The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy: Laos, Cuba, Vietnam
By Alexander L. George, David K. Hall, and William E. Simons
The goal of this book is to provide a theory of coercive diplomacy that is relevant for policy-makers. Generally theories in this area have been to broad and abstract to be useful in real-life situations. This requires looking at various cases to find both similarities and differences, particularly those most likely to be relevant to policy.
The Development of Doctrine and Strategy
The Korean war in 1950 was the first time the U.S. fought a limited war in which the goals had to do with policy, rather than simply being in a state of war rather than peace. In this new type of situation, the civil leaders need to be much more involved, rather than allowing military commanders in the field to take the lead. Instead, careful, limited steps need to be taken.
George gives seven criteria or requirements for controlled, measured use of force and effective crisis management:
1. Presidential control of military options. This is necessary to control the unfolding of events and adjust as necessary.
2. Pauses in military operations. The momentum of events must be slowed down to allow the opponent to assess actions taken and receive and reflect about signals and proposals addressed to him.
3. Clear and appropriate demonstrations. The presidents’ resolution and objectives must be clear so that they can be interpreted clearly by the opponent.
4. Military action coordinated with political-diplomatic action. There should be an overall strategy.
5. Confidence in the effectiveness and discriminating character of military options. Without this, the attempt to convey a clear and appropriate domenstration of resolution and objectives could backfire.
6. Military options that avoid motivating the opponent to escalate.
7. Avoidance of impression of resort to large-scale warfare.
George defines four strategies for the use of force.
1. The Quick, Decisive Military Strategy: This is the strategy traditionally favored by military strategists. IF the strategy fails, however, you likely enter a drawn-out war of attrition.
2. Coercive Diplomacy: This strategy calls for using just enough force of an appropriate kind (or even just threats of force) to demonstrate resolution to protect well-defined interests and also to demonstrate the credibility of one’s determination to use more force if necessary. Employment of force is coupled with appropriate communications to the opponent. If it can be made to work successfully, it is a less costly, less risky way of achieving one’s objectives that the traditional military strategy.
3. Strategy of Attrition: Force can be used as an instrument of foreing policy through prolonged warfare under a set of conditions or limitations on military operations that give neither side a clear advantage.
4. Test of Capabilities Within Very Restrictive Ground Rules: Even though initial ground rules may be disadvantageous, the defending power accepts the challenge without escalating the conflict. The example is the U.S. airlift to West Berlin to cope with the Soviet blockade.
In coercive diplomacy, it is important to distinguish whether the goal is simply to persuade an opponent to stop short of his goal, or to persuade the opponent to undo his action. The latter is more difficult. It is also necessary to distinguish between the weak variant to coercive diplomacy – the ‘try-and-see’ approach, and the strong variant – the tacit-ultimatum approach. The try-and-see approach teaks one step at a time to see how the opponent will react. The tacit-ultimatum approach involves a specific demand made on the opponent and a given time limit for compliance, along with a threat of punishment for non-compliance.
The Laos Crisis, 1960-61
When Eisenhower was in power, he set the goal of defeating the Pathet Lao, the communist forces, and restoring a government favorable to the U.S. The Kennedy administration, when it took over, significantly lowered its military and political objectives to the establishment of a cease-fire and the creation of a neutral Laos. This acknowledged that the effectiveness of coercive diplomacy is dependent on the level of motivation of one’s self as well as the opponent, and this is in turn dependent on the objectives sought. Kennedy made his new goals clear through diplomatic channels, and also allowed military advisors to put on their uniforms in Laos, signaling both a carrot and a stick. This resulted in the success in reaching his limited objective.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962
Kennedy used coercive diplomacy very effectively in the Cuban Missile crisis. He did this by using a strategy that included both diplomatic (usually back-channel) messages, as well as a show of force (the blockade) that allowed slow and deliberate action. He eventually used the strong variant of coercive diplomacy (an ultimatum), as well.
The Vietnam Intervention, 1964-65
President Johnson attempted to use coercive diplomacy to some extent by carrying out limited bombing in Vietnam. However, the objective was not entirely clear, likely because the administration had mixed objectives and strategies – both military and coercive diplomacy strategies. Also, the relative motivation of the two sides involved likely favored the Viet Cong rather than the United States.
Comparisons and Lessons
Based on the detailed case studies presented in the book, George concludes that only seldom – only when a special set of conditions is present – is it feasible for United States leaders to understake and succeed with the strong variant to coercive diplomacy. He provides eight conditions:
1. Strength of the United States motivation
2. Asymmetry of motivation favoring the United States
3. Clarity of American objectives
4. Sense of urgency to achieve the American objective
5. Adequate domestic political support
6. Opponent’s fear of unacceptable escalation
7. Clarity concerning the precise terms of settlement
He describes how the presense (or absence) of each of these conditions affected each of the three case studies. In general, he finds that Laos and Cuba had almost all conditions present, while Vietnam had almost none. He then describes six problems or tasks that can be expected to arise when this strategy is employed:
1. Risks of ultimatum – will the ultimatum be provocative?
2. Conflict between crisis management and coercive diplomacy – will adherence to requirements of crisis management dilute the sense of urgency needed for coercion?
3. Timing of strong coercive threats – has the opponent been sufficiently impressed with your determination to regard coercive threats as credible?
4. Timing of negotiations – can negotiations be delayed until opponent is sufficiently impressed with your determination?
5. Content of carrot and stick – are the carrot and stick adequate to overcome opponent’s disinclination to accept demand?
6. Timing of carrot and stick – can the carrot and stick be applied before military actions harden opponent’s determination?