The Paradox of Red Lines: Political Bluff or Genuine Threat?

In an era of shifting geopolitical power, the concept of drawing "red lines" has become a critical yet paradoxical instrument in international diplomacy, often serving as both a deterrent and a potential catalyst for conflict

by Sededin Dedovic
The Paradox of Red Lines: Political Bluff or Genuine Threat?
© Alexi J. Rosenfeld / getty Images

In March 2024, U.S. President Joe Biden warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against a ground offensive in Rafah: "There cannot be another 30,000 dead on the Palestinian side," he said in an interview with U.S. television channel MSNBC.

"That is a red line," reports Deutsche Welle. In February 2023, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, threatened China: If Beijing supplied Moscow with weapons for its aggressive war in Ukraine, it would mean crossing a red line for the EU.

Vladimir Putin described possible Ukrainian NATO membership in a similar way just before the war began. For Chinese President Xi Jinping, the red line is a formal declaration of Taiwan's independence. Benjamin Netanyahu literally drew his red line in the nuclear dispute with Iran with a marker.

In September 2012, the Israeli Prime Minister warned at the UN General Assembly that Tehran was close to completing an atomic bomb and underscored this with a graphic showing a threshold that should not be crossed under any circumstances.

Putin described possible Ukrainian NATO membership in a similar way just before the war began.

An alarm for the existing world order

Drawing red lines, whether with a marker or verbally, has significantly increased in international politics in recent years.

According to an analysis by the American data journalism portal Smart Politics, only two U.S. presidents before Barack Obama publicly spoke about it. Obama himself used this rhetorical figure eleven more times - his warning to Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad about using chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war is particularly well-known.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant© Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

For conflict researcher Anne Holper from Viadrina University in Frankfurt (Oder), the increasing drawing of red lines is primarily due to the changing geopolitical balance of power.

According to Holper, hegemonic powers signal: "Here we have reached a boundary that must not be crossed to preserve our order system." The use of chemical weapons in Syria, a potential atomic bomb in Tehran's hands, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine are taboo violations that have fundamentally shaken this world order.

"Whenever an order that believes it is stable feels challenged, it is most likely to draw a red line because anger is greatest then," says the conflict researcher. "That is when you feel most challenged and compelled to show supposed strength."

Deterrent bluff with unintended effects

This often includes the threat of serious consequences.

However, what exactly that should look like often remains unclear. "The intention is deterrence," says Anne Holper. "Almost always." Essentially, it is a political bluff. "Because you do not want to impose a harsh sanction that would have to follow in case of a violation." Thus, Biden left open what exactly the U.S.

reaction to an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah could be. The only threat was "reducing military aid" to Israel. Shortly afterward, Washington rhetorically retreated - probably to avoid being forced to act: "The U.S. does not believe that Israel's actions in Rafah constitute a 'major ground operation' crossing a red line for President Joe Biden," the White House said.

For Anne Holper, drawing red lines is therefore a "paradoxical instrument: you actually do not want to go that far, but your opponent forces you to when they cross the line." But if this has no or only weak consequences, "then you suffer a loss of credibility and power that can be much more serious than that caused by the actual offense." Because one's supposed strength is perceived as weakness and lack of determination.

Fighting against shifting boundaries

But why are red lines constantly being drawn? Because the distribution of power in the world is currently fundamentally changing. The rise of Russia, China, and some countries in the global south is challenging the current world order and re-exploring the boundaries of what is possible, explains Anne Holper.

Above all, the powers aiming to preserve the current world order want to prevent "shifting boundaries" because "we know that if some do it now, many will do it later." At the same time, this very change in power relations means that boundaries can no longer always and everywhere be consistently maintained.

It also shows the other side to what extent taboo violations can be tolerated. And which countermeasures you are prepared to take yourself - but also which you are not. From the perspective of conflict research, it is therefore not wise to publicly announce red lines that might be used as a deterrent mechanism: "Because mistakes are usually made when formulating or communicating deterrence." You can also be drawn into really undesirable escalation. "So 'hands off!'", advises Anne Holper.