Coercion, Survival, and War
Why Weak States Resist the United States
Phil Haun




On August 2, 1990, armored divisions of the Iraqi Republican Guard rolled into Kuwait City. The United States responded immediately, convening the UN Security Council, condemning the aggression, and demanding an immediate and unconditional withdrawal. Within days, the Security Council imposed comprehensive sanctions to compel Iraq to reverse its actions. Meanwhile, the U.S. military deployed thousands of aircraft, ships, and troops to the Middle East to deter further aggression. Though economic sanctions soon forced the Iraqi government to begin rationing, its dictator, Saddam Hussein, remained obstinate. In October, President George H. W. Bush ordered a doubling of U.S. deployed forces with the objectives of liberating Kuwait and destroying the Iraqi Army. To garner international and domestic support for war, the administration pressed the Security Council to authorize a coalition of thirty-four nations to use all means necessary to free Kuwait should the Iraqi Army not withdraw by January 15, 1991. In the final days leading up to the deadline, however, the White House feared not that coercion would fail but that it might succeed. Bush had already paid the diplomatic, political, and deployment costs of preparing for war, and his worst-case scenario now had Saddam capitulating. Although such an outcome would have rescued Kuwait, it would also have spared the Republican Guard, guaranteeing Saddam would remain in power and threaten his neighbors in the future.

Fortunately for Bush, coercive diplomacy failed when the January 15 deadline expired and the U.S.-led coalition launched a massive air campaign. Coalition fighters quickly secured air superiority over Kuwait and southern Iraq, while its bombers and cruise missiles simultaneously attacked leadership targets in Baghdad in an effort to paralyze Saddam’s ability to command and control his military. Undeterred, Saddam ordered Scud missiles to be launched at Israel and Saudi Arabia and, in late January, directed forward elements of his army to advance into Saudi Arabia in an attempt to jump-start his “mother of all battles.” By early February, coalition air power shifted its effort toward attriting the Iraqi Army in preparation for the land invasion. Saddam’s strategy had failed both to draw Israel into the conflict and to bait the coalition into an early ground war. His hope of victory faded as the air strikes against Iraqi fielded forces intensified. By mid-February, Iraqi officials broached the possibility of a cease-fire, and Soviet diplomats initiated discussions on the terms of a peace proposal. Fearful that Saddam would now agree to the UN resolutions and deny it the opportunity to destroy the Republican Guard, the United States accelerated the start date for the ground offensive. On the eve of the invasion, Saddam accepted the Soviet-brokered deal, which would have suspended all sanctions against Iraq on the withdrawal of its army from Kuwait, a process for which Iraq would be granted twenty-one days. Bush rejected these conditional terms and instead issued a forty-eight-hour ultimatum for withdrawal. To meet such a deadline would have required the Iraqi Army to abandon its heavy weaponry and prepared defenses. Though willing to withdraw from Kuwait in an orderly fashion, Saddam would not accept the humiliation of a hasty retreat, which would have left Iraq’s southern border exposed and his regime vulnerable to domestic unrest. Coercion failed as Saddam chose to face the ground war with a slim chance of victory rather than concede, which would have threatened the survival of the Iraqi state and his regime.

This book is about why the United States chooses to coerce weak states and, as with Iraq in 1991, why coercion so often fails. Since World War II, the United States has been the great power that has most frequently initiated crises with much weaker states.1 In these asymmetric interstate crises, U.S. leaders have more often than not chosen coercion, which has been met by resistance in half the cases. And, of these unsuccessful efforts, half again have been resolved only by war. Given the overwhelming military advantage enjoyed by the United States, why do weak states so often resist, and why does coercion fail?

Coercion threatens force or employs limited force to convince a target to comply with a challenger’s demands.2 In a conflict against a weak state, the United States, with its disproportionate advantage in power, has the luxury of choice, to decide whether to accommodate or to escalate the disagreement into a crisis by threatening military force. When choosing force, the United States has the options of coercion or brute force war. Because coercion requires the cooperation of the targeted state, it is a strategy likely to achieve only moderate foreign policy goals but with the advantage of avoiding the full costs of war. This is an attractive option for U.S. decision makers, particularly when conflicts are over issues nonvital to national security. Brute force strategies, by contrast, do not require the cooperation of the enemy to succeed and may thus realize more ambitious objectives, such as seizing territory or imposing regime change. Such actions, however, incur a higher price in terms of blood and treasure. The United States therefore usually prefers coercion, even with its more moderate goals and diminished chance of success.

