Seeking National Advantage by Coercion

Populations have come to expect their governments to try, ‘in the national interest’, to influence the behaviour of other countries.

To take American neo-conservativism as an example ( Condoleezza Rice’s article, Rethinking the National Interest, argued that “An international order that reflects our values is the best guarantee of our enduring national interest, and America continues to have a unique opportunity to shape this outcome”.  And the Project for a New American Century article, REBUILDING AMERICA’S DEFENSES: Strategy, Forces and Resources For a New Century, stated its requirement for:

“…a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities”.

This assumes that America’s “principles” – including its belief in democracy and individual freedom – would benefit every country.  This is not how everyone sees it.  As pointed out in a Review of Amitai Etzioni, Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy, this policy appears to other countries like a desire to overthrow their governments.

America is not alone in attempting to set the political agenda in other countries.  Britain has thrown its weight about historically and, as described later, Russia has recently been active in Ukraine (7.3.5).

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

  • They can use economic inducements and sanctions, as already described ( These 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.
  • The next chapter describes the use of military power – “hard power” in various forms (7.3) – and itemises several reasons why that rarely leads to a stable outcome (7.4). America has had several expensive and mostly unsuccessful interventions in other countries, followed by periods of retrenchment, as described in Joseph Nye’s essay, Where in the World Are We? – which listed American retrenchments following World War 2, the Korean war, Vietnam and the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

“Retrenchment is not isolationism, but an adjustment of strategic goals and means.  Presidents who followed policies of retrenchment have included Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Carter, the first Bush, and Obama.  While Nixon believed the United States to be in decline, others, like Eisenhower, did not.  They were all strong internationalists when compared to the true isolationists of the 1930s.”

All these forms of coercion 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.

Countries which use war as an instrument of policy will be judged by all the criteria of a ‘just war’ (; those who are seen to have breached those guidelines have impaired their future relationships with other countries.

When members of the Security Council undermine the UN by misusing their vetoes, they also undermine their own legitimacy.  For example, America’s support of Israel on the Security Council ( reduced its credibility with Israel’s Arab neighbours.

Coercion strengthens the target country by giving its leaders a form of political legitimacy (6.3.6), enabling them to call for domestic unity to resist the threat.

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”.

The unilateral exercise of power is not impartial.  Western interventions have not been welcome and have diminished the West’s influence, as observed in an Economist article Moral authority, needed and absent:

“…the cumulative effect is terrible, chiefly because it looks so selective.  When the West worries about oil, weapons of mass destruction, or terrorism, it finds a high-sounding excuse to do what it wants.  When it can’t be bothered to intervene (Darfur, Zimbabwe, Burma) or has useful but nasty allies (Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan) it pleads realpolitik.  That characterisation is unfair, but many people, particularly in Russia, find it all too convincing.”

The Quaker paper, Speak Truth to Power, pointed out the moral inconsistencies in America’s foreign policies:

“Most Americans have always wanted independence for the Indo-Chinese, self-determination for African peoples, and liberation of Latin Americans and Asians from the economic bondage in which many millions live.  Yet in country after country we find ourselves allied with those forces which stand in the way of the revolutionary changes that are demanded.”

Appearing to be strong on the international stage, referred to earlier as aggressive nationalism (, is a way of courting political popularity at home.  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 are temporary and are also offset by what other countries see as a misuse of power.



This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3a book, © PatternsofPower.org, 2020.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6771a.htm