In Hostage Diplomacy, It’s Often the Hostage-Takers Who Pay

Brittney Griner’s release, nearly a year after Russian authorities detained her, is once more forcing a difficult question in Washington and other capitals. What is the least bad option in dealing with hostage diplomacy?

The practice, which has grown somewhat more common in recent years, involves imprisoning a foreigner, usually on spurious or exaggerated charges, for the purpose of extracting concessions from that person’s government.

For the victim’s government, giving in risks encouraging hostile states to take more hostages. But holding out prolongs the hostage’s suffering, as well as sending the message that citizens abroad cannot count on their governments’ doing whatever it takes to protect them.

And both options invite domestic backlash, either from hawks furious at the appearance of acquiescing to a foreign adversary or citizens angered at seeing one of their own, in Ms. Griner’s case a beloved basketball star, left to rot in some faraway cell.

But Ms. Griner’s release, for which Moscow won the return of the arms dealer Viktor Bout, may be raising a similar question among the Russian, Chinese, Iranian and North Korean authorities who have pursued this practice.

That question: Does hostage diplomacy work? Or does the damage to the hostage-taking country’s diplomatic relationships, global standing and tourist revenue end up exceeding the value of whatever narrow concession is gained?

Brittney Griner arriving in San Antonio on Friday. Her release from Russian detention was accomplished by a prisoner swap involving the arms dealer Viktor Bout.Credit…Eric Gay/Associated Press

In the case involving Ms. Griner, it may be too soon to say. Any diplomatic or economic damage it did to Russia is hard to distinguish from that caused by its invasion of Ukraine and standoff with the West.

And Moscow’s initial demands are unknown, making it unclear whether Mr. Bout’s return represents a triumph or a disappointment. Though high-profile, Mr. Bout had been out of commission since his arrest in 2008 and was already scheduled for release in 2029.

But a broader look at how hostage diplomacy tends to play out suggests that its effectiveness is uncertain at best. That hardly means hostile governments will not be tempted to try it anyway, particularly in moments of desperation. But this may help explain why it remains, relative to the millions of Westerners abroad, uncommon.

The Release of Brittney Griner

The American basketball star had been detained in Russia since February on drug charges.

  • Anxiety Turns to Relief: Brittney Griner’s supporters watched with dismay as her situation appeared to worsen over the summer. Now they are celebrating her release.
  • A Rorschach Test: A broadcast of Ms. Griner and Viktor Bout on the tarmac didn’t just show a prisoner trade. It told the story of where two rival countries landed decades after the Cold War.
  • Bout’s Release: To the West, he is a criminal with blood on his hands. But in welcoming him home, Russia portrayed him as an innocent victim of American injustice.
  • A New Wave of Activism: With their campaign to free Ms. Griner over, W.N.B.A. players say they will now focus on supporting other wrongfully detained Americans, women’s health and pay equity.

A Time of Hostage Diplomacy?

Governments have attempted hostage diplomacy for as long as there has been a modern mass media to publicize victims’ plights. It’s what gives the practice its bite, creating political pressure within the targeted country, turning the fate of a single citizen into a top priority.

But it remained rare for most of the modern era. All governments have incentive to treat foreign visitors fairly, if only to ensure their own citizens receive similar treatment abroad.

In a 1967-69 episode sometimes called the first of its kind, the Chinese authorities detained some two dozen 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 China’s Communist Party and had been detained during riots in Hong Kong.

Anthony Grey, a British journalist detained in China for more than two years, arriving in London in October 1969.Credit…Bettmann/Getty Images

A decade later, Iran held dozens of American diplomatic staff for more than a year to pressure Washington to extradite Iran’s deposed dictator. Though it failed at its primary goal, the gambit inflicted severe political damage on then-President Jimmy Carter and allowed Iran’s revolutionary leaders to portray themselves as standing up to the hated Americans.

Both China and Iran were facing domestic unrest and widespread international hostility, underscoring hostage-taking’s reputation as a tactic reserved for governments with little to lose.

Its use has grown since the Cold War’s end, typically by rogue states with no superpower patron to anger and desperate for leverage against American threats of war.

When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, his government captured hundreds of foreign citizens to deter Western powers from intervening.

