Sam Seitz

About a month ago, I posted about “red lines” and credibility theory. I argued that failing to enforce “red lines” has little impact on America’s foreign policy reputation or the credibility of American threats. After all, study after study after study has demonstrated that the credibility argument is largely wrong, and empirical examples like the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the outset of World War One make it hard to argue that other countries really care about past actions when they calculate present risks. In other words, I don’t think that failing to enforce “red lines” has any significant downsides. However, paradoxically, issuing ultimatums and promising to enforce “red lines” can often generate the very outcome that the deterrent threat seeks to prevent.

Consider, for example, an unpopular regime that relies on nationalistic sentiments to maintain internal cohesion and stability. Chaos can only be averted as long as the ruling regime looks strong and in command. As an example, think of Junta-era Argentina. Without foreign policy success and great patriotic fervor, failing authoritarian regimes face coups or even open rebellion. To be clear, I’m not arguing that these regimes to deserve to stay in power. Instead, I’m arguing that these dictatorial governments will do whatever they can to stay in power. When a “red line” is issued, authoritarian regimes face a powerful dilemma. On the one hand, they can comply with international demands and cease their activities. This saves the regime from a potential conflict with international organizations and powerful states, but it also risks generating enormous amounts of internal discontent. By backing down, regimes look weak. In other words, by conceding, the image of strength and power that the authoritarian regime has used to curry favor with its domestic audience is destroyed. Therefore, “red lines” place regimes between a rock and a hard place. They either face international sanctions and potential invasion, or they face internal revolution and removal from power. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Iraq faced a variation of this dilemma at the onset of the Second Gulf War. By denying American weapons’ inspectors full access to the country’s WMD facilities, Saddam risked an American invasion. However, by allowing the Americans to publicly confirm that Iraq did not have WMDs, Hussein would have significantly undermined his perceived strength vis-a-vis his domestic audience as well as against Iran. In essence, he was forced to choose between death at American hands or death by domestic and Iranian hands. The same was arguably true of Imperial Japan. Facing stringent demands and threats from the U.S. over their aggressive, expansionist moves in East Asia, Japan had to make a tough choice. They could either comply with American demands and undermine the image of strength that the Bushido Code demanded, or they could risk war with the U.S. in order to maintain their legitimacy in the eyes of the Japanese people. In both Iraq and Japan, decision-makers decided to deliberately violate American “red lines” in order to signal strength and resolve to their domestic audience. Thus, the risk of “red lines” is not that they potentially undermine American credibility if not enforced; the risk is that by backing a nationalistic regime into a corner, “red lines” will only cause countries to lash out.

There is a solution: It is to follow Teddy Roosevelt’s advice and “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The U.S. can still issue threats to recalcitrant rogue states. However, these threats should not be public. By not revealing that a country is backing down purely because of American coercion, this strategy gives vulnerable regimes an off-ramp that they can use to save face. After all, when the “red line” is secret, states can make up whatever reason they want to explain their actions. Domestic audiences don’t have to know the real reason. And, of course, if the rogue state still refuses to comply, the U.S. can go public with the threat, ramp up pressure, and, if need be, take drastic measures.

One region where this strategy might be particularly useful is in the South China Sea. Indeed, Zack Cooper and Jack Douglas make this exact argument over at War on the Rocks. China is currently in an unenviable position. It faces a weakening economy, a declining workforce, and a degraded environment. Moreover, the CCP is facing increased domestic pressure. In response, China has adopted an activist, nationalistic foreign policy to create a “rally around the flag” effect. Much like WWII-era Japan and Saddam’s Iraq, China is an authoritarian country. Therefore, there are no elections to let people vent their frustration and remove ineffective officials from power. There is only the possibility of uprisings and internal dissent. China can continue its aggressive colonization of the East and South China Seas, potentially provoking countries like Japan and the United States, or it can back off and risk eroding the nationalistic glue holding everything together. By privately issuing China ultimatums, the U.S. can deter China while still allowing the CCP to save face domestically. Ultimately, this is probably the safest strategy.

The more jingoistic elements of the American public and policy elite will probably resist this strategy. After all, they like “in your face” displays of American power and might. For this group, it’s not good enough to deter a country; we must signal our global power to everyone through clear, unmistakable threats. Unfortunately, diplomacy requires more subtlety than this. We better hope that the next president understands this, or we face many more foreign policy debacles.