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    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-37 – Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff – Coercing Fluently: The Grammar of Coercion in the Twenty-first Century

    Decisive Point Podcast – Ep 3-37 – Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff – Coercing Fluently: The Grammar of Coercion in the Twenty-first Century

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    Audio by Kristen Taylor 

    U.S. Army War College Public Affairs

    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.

    Read the monograph:

    Episode Transcript: Coercing Fluently: The Grammar of Coercion in the Twenty-First Century

    Stephanie Crider (Host)

    You’re listening to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production focused on national security affairs. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

    Decisive Point welcomes Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff, author of Coercing Fluently: The Grammar of Coercion in the Twenty-First Century, which was published by the US Army War College Press in August 2022. Pfaff is the research professor for strategy, the military profession, and ethics at the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. A retired Army foreign area officer for the Middle East and North Africa, he has a doctorate in philosophy from Georgetown University.

    Welcome back to Decisive Point, Tony.

    (C. Anthony Pfaff)
    Hey, thanks. Very happy to be here.


    Why did you take on this topic?


    It had been kind of, I think, boiling for a little while. In fact, one of the topics of the year, when we started it about two years ago, was, you know, rethinking coercion and competition. And that, I think, came from a strong sense of frustration over the way the United States was competing globally at the time. China was not only asserting itself in the South China Sea and getting more aggressive over Taiwan, as it is still doing now, but it was also building relations globally—particularly, in continents like Africa—that was threatening to displace US influence. And then you had Russia. You know, you got the invasion of Ukraine, which is a very obvious failure of deterrence. But even before the invasion, Russia was a . . . very much a destabilizing influence—particularly, in Europe—already having seized Crimea, supporting Ukrainian separatists, while at the same time using sort of gray zone means, like social media and others, to sow domestic instability or uncertainty within United States and, uh, its European allies.

    Then you always have Iran. Iran’s really good at this, you know, using . . .



    Their proxies. They were pretty much able to attack US forces—especially, in Iraq, but, also, elsewhere—with relative impunity. And whenever we struck back, we always found ourselves in a worse position than if we hadn’t struck back. And that kind of quagmire is very frustrating. And what was really frustrating, from a lot of the practitioners that we talked to, is there was no theory of the case on what to do about it. We study war. We know how to use and apply military forces in war, and so our deterrence thinking is often shaped by the idea that as long as we have the right kinds of capabilities, we’ll get the right kinds of deterrence. That’s part of the equation, but it’s not the whole thing. And that’s why I kind of started looking at grammar as a way of thinking about this. You know, (Carl von) Clausewitz famously said, you know, “Apply the idea of grammar to war,” saying war has a grammar of its own, but its logic is peculiar to itself. So if war has a grammar of its own, why wouldn’t coercion have a grammar of its own?

    In your work, you talk about compellence, deterrence, and coercion. What are the differences between the three?

    Very little, actually. Well, so, compellence and deterrence are forms of coercion. As the theory goes, coercion is about getting somebody to do something that you want them to do (compellence) or getting them not to do something you don’t want them to do (deterrence). I like doing . . . calling them, you know, they’re two sides of the same coin. As (Thomas C.) Schelling argues, you can see the difference between deterrence (and) compellence kind of lies in the timing and initiative, determined by who makes the first move and whose initiative is tested. But there are differences where deterrence is obviously kind of more of a passive activity. You could draw a line, and you tell people, “Don’t cross the line. If you do cross the line, I’m gonna do this.” Whereas compellence is a lot more active, “Stop this now. Uh, you have exactly five minutes.” So, you have to specify time and space where, you know, the compellent threat will be enacted. And so, it’s kind of got a timer on it. Where deterrence is open ended, compellence is a lot more limited.

    Game theory and coercion: How are they related?

    Trying to figure out, given the problem, how do you compel and deter—particularly, against adversaries who seem to be, you know, doing a little bit better than we are. What’s the method by which we sort of analyze these things? Basically, we’re talking about an interaction, and that’s kind of what game theory does. It’s probably more accurate to say that we’re using sort of the structure of the game theory to kind of help understand the interactions under the specific conditions of international competition. You know, having said that, even though we . . . you know, this project doesn’t have quite the mathematical rigor you normally associate with a lot of game theoretic analysis, it gives us a way to discipline and structure our thinking about a problem so we can increase our understanding of it. So whether they’re looking at any kind of predictive or even descriptive reliability, it’s kind of trying to look at those interactions, pull out the logic of them, and discern, “What are some rules of thumb that follow from, uh, these interactions, you know, in the real world, can apply when engaged in a competitive interaction?”

    How would that work?

