Gunboat diplomacy - defined by Mandel as 'the demonstration, threat, or use of limited naval force for political objectives' - can be considered a relevant branch of deterrent and coercive diplomacy. This particular form of diplomacy incorporates elements of both deterrence – preservation of the status quo – and coercive diplomacy – demonstration of the capability and resolution to inflict 'unacceptable punishment' should there be no alteration of the status quo – and thus is flexible enough to be considered for application in the event of an impending or escalating crisis. The ease with which naval forces can be mobilised for military action allows for constant revision and attunement of the intentions and demonstration of resolve of the assailant.
As gunboat diplomacy embraces elements from both deterrent and coercive diplomacy, naturally it would also be saddled with the limitations of both approaches. Mandel seeks to question two aspects that would affect the effectiveness of gunboat diplomacy: restraint and credibility. Self-restraint (a crucial element of deterrence) is imperative in a sense that the assailant should adopt limited force to achieve limited objectives to prevent excessive coercion, which might backfire and harden the resistance of the victim, thereby escalating the crisis. Credibility is equally important since without convincing the victim that actual, potentially devastating force could be applied by the assailant (a crucial prerequisite for coercive diplomacy), non-compliance would be a likely result. Mandel then proceeds to test several hypotheses to examine the 'relative utility' of gunboat diplomacy as opposed to other variants of diplomacy.
Mandel's tests reveal that gunboat diplomacy is more effective when definitive force is employed, characterised by an informed resolution backed with commensurate naval force to exploit 'speed and surprise to create a momentary and local superiority', thereby creating a fait accompli that puts the victim on the defensive, burdening it with the decision to resort to violence. Also, deterrent gunboat diplomacy is more effective than its compellent counterpart. The former seeks to reinforce rather than alter the victim's behaviour (which would entail certain risks of hardening resistance and national galvanisation of the victimised populace to further dissuade their leaders from complying); also, compellent diplomacy demands a positive response rather than 'simple abstinence' – there may be difficulty in conveying intentions of limited means and objectives when the victim may interpret otherwise and thus perceive a show-of-force as an act of provocation.
Mandel also reveals that assailants who have recently engaged in military conflict in the victim's region are more likely to succeed in achieving its objectives, since past involvement clearly displays the willingness to intervene militarily as the precedent has already been set. Without prior engagement, the assailant might suffer from a lack of credibility as 'perpetual inertia and rigidity' of the victim prevent it from perceiving outside threats as potent enough to endanger state interests. Military preparedness – demonstrated by military expenditure – contributes to credibility by displaying the resolve and propensity to employ actual force if necessary. Mandel thus notes that assailants with higher military preparedness and spending than their victims are more likely to achieve their objectives via gunboat diplomacy. Political stability and domestic support also factor into Mandel's considerations: the more politically divided and unstable the assailant , the lesser the likelihood of success.
However, one shocking result from Mandel's tests is that even when the assailant has a considerable power advantage over its victim, or if the assailant is a superpower, there is inconclusive evidence that gunboat diplomacy will consistently produce desired results.
Mandel's article puts forth a convincing argument that gunboat diplomacy remains relevant to this day, but must be tailored according to the sensitivities and unique circumstances of the crisis. Contemporary conflicts are not always land-locked, and given the proliferation of naval technology, gunboat diplomacy may continue to serve as a flexible option that can be attuned to the shifting nature of the crisis. However, Mandel does not address the question of legitimacy: it has become increasingly difficult to gain legitimacy for gunboat diplomacy due to lack of unity of action in the international community (mostly due to vested entrenched interests that may be compromised by a shift in the status quo), not to mention that the ease of deployment of naval forces induces assailants to act unilaterally.
This study illuminates several aspects of gunboat diplomacy that prove to be highly relevant in the Iranian nuclear crisis: the USA has employed compellent diplomacy to force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, but refuses to negotiate with it - without diplomatic relations, the act of deploying aircraft carriers near Iran only serves to convey provocation, hardening Iranian resistance and galvanising the nation behind its leaders. The invasion of Iraq has set a precedent, but increasing political partisanship and divisiveness at home, coupled with the failure to communicate limitations of means and objectives, has diluted any advantages the USA has over Iran. It is useful to remind ourselves that deterrent and coercive diplomacy only work when we assume the rationality of actors – a belligerent leader such as Ahmadinejad who believes in perpetuating nuclear apocalypse so that salvation will arrive can hardly be considered 'rational'.
