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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Campbell

A Prisoner Dilemma: Resurgence of Hostage Diplomacy in the 2010’s and what it means.

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Research Question: What explains the re-emergence of hostage diplomacy in the late 2010’s? Does it work? What are its implications for its perpetrators and targets?

What is Hostage Diplomacy?

On September 24 Huawei Chief Financial Officer, Meng Wanzhou was released by the Canadian Government after entering a deferred prosecution deal with the United States. Wanzhou was arrested in Canada in December 2018 at the request of the United States, accused of violating sanctions legislation and committing bank fraud (M. Gibson, 2021). Days later, China arrested two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig (known as the “Two Michaels”), accusing both of spying and providing state secrets abroad (J. Yang, 2021). Hours after the United States dropped all charges on Wanzhou, a condition of her admission of wrongdoing, and requested her release, the Two Michaels were also set free (D. Pletka,2021). Though all parties claim there is no connection between the Two Michaels and Meng Wanzhou, it is clear that the two cases were connected, as were their outcomes (M. Gibson, 2021). This is just the latest high-profile example of hostage diplomacy between states and it is a phenomenon on the rise. Hostage diplomacy is nothing new, its origins date back to ancient times and across cultures, but its arbitrary use by authoritarian states against the citizens of other countries has been quite popular since the late 2010’s (D. Pletka, 2021).

Hostage Diplomacy can loosely be described as the taking of hostages or captives for diplomatic purposes (D. Gilbert, and G.R. Piché, 2021). Both the perpetrator and target of hostage diplomacy are states, the detained individuals notwithstanding. It differentiates from hostage taking, in that hostage taking is utilised by non-state actors and thus different responses can be taken (Ibid). A hostage rescue action involving military forces can be pursued in the latter case but not the former as it may lead to armed conflict.

Emergence and Re-Emergence

Following the era of global liberalisation, democratisation and de-colonisation, the practice of taking hostages for diplomatic leverage was largely abandoned as state power was no longer associated with the authority of an individual ruler but rather the authority of its institutions. Thus taking an individual hostage held little to no sway over foreign governments. It wasn’t until the 1970’s when hostage taking re-emerged as a political and military strategy (Ibid). This was largely associated with terrorist activities, as there were few other methods in which terrorist groups could gain leverage against governments. This is not to say hostage diplomacy did not occur between state actors before the 1970’s, a prominent example of this is the hostage crisis between China and the UK from 1967 to 1969 (B. J. Murg, 2020).

The occurrence of hostage diplomacy actions increased following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In the revolution’s aftermath, the new Iranian government famously took over the US Embassy and held its staff hostage for 444 days amidst a diplomatic standoff (D. Pletka, 2021). Ultimately this failed to secure any of Iran’s demands and led to the severance of diplomatic ties between Iran and the US, the US imposing further sanctions on Iran and designating Iran as a State Sponsor of Terrorism (N. Keddie, 2003). However, this event demonstrated that hostage diplomacy was now a tool that a weaker state could use against a more powerful one to gain concessions.

Hostage diplomacy thereafter returned to the global stage but quickly waned following the end of the Cold War and instances of hostage taking by non-state actors became more prominent in the 2000’s and early 2010’s (D. Gilbert and G.R. Piché, 2021). But in the late 2010’s a number of high-profile hostage diplomacy incidents took place across the world, across several countries. This era of Hostage Diplomacy is mostly associated with arresting foreigners on trumped-up charges, usually espionage but minor charges have also been used as justification for a foreigner’s imprisonment, detainment or restricted travel (H. Davidson, 2020). Countries who frequently utilise this strategy are Turkey, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Syria and Egypt, but the worst perpetrators are undeniably China and Iran (J. Sanderson and S. Morgan 2021).

What Explains this Trend?

To understand this trend we need to delve into the domestic and international political developments in these countries that influenced this change in diplomatic strategy. China’s increased reliance on the tactic is highly connected with the implementation of “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” from 2017 onwards, which is often associated with advancing the domestic political agenda of Xi Jinping (E. Wang, 2020). A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2020 revealed that China’s use of hostage diplomacy sharply increased after 2018, with 152 cases of individuals arrested or denied exit from China since 2018, affecting the citizens of 28 countries (S. Thomson, 2020). This roughly correlates to the time of Meng Wanzhou’s arrest.

Turkey’s use of the tactic gained traction following the unsuccessful coup against Erdogan in 2016, with over 50 foreign nationals detained from 2016 to 2018, often under questionable justification (E. Edelman and A. Erdemir, 2021). It has been argued by his opponents that Erdogan uses this strategy to silence his detractors and secure his position by jailing and threatening outsiders (U. Bulut, 2018). The other main hostage taker is Iran, who has mainly been targeting American and European citizens since the ’79 Revolution. However since 2018 other developed states’ citizens have become victims of Tehran’s hostage diplomacy, including dual nationals, with arbitrary detentions growing with each passing year (J. Sanderson, and S. Morgan, 2021).

