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

As anger mounts over Britney Grenner’s continued detention in Russia, many in America have publicly questioned whether US officials could do more to secure Grenner’s release. The argument goes that LeBron James would have been released a long time ago.

The theory that somewhere in the White House there is a “pull in the LeBron case” – a kind of VIP passage for the exercise of 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’s no lever than LeBron. American power is limited, and although political will can direct it, it cannot create more of it. And so for Greiner and other Americans held abroad, the road back home may be long and slow.

In many contexts, US citizenship remains a powerful form of protection abroad. But for countries hostile to the United States, such as Russia, Iran or Syria—which are already under U.S. sanctions, engaged in direct or proxy conflicts, and engaged in complex diplomatic negotiations—these calculations can be different. Taking American prisoners can be a form of leverage: a valuable asset to be traded in the shadowy marketplace of hostage diplomacy.

This puts the United States in a bind. Negotiations can secure the release of the Americans. But offering a prisoner swap could create an incentive for hostile states and other armed groups to detain more Americans.

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