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Coercion, Survival, and War

Why Weak States Resist the United States


Phil Haun


Stanford Security Studies

Stanford: University Press, 2015

Hardcover. xii+271 pages. ISBN 978-08044792837. $65


Reviewed by Ted R. Bromund

The Heritage Foundation, Washington




The United States is the greatest power in the world. Why, therefore, doesn’t it simply threaten its enemies until they give it what it wants? After all, provided that what the U.S. demands is less costly for its adversary than fighting, and likely losing, a war, the U.S.’s adversaries should always, if they are rational, submit rather than fight. But yet, on occasion, U.S. demands are indeed resisted, sometimes successfully. That failure of coercion is the paradox that Phil Haun, adjunct Professor of Aerospace Studies at Yale University, and a former A-10 pilot for the U.S. Air Force, sets out to explain.

Haun recognizes that the conventional explanations for the failure of asymmetric coercion (which encompasses both coercive diplomacy and the limited use of force) do have value [174-75]. Misperceptions, and other failures of rationality, lead to miscalculations, and even rational opponents often – or invariably – suffer from uncertainty. Moreover, since they each know different things, and may define even seemingly clear concepts like “victory” and “defeat” very differently, they may have good reasons to escalate past coercion to war. Finally, Haun argues, there is the logic of the “commitment problem”: if a weak state gives in to the U.S., it is showing it can be pushed around, which should logically incentivize the U.S. to keep on asking for more. In order to avoid this, Haun concludes, the U.S. needs to find ways to commit to a settlement of the crisis that will assuage the anxieties of the weaker state.

But Haun points out that neither the rational nor the irrational explanations are helpful in predicting the outcome of a crisis. Nor do they explain a crisis that results in war, except insofar as the outbreak of war demonstrates that coercion has evidently failed and that, by definition, one or more of the rational or irrational explanations must have been responsible. Haun argues, both theoretically and by examining the extended crises of U.S. relations with Iraq (1990-2003), Libya (1985-2003), and the former Yugoslavia (1991-1999), that two additional factors also matter to the outcome of U.S. efforts to coerce other nations: state survival and regime survival.

According to Haun [37-41, 155], a nation will resist the U.S. if U.S. demands impinge on its control of its territory or its ability to conduct its foreign policy (i.e., its sovereignty, in two of the three senses defined by Stephen Krasner), both of which threaten the survival of the state. It will also resist if the U.S. seeks regime change, or if conceding U.S. demands risks weakening the regime so much that it might be overthrown by internal enemies. Not all failures of asymmetric coercion, he argues [45-47], are caused by the conventional explanations or by the logic of his model: at times, he asserts, the U.S. intentionally makes excessive demands in order to give itself time to mobilize and to pave the way, diplomatically and militarily, for war. But when U.S. genuinely tries and fails to coerce, he concludes that it is often because the U.S. has made demands that very few states, or regimes, are willing to concede.

The argument that regime survival matters to the people at the top of the regime is not likely to surprise many historians, or any one possessed of common sense. But in the context of international relations theory, recognizing that regimes are not necessarily the same thing as states (in other words, weakening the assumption that national actors are unitary) and acknowledging that a state is after all a territorial entity that is defined in part by lines on a map does result in better theory – better, at least, in the sense that it offers a greater hope that will be able to do what theory is supposed to do: predict, not merely explain. As Haun reasonably points out [184], if the U.S. wants to coerce a regime, things like criminal indictments may sound impressive, but since they threaten the regime’s survival, they may well be counter-productive: by raising the stakes, they may perversely reduce the other side’s incentives to give in.

But there are also a number of reasons to approach Haun’s study, and his theory, with caution. At the level of raw numbers, it is by no means clear that there is much to explain. If we accept Haun’s own selection and coding of the relevant crises [6],, of the thirty cases since 1945 in which the U.S. has tried to use asymmetric coercion or brute force (the latter has only seven cases), the U.S. was ultimately successful in twenty. Even in the more limited – and arguably more relevant – data-set of coercive diplomacy, the U.S. succeeded 6 times and failed 13 times, with three of those failures later being redeemed by the successful use of force.