Defining the parameters of the conflict is a fundamental concern for both the US and Iran: obviously, it is in neither of our interests for the Middle East to combust in flames - the fires of Kurdish secessionism, civil war in Lebanon and Iraq and the ensuing instability of the region (in terms of economic investment in its oil sector) will engulf and consume Iran whole.
Though I absolutely detest the suggestion that negotiations with Iran are actually of any worth, coercive diplomacy has to be backed by communication of our limited objectives and means. Let it be known that foisting democracy on Iran is not our objective, that we are not interested in perpetuating the collapse of the Iranian regime through unlimited military power.
But also let it be known that we will make good on our promises to cripple an already dismembered Iranian economy through decisive strikes on its oil and gas pipelines, that we will stand by as spectators when our dear "friends", the Saudis unleash large quantities of oil to drive oil prices down, that we will continue to persist in dissuading investors, banks and nations from ever spending a single rial - oh wait, they don't accept that anymore - dollar on Iran. The Russians and Chinese have begun to pull out, and the Indians aren't terribly enthusiastic. In short, to show that we can hurt you and we know how to. First to feel the pain will be those sneaky operatives of yours in Iraq, and trust me, Patraeus is no Abizaid.
Mandel helpfully suggests that when the assailant allows the victim a way out of the crisis that avoids humiliating the latter, the stand-off tends to de-escalate in intensity. By offering to provide economic aid and technological expertise in upgrading and maintaining oil and gas infrastructure on a strictly review-and-readjust protocol, securing Russian help in building nuclear processing plants (the Russians know better than to export capabilities that will allow Iran to refine weapons-grade uranium) and basically averting the implosion of Iran's regime - we can then demand for the steady dismantlement of the nuclear programme, cessation of funding to insurgents and militias in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.
And of course, there's always the handy naval option should Iran misbehave. The burden of initiating violence or reconciliation - if they so choose - is now placed on their shoulders.
As trish insisted, "victory" has lost its meaning in this conflict:
I believe victory has long since ceased to be an issue. I'm surprised anyone bothers to use the word. I certainly don't know how victory as a clear, delimiting objective can even be applied to on-going operations. I'm not sure anyone else knows that either.
The parameters of the conflict have broadened across boundaries far more intangible than any pre-1945 wars could have been contained within. There probably isn't any sort of chance one could adopt an all-encompassing strategy that - in the rarest of confluence of circumstances and variables - would actually constitute a clear "victory". I recently attended a lecture whereby the speaker asked for opinions as to when the Cold War ended.
Obviously, most of the audience would have agreed with the speaker that 1989 was the marker of the end of hostilities; yet I ventured a guess: that it hasn't truly ended, but metamorphosised into a low-intensity conflict between the US and Russia. Personally, I believe that this tension between the powers has been a mainstay, and will continue to be so.
But my suggestion drew snarky responses. What was "victory" in terms of the Cold War defined as? Not the utter annihilation of all ex-Soviet satellites, or the purging of KGB (now unofficially the FSB) agents throughout the world, or the decapitation of the Soviet Union's leadership. "Victory" was defined as a set of limited objectives in which both powers managed to avert a thermonuclear holocaust, prevent escalation of the stand-off into a bloody World War fought on multiple proxy fronts that could have led to economic debilitation on both sides (though obviously the Soviet Union first before us) and needlessly cost innocent lives in the long term.
The speaker responded, though, with a question: "So you're saying that the War is psychological?" To a considerable extent, yes. I am very much convinced that this battle for "hearts and minds" - not just among Arabs, but those treasonous bastards that rufus has pointed out (that is, if they can still be convinced) - is first and foremost a psychological one. Already, our enemies have taken to narratives and netwar, fighting the propaganda front much more effectively than us, turning public opinion against the CinC.
"Victory" is never so clear-cut, and we have to be prepared to hunker down for the long haul. westhawk echoes this sentiment:
...now the Iraqis have to realize that the U.S.-Iranian confrontation is equally permanent. Whether the U.S. is allied with Iraq or not, and whether U.S. military forces are in Iraq or not, the U.S. is in a permanent, grinding struggle with Iran for domination of the Persian Gulf region. Iraq’s Shi’ite and Kurdish leaders have to get used to that reality and make their calculations accordingly.
Islamic terrorism (or Islamism, if you so prefer) will always be a viable threat: I believe it is in our mutual interest to do all we can to mitigate the potency of this threat so as to render it low-intensity. That will be as "victorious" as we will be able to feel. Psychologically, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that "complete victory" is easily attained through force and force alone - too high standards work as a double-edged sword: defeatocrats will always point out the failure to meet these expectations as a justification to accept defeat.