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Hostage Diplomacy: Understanding the Past to Plan for the Future Image courtesy of Flickr.

Hostage Diplomacy: Understanding the Past to Plan for the Future

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The closed-door trial of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich began on Wednesday. Gershkovich, an American citizen, was arrested by Russian authorities in March of 2023 on espionage charges while on a reporting assignment in the Urals. Gershkovich is one of several U.S. nationals wrongfully detained in Russia and one of 46 U.S. nationals and lawful permanent residents wrongfully detained worldwide, according to the Foley Foundation. Though U.S. policy toward hostage taking and wrongful detention has evolved significantly over the last three administrations, there is still work to be done: Secretary Blinken himself has said that putting an end to the practice of hostage diplomacy will require deterrence measures. As they work to develop these measures, policymakers must learn from past mistakes toward non-state hostage takers and to take a well-considered, incentive-based approach to ending the current hostage diplomacy crisis.

A Recent History of Hostage Taking:

Examining U.S. policy toward hostage taking during the 1990s and early 2000s offers an important lesson in how not to manage the hostage diplomacy of today. Hostage diplomacy has been a frequent tactic of state actors of late, but during the 90s and early 2000s, hostage taking was primarily a tool of non-state actors. Because of the U.S.’ no-concessions policy toward terror groups, who were frequent hostage takers, the United States could not pay ransoms or negotiate prisoner swaps for the release of its citizens, leaving it with very little leverage. Consequently, “American hostages taken captive by terrorist, militant, and pirate groups [between 2001 and 2016 were] more than twice as likely to remain in captivity, die in captivity, or be murdered by their captors as the average Western hostage.” 

Supporters argue that the policy kept violent individuals off the streets, prevented American money from going toward supporting terror groups, and acted as a deterrent, ensuring that terror groups did not kidnap Americans for the purpose of obtaining a ransom payment. However, the justifications for the no-concessions policy demonstrate a flawed understanding of the incentives non-state actors faced to kidnap foreign nationals. The first two arguments, while valid in theory, prioritize the long-term goal of hobbling terror groups over the short-term goal of ensuring the safe return of American hostages. The option to target the funds of or individuals in a terror group after paying a ransom or negotiating a prisoner swap would have always been present, but no method has ever existed to reverse the deaths of the Americans left behind in the name of fighting terror. Refusing to negotiate paradoxically ensured the deaths of American hostages in the name of preventing future American casualties, trading real lives for hypothetical ones. Indeed, a study from 2017 found that “citizens of countries that make concessions such as ransom payments [did] not appear to be kidnapped at disproportionately high rates.”

The third argument displays a clear failure to understand the motivations of the non-state actors engaged in hostage taking. It suggests that non-state actors only benefit from hostage taking when they can make a deal, whether it be a ransom, prisoner swap, or something else entirely. If that were the case, perhaps a no-concessions policy would have been effective. However, terror groups gain publicity and a recruitment narrative just by engaging in hostage taking, meaning that they benefit whether their hostages live or die. When these additional motives for hostage taking are considered, it becomes clear that concessions exist as an incentive to ensure the safe return of hostages. The United States’ no-concessions policy left terror groups with plenty of reasons to engage in hostage taking and little incentive to return them. Indeed, the United States had the most hostages taken of any state from 2001 to 2016, further indicating that the no-concessions policy was not a successful deterrent to the hostage taking of the past. 

 So What?

As policymakers debate the best methods for stemming the hostage taking of today, they cannot allow themselves to fall into the same logical traps that tripped up policymakers past. The three most recent administrations have improved U.S. policy toward hostage taking, making it a priority to negotiate with state actors for the safe return of wrongfully detained Americans. But Secretary Blinken is right to suggest that deterrence measures are necessary to put an end to the current hostage diplomacy crisis. 

While working to create these deterrence measures, policymakers must have a full understanding of the motivations, ranging from inciting prisoner swaps to gaining access to sanctioned assets, that drive state actors to practice hostage diplomacy. Only by understanding each state’s individual motivations can the United States formulate a strong deterrence strategy. We have already learned the price of uninformed hostage policy at the expense of the Americans killed by non-state hostage takers: Evan Gershkovich and the 45 others detained for the crime of association with the United States should not have to pay it again.