Brittney Griner’s case shows the limits of American power.


As outrage mounts over Brittney Griner’s continued detention in Russia, many in America have wondered publicly if U.S. officials could be doing more to secure Griner’s release. LeBron James, the argument goes, would have been freed long ago.

The theory that somewhere in the White House there is a lever marked “pull in case of LeBron” — a sort of V.I.P. lane for exercising American power — is grounded in the optimistic belief that such power exists.

In fact, experts say, the reality is simpler but more disturbing: Sometimes there is no LeBron lever. American power is limited, and although political will can channel it, it cannot create more of it. And so for Griner, and other Americans held overseas, the road home may be long, and slow.

In many contexts, American citizenship is still a powerful form of protection overseas. But for countries hostile to the United States, such as Russia, Iran, or Syria — who are already under U.S. sanctions, engaged in direct or proxy conflicts, and locked in complex diplomatic negotiations — that calculus can be different. Taking American prisoners can be a form of leverage: a valuable asset that can be exchanged on the shadowy market of hostage diplomacy.

That puts the United States in a bind. Negotiations can secure the release of Americans. But offering a quid pro quo for prisoners’ release can create an incentive for hostile states and other armed groups to detain even more Americans.

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