War, Diplomacy and Economic Leverage

By Professor Clayton Cleveland

In his history of the United Nations, Paul Kennedy opens with the suggestion that if the UN did not exist that the states of the world would have to invent it. The point that he was making is not about the inherent value of the UN but rather the importance of a mechanism for working with others to solve problems and advance state interests. Some problems cannot be solved by a state on its own. Cooperating with others through multilateral channels is useful and can serve the interests of the United States. Conducting diplomacy and advancing the American national interest requires working with our allies. The current Biden Administration has found this out in the recent dispute between Russia and NATO over Ukraine. American efforts to present a united front on the position against Russian aggression have for the most part, succeeded. The consequences of severe sanctions are only effective if the U.S. can credibly claim to have the support of its allies. One important lesson they should draw from this experience is that there is no single, silver bullet solution which produces a successful foreign policy but instead small actions which taken together culminate in a great effort to ensure that the U.S. and its allies stand together.

The challenge that the U.S. faces from Russia concern the position of Russia in world affairs. The current crisis over Ukraine is but the latest symptom of this issue. Russian security concerns have moved to the front of world attention and threaten the principle that borders should only be peacefully changed through negotiations. The U.S. needs to raise the costs when Russia misbehaves. The Biden Administration has worked towards three tactical goals, none of which individually would stand a chance of deterring a Russian invasion. Taken together, the efforts of Biden’s foreign policy team to consult American allies, provide the public information about Russian military behavior along the border with Ukraine and devising an effective sanctions package seems to be working at least to give Russia pause before taking action. As of this writing, Russia has not yet invaded. Even if they do, the American efforts make logical sense and are worth the effort both in terms of how an American administration should approach foreign policy and to lay the groundwork to address the situation in the event that an invasion takes place.

President Biden and his foreign policy team have taken some criticism for removing military force from the tools that they can use to address the threat. While I am reluctant to suggest that the U.S. should ever tell an adversary that it does not have force to rely upon, if necessary, in this case it seems to have had a positive effect on the circumstances. Due to the risks attached with escalation from a nuclear Russia, any claim that force was a realistic option would be met with skeptics from Russia and American allies alike. Trying to claim otherwise could have raised tensions and reduced President Biden’s credibility that the U.S. would follow through on any threats they presented. By removing an uncredible option from discussion President Biden’s team focused attention on an option that the U.S. can credibly carry out. If Vladimir Putin is willing to bear the costs of an invasion, there is little that the U.S. or its allies can do to stop Russia, but this is not the same thing as giving Russia a free-hand or approving of the invasion. To accomplish American goals, the Biden Administration needs to raise the costs for Russia to take this action.

This is where the use of strong and effective sanctions comes into play. Often sanctions are used when states have few real options to shape international outcomes. They can be a significant way to signal dissatisfaction with another’s action without the high costs of options such as the use of military force. When sanctions have worked to the targe’s behavior, it is either because the sanctions are multilateral in nature, or they are targeted to impact the substantial interests of the target (and hopefully avoid any collateral damage). This should underscore the importance of the role that American allies play in advancing American interests. The leverage the U.S. holds in threatening sanctions is enhanced if American allies fall in line behind the U.S. Consulting with allies and helping to address their concerns such as the effort by the U.S. to arrange alternatives to natural gas that Germany and other European states purchase form Russia can go a long way to keeping Western states from freelancing and striking their own separate arrangements with Russia. This helps ensure American credibility in negotiations and provides leverage that is useful for the U.S.

In addition to the sanction and allies, the Biden efforts to convey information about Russia’s actions and present intelligence information has helped prevent the spread of misinformation and potentially the use of a false-flag operation to justify invasion. Information is an area where free societies should hold an advantage. Presenting the circumstances at the front, as they actually are, prevents Russia from claiming victim status and ensures transparency over their decisions. The United States government should not be frightened of transparency over its decision making either. If nothing else, it has the clear advantage of relying on the truth. Societies that are not free rely upon their control of information to ensure their continued rule. While there is only so much that the U.S. can do to persuade Russian citizens about their security situation and the actions of their own government, the U.S. can provide an alternative and as long as the U.S. continues to provide verifiable facts into the future, the credibility of American officials will give them leverage in negotiations with Russia and position the U.S. as the natural head of the NATO alliance.

A leader needs followers. The U.S. lives in a world with other states that hold values and interests that may run counter to U.S. Despite the varied interests of other states, the current international order is one of American making. It has served the interests of the U.S. and many others since the end of World War II. To ensure that the United States is able to secure its goals and preserve its national interest, the U.S. will need the help of its friends. When the U.S. doesn’t show up, others get to make the decisions. The current Administration’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine is but one example of the role that American allies play in promoting the American led-international order and ensure the tools of statecraft including economic sanctions are an effective approach to raise the costs of working to disrupt the international order. With the direct outcomes of military force, it is easy to forget that persuasion can lead to a more long-lasting outcome for the U.S. The United States should work more closely with its allies in Europe and in other places in the world to promote that American national interest. Failure to do so is the quickest way for the United States to stop leading and, rather than shaping international affairs, become subject to them.

Professor Clayton Cleveland
Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science
College of the Holy Cross


  • Principles of American Government (POLS 100)

  • Causes of War (POLS 299)

Contact: ccleveland@holycross.edu