International relations scholars offer numerous reasons for why coercion fails. Much of the literature focuses on psychological, cognitive, or organizational biases and the resultant nonrational decision making that leads to war.3 Others offer structural causes of war based on uncertainty or commitment problems inherent to the anarchic international system. These arguments, although useful for explaining why crises arise or why violence erupts, fall short of explaining the final outcome for most cases of asymmetric interstate coercion.

In theory, coercion should always succeed, as the United Sates should choose a coercive strategy only when it expects the targeted state will acquiesce. In reality, however, coercion often fails, as policy makers mismatch demands and threats. In some cases, the demands are so severe that, if conceded, they jeopardize the survival of the much weaker state or its regime. When this is the case, there is not likely to be any credible threat that will convince a target to agree to its own demise, so long that it retains the means to resist.4

A state’s survival requires that it retain sovereignty over its domestic and international affairs. Domestic sovereignty is threatened when a powerful challenger demands that a targeted state concede homeland territory. In Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, the Bosnian Serbs consistently resisted any peace deal that required them to concede territory. Though the Republika Srbska had not been recognized as a state, it acted as one. Only after it had already lost its western lands to the Croatian Muslim ground offensive backed by NATO air power did it finally agree to concede this territory, which it no longer possessed, to retain the ground it still held. Rationally, a powerful challenger should understand that a target will resist in such cases as its survival depends on it protecting its homeland.

Along with homeland territory, a state’s survival requires that it maintain its international sovereignty over its foreign policy decision making. A state will thus reject demands for regime change, as this forfeits such autonomy. In March 2003, for example, Saddam rejected President George W. Bush’s demand that he leave Iraq only days before the U.S. invasion. Although leaders will refuse to give up a state’s autonomy, if subjected to sufficient coercive pressure they may be constrained in their foreign policy choices. For example, after ordering an invasion of Jordan in September 1970, Syrian leaders reversed this decision within days. An effective defense by the Jordanians, combined with the threat of the Israeli Air Force backed by U.S. forces in the Mediterranean, deterred the Syrians from committing their air force to the battle. As a result, this compelled the Syrians to withdraw their ground forces from Jordan.5 Coercion succeeded, in part, because Syria’s decision to withhold its air power did not threaten its survival, whereas having its air force destroyed by the Israelis may well have done so.

In addition to state survival, a ruling regime must also be wary of the potential threat from domestic opposition. Concessions signal that the regime is weak, a revelation that may trigger a coup or insurgency. Saddam resisted Bush’s forty-eight-hour ultimatum in 1991 out of concern over the audience costs associated with such a public foreign policy failure. The Shia and Kurdish revolt after the Gulf War suggests that these fears were well founded.

Survival concerns are particularly relevant in asymmetric interstate crises, given the inherent power disparities between great powers and weak states. The tremendous military advantage enjoyed by a powerful challenger enhances its expected outcome in a war against a weak opponent. Ceteris paribus, to prefer coercion over brute force requires the great power to levy heavy demands on its target, which, in turn, increases the likelihood concessions will threaten the survival of the weak state and its regime. This being the case, however, the target is likely to resist and coercion fail.

The resistance of weak states introduces a related question. Why would an American statesman choose a coercive strategy likely to fail? If the demands are high, such that the weak state is not likely to be coerced, why doesn’t the United States simply take its objectives by force? Again, the international relations literature refers us to the previously mentioned list of rational and nonrational explanations for war. In addition, two incentives exist for a powerful challenger to intentionally choose a coercive strategy it expects to fail. First, coercion may be but an interim stage of a brute force strategy. It takes time to mobilize and deploy military forces to invade and occupy a country. If the costs of coercion are low, and there is some chance that the weak state might concede, then it may make sense to issue coercive demands while preparing for war.

Second, modern states are expected to seek resolution to conflicts through negotiations or intervention by international institutions before resorting to violence. U.S. leaders thus have an incentive to work through the UN Security Council to avoid the diplomatic and political costs of abrogating this norm. To justify war, the United States may therefore make the pretense of seeking a settlement when it, in fact, prefers that the weak state reject its efforts. This proved to be the case in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. President Bush spoke before the UN General Assembly on September 12, 2002, demanding that Iraq disclose and abandon its weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Before the Security Council could even pass a resolution, however, he began making the case that Saddam could not be trusted.6 Bush counted on coercive diplomacy to fail and thus provide justification for the war he had already decided on.


