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Aug. 1, 2022

Coercing Fluently: The Grammar of Coercion in the Twenty-first Century

Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff

To illustrate the logic and grammar of coercion, this analysis relies on decision-theory methods, such as game theory, that examine the strategic decision-making process in interactions with adversaries and partners. The intent here is not to offer predictive models of rational-actor behavior. Rather, the intent is to use game-theory and similar approaches to understand how coercion works better. This analysis considers competitive interactions between actors that have discrete and qualifiable, if not quantifiable, preferences and who behave rationally, though this analysis acknowledges the behavior that is considered rational is frequently informed by nonrational social, cultural, and psychological factors. Considering these competitive interactions allows one to identify “rules of thumb” that can orient and guide actors as they compete.

This analysis emphasizes coercion does not depend simply on imposing costs; rather, it depends on placing adversaries in positions in which they must act and their most rational option is the one most beneficial to one’s own cause. To achieve this result, actors must carefully calibrate their demands to ensure their adversary’s cost of concession is as low as possible. To prevent challenges in the first place, actors should convince the adversary acting on a threat is one’s most rational response. If convincing the adversary is not possible, then one must find ways to decrease the value of the adversary’s challenge. When none of those options are possible, preparing for conflict is likely one’s rational option. This analysis then applies the rules of thumb to US relations with China, Russia, and Iran.

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