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Analysis: Red lines in politics, reasonable or counter-productive, what happens if they do not adhere to the set limit?

Analysis: Red lines in politics, reasonable or counter-productive, what happens

Setting the limit to red lines is used in politics to tell opponents not to cross them. But do they really adhere to this limit? And what if not?

In March 2024, US President Joe Biden warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the dangers of a ground offensive in Rafah: "Because another 30,000 Palestinians cannot be killed," he declared in an interview with an American television station. , MSNBC. "The limit must not be crossed."

In February 2023, the EU's foreign minister, Josep Borrel, threatened China that if Beijing sent weapons to Moscow for the war against Ukraine, then this would mean for the EU that the border had been crossed.

The same, Vladimir Putin called the possible membership of Ukraine in NATO, shortly before the start of the war. And for Chinese President Xi Jinping, the limit of publicly formulated tolerance is crossed if Taiwan formally declares independence.

In the nuclear weapons dispute with Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew the line very figuratively, drawing a red line with a pen. In September 2012, he warned before the UN General Assembly that in a short time Tehran will finish building the atomic bomb, and pointed this out by means of a graph, in which he drew the line, which should not be crossed in any way .

Alarm signal for the existing world system

In fact, the declaration that the border should not be crossed has increased recently in international politics. According to an analysis by the US data journalism website Smart Politics, only two other presidents before Barack Obama have publicly announced this. Obama himself used this stylistic device 11 times. Especially well-known is the warning he gave to the Syrian ruler, Bashar al-Assad, about the dangers of using chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war.
For conflict researcher Anne Holper at the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt/Oder, the announcement that the cup is full is an expression of the ever-greater shift in geopolitical power relations. According to Holper, the hegemonic powers signal in this way that "For us the limit is set here, and it must not be crossed so that our world order does not change."

The use of chemical weapons in Syria, the dropping of an atomic bomb in Tehran's hands or the Russian march into Ukraine have all been taboo violations that have fundamentally shaken this world order. "Whenever an order that is thought to be stable feels challenged, then it is declared that the cup is full, because the indignation has reached its peak," states the researcher of conflicts. "In such a situation, the defiance is maximum and the need is felt to give the signal that the threat has caused the maximum effect, and considering this the other side does not dare to take other steps."

Useless threat with side effects

When the cup is declared full, it is often accompanied by serious consequences. It is often not clear what the consequences are. "The goal is to instill fear," says Anne Holper. "Actually always". But basically we are dealing with a political vanity. Which brings with it a dilemma: "That there is no desire to impose heavy sanctions, but they will come if the border is crossed."

Even Joe Biden did not say what the US reactions would be if the Israeli ground offensive was carried out in Rafah, the threat was actually made that there would be a "reduction in military aid" to Israel. A short time later, Washington took a step back, stating rhetorically that it should not be forced to do such a thing: "The US does not think that Israel's activities in Rafah are a "major ground operation" that would cross the border. decided by President Joe Biden," the White House said.

Therefore, for Anne Holper, setting the border is "a paradoxical instrument: Because there is no desire to go there, but it is forced by the opponent, when he crosses the border." But this has little or no consequences, "because even the person who declares the cup full experiences a loss of credibility and power, which is much greater than what happens when the border is actually crossed: A threat that does not is implemented is seen as a weakness in implementation.

Fight against shifting borders

So why is it that boundaries are still being set that should not be crossed? Because the distribution of forces in the world changes fundamentally and therefore in a badly escalated situation there are no other means to say bluntly and without possibility of misunderstanding for all participants "up to here and no further". The efforts of Russia, China and some states of the Global South have created the concern that the current world order has been called into question and that the limits of what is possible must be set anew, Anne Holper declares. Especially the powers that seek to preserve the current order, prevent "creating cracks in the borders" because it is known that: If this thing is done once, then many others will want to do the same thing. Then they put us once in a while with this new order and new rules, which are simply put into the system."

But at the same time, this shift of forces creates the concern that these borders cannot always and everywhere be maintained consistently. Therefore, the challenger is shown how far it is allowed to break taboos. And what would be the measures that would be taken, but also that would not be taken.

Therefore, from the point of view of conflict studies, it is not wise to publicly show the establishment of boundaries, to use it as a mechanism to feign fear: "Because it is usually impossible to formulate the introduction of fear in such a way as not to leave an open way for 'forced unwillingly afterwards.' This way you can unwittingly end up in an escalation of the situation. "Therefore, don't bother with statements about where the border is!" advises Anne Holper.

Better internal boundaries

Setting the limit as to where the red lines are is not at all necessary to have clear boundaries and to say: "These are our rules, and these rules we protect," says the conflict researcher further. "How clear the formulation of these rules and limits is depends on the Archimedean axis one has available in the relevant context." It makes a lot of sense for boundaries to be set in internal communication, for example between allied powers or for the armed forces to set their own boundaries, to indicate when to act, but these boundaries are not shown to others.

Anne Holper advises that the discussion should be controlled and moderated, to avoid escalating the situation. In the example of the Ukraine war, she says, everyone knows that Russia's open border crossing would not be tolerated. "It would be good for NATO and EU allies to appear united and speak with one voice, to make it clear that: "We cannot deal with them, they cannot be divided. And do not deal with other hasty proposals. "But that they fight together to protect their values."/DW


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