Coercion in Foreign Policy

The use of coercion in foreign policy leads to confrontational relationships with other countries and adverse political consequences

Some politicians try, ‘in the national interest’, to compel other countries to meet their demands – 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 make gestures of defiance, which can be interpreted as aggression.  They are 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).  Reuters reported a prime example in August 2022: Pelosi arrives in Taiwan vowing U.S. commitment; China enraged.

●  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.

Public criticism of another country’s record on human rights can be counterproductive.  America repeatedly does this, as in the Pelosi visit described above, and Britain makes the same mistake.  When Foreign Secretary James Cleverly [called] for constructive but robust relationship with China to the Mansion House in April 2023, he also criticised China’s human rights record in a very public setting.  That was disrespectful, confrontational and futile.  It was also hypocritical, after Human Rights Watch Issues Damning Verdict for UK in its World Report for 2023.  It might be appropriate for governments to discuss human rights issues with each other, but it is wiser to do so in private.

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 combating communism and totalitarianism.  This is coupled with a strategy of using propaganda to promote democracy, in a coercive foreign policy which was formalised in the NSC-68 document in 1950.  As reported by John J. Mearsheimer, it was “estimated in December 2013 that the United States had invested more than $5 billion since 1991 to help Ukraine achieve “the future it deserves.””  This was seen as American influence in fomenting the Maidan revolution in March 2014 – and Russia seized Crimea in response.  This illustrates the dangerous arrogance of promoting democracy, as described earlier (6.3.8).

America’s attempts to contain China are also coercive, and there is considerable distrust between the two countries.  The US Administration’s Approach to the People’s Republic of China, as outlined in a speech by Anthony  Blinken in May 2022, was that “we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order – and that’s posed by the People’s Republic of China”.  He cited China’s threatening gestures towards Taiwan.

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.”

Political decisions to use military force are described later (  Russia is already at war in Ukraine.  The confrontation between America and China is deepening, and their readiness to make military gestures is dangerous.



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/edition04/6771e.htm.