Carlos Ghosn

Argo was a Ben Affleck film based on the true story of how a little CIA ingenuity and stealth freed a group of hiding humans.

A CIA team planned a low-tech, high-risk fake Hollywood movie production to sneak Americans out of Tehran. If caught, the Americans would have faced assured injustice and quickly turned from fugitives to hostages of the new Iranian regime. From Iran to China, Afghanistan to Bolivia, the story is a familiar one: Desperate individuals sometimes need to escape a foreign country’s authorities and get beyond a nation’s jurisdiction.

All countries—whether revolutionary regimes or democratic governments—pursue sovereign justice. National judicial systems reign supreme in the international system. Nations get to decide what to do inside their borders and who is guilty or innocent within their countries. President Trump’s foreign-policy doctrine defending the primacy of national sovereignty further cements this custom into practice.

In 1980s Iran, the newly formed interim government sought flimsy justice for what Iranian student revolutionaries believed were historic U.S. human-rights transgressions. The new and freshly violent Iran wanted retribution, remuneration and just plain revenge against America.

When governments persecute foreigners, the individuals targeted are often subjected to unjust accusations, detention, judging, sentencing, and incarceration—or worse. Iran is an extreme example of foreign sovereign justice run amok.

To this day, policy victims in foreign countries abound, while ways to avoid foreign injustice are limited. Here are some options:

Escape: The Argo solution was rare and extreme. Diplomacy is a much more common approach to freeing those in foreign detention. But what happens when the CIA is unavailable or diplomacy is unsuccessful at getting a foreign national’s release?

There is always escape. Ask Carlos Ghosn.

The Brazilian-born Lebanese auto executive showed that even Japan’s modern technology and surveillance tactics can be outwitted. Facing charges of financial wrongdoing in Japan, his recent Houdini-like, perfectly planned and executed disappearing act used former military special forces teams and human-sized anvil cases to leave Japanese authorities slack-jawed. Lebanon, which has no extradition treaty with Japan, is now heralding and housing the ex-con.

Exchange: A Taliban trade for two Westerners held for three years led to a ceasefire and a potential peace agreement with America. The deal that Trump officials cut will allow U.S. troops to come home and the administration to save face. Yes, it’s partly a hostage negotiation—something the United States says it does not do—but three Afghan insurgents were returned to the Taliban.

Hostage trades are highly controversial, as when President Obama swapped five Guantanamo prisoners for Taliban-held Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an accused deserter. Despite the Bergdahl controversy, hostage exchanges take place regularly. Two Americans who spent years at Club Jihad are now free.

As wars end, the practice of trading prisoners is a regular, more-acceptable practice. The remaims of POWs often are part of a package for trade-deal concessions or improved relations. North Korea returned the remains of American GIs from the Korean Conflict, which were used as a trading chit by Kim Jong Un to entice Trump to the Singapore summit.

China is hoping to work a similar deal with Canada for the Huawei executive arrested for breaking international sanctions on Iran. But first, the Chinese government needs a few pawns and a little more leverage before they can force a trade. For that reason, China has been applying economic pressure on Canada while also finding thin excuses to arrest Canadian citizens. Imprisoned hostages and trade could force Ottawa’s hand in this high-stakes game of prisoner poker.

Exile: Bolivia is trying to get back at both Mexico and Spain for harboring and transporting criminals and political prisoners out of the country and into exile. One man’s criminal, however, can be another country’s former president. Evo Morales found his way to a safe haven in Mexico, and the new Bolivian government wants him back. In the meantime, La Paz is using its few diplomatic levers to force a return, starting with the expulsion of Mexican and Spanish diplomats from Bolivia.

Rendition: The practice of rendition is where one country decides another country has an asset or a wanted criminal within its borders, but disregards that country’s sovereign rights. Powerful countries just go and get their perp out of a foreign nation giving harbor. Kidnapping, basically. Though illegal, international courts lack the authority or enforcement tools to stop it.

In the case of the Nissan auto executive, high-flying CEOs are known for their chutzpah and survival skills. Japan should have been aware that creative corporate cowboys are hard to wrangle, with or without another nation’s intervention.

Convicted criminals abroad certainly cannot count on U.S. presidential pardons or commutations to have an effect. Internationally, might is what often makes right. When diplomatic, intelligence and military tools fail, however, a little stealth can be pretty effective.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).