Coercion in Foreign Policy

The use of coercion in foreign policy leads to confrontational relationships with other countries and undermines a rules-based system

Some politicians try, ‘in the national interest’, to compel other countries to meet their demands by being confrontational – an attitude referred to earlier as aggressive nationalism (  Such attempts at coercion are the opposite of seeking multilateral peace and stability by cooperating with other countries, as envisaged in the UN Charter and the founding of the EU (

Richard Haass deplored the loss of multilateralism in an article on Donald Trump’s impact on foreign policy, Present at the Disruption, where he lists the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, from the Paris agreement on climate change and from several other collaborative bodies.  Trump was trying to “make America great again” by choosing confrontation rather than collaboration.

Boris Johnson is another aggressive nationalist.  He advocated Britain’s withdrawal from the EU ( and he took a confrontational stance towards his nearest neighbours – as in the damaging Brexit trade deal.  His bad faith in those negotiations caused CNN to ask Why would anyone trust Brexit Britain again?

It is easy to persuade people that the appearance of power means that their country is respected, and that their government is doing the best for them by acting coercively – but any apparent short-term domestic political gains from the use of coercion in foreign policy are temporary and are also offset by what other countries see as a misuse of power.

Politicians have several ways of exercising coercion, either with or without formal international agreement:

●  They can use economic inducements or apply sanctions, as described earlier (  Sanctions work to everybody’s economic disadvantage, and they are of questionable effectiveness.

●  Political coercion can take the form of offering concessions, or refusing to co-operate, in international negotiations – on economic and environmental matters for example.

●  Another form of coercion is to express political views that are known to be unwelcome to the government of another country, as a gesture of defiance.  This is a form of gesture politics, which can be interpreted as aggression.  It is typically done for domestic political advantage (without recognising that it gives a political gift to the other government, by allowing it to present itself as being under attack).  Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan is a prime example: “Chinese state media called the speaker’s trip an “opening salvo of war””.

●  As described later (7.3.4), there are ways of making covert interventions in other countries’ affairs to destabilise them, including assassinations, sabotage, helping resistance groups, and using propaganda for subversion.  Some of these have become easier, using the Internet.  Such attacks are usually denied, to avoid causing a war, but it is nonetheless usually possible to identify the attacker.

All these forms of coercion in foreign policy have adverse political consequences.  Future co-operation becomes much less likely with the country which is being coerced and with countries which aren’t involved.  Any form of coercion undermines the legitimacy and the soft power of those who use it.  There is no agreed or established right whereby one country may exercise any form of dominion over another, irrespective of their relative sizes and military strength.

There are risks in trying to prop up an unpopular incumbent government, as America did in the 1960s and 1970s with the Shah of Iran for example – as described in the BBC article Iran Archives: The Shah in Power.  When the propped-up government finally falls there is less likelihood of future cooperation with that country. The BBC report in August 2006, Iran’s president launches weblog, noted that Iran was still referring to America as “Great Satan USA”.

America’s attitude towards Iran was shaped by the ‘Truman doctrine’: of providing economic and military aid to any country threatened by communism or totalitarian ideology.  This coercive policy should be jettisoned.  Its echoes can be heard in the way in which America is attempting to contain China – yet China’s system of government is not a threat to America, or vice versa, unless it takes the form of territorial expansion or other hostile action.  It is prudent to be watchful, but paranoia is dangerous.  Graham Allison wrote about the dangers of America’s attitude to China in The Thucydides trap:

“..as China challenges America’s predominance, misunderstandings about each other’s actions and intentions could lead them into a deadly trap first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. As he explained, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” The past 500 years have seen 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling one. Twelve of these ended in war.”

Attempts at coercion invite an aggressive response, so they are often counterproductive.  And they become very problematic when they go beyond the boundaries of international law and accepted conventions, as described below: the use of military force in realpolitik ( or, even more violent, the attempt to force one’s own political system and values upon another country in a regime change (



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6771a.htm.