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Northwestern author illuminates an evolving feature of the international security landscape

In the post-Cold War era, conflict increasingly involves states and nonstate actors. Finding it difficult to fight those opponents directly, many governments instead target the states that harbor or aid nonstate actors, using military threats and punishment to try to coerce them to stop those groups.

book cover

Northwestern University’s Wendy Pearlman and co-author Boaz Atzili of American University call this strategy “triadic coercion” and investigate it in their new book, Triadic Coercion: Israel’s Targeting of States that Host Nonstate Actors” (Columbia University Press) published earlier this month. 

Examining 70 years of conflict among Israel, nonstate actors and Arab states on Israel’s borders, the book focuses on two questions. First, under what conditions does triadic coercion succeed? Pearlman and Atzili note that traditional discussions of conflict assume that the greater a state’s power relative to its adversary, the more it can impose its will upon it. Turning this logic on its head, they argue that triadic coercion can only succeed against a strong regime. Moving against non-state actors requires political cohesion and institutional capacity, which requires regime strength.

Second, if triadic coercion only works against strong hosts, what explains states’ use of it against weak ones? Here the authors highlight the role of strategic culture. Digging deep into the evolution of Israeli decision-making over time, they demonstrate how a state’s beliefs, values and practices can encourage leaders to embrace triadic coercion as a necessary response to nonstate actors’ attacks, even when that policy is prone to backfire.

“Triadic Coercion” has earned praise from leading scholars. Ami Pedahzur of the University of Texas at Austin calls the book “a milestone in international relations theory.” Robert Jervis, Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University says, “Both policy makers and scholars talk a lot about deterring state sponsors of terrorism, but until now we have lacked a serious study of the topic … This is a major contribution to understanding an important topic.”