    You have to identify who the relevant actors are; what their interests and goals are; what they can do in pursuit of those interests and goals; and, just as importantly, what they know and believe about other actors—particularly, how they might respond. And these factors boil down to preferences actors have for cooperation, concession, or conflict because that’s basically the . . . you know, that’s basically the shape of the choices that both or however many actors are in play are making.

    And so, when we’re looking at these interactions, we’re looking for equilibrium. What do we learn from studying these kinds of interactions? So now we’re thinking putting yourself not in the shoes of the other person in a way. You understand the credibility’s less about how they perceive your resolve as much as how they perceive what’s your interest in doing something?

    If the Russians, for example, believe that we would be worse off if we intervened on behalf of the Ukrainians, they would not take our deterrence, our deterrent threat, as credible because we would be worse off if we applied it. It also has to be capable. But here, capability isn’t measured in terms of balance of power necessarily. It’s more measured in terms of if the deterrent or compellent threat is triggered. If they don’t comply, if they don’t cooperate, are they going to be worse off if you apply that threat? Russia, believing that yes, it might be subjected to sanctions and, perhaps, you know, trade restrictions and things like that, felt that no, given the deterrent threat, as they understood it, they would not be worse off if they had invaded Ukraine. I think we’re seeing they were wrong about that.

    And a lot of times, in game theory, you talk about rational actors. We talk about rationality. But rationality in this sense just really means knowing what you want and how to get it. Couple of other things fall out, particularly regarding compellence and deterrence. Compellence may not always work out quite the way you think it would in real life—in particular, because the possibility of future interactions and iterations impacts how other actors are going to respond. First, for the one who’s doing the challenging, doing compelling, it offers, you know . . . offers you an opportunity to, uh, test your opponent. So you might be logical—and you see this sometimes—to open up with a very high demand. Even though you don’t expect that they’ll concede, you want to test the waters. And that’s particularly true in stronger/weaker interactions where the stronger actor can afford failure, as a result, might make a very high demand but not be willing to go all the way through to achieve it. Because on the other side, the weaker actor’s incentivized to resist, even where the demand might actually be reasonable if this were a single iteration sort of thing. Because of a fear of future demands, they’re incentivized up front to really dig in. And you kind of see this with the Iranians, right? You know, we make lots of demands. They dig in because they fear there’s going to be another one.

    How can it be applied when it comes to, say, China, Russia, Ukraine?

    There’s three things that you can get out of it. One is helping understand the outcome of an interaction. One is then maybe prescribing effective strategies—at least, things you can try as well as assessing strategies relative to others. Why does something work, and why does something else not work?

    So, for example, a key advisor to President Xi (Jinping) of China, Jin Canrong, made a bunch of speeches in 2016 where he really laid out a detailed strategy on how China was going to achieve global hegemon status. And that strategy is comprised of six sequential moves that involve, first, a lot of cooperation, intertwining US and Chinese interests, while establishing alternatives to the United States for other countries like the Belt and Road Initiative that would eventually displace US influence while constraining what the US can do because that cooperation, that status quo they’ve created is now too valuable for the United States for it to, you know, just easily walk away from. It’s a strategy based of “Let’s cooperate in some areas, maybe as many areas as possible, so we’re in a better position to challenge in others.”

    Now compare that to the US maximum pressure campaign against Iran. Which one’s more likely to work? Well, maximum pressure just raises the stakes for Iran as well as raises concerns that if they give in to one demand, others will follow. Logically, you know, they should dig in and absorb whatever cost short of war the US is willing to impose and while imposing some costs on their own. It’s a strategy that gives them little to lose.

    That point doesn’t mean that a maximum pressure campaign was necessarily a bad idea. It’s just not going to alter Iranian behavior. So if that’s his point, it’s going to fail. But in this context, we can also take a step back and look at what this analysis will tell you is “What’s the space for changing that behavior?” And it’s probably very little. There’s very little room for cooperation, so a strategy that denies Iran resources and makes it harder for them to compete might be the best move.

    And then, when it comes to Russia, uh, its interests are limited. Where it has success is with countries where we have little interest. And there’s probably a little we . . . very little we can do about that other than sort of change those other countries’ interests.

    But let’s look at, um, Ukraine real quick, just to kind of wrap things up. NATO was criticized in the United States for not signaling resolve. For (Vladimir) Putin to be deterred, he had to believe that the deterrent threat was both credible and capable, which meant that we would “out-escalate” him. There was just really no good reason for him to believe that. And even though the United States, prior to the invasion, basically said, “We’re gonna impose really high costs,” there was enough caveats in the way people were presenting things. There was, uh, an appearance of, uh, lack of consensus among NATO nations on what to do. And in a situation like that, that’s going to signal to the other actor, and it’s time to act.

