syria become a national interest to the United States. And then the intent to use military force was not an end to satisfy that national interest, but a means to achieve the outcome of stopping Assad from ever again using chemical weapons. 

If Assad has indeed surrendered his ability to use chemical weapons, this could be proof that coercive diplomacy works, and with implications for U.S. policy on Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea and Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani. Events of the past week have shown leaders in both countries that the United States isn’t after regime change after all, and is willing to negotiate. 

The U.S. has also escaped business as usual in the Middle East, where violence against an authoritarian regime can sometimes only make it stronger. If the U.S. military is to meaningfully rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, it must find a less resource-intensive way of shoring up security in the Middle East. Coercive diplomacy coupled with other neglected or not-yet-conceived approaches may be the key. The outcome remains far from certain, and a successful conclusion requires unremitting pressure on Assad with credible military options. If anything, the U.S. may now wish to reinforce its military posture in the region, and it must use this time to revisit its war plans for the use of force when the time comes. 

Sam Brannen is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former policy practitioner in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.