The General Theory and Logic of Coercive Diplomacy
By Alexander George
This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Alexander George, "The General Theory and Logic of Coercive Diplomacy," part in Forceful Persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1991), pp. 3-14
As George explains it, "The general idea of coercive diplomacy is to back one's demand to 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."[p. 4] George distinguishes between coercive diplomacy as a defensive tool, and blackmail as an offensive tool. While threats and incentives play large roles in coercive diplomacy, communication, signaling, bargaining and negotiating also play significant roles. The advantage of coercive diplomacy over force is its relatively low psychological, economic and political costs.
Coercive diplomacy involves four basic variables: the demand, the means used for creating a sense of urgency, the threatened punishment for noncompliance and the possible use of incentives. Differences in these variables yield five basic types of coercive diplomacy. George identifies these basic types as the ultimatum, the tacit ultimatum, the "try-and-see" approach, the "gradual turning of the screw,"and finally the carrot and stick approach.
Ultimatums employ demands and threats, and impose a time limit for compliance in order to enhance the adversary's sense of urgency. Ultimatums are called "tacit" when the threat or time limit is conveyed implicitly. The "try and see" approach makes a demand, and then opens by employing relatively mild coercive force. If the adversary does not comply, coercive force is increased. When "gradually turning the screw" the coercing power makes explicit at the outset its intention to apply increasing degrees of pressure until the adversary complies. When the coercing power supplements its threats with incentives, it employs the carrot and stick approach.
The success of any strategy will depend, in part, upon effective communication between the parties. George notes that parties may communicate by both words and actions. Successful coercive diplomacy will require coordination between words and actions. George notes however that there is no simple guide to such effective coordination.
Threats play a central role in coercive strategies. How strong the threats or inducements need to be depends upon what one is demanding, and how resistant the adversary is to compliance. Moreover, the success or failure of coercive diplomacy often depends on the balance of motivation between the parties. Is the coercing power more strongly motivated to achieve its demands then the adversary party is to resist? Because of these factors, the choice of demand takes on strategic importance. Generally, the greater the demand, the stronger the adversary's resistance will be.
Finally, the adversary's perception of the coercing power's motivation and commitment, and adversary's assessment of the credibility and potency of its threat, play the most significant role in determining the success or failure of a coercive strategy.