Last week, the Biden administration tapped Bill Richardson, retired Democratic politician with a distinguished résumé, to travel to Moscow to negotiate the release of American citizens Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner. Whelan, a former Marine, was arrested in Russia on espionage charges in 2018 and sentenced to sixteen years in prison in 2020 but maintains that he’s innocent. Griner is a WNBA star who also plays for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg. Russian authorities originally arrested her on a drug charge in February, but she wasn’t arraigned until July 7. Though she pleaded guilty, given the larger context of the U.S.-Russian relations and the general absence of the rule of law in Russia, the authenticity of the accusation and the integrity of the trial are at best suspicious. Whelan’s and Griner’s cases are just two in an emerging pattern of hostage diplomacy, in which liberal democracies find themselves divided when despotic regimes imprison their citizens to extract policy concessions. They are yet to come up with a satisfactory solution.
Before Griner, the most high-profile recent case of hostage diplomacy was that of Otto Warmbier, the 21-year-old University of Virginia student who was sentenced to fifteen years in a North Korean labor camp for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster. A year into his sentence, he was returned to the United States in a vegetative state and died six days later. Throughout the seventeen months of his captivity, many high-profile incumbent and former U.S. officials, including Richardson and Secretaries of State John Kerry and Rex Tillerson, tried to secure his release, expending government resources in the process, and also at least considering changing American policy to placate the Norks.
This is the first dilemma of hostage diplomacy: On one side are the domestic political, psychological, and emotional imperatives of saving a young man rotting in a North Korean labor camp or a basketball star whose only real crime was being American at the moment this country decided to stand up for freedom in Ukraine. On the other side are the international political and larger moral imperatives of not letting the fate of one unfortunate soul ruin a policy designed to protect the safety of millions. The state’s responsibility to a citizen and the interests of the nation clash.
While North Korea might be the cruelest practitioner of hostage diplomacy, Iran is the most prolific. The regime in Tehran regularly takes citizens of democratic countries as hostages. Each time, the regime manages to extract some softening of its interlocutor’s policy in exchange for returning the hostage. Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who holds American and Iranian citizenships, was one such case. In return for his release, along with four other Americans, Iran got $400 million of its frozen assets released, $1.3 billion in additional interest, and seven Iranians convicted of violating sanctions received clemency. Australian-British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert was released in 2020 in exchange for the release of Iranians convicted of terrorism in Thailand. Xiyue Wang, a Princeton Ph.D. student, was released in 2019 after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directly intervened to secure his return in return for the release of an Iranian scientist charged with the illegal export of biological materials to Iran.
Iran has good reasons for its hostage diplomacy strategy. Reportedly, the Obama administration, as a part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, secretly paid Iran $400 million to get American citizens released. While cash-for-hostage is more cringeworthy on the surface, Iran has gotten other, perhaps even more grotesque, concessions. Nineteen years after Ali Vakili-Rad assassinated the exiled former prime minister of Iran, Shapour Bakhtiar, in France, the French government released him in a 2010 prisoner swap. In exchange for Belgian and Swedish citizens held in Iran, Belgium is about to finalize the release of an Iranian diplomat convicted of plotting to bomb an anti-regime rally in Prais. The message that Iranian operatives are getting is that, even if caught, they stand a decent chance of returning home after just a few years behind bars.
This is the second dilemma of hostage diplomacy: It creates a cycle of terrorism. Hostage-taking regimes like those in Iran and North Korea spend a considerable amount of their country’s modest GDPs committing violence against civilians home and abroad. Some of that violence includes the taking of hostages, which sometimes earns them ransoms, which they can put toward schemes to take more hostages and commit other heinous crimes.
Hostage diplomacy has been proliferating for three reasons. First, it offers an advantage to tyrannical regimes that can fabricate charges or otherwise manipulate their criminal injustice systems. The United States or Australia would not put drugs in the bag of an Iranian or Russian citizen to exert policy concessions or send someone to a labor camp over a poster. And even if they did, the governments of Iran and Russia would not care.
Second, taking hostages is a low-cost, low-risk way of making rich, powerful democracies lose focus and reduce pressure on oppressive regimes. It’s time-tested with positive results.
Third, the worsening of diplomatic relations between the free world and the unfree world is making it easier for autocracies to anger the free world, and China has joined the hostage-taking club too. China and Russia would have liked to maintain positive images so they could keep fooling free nations into treating them like normal countries, but their recent unabashed aggression and chauvinism have made that harder. The deterioration of relations lowers the price of taking hostages: Taking hostages can’t do much damage to a regime that has little if any goodwill to lose.
Even if Richardson were as skilled and nimble a diplomat as George Shultz, dispatching a mediator time and again to minimize the concessions we’ll give up for a hostage isn’t a solution to the problem. It’s just a way of exacerbating it slowly.
Setting aside the current cases, the United States needs a guiding principle to deal with hostage situations. It is worth considering that, just as the United States does not negotiate with terrorists, it might be time to announce that, going forward, the United States (and any other free country that wants to join) will not negotiate with kidnapper states. This proclamation, of course, would only be worth the ability of any particular administration to stick to it and resist popular pressure and the understandable campaigns by the families of hostages. Once the rule is broken, the proclamation becomes worthless.
As a precaution, a no-negotiation proclamation should probably come with much stronger warnings against traveling to countries known to take hostages. Stronger warnings would accurately reflect the facts as they stand: As with Warmbier, the United States isn’t always able to rescue hostages in time, and it is primarily the American travelers, not the United States government, that take on the most risk in these situations. And last, as a matter of fairness, this new policy should exempt current hostages.
Here’s hoping Griner is dazzling WNBA fans again soon and that Whelan reunites with his family. But as we consider their cases, we should be wary of what we’re willing to give up to bring her home, and mindful that Americans travel to Russia and other hostile authoritarian countries at their own risk.