For other countries the reasons for the tactic’s implementation vary: North Korea lacks soft or diplomatic power assets it can use to influence other states. Venezuela has had to deal with domestic political and economic instability, the autocratic leadership of Maduro and poor relations with its neighbours. Egypt has undergone major internal changes since the Arab Spring with several presidents, military coups and retaliatory arrests against political opponents, foreign journalists and observers. Syria’s civil war, the emergence of ISIS and presence of foreign fighter’s all contribute to hostage diplomacy’s continued use. Russia’s use of hostage diplomacy is linked with the centralisation of power under President Putin and encroaching authoritarianism, poor relations with many of its neighbours linked to its provocative military actions against them. Despite the varying explanations of these countries’ use of hostage diplomacy, the thing that unites them is that they have increased their use of the tactic since the 2010’s, are authoritarian regimes, lack other diplomatic assets and/or are experiencing domestic political turmoil.

Consequences and Benefits of Hostage Diplomacy

As seen by recent cases in both China and Iran, taking part in hostage diplomacy can effectively secure the release of a state’s own citizens in exchange for hostages. Hostage diplomacy can result in financial gains, with Iranian Intelligence Services referring the exchange of detainees as “[being] taken to market” (P. Wintour, 2021). This was particularly true of the Jason Rezaian case where $1.7 billion USD in owed payments to Iran by the US from a broken arms contract was released in addition to Iranian citizens being exchanged (Ibid). European states have reportedly paid millions in ransoms to secure the release of their citizens (Ibid).

It can also lead to some short-term geopolitical gains; it can make one state reconsider certain geopolitical actions or help facilitate the signing of a treaty. An example of this would be how US journalist Jason Rezaian, was released by Iran following the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015 in addition to the aforementioned $1.7 billion payment (D. Gilbert and G.R. Piché, 2021). A similar example occurred when Turkey held two Greek soldiers hostage to pressure the Greek government on maritime territorial disputes and to return eight Turkish soldiers complicit in the 2016 coup (U. Bulut, 2018), but this attempt was far less successful. It also has the advantage of scoring domestic political points in showing how powerful the state is and how capable it is at returning its citizens from hostile states (H. Davidson and M. McGowan, 2020).

However, the advantages of hostage diplomacy are outweighed by the consequences. In the case of China, continued use of hostage diplomacy weakens its image abroad and runs counter to the “peaceful rise” narrative often associated with the PRC’s political, economic and military expansion (M.J. Mazaar and A. Wyne, 2021). Iran’s use of hostage diplomacy for over 40 years has done untold damage to Iran’s reputation on the international stage. Moreover, by citing Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, a consequence of the hostage crisis of the 80’s, the US has banned all of its carrier airlines from flying to Iran. They have issued warnings to their citizens against visiting the country and businesses find it extremely difficult to expand into the country (D. Pletka, 2021).

A similar hit to the Turkish economy has been felt as a result of its hostage diplomacy (largely in the tourism industry), only adding to the country’s current economic troubles (E. Edelman and A. Erdemir, 2021). Fellow NATO allies as well as EU member states are concerned about Turkey’s actions against their citizens and this has led to growing calls to remove Turkey as a NATO member and prevent their application for joining the EU (U. Bulut, 2018). The US and other western countries have recently issued warnings about businesses conducting operations in China, has directly warned about the risk of arbitrary detention to its citizens travelling in China and has amended sanctions legislation to allow the direct targeting of foreign government officials who are implicated in human rights violations, including hostage taking, with asset freezes and travel bans (J. Sanderson and S. Morgan 2021. & D. Pletka, 2021). Most notably, in February 2021 Canada introduced the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations, which has since been signed by 67 states and was seen by Beijing as a direct provocation against China (J. Sanderson and S. Morgan 2021). All of these negatively impact these countries’ diplomatic efforts to build trust and encourage investment.

For countries that suffer from weaknesses in both soft power and public diplomacy, continued use of the strategy will continue to harm its foreign relations. This is evidenced by Canada and Australia, with 58% of Canada’s citizens having a favourable opinion of China in 2005 to only 14% in 2020 in part due to the arbitrary detainment of the Two Michaels (B.J. Murg, 2020). 52% of Australians reported to have a favourable view of China in 2018, but as of 2021 that figure has collapsed to just 16% (Lowy Institute, 2021). The Australian example is admittedly distorted by several diplomatic rows between Australia and China, of which includes the arbitrary arrests of Australians Cheng Lai, Yang Hengjun, Chongyi Feng and Pete Humphrey among others (H. Davidson and M. McGowan, 2020). Today, there are more US citizens being held captive by foreign governments than there are being held by terrorist or militia groups (J. Sanderson and S. Morgan 2021), a huge divergence from the 2000’s and early 2010’s. All indicators seem to suggest that authoritarian states will continue with the strategy for the foreseeable future, as it consolidates the state’s domestic power by showing its citizens that it is tough, that it stands up for its citizens abroad and can effectively detain “foreign spies and agents” (M. Gibson, 2021). Whilst this may gain domestic stability, internationally it only weakens their relationship with other states (A. Klass, 2020). Democratic states rarely detain citizens of another state purely in retribution for the actions of that state or to gain leverage against it. The principles of universal human rights, which is the bedrock of any democratic state, prevent them from breaching the sanctity of those rights without proper legal cause. Thus, democratic states lack any real way to combat this trend (Ibid). At least not alone.


