“America will never make concessions to terrorists,” U.S. President Ronald Reagan proclaimed in 1985. “Once we head down that path, there would be … no end to the bloody ransom all civilized nations must pay.” In the 1970s and 1980s, rebels and terrorists took thousands hostage on airplanes and in embassies around the world, demanding economic and political concessions in exchange for hostages’ lives. When dozens of Americans were taken hostage aboard a hijacked Trans World Airlines flight from Athens to Rome, Reagan faced an age-old dilemma, which has come to plague wealthy democracies. If leaders refuse hostage-takers’ demands, harm may befall their citizens. If they concede, they can expect more demands to follow.

Reagan’s words form the crux of the United States’ supposed “no concessions” policy for hostage situations. At the heart of the policy is the principle of deterrence by denial—preventing an unwanted action by making that action unlikely to succeed. Hostage-takers are denied the benefits of hostage-taking, the logic goes, if targets refuse to make concessions. In theory, if perpetrators learn that hostage-taking is unprofitable, they will cease taking captives.

But the no concessions policy has never deterred hostage-taking, because the United States has never actually followed it. The U.S. government and its allies often make concessions to win the freedom of captives. The policy represents a collective action failure that would be impossible—and painful—to enforce. By refusing to respond once hostages are in captivity, rather than stopping the crime at its source, a no concessions approach mistakes denying benefits for prevention. It puts the onus on targets rather than the hostage-takers themselves.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration recently announced two policies that represent a shift in how the government hopes to deter future hostage-taking, unveiling travel warnings for Americans venturing overseas and promising tougher sanctions on hostage-taking states. While these steps are commendable, they do not go far enough. With new forms of hostage-taking on the rise, the United States and its allies must abandon a rhetorical commitment to the policies of denial and instead prioritize prevention and punishment.

Hostage Diplomacy

Hostage-taking has been in the news since February, when WNBA star Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia and charged with international drug smuggling. Her wrongful detention has drawn national attention to the practice of hostage diplomacy, wherein authoritarian governments use their criminal justice systems to take foreigners hostage. Disguising hostage-takings as legitimate arrests, states such as China, Iran, and Russia coerce substantial concessions from democratic governments eager to bring their citizens home. Biden has declared state-led hostage-taking to be a national emergency, calling it “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”

Hostage diplomacy has plagued U.S. allies for years. In 2016, Iranian authorities arrested British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and charged her with espionage. She was imprisoned in Iran for six years and released only after the British government paid Iran a 400 million pound debt. In 2018, Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Chinese telecom giant Huawei, for committing bank fraud and violating Iran sanctions. Days later, China retaliated with the spurious arrest of two Canadian citizens—Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, or the “two Michaels.” Their years-long imprisonment ended hours after Meng was released from house arrest in Vancouver. In the last decade, the governments of Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Turkey have used American, Australian, British, Canadian, and Japanese prisoners for leverage. The hostages include Siamak Namazi, imprisoned in Iran since 2015; Paul Whelan, imprisoned in Russia since 2018; and Austin Tice, missing in Syria for the last decade. The Kovrig, Spavor, and Zaghari-Ratcliffe cases suggest that victims are released only once painful concessions are made.

The U.S. government and its allies often make concessions to win the freedom of captives.

Predictably, the surge in hostage diplomacy has revived the concessions debate. On the one hand, concessions can win hostages’ freedom. On the other, they reward illegal behavior, fill adversaries’ coffers, and—in some cases—constitute a crime, by providing material support for terrorism. While evidence is thin, some research demonstrates that concessions increase future attacks. Negotiating with hostage-takers therefore presents a strategic and moral dilemma. Today’s deal could set the stage for tomorrow’s arrest. And it is hard to argue that there is any moral equivalence between, for instance, an American Olympic gold medalist inadvertently carrying trace amounts of cannabis and a notorious arms dealer who enabled insurgents and warlords. Quickly agreeing to demands, moreover, invites adversaries to ask for more. After the U.S. State Department publicized that it had made a “substantial offer” in exchange for Griner and Whelan, reports surfaced that the Russians demanded additional prisoners in return.

Critics thus urge a return to the no concessions policy, which in fact has never existed. True, the U.S. government does not pay ransoms to designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations. But the U.S. government does engage in prisoner swaps, facilitate private ransom payments, and condone kidnap and ransom insurance. The U.S. government also allows other governments to make concessions on the United States’ behalf. 

Even if the United States could uphold its putative no concessions commitment, deterrence by denial requires collective action that’s doomed to fail. In 2013, in response to kidnapping by the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and the Taliban, leaders of the G-8 countries signed a joint communiqué rejecting paying ransoms. While the United States and United Kingdom refused to make concessions to free Islamic State (ISIS) captives, three government signatories to the pledge—France, Germany, and Italy—reportedly paid substantial ransoms to the group within months of signing. The collective pledge proved meaningless when these countries’ citizens’ lives were on the line. As long as someone is willing to pay—and there is always someone willing to pay—hostage-taking will continue.

