Triadic Coercion

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Book cover of Professor Boaz Atzili's Triadic Coercion


When I asked Professor Boaz Atzili for a quick and easy definition of triadic coercion, he chuckled: “Quick and easy? We academics aren’t so good at that…” I wasn’t surprised, because Atzili’s new book, co-authored with Wendy Pearlman, focuses on a seldom-examined strain of International Relations scholarship, so I pressed on.

“Basically, triadic coercion is when one state tries to force another state to prevent non-state actors’ attack against the first state.”

Let’s break that down a bit more.

Atzili continued: “I think it’s actually a pretty common strategy. One example would be how right after 9/11, President Bush said the country would ‘make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,’ basically threatening states pledging to help or even tolerate the presence of Al Qaeda. And that’s exactly what happened in Afghanistan.”

Atzili and his co-author, Professor Wendy Pearlman of Northwestern University, researched cases all around the world, looking at how different nations use triadic coercion to varying degrees of success. Whether observing the outcomes in Africa or the Middle East, they kept returning to case studies in Israel: “Israel is unique both because of its long history of using triadic coercion and the variety of actors it coerces across a variety of locations around its borders.” With 70 years of data to mine, they started sifting through examples, hoping to eventually discern the conditions that allow triadic coercion’s tactics to work.

"In the last 20 or so years, there’s been less variation in how Israel uses triadic coercion and an overall increase in the use of these tactics. They try to coerce host states because it’s what they’ve always done – and as that flexibility disappeared, we saw a one-size-fits-all approach to triadic coercion take hold, no matter whether it’s likely to succeed or fail,” says Atzili.

Infographic: left-oriented circle labeled coercer state with arrow directly influencing a right-oriented circle labeled host state, with arrow directly influencing the host state’s inner-circle within labeled nonstate actor


It didn’t take long for a major pattern to reveal itself: triadic coercion is more likely to fail when deployed against states governed by weaker regimes.

That discovery might sound counter-intuitive — which is exactly why it’s so critical.

“Israel, and the world in general, is experiencing increasing threats from non-state actors. And maybe they’re less dangerous in terms of casualties, but they are much harder to fight in a conventional way. We usually say terrorists have no return address, so in order to deter something, you need to hold their value hostage. That’s hard to do when non-state actors are secretly structured and without open military assets. So triadic coercion begins to look like a magic bullet: You shift the game back into the field you know well, so that you avoid playing the game by the non-state’s terms,” says Atzili.

But such a policy could only work if the target state’s regime possesses the institutional capacity and the political legitimacy to confront the non-state actors in their midst. Otherwise triadic coercion is likely to fail, or even backfire. So why would some states choose to use triadic coercion when, in all likelihood, they may only be shooting themselves in the foot? Atzili and Perlman have their own explanation for this disconnect: strategic culture.

“We call it culture because it’s no longer a rational decision to keep using it despite failure – states are no longer weighing the pros and cons of policy,” Atzili says.

There are plenty of examples of states who used triadic coercion without much benefit, but success stories are harder to find – one more reason, Atzili says, why Israel’s history of decades of triadic coercion make for the perfect case study.

“There are some notable success stories in the case of Israel’s relations with its neighbors,” he continues. “If you compare Egypt-Israeli relations before and after the Suez War of the 1950’s, before the war, the Egyptian regime was weak, and Israel’s attempts to retaliate against Palestinian groups working from Egypt had failed. Egypt’s regime was still fragile – they didn’t have enough legitimacy yet to take decisive action against the Palestinians.

That changed after 1956, when the Suez War gave the Egyptian regime the chance to present itself as a savior against imperial forces and created an opportunity to legitimize the regime almost overnight. The regime quickly became a major force in the region, and perhaps most interestingly – in this time, triadic coercion now actually began to work! Israel successfully pressured Egypt to disallow cross-border attacks by non-state actors, and for the next ten years, the border between the two nations was very quiet.”

In other words, when regimes are stable and face credible external threat, they will act in accordance to the interests of the state and prevent non-state actors from breaching their borders. Compare that to fragile states on the edge: with so little power and influence, and with threats to the regime looming larger than those to the state, there is less likelihood of getting the regime to act against the non-state actors you’re really after.

Decision tree of triadic coercion's success and failure outcomes based on host regime strength and inclination to stop violence


In the decades since Israel’s formation, we’ve become globally connected in a way previous generations could only have imagined. People are traveling more and making multicultural and transnational connections. We’re seeing increased globalization as the world becomes more digitally connected. So, is strategic culture an endangered attitude? Are we entering a world where triadic coercion could soon become a tactic of the past?

Not so fast, says Atzili: “In theory, if you’re open to other cultures and perceptions, that connectivity could apply…but will it? I’m not so sure. I’m looking at things from one perspective, but seeing the increase of identity politics and the rise of extreme nationalism around the world…I think that connectivity isn’t necessarily creating openness. It seems to me that these connections may sometimes reinforce what’s comfortable to the user, creating bubbles of ideas that reinforce our own perceptions.”

His concerns are valid, but Atzili isn’t without hope. Asked if he hopes that one day his findings might translate into a type of risk analysis program states can run to forecast feasibility, he nods: “In principal, yes. It’s never a straightforward calculation, but what I hope is that our findings might allow people to say, ‘Okay, let’s pause here. Are we considering this policy, this tactic, because it actually makes sense, or because we’re used to responding this way?’

“I hope that, even in one small corner of the world, states think outside their own interests, and consider whether it’s likely to work or not. If they adapt to that way of thinking, they might also consider important things like human rights and the potential end of suffering.”