Since the Second World War, the United States has been involved in half of the asymmetric interstate crises pitting great powers against much weaker states.7 Table 1.1 lists the cases in which the United States threatened or employed military force. In twenty-three of these thirty conflicts, U.S. leaders opted for coercion over brute force. Chapters 4 through 6 provide in-depth assessments of six of these crises with Iraq, Serbia, and Libya, respectively. Appendix A summarizes the remaining seventeen coercive cases. The summaries include the rationale for the coding provided in Table 1.1 for foreign policy, coercion, and coercive diplomacy success or failure. For a case to be coded as a success, the United States must have concluded the crisis having attained its core ex ante objectives. Overall, the United States achieved these foreign policy goals two-thirds of the time (twenty of thirty).

Coercion is coded as a failure when it did not achieve U.S. core foreign policy objectives or when the United States abandoned coercion in favor of a brute force strategy. This latter reason has increasingly caused coercion failure. It occurred in five out of the twelve coercion cases that have taken place since the Cold War: in 1991 in the Gulf War, in 1998 in the Desert Fox air strikes, in 2001 in the Afghanistan War, in 2003 in the Iraq War, and in 2011 in the Libyan Arab Spring.

Table 1.1. U.S. Asymmetric Interstate Crises: 1950–2011.

SOURCE: International Development and Conflict Management’s International Crisis Behavior (ICB) database and Kenneth Schultz and Jeffrey Lewis’s Coercive Diplomacy Database.

NOTE: Asymmetric interstate crises identified from an examination of the Center for International Development and Conflict Management’s International Crisis Behavior (ICB) database compared to Kenneth Schultz and Jeffrey Lewis’s Coercive Diplomacy Database, with which they expand the ICB database into dyadic cases.

Coercive diplomacy is a more restrictive form of coercion, for which violence is only threatened. Coercive diplomacy is not applicable for many cases of interwar coercion, in which force is already being employed. Where coercive diplomacy has been attempted, it has failed in two-thirds of the cases (thirteen of nineteen).8 This lower success rate is understandable because, for coercion to succeed, a powerful challenger must at times first demonstrate resolve by employing limited force. Other times, coercive diplomacy fails because demands are initially too high and the threats too low. In such cases, coercive diplomacy fails, but coercion eventually succeeds when, over time, the powerful challenger adjusts its threats and demands until the weak target acquiesces.

Because war, coercion, and brute force all involve a state’s employment of violence, a clarifying comment is warranted. In theory, war is a state’s use of violence to achieve its political objectives, but, in practice, the amount of violence required to call a crisis a war is set arbitrarily.9 For instance, El Dorado Canyon, the coercive strategy that involved a single U.S. air raid against Libya, is not classified as a war even though blood was shed on both sides. By contrast, the eleven weeks of air strikes against Serbia over Kosovo are called a war, even though no NATO personnel were killed in combat. Whereas coercive strategies may or may not reach the requisite level of violence of being labeled as war, brute force strategies, where objectives are seized by force, such as in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, are called wars. Because this book is more concerned with the U.S. decision making in choosing between coercive and brute force strategies and less concerned as to whether a particular crisis qualifies as a war, in an effort to limit confusion, the term war in this book will refer only to brute force strategies.

This book makes two primary contributions to our understanding of international politics and U.S. foreign policy. First, it introduces a theory for coercion specific to asymmetric interstate conflicts. A simple but powerful game theoretic model captures the unique and key characteristics of the interaction between a powerful challenger and a much weaker opponent. This model incorporates the alternative strategies available to the United States, that is, those of accommodation and brute force. Also, the coercion range is developed to demonstrate the set of potential demands for which the United States prefers a negotiated settlement to war and the weak target prefers concession to resistance.

This book further demonstrates that the survival concerns of weak states and their leaders provide a better explanation for coercion failure than the rational explanation for war based on commitment problems. The survival argument proposes that a weak state will resist the demands of a great power because concession would result in the loss of the state’s and/or the regime’s sovereignty. By contrast, the commitment explanation claims that a weak state’s resistance is based less on concerns over the outcome of the present crisis and more on the impact a concession would have on future crises.

