The release of Brittney Griner, nearly a year after Russian authorities arrested her, is once again forcing a tough question in Washington and other capitals. What is the least bad option in the face of hostage diplomacy?
The practice, which has become somewhat more common in recent years, is to imprison a foreigner, usually on spurious or exaggerated charges, in an attempt to extract concessions from that person’s government.
For the government of the victim, giving in risks encouraging hostile states to take more hostages. But holding on prolongs the hostage’s suffering and sends the message that citizens abroad cannot rely on their government to do whatever it takes to protect them.
And both options invite a national backlash, either from furious hawks at the appearance of acquiescing to a foreign opponent or from citizens angry at seeing one of their own, in the case of Ms Griner, a basketball star -ball beloved, left to rot in a distant cell.
But the release of Ms Griner, for which Moscow secured the return of arms dealer Viktor Bout, perhaps raises a similar question among Russian, Chinese, Iranian and North Korean authorities who have continued the practice.
This question: does hostage diplomacy work? Or does the damage to diplomatic relations, global reputation and tourism revenue of the hostage country end up exceeding the value of any narrow concessions obtained?
In Mrs. Griner’s case, it may be too early to tell. Any diplomatic or economic damage he caused to Russia is hard to distinguish from that caused by his invasion of Ukraine and his confrontation with the West.
And Moscow’s initial demands are unknown, making it difficult to know whether Mr. Bout’s return represents a triumph or a disappointment. Although highly publicized, Mr. Bout had been off duty since his arrest in 2008 and was already due for release in 2029.
But a broader look at how hostage diplomacy tends to play out suggests its effectiveness is uncertain at best. It just means hostile governments won’t be tempted to try it anyway, especially in times of desperation. But it may help explain why he remains, compared to the millions of Westerners abroad, uncommon.
The release of Brittney Griner
The American basketball star had been detained in Russia since February for drug trafficking.
An era of hostage diplomacy?
Governments have attempted hostage diplomacy for as long as there has been modern media to publicize the plight of victims. This is what gives the practice its bite, creating political pressure within the targeted country, making the fate of a single citizen a top priority.
But it remained rare for most of the modern era. All governments have an incentive to treat foreign visitors fairly, if only to ensure that their own citizens receive similar treatment abroad.
In a 1967–69 episode sometimes called the first of its kind, Chinese authorities arrested about 20 British visitors and diplomats, demanding concessions from British authorities in Hong Kong. The British complied with some of the demands, releasing several protest leaders who supported the Chinese Communist Party and had been detained during riots in Hong Kong.
A decade later, Iran detained dozens of US diplomatic staff for more than a year to pressure Washington to extradite Iran’s ousted dictator. Although it failed in its primary purpose, the scheme inflicted serious political damage on then-President Jimmy Carter and allowed Iran’s revolutionary leaders to portray themselves as standing up to the hated Americans.
China and Iran both faced domestic unrest and widespread international hostility, underscoring the reputation of hostage-taking as a tactic reserved for governments with little to lose.
Its use has grown since the end of the Cold War, usually by rogue states without a superpower boss looking angry and desperate for leverage against American threats of war.
When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, his government captured hundreds of foreign nationals to deter Western powers from intervening.
A few years later, North Korea, amid growing tensions over its nuclear program, began periodically detaining American visitors, often for months at a time.
Iran is also seen as a major culprit, for example by detaining a Washington Post journalist, Jason Rezaian, for more than a year as part of US-led negotiations on the nuclear program of this country.
Many cases exist in a gray area, making it difficult to gauge exactly how widespread the practice has become. Washington has sometimes offered concessions to hostile governments, for example, to free Americans whom those governments sincerely seem to view as spies or political troublemakers.
Clear examples of hostage diplomacy remain rare, perhaps one or two a year. A tiny number compared to the millions of Westerners who travel and live abroad, but each is keenly felt, creating a sense of growing global challenge.
By 2020, concern in Washington had grown enough for Congress to pass legislation defining the phenomenon and establishing procedures for how to respond.
The following year, researchers Danielle Gilbert and Gaëlle Rivard Piché warned in an academic study that “hostage diplomacy is likely to become a more widespread threat to the security of Western countries”.
The authors cited the rise of great power rivalry and the weakening of international norms. And they shed light on one practitioner in particular: China, whose power makes its growing embrace of this tactic, normally associated with weaker states, particularly worrying.
But China’s experiences also underscore the risks for the hostage taker, potentially to the point of catastrophic backfire.
China took an important step towards adopting hostage diplomacy as a regular practice in 2018, when authorities arrested two Canadians who were later charged with espionage.
It was widely seen as intended to pressure Canada to release Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese telecommunications executive who faced extradition to the United States for fraud.
But Canadian and American officials held firm, allowing Ms Wanzhou’s case to go forward and the Canadians to remain detained for nearly three years.
In terms of game theory, the hostage is an asset with only one potential buyer: his home government. If this government refuses to deal, the seller is left with nothing but self-inflicted costs that will only increase.
Although Canadian leaders faced political backlash as the case dragged on, the outrage against Beijing ultimately proved more consequential.
At the start of the episode, Canada was looking to strike a massive trade deal with China. He was also the only member of the US-led Five Eyes intelligence alliance to consider Huawei – Ms Wanzhou’s company – developing its 5G cellular network.
But Canadian voters and lawmakers soured on dealing with China regardless of economic benefit, eventually walking away from both. Canadian leaders, who had once sought warm ties with Beijing, began calling for international coordination to challenge that country.
The loss of countless billions of trade and a diplomatic relationship in which Chinese leaders had invested years of work, was probably more than they expected to pay for the release of Ms Wanzhou, which eventually intervened Last year. But once Beijing grabbed the two Canadians, there was nothing they could do short of completely acquiesce but take the hit.
Such risks are inherent in hostage diplomacy. For the hostage taker, the potential upsides are usually small and fixed, such as the release of a citizen arrested overseas, while the downsides are unpredictable and potentially significant. It’s like putting your house up as collateral for a $100 bet.
Beijing had already tried this. In 2014, Chinese officials arrested two Canadians, ostensibly to dissuade Canada from extraditing a Chinese businessman accused of espionage to the United States. But after two years, the businessman landed in the United States, and the Canadians returned home.
Yet hostage diplomacy need not be efficient or wise for governments to attempt it. There’s not much to stop them from trying except the fear that it might backfire. Governments that feel surrounded and desperate may be particularly likely to risk it – an isolated and paranoid Moscow, for example.
Beijing, for its part, has not embraced the practice as widely as some had feared, suggesting it may have learned from its two brushes with Canada. But he also hasn’t given up on it so far.
In 2020, Chinese officials privately warned Washington that if legal action were taken against Chinese scientists in the United States accused of working illegally for the Chinese military, Chinese security forces could arrest Americans in China in retaliation.
Two years later, Beijing has not followed through on its threat, at least not yet.