A few years later, North Korea, amid escalating tensions over its nuclear program, began periodically detaining American visitors, often for months at a time.

Iran is also considered a leading culprit, for instance detaining a Washington Post reporter, Jason Rezaian, for over a year amid U.S.-led negotiations over that country’s nuclear program.

Otto Warmbier was one of more than a dozen Americans imprisoned in North Korea over the years on accusations including illegal entry and sedition. Arrested in 2016, he was seriously injured in prison and sent home comatose, dying soon afterward.Credit…Korean Central News Agency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Many cases exist in a gray area, making it difficult to measure exactly how common the practice has grown. Washington has sometimes offered concessions to hostile governments, for instance, to release Americans whom those governments appear to sincerely consider spies or political troublemakers.

Clear-cut examples of hostage diplomacy remain rare, perhaps one or so per year. A tiny number relative to the millions of Westerners who travel and live abroad, but each is acutely felt, creating the sense of a rising global challenge.

By 2020, concern in Washington had grown enough for Congress to pass a law defining the phenomenon and establishing procedures for how to respond.

The next year, the scholars Danielle Gilbert and Gaëlle Rivard Piché warned in an academic study that “hostage diplomacy will likely become a more prevalent threat to the security of Western countries.”

The authors cited the rise in great power rivalry and the weakening of international norms. And they highlighted one practitioner in particular: China, whose power makes its growing embrace of this tactic, normally associated with weaker states, especially worrisome.

But China’s experiences also underscore the risks for the hostage-taker, potentially to the point of backfiring catastrophically.

Bad Incentives

China took a major step toward adopting hostage diplomacy as a regular practice in 2018, when the authorities arrested two Canadians who were subsequently charged with espionage.

This was widely seen as intended to pressure Canada to release Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese telecom executive who faced possible extradition to the United States on fraud charges.

But Canadian and American officials held out, allowing Ms. Wanzhou’s case to proceed, and the Canadians to remain detained, for nearly three years.

Michael Kovrig, left, and Michael Spavor, third from left, arriving in Canada last year. The two were arrested in China in 2018, a move widely seen as a bid to get Canada to release a Chinese telecom executive facing fraud charges. Credit…Canadian Forces, via Reuters

In game theory terms, the hostage is an asset with only one potential buyer: their home government. If that government refuses to deal, the seller is left with nothing but self-inflicted costs that will only rise.

Though Canada’s leaders faced political backlash as the case dragged on, outrage against Beijing ultimately proved more consequential.

At the episode’s outset, Canada had been pursuing a sweeping trade deal with China. It was also the only member of the U.S.-led Five Eyes intelligence alliance considering having Huawei — Ms. Wanzhou’s firm — develop its 5G cellular network.

But Canadian voters and lawmakers soured on the idea of dealing with China, whatever the economic upside, 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 untold billions in trade, and of a diplomatic relationship in which Chinese leaders had invested years of work, was probably more than they had expected to pay for Ms. Wanzhou’s release, which finally came last year. But once Beijing seized the two Canadians, there was little it could do, short of acquiescing completely, but take the hit.

Such risks are inherent in hostage diplomacy. For the hostage-taker, the potential upside is typically small and fixed, like the release of a citizen arrested abroad, while the downsides are unpredictable and potentially large. It’s like putting up your house as collateral on a $100 bet.

Beijing had tried this before. In 2014, Chinese officials arrested two Canadians, seemingly to deter Canada from extraditing to the United States a Chinese businessman accused of spying. But after two years, the businessman landed in U.S. custody and the Canadians returned home.

Still, hostage diplomacy does not have to be effective or wise for governments to attempt it. There is little to stop them from trying, save the fear it might backfire. Governments that feel encircled and desperate may be especially likely to risk it — an isolated and paranoid Moscow, for example.

Beijing, for its part, has not adopted the practice as widely as some had feared, suggesting that it may have learned from its two brushes with Canada. But it has so far not abandoned it, either.

In 2020, Chinese officials privately warned Washington that, if prosecutions went forward against Chinese scientists in the United States accused of illicitly working for China’s military, then Chinese security forces might arrest Americans in China in retaliation.

Two years later, Beijing has not made good on its threat — at least, not yet.

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