Brittney Griner, the W.N.B.A. athlete facing criminal drug charges in Russia, may be merely the latest victim of a practice so common it has its own name: hostage diplomacy.
The U.S. government classifies Ms. Griner as “wrongfully detained,” meaning that it believes the charges against her are spurious, perhaps intended to pressure Washington over its involvement in Ukraine.
In recent years, a number of Americans have been swept up by hostile governments looking to use them as bargaining chips as part of some larger conflict with the United States.
Sometimes these governments target journalists or researchers. But they can be just as likely to scoop up tourists, visiting businesspeople and dual nationals living abroad — all the better to send a message that no American within their borders is safe.
Usually, the responsible government does not openly state that it is taking some innocent American hostage for geopolitical ends. But it will imply that the captive’s fate is linked to broader hostilities or even to some specific demand.
The practice is often associated with pariah states like Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. Those countries have relatively little international standing or foreign tourism to risk. They may also be desperate for leverage against American threats of regime change or war.
Turkey and especially China have also been accused of this tactic — and now Russia, too — adding to fears that it could become more routine, potentially leaving thousands of Americans vulnerable.
“Hostage diplomacy will likely become a more prevalent threat to the security of Western countries,” the scholars Danielle Gilbert and Gaëlle Rivard Piché wrote recently in The Texas National Security Review, a policy journal.
The rise of great power competition, in which countries seek to get their way through coercion and zero-sum rivalries, along with the yearslong erosion of international norms meant to constrain such behavior, the scholars wrote, could favor a rise in this tactic.
Still, countries that have attempted this have faced mixed results, making it unclear how likely they are to repeat a tactic that can have high costs and uncertain payouts.
But Moscow’s detention of Ms. Griner, amid its failures to deter American involvement in Ukraine, suggests that such detentions may remain a tactic of last resort.
A Messy Tactic
The United States is unusually vulnerable to hostage diplomacy for the simple reason that, as the world’s third-most populous country and its largest economy, many of its citizens are within the borders of other nations, including hostile ones, at any given moment.
“There’s very little you can do to prevent another state from engaging in hostage diplomacy,” Van Jackson, a political scientist at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, told The Diplomat, an international affairs journal.
Detaining an American tourist also tends to generate substantial attention within the United States, allowing even small countries to exert indirect pressure on Washington.
There was North Korea’s 2016 detention of Otto F. Warmbier, a college student visiting with a tourist group during a moment of high tension over North Korean missile launches. Mr. Warmbier was released 17 months later in a vegetative state and days from death.
Also in 2016, Turkey arrested a visiting pastor, Andrew Brunson, on espionage charges. The case was widely seen as intended to pressure Washington to extradite a Turkish dissident living in the United States.
Though Washington refused to extradite the dissident, Mr. Brunson was released in 2018 amid warming diplomatic ties.
In 2017, as the Trump administration pursued secret (and, later, overt) efforts to overturn Venezuela’s government, the country arrested six American oil executives. There was little need to state explicitly that their fate depended on Washington’s actions.
Venezuela released one of those executives in March, along with an American tourist detained last year. This came just as Washington was discussing renewing oil imports from Venezuela to counteract rising prices.
Iran is considered a leading offender, having arrested dozens of dual nationals, including imprisoning the Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian from 2014 to 2016 on spurious espionage charges.
In 2009, amid rising tensions over the country’s nuclear program, Iran arrested three American hikers near Iraq’s border with the country.
The hikers’ fates were left dangling, forcing Washington to weigh the issue alongside its nuclear demands. But while this gave Iran additional leverage, it also undercut Washington’s ability to strike a deal of any kind, for fear of being seen as rewarding hostage-takers.
Some analysts now believe that the hikers’ detention was initiated by hard-liners within Iran’s fractious government who wished to block rapprochement with the West. In other words, the goal may have been not to win American concessions but to prevent them.
The American hikers were released two years later, just as reformists ascended within Tehran.
Worldwide, this practice is increasing by some counts, though not every detention of an American is a clear-cut case of hostage-taking for diplomatic leverage, making the phenomenon difficult to track.
Those cases can blur with instances driven by authoritarian security services more motivated by paranoia or overzealousness than any geopolitical agenda. Cases might be resolved through high-level diplomacy simply because it is the only way to cut through those countries’ autocratic legal systems.
Even when a government’s intention is to pressure Washington, it will rarely make this explicit, if only to justify the detention to its own citizens and leave its options open.
A Difficult Dilemma
Time after time, Washington faces the same dilemma: The steps it will take to free a hostage, and the steps to deter governments from taking hostages in the future, are often at odds.
Appearing to so much as engage with the hostage-taker’s demands — for instance, by allowing Ms. Griner’s case to become linked to broader talks with Moscow over Ukraine — would risk encouraging hostile powers worldwide to take more such hostages.
Responding with retaliatory measures might help to deter future hostage-taking but can heighten the danger to Americans presently being held, daring the captor to escalate charges against their captive to show resolve. This can also make it harder for the captor to release their hostage without losing face.
At the same time, American policymakers will face pressure from victims’ families and civic groups who simply want the captive returned home, as well as from political groups that insist on taking a hard line against adversaries, and rivals ready to pounce if they don’t.
And then there is the question of how much attention to call to such cases. Playing them up can effectively increase the hostage’s value, making their quick return less likely. But engaging too quietly can risk conveying to foreign governments that hostage diplomacy goes unpunished — and to Americans abroad that, if caught up, they may be on their own.
“Ignoring the problem — or obscuring it with diplomatic euphemisms and opacity — only helps the hostage-takers,” Mr. Rezaian wrote in a recent essay on Ms. Griner’s case.
The China Problem
Though Beijing is not a newcomer to this tactic, it has grown increasingly brazen in recent years.
While this has included some Americans, Beijing typically targets the citizens of U.S. allies, like Australia and Japan, perhaps believing those countries will be easier to bully.
In 2018, the Canadian authorities detained a Chinese telecom executive on American extradition charges that also implicated the state-linked Chinese mega-corporation Huawei. Soon after, China arrested two Canadian citizens on flimsy espionage charges.
Beijing frequently mentioned their cases alongside that of the executive, Meng Wanzhou. Last September, China released the Canadians on the same day that Ms. Meng returned to China.
The incident was widely seen as a test case for whether China, and perhaps other countries with it, would embrace hostage diplomacy as a useful strategy, potentially marking a new era in which much of the world would no longer be fully safe for foreign visitors or dual citizens.
But it is still unclear precisely what lesson Beijing might have drawn.
Some have concluded that, because Canada and the United States were unable to force China to release the two Canadians or meaningfully punish Beijing, this showed that such countries are powerless to prevent further hostage diplomacy.
Others have a different takeaway. “In actuality, it was Beijing who caved and comes out far and away the biggest loser,” Scott Kennedy, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has written.
The United States and Canada had continued to press Ms. Meng’s case despite China’s arrest of the two Canadians, ultimately securing a deferred prosecution agreement from Ms. Meng that “reads like an admission of guilt and leaves her and Huawei in continued legal jeopardy,” Mr. Kennedy wrote.
Canadian leaders also arranged an international declaration, signed by 58 governments, condemning the arbitrary detention of civilians for diplomatic leverage, though it did not name China. Canadian leaders, who had once expressed interest in working with Beijing on trade and investment, have since taken a harder line on the country.
Beijing’s hostage-taking, then, undermined its standing in the West to little obvious gain.
Still, in times of increased tension, when hostile governments feel the stakes are high and they have few tools left at their disposal, innocent civilians may end up paying the price.
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