There are a number of different explanations as to why the practice is becoming more common. However, it primarily functions as a show of force to secure the loyalty of domestic political forces even if it comes at the expense of foreign relations. The resurgence of hostage diplomacy can often be linked with states undergoing internal crisis, have authoritarian governments or lack any peaceable means of influencing other states.

But in large part, diplomats and academics seem to agree that whilst it may bring on some short term gains it is not an effective diplomatic strategy as it harms long-term goals (M.J. Mazaar and A. Wyne, 2021). Some states use the practice to deter others from belligerent actions, others to shame and humiliate great powers and exert their own influence. Some are simply authoritarian states that arrest threats to the regime and foreign citizens happen to get caught in the crossfire. Sometimes the practice is a tit-for-tat response to the imprisonment of a state’s own citizens abroad. But most states, regardless of ideology or government type, will utilise the practice to arrest foreign agents accused of committing acts of espionage.

But even with the negative repercussions for a state’s foreign policy, international reputation and diplomatic efforts, these aspects are not intended to be strengthened by the policy. It is primarily targeted at the domestic audience of the state, rather than foreign actors or citizens (B.J. Murg, 2020). Democratic states are already in the process of creating new international legislation aimed at preventing this type of behaviour and are increasingly standing up against hostage takers. Time will tell if their efforts will succeed, but for now they remain unable to prevent hostage taking by state actors and their attempts to name and shame have so far failed to achieve anything. Only by working together does the international community stand a chance against these few authoritarian regimes.


lJ. Sanderson and S. Morgan, Hostage Diplomacy: Is Travel to Some Countries Simply Not Worth the Risk?, Melbourne, Australia: Australian Institute of International Affairs, 2021, 26th November. [Online] Available: Hostage Diplomacy: Is Travel to Some Countries Simply Not Worth the Risk? - Australian Institute of International Affairs - Australian Institute of International Affairs D. Gilbert and G.R. Piché, Caught Between Giants: Hostage Diplomacy and Negotiation Strategy for Middle Powers, Vol 5, Issue 1. Austin, Texas: Texas National Security Review, 2021. [Online] Available: Caught Between Giants: Hostage Diplomacy and Negotiation Strategy for Middle Powers - Texas National Security Review ( J. Yang, Hostage Diplomacy rears its head in Beijing, as Meng Wanzhou case reaches a close, Washington, D.C: Citizen Power Initiatives for China, 2021, 21st September. [Online] Available: Hostage Diplomacy rears its head in Beijing, as Meng Wanzhou case reaches a close - Citizen Power Initiatives for China ( K. R. Nossal, Playing the hostage card: the Meng Wanzhou & Michael Kovrig cases, Sydney, Australia: The Interpreter (Lowy Institute), 2018, 13th December. [Online] Available: Playing the hostage card: the Meng Wanzhou & Michael Kovrig cases ( B. J. Murg, Of Hostage Diplomacy and History: China and American Political Polarization, Phnom Penh, Cambodia: The Diplomat, 2020, 19th October. [Online] Available: Of Hostage Diplomacy and History: China and American Political Polarization – The Diplomat D. Pletka, Hostage diplomacy is back. It requires a forceful response, Washington, D.C: American Enterprise Institute, 2021, 5th October. [Online] Available: Hostage diplomacy is back. It requires a forceful response. | American Enterprise Institute - AEI I. Parmeter, Iran: Could Australia’s hostage diplomacy have been better?, Sydney, Australia: The Interpreter (Lowy Institute), 2021, 1st December. [Online] Available: Iran: Could Australia’s hostage diplomacy have been better? | The Interpreter (lowyinstitute. org) M. Gibson, Why China’s hostage diplomacy will likely continue, United Kingdom: The New Statesman, 2021, 29th September. [Online] Available: Why China’s hostage diplomacy will likely continue - New Statesman E. Edelman and A. Erdemir, Turkey is Collateral Damage in Erdoğan’s Hostage Diplomacy: The Dispatch, 2021, 29th November. [Online] Available: Turkey is Collateral Damage in Erdoğan’s Hostage Diplomacy (

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