    But Putin made a mistake too, I think, uh, or may have. Well, not only did he not get that right. Uh, apparently the resolve was there, despite how he interpreted the signals. He also probably caused that a little bit or incentivized it. In December of 2021, he issued an ultimatum. He said, “Okay, we’ll back off. We won’t invade Ukraine.” But he demanded no further enlargement of NATO to the east; all cessation of military cooperation with post-Soviet countries, which includes a lot of NATO allies; a withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe; and cessation of many military activities in Ukraine. It also demanded a withdrawal of NATO forces all the way to the borders of 1997, which would leave, basically, all of Eastern Europe, you know, vulnerable ’cause that’s the 14 Eastern European and Baltic states that joined after that date. Not only would exceeding these demands prevent any kind of military intervention in Ukraine, it would impair the alliance’s ability to meet its defense obligations under article V. It would essentially kill NATO—probably, the unraveling of the alliance.

    As we talked about before, that raises the stakes, which is likely to increase resolve. ’Cause, you know, it went from “Do we just defend a single country,” or are we now worried about the alliance? Now, he’s put it on the alliance. Now what you could say is that this might’ve been used as a separating strategy. “This is a really tough demand. What’s NATO gonna do?” That might’ve been the case, but when you do those, you kind of have to have a plan to walk it back if they stand. And he didn’t walk it back.

    So it wasn’t that, and it certainly backfired and increased the resolve of NATO, to the point that it doesn’t look like he’s gonna get any kind of outcome that he’s going to want. The stakes are very high for him. He’s gonna resist all the way down, however many nodes you’d want to go. So if we don’t want to escalate the war, the math says, basically, there has to be some kind of accommodation, or the conflict continues and will continue to escalate. Now, whether that means nuclear weapons—this is where the . . . you know, you leave the analysis.

    ’Cause the analysis says, yes, that, you know, there’s no limit. Whether or not he’s going to do it is going to depend on a host of other reasons that might fall outside this. And that’s another lesson is that, what this also does for you, you sort of bound that but give you a direction to go look for the other things that’ll fill in your knowledge gap so that you can make better-informed decisions.

    So, last question before we go: The way forward—what do we need to keep in mind?

    The competition’s generally open ended and, you know, coercive failures can sow the seed for future success. In fact, some strategies might integrate failure into the plan in order to get more information. But then, what it tells you is you’ve got to be sufficiently opportunistic, agile enough to take advantage of the things that arise out of that particular interaction. So coercive failure’s not also a bad thing. And there’s a couple other things. So, like, regarding forced postures, it says you should favor those that are flexible and create ambiguity, may be more productive than those that signal overmatch and overcommitment. There’s a lot that it says about how to collect, what to collect regarding intelligence and gearing it towards understanding adversary preferences, their thresholds, as well as, most importantly, their assessment of you. Because as we talked about Putin, he assessed us a certain way. He got it wrong. But knowing he assessed us that way should inform how we respond. Do we want to retain that ambiguity? Do we want to signal more clearly?

    And then, third is finding more space to compete in and be out there. So, for example, the United States’ contributions to peacekeeping operations went from a high of 115 to 34 in 2020. And so, we’re not really resourcing those. But those are places where there is a lot of competition going on. When we withdrew our observers out of, uh, Congo, for instance, Russians and Chinese filled it in. That gives them leverage . . . and that gives them leverage and access in those places that we now don’t have. Now maybe we don’t want to do this, but now we need to understand when we withdraw from these sort of inter- and intranational sort of things, we’re ceding space to the other guys. And yes, you’ll have to take into account, you know, whatever agreements or cooperation. There’s always cheating. Know that your adversary’s building that into their costs. Build that into yours as well. And that’s it.

    Thanks, as always, for your time.

    Thank you. Much appreciated.

    You can learn more about Coercing Fluently: The Grammar of Coercion in the Twenty-First Century at

    If you enjoyed this episode and would like to hear more, you can find us on any major podcast platform.

    Author Information:

    Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff is the research professor for strategy, the military profession, and ethics at the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. A retired Army foreign area officer for the Middle East and North Africa, he has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and economics from Washington and Lee University; a master’s degree in philosophy from Stanford University, with a concentration in philosophy of science; a master’s degree in national resource management from the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy; and a doctorate in philosophy from Georgetown University.



    Date Taken: 10.31.2022
    Date Posted: 06.20.2023 15:08
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    Audio ID: 74951
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    Album Decisive Point – Season 3
    Track # 37
    Year 2022
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    Location: US

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