In other words, the U.S. succeeds at least as often as it fails when it employs a strategy based on a creditable threat of the use of force, frequently coupled with its actual use. Given that by definition these cases are the toughest nuts in the annals of post-1945 U.S. foreign relations, a batting average of two out of three, or even one out of three on the narrowest definition, is surprisingly high. In other words, what Haun is seeking to explain is the exception to the exception: cases in which the U.S. tried and failed to coerce another state. Given that limited universe of cases, we may not need a theory to explain the failures of asymmetric coercion, because there may be no general problem to explain.

Then there is the matter of sources. It is still early days to be writing a history of the Iraq War of 2003 or the concurrent Libyan negotiations, and many of Haun’s claims inevitably rely on journalistic sources (such as a claim about the role of Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton in the Libya negotiations, which is sourced solely to an article in Newsweek [167].)

But Haun’s treatment of his official sources is also troubling. For example, Haun claims that by late 2002, Saddam Hussein had decided to “fully cooperate with inspectors,” that this denied the U.S. its casus belli [80], that Hussein willingly “abandon[ed] a policy of ambiguity over WMDs,” and that the U.S. “refused to recognize Iraq’s concessions” [86]. These claims are sourced to a New York Times article, and to “Realizing Saddam’s Veiled WMD Intent,” a section of the report from the Iraq Survey Group Final Report (which Haun repeatedly misidentifies as the “Iraqi” Survey Group), commonly known as the Duelfer Report.

This section of the Report does indeed state that Hussein ordered his military leaders to “cooperate completely” in December 2002. But it also immediately goes on to point out that “Iraq’s cooperation with UN inspectors was typically uneven,” that Hussein also stated that “These people [i.e. the U.S. and Britain] are playing a game with us – we’ll play a game with them,” and that “there is an extensive, yet fragmentary and circumstantial, body of evidence suggesting that Saddam pursued a strategy to maintain a capability to return to WMD after sanctions were lifted by preserving assets and expertise.”

This is not the place to re-fight the Iraq War, but Haun’s treatment of the Duelfer Report is clearly selective. Moreover, his selectivity appears to be motivated: it bolsters his argument that the reason why asymmetric coercion failed in this case was that President George W. Bush wanted it to fail, because he was determined to fight a war [86] even though Hussein had clearly abandoned any intention of developing WMD. But read fairly, the Duelfer Report actually says (to quote the very first of its key findings), that “Saddam Husayn . . . wanted to end sanctions while preserving the capability to constitute his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) when sanctions were lifted.” That is not the conclusion a reader would draw from Haun’s summary of the Report.

It is not for this reviewer to decide whether the Duelfer Report justifies the Iraq War, or the course the George W. Bush administration took in arriving at it. But Haun is clearly wrong to cite the Duelfer Report to clinch his argument that Saddam Hussein had definitely abandoned the pursuit of WMD in late 2002. Haun’s conclusions about why U.S. coercion failed in this case are thus, at best, unproven.

This point raises a broader one. Haun is particularly concerned with the “commitment problem,” seeing the power of the U.S., and thus its ability to break deals, as a major obstacle to resolving crises. Indeed, he is so troubled by this supposed problem that he makes resolving it a central part of his recommendations for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy [185], arguing that the U.S. needs to work through coalitions in order to reassure dictators about American reliability. But as he acknowledges, it is hard to find an actual case in which a deal fell apart because the other side in the crisis feared the U.S. would not keep its word. It is, though, quite easy to find examples of crises in which an enduring deal could not be reached because the U.S. reasonably feared the dictator would not keep his word.

Hussein’s Iraq in 2003 is one obvious example. Another is Libya: Haun codes Qaddafi’s supposed decision to abandon his WMD programs in 2003 as a success for U.S. policy, which in the broader picture is reasonable. But in 2011, the Libyan National Transition Council, Qaddafi’s successor, revealed that Qaddafi had not actually disclosed all his chemical weapons stockpiles or his supplies of yellowcake uranium. It turns out that it was not the U.S. that had a commitment problem: it was Libya. There are further examples: Haun codes the outcome of the 1994 nuclear crisis in North Korea as a success for the U.S., because the agreement supposedly succeeded in freezing the North Korean nuclear program – except, of course, it didn’t, a failure that Haun blames in part on the United States [201]. The failure of the North Korean regime to keep its commitments goes unremarked.