Paradigm shift

Hostage policy should focus on preventing hostage-taking before it occurs, and when that fails, on punishing perpetrators. This much-needed shift toward deterrence by punishment entails promising such severe consequences for hostage-taking that no rational actor would take hostages in the first place. It shifts the conversation away from the impossible utilitarian dilemma that forces us to choose between today’s hostages and the potential hostages of the future, and instead focuses on the states that violate international law.

Historically, two approaches have curbed hostage-taking. The first approach is prevention, or removing the conditions that allow hostage-taking to occur. In the 1960s and 1970s, an aircraft was hijacked every five and a half days. After airlines agreed to X-ray passengers’ luggage, aerial hostage-taking plummeted. Similarly, after a spate of terrorist kidnappings, the Reagan administration banned Americans from traveling to Lebanon, a surefire way to prevent them from being kidnapped there.

The Biden administration has taken a first step toward prevention. In July, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced new travel advisories for countries where Americans are wrongfully detained. Travel advisories for Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela now feature a “D” to indicate risk of wrongful or unlawful detention. The label affirms that the U.S. government considers those countries’ legal systems to be untrustworthy and their territory unsafe, cautioning Americans to think twice before visiting them.

The second approach is punishment, or imposing costs on perpetrators. Governments punish kidnappers by launching hostage recovery missions. Colombia’s anti-kidnapping unit is credited with a massive reduction in kidnappings in one of the world’s hostage-taking hotspots. A decade after the unit was formed, kidnapping had fallen 62 percent from its height of more than 3,000 kidnappings per year.

The club of countries that contend with hostage diplomacy should coordinate.

Both the U.S. Army Delta Force and Navy SEAL Team Six count hostage recovery among their primary missions—and they don’t leave witnesses behind. When military force is imprudent, the United States has pursued legal punishments. Former President Barack Obama pledged to extradite and try foreign kidnappers in U.S. courts. Former President Donald Trump continued this policy: after his administration arranged for ISIS kidnapper El Shafee Elsheikh to stand trial in Virginia, the terrorist received eight concurrent life sentences in U.S. prison.

Military missions and criminal convictions aren’t the only way to mete out punishment. Sanctioning states can be effective as well. With authority created by the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, President Biden announced new sanctions that target anyone responsible for or complicit in hostage-taking and wrongful detention of Americans abroad. In other words, sanctions can be placed not just on national leaders but on actors such as prison guards or judges, who in most cases would receive no personal benefit from hostage-taking. Punishment can include both financial sanctions and visa restrictions.

None of these measures will succeed on their own. Sanctions seldom achieve their goals, and travel warnings lack bite. Still, the administration’s policies represent a crucial first step toward curbing hostage diplomacy through conditional consequences. They punish perpetrators, not hostage families. Crucially, they jettison the tired concessions debate and shift the focus onto transgressors.

All Together Now

The club of countries that frequently contend with hostage diplomacy should coordinate on prevention and punishment. In 1979, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages. The convention defined “the offence of taking hostages” and criteria for punishing perpetrators. It is unclear, however, whether the convention’s definition of hostage-taking—or the prohibition on arbitrary detentions—applies to the cases at hand. Targeted states should establish that hostage diplomacy is, in fact, a form of hostage-taking, and therefore violates international law.

Once definitions are established, targets should coordinate on prevention and punishment strategies. In the wake of the two Michaels’ ordeal, Canada championed the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations, which calls on states to advance research toward policy solutions. Sixty-eight countries, including the United States, have endorsed the declaration. The United Kingdom could also emerge as a valuable U.S. partner on the issue, given that the British Parliament recently launched an inquiry into state hostage-taking. Other targets of Chinese and Iranian hostage diplomacy would likely be open to working with the U.S. government on developing policies to keep their citizens safe. The Summit for Democracy—the global gathering of democratic government leaders, civil society, and the business community—would be an obvious venue for the United States to work with allies on hostage diplomacy, given its threat to human rights and consonance with authoritarianism.

In pursuing international cooperation, leaders should avoid making another hollow no concessions pledge. Instead, the club of democratic nations should coordinate to punish perpetrators through multilateral sanctions, extradition, prosecution, and other processes in line with international law. Specifically, the Biden administration should follow on its success rallying international support for sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine to coordinate multilateral sanctions for hostage-taking.

Finally, the private sector could support prevention and punishment. After Griner’s arrest, one would be hard-pressed to imagine WNBA players returning to Russia to supplement their income in the off-season. Sports leagues and competitions should also boycott tournaments where athletes cannot safely travel. This isn’t limited to athletics; multinational companies should limit their business in countries where U.S. citizens aren’t safe.

Punishing government hostage-takers is difficult. But imposing costs and consequences is crucial to curbing this devastating trend. The Biden administration’s new policies represent a smart first step toward punishing autocrats for taking Americans hostage. But more must be done—far too many lives hang in the balance.

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  • DANIELLE GILBERT is a Rosenwald Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.
  • More By Danielle Gilbert