Second, this book presents seven historical cases drawn from recent U.S. experience with Iraq, Serbia, and Libya. Each case traces the decisions made by the United States and its adversaries that led ultimately to coercion success or failure. Together, these cases validate the asymmetric coercion model for analyzing asymmetric conflicts and demonstrate the significant role survival plays in the decision making of a weak state and its leaders.

This work should be of interest to foreign policy practitioners. It identifies clear limits to the effectiveness of coercive strategies. Demands, which threaten the survival of not only the weak state but also its regime, are most likely to be resisted. It also highlights that, at times, coercive diplomacy must first fail before coercion can succeed. Weak state leaders often face internal threats, prompting them to initially resist demands and provoke a limited U.S. attack to exhibit their resolve to those who might otherwise remove them from power.

This book also offers policy recommendations that increase the likelihood of coercion success for the United States in future asymmetric conflicts. Policy makers should be concerned not only with matching threats to demands but also with the manner in which their coercive strategies are implemented. The timing and delivery of coercive signals have a direct impact on the audience costs a weak state’s leader will suffer for making concessions. In addition, U.S. leaders should continue to take steps to minimize commitment problems by working through international institutions, building coalitions, engaging third parties in the negotiations, and/or by implementing agreements incrementally.


1. Great power states identified in the Correlates of War majors2008.1.csv dataset, available at United States, Great Britain, France 1816–1940 and 1945–2008, Germany 1925–1945 and 1991–2008, Italy 1860–1943, USSR/Russia 1922–2008, China 1950–2008, and Japan 1895–1945 and 1991–2008.

2. This definition is consistent and integrates prominent theorists’ definitions of coercion. Thomas Schelling defines coercion in terms of a punishment strategy where coercion is “the threat of damage, or of more damage to come, that can make someone yield or comply” (Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966, 3). Lawrence Freedman focuses on the freedom of the target of coercion to make decisions when he defines coercion as “the potential or actual application of force to influence the action of a voluntary agent” (Lawrence Freedman, Deterrence. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2004, 27). Robert Pape focuses on the calculations made by the target of coercion in his definition of coercion as “efforts to change the behavior of a state by manipulating costs and benefits” (Robert Pape, Bombing to Win. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996, 4). Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman’s focus is on behavior change by the target in their definition of coercion “as the use of threatened force and at times the limited use of actual force to back up the threat, to induce an adversary to behave differently than it otherwise would” (Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman, The Dynamics of Coercion: American Foreign Policy and the Limits of Military Might. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 30). Linking the change in behavior to the challenger demands parallels to Clausewitz’s definition of war, “to compel our enemy to do our will” (Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976, 75).

3. Seminal works on nonrational behavior include Robert Jervis, “Hypotheses on Misperception,” World Politics 20 (1968), 454–479; Robert Jervis, Richard Ned Lebow, and Janice Gross Stein, eds., Psychology and Deterrence (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1985); Richard N. Lebow and Janice Gross Stein, We All Lost the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1985); James March, A Primer on Decision Making: How Decisions Happen (New York: Free Press, 1994); Deborah Larson, The Origins of Containment: A Psychological Explanation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 24–65; Graham Allison, “Conceptual Models of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” The American Political Science Review 63 (1969), 689–718; and Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk,” Econometrica 47 (1979).

4. Though rare, there are cases in World War II in which Germany coerced homeland territorial concessions from Czechoslovakia, as did the Soviet Union from Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.

5. See Appendix A for further details.

6. “George W. Bush: Remarks Following a Meeting with Congressional Leaders and an Exchange with Reporters, September 18, 2002.” The American Presidency Project, retrieved on October 17, 2014, from

7. Phil Haun, On Death Ground: Why Weak States Resist Great Powers, Explaining Coercion Failure in Asymmetric Interstate Conflict. Dissertation (Cambridge, MA; MIT, 2010), 118–120.

8. Alexander George and William Simons, The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy (Boulder, CO: WestView Press, 1994).

9. The Correlates of War project defines war based on the arbitrary threshold of 1,000 battlefield fatalities suffered over the course of a year. Meredith Reid Sarkees and Frank Whelon Wayman, Resort to War: A Data Guide to Inter-State, Extra-State, Intra-state, and Non-State Wars, 1816–2007 (Washington, DC: CQ Press 2010).