Haun’s model, in fact, places the responsibility for the emergence of every crisis on the United States. As he puts it, “the United States has the latitude to decide whether to accommodate a weak target state or to escalate the conflict into a crisis by adopting a coercive or brute force strategy” [173]. Merely as a statement of fact, this claim is dubious: it is true, but also ridiculous, to argue that the U.S. could have accommodated the Taliban when, after 9/11, they decided to protect the leaders of al-Qaeda. Moreover, merely because the U.S. is a superpower, it is going to have to take a position – on many occasions, a leading one – in response to a crisis: it is part of the price of the U.S. position in the world.

But Haun’s approach also weakens his model: by not making a more realistic assessment of who actually initiated the crisis, Haun misses the possible significance of the decision to initiate – which could indicate a decreased willingness to back down in the face of attempted U.S. coercion later on. Haun treats U.S. coercion as, by definition, the first move in the formal crisis – but in reality, U.S. coercive efforts usually come very late in the chronology of crises, which the U.S. initiates far less often than Haun assumes. It is undoubtedly not easy to decide when a crisis actually begins, or even who is responsible for starting it, but Haun’s assumption that it always begins with the U.S. is unrealistic and unhelpful.

A final, and particularly interesting, set of paradoxes run throughout Haun’s study. One relates to his distinction between state survival and regime survival. On one level, this is reasonable: governments come and go, but states remain, so clearly, state and regime survival are not the same. But it is hard, as Haun acknowledges, to find examples in the post-1945 era of what Tanisha Fazel has called “state death.” Haun examines [155] whether Qaddafi’s Libya, for example, had reason to fear for the survival of the Libyan state, but it is unclear whether this is a meaningful question. At no point between 1985 and 2003 did the U.S., or anyone else, call for the territorial eradication of Libya – though Libya was throughout much of this period seeking to territorially eradicate at least one of its neighbors.

Nor is it obvious that U.S. demands that Qaddafi stop supporting terrorism would have constrained Libyan foreign policy in a generic sense. On the other hand, U.S. demands would certainly have restrained Qaddafi’s policies. In other words, in highly personalist regimes like Qaddafi’s, the distinction between state and regime survival may be meaningless to the one man who matters the most: the dictator at the head of the system. Haun argues that it is fortunate [34] that state deaths have been few and far between since 1945 – but if there is no difference between the state and the man, the lack of state deaths can only incentivize dictators to believe that they, as the embodiment of the state, will be able to get away with initiating a crisis and resisting any resulting U.S. efforts at coercion.

That leads on to Haun’s argument [145] that strong, highly personalist regimes are more amenable to being coerced, because the dictator at the top of the pile has less reason to fear being overthrown by unhappy subordinates. But yet, the relatively weak and less personalist regime of Slobodan Milosevic turned out to be easier for the U.S. to coerce than the highly personalist regimes of Hussein and Qaddafi, to the extent that Milosevic was ultimately coerced into giving up Kosovo. The logic that Haun sets out is plausible, but it is contradicted by several of his cases, which instead suggest that extremely dictatorial regimes resist making concessions until the last moment and, even then – as illustrated by the cases of the WMD programs in North Korea, Iraq, and Libya – do their best to wriggle out of them.

And there is a final curiosity. For all their concern about regime survival – and Haun does effectively make the case that regime survival is, understandably, a vital consideration for regimes faced with U.S. efforts at coercion – at least two of the three regimes that Haun examines closely turned out to be rotten at assessing their actual prospects. Hussein entirely miscalculated the seriousness with which the George W. Bush administration, as opposed to the Clinton administration, was treating him: the result was his defeat and ultimate death. Milosevic died while on trial in The Hague, as a direct result of the outcome of (and his actions during) the Kosovo War. Qaddafi alone survived the crises that Haun examines, only to meet his death at the hands of Libyans protected by NATO airstrikes in 2011. It is hard not to see all of these cases as evidence for the centrality of misperceptions and miscalculations by personalist regimes in the outcome of coercion crises.

Regime survival does matter. Unfortunately, the kind of places where it matters the most are the very regimes that are the worst at understanding reality, and the ones with which the U.S. is most likely to be involved in coercion crises: personalist, dictatorial regimes. Haun’s study illuminates the concern that such regimes have with preserving their own skin, and the challenges this poses for U.S. foreign policy, but his conclusions that the biggest dictators make the best negotiating partners, and that [185] a major problem confronting the U.S. is to find ways to tie its own hands more thoroughly so that these dictators will find it trustworthy, are supported neither by the evidence nor by common sense.



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