The Politics of Red Lines

Putin’s takeover of Crimea scares U.S. leaders because it challenges America’s global dominance.

Noam Chomsky

U.S., Russia, Ukraine and EU leaders wheeling and dealing in Geneva. (Eric Bridiers / Flickr / Creative Commons)

The cur­rent Ukraine cri­sis is seri­ous and threat­en­ing, so much so that some com­men­ta­tors even com­pare it to the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis of 1962.

The world ... regards the United States as a 'pariah state' and 'the greatest threat to world peace,' with no competitor even close in the polls. But what does the world know?

Colum­nist Thanas­sis Cam­ba­n­is sum­ma­rizes the core issue suc­cinct­ly in The Boston Globe: “[Pres­i­dent Vladimir V.] Putin’s annex­a­tion of the Crimea is a break in the order that Amer­i­ca and its allies have come to rely on since the end of the Cold War — name­ly, one in which major pow­ers only inter­vene mil­i­tar­i­ly when they have an inter­na­tion­al con­sen­sus on their side, or fail­ing that, when they’re not cross­ing a rival pow­er’s red lines.”

This era’s most extreme inter­na­tion­al crime, the Unit­ed States-Unit­ed King­dom inva­sion of Iraq, was there­fore not a break in world order — because, after fail­ing to gain inter­na­tion­al sup­port, the aggres­sors did­n’t cross Russ­ian or Chi­nese red lines.

In con­trast, Putin’s takeover of the Crimea and his ambi­tions in Ukraine cross Amer­i­can red lines.

There­fore Oba­ma is focused on iso­lat­ing Putin’s Rus­sia by cut­ting off its eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal ties to the out­side world, lim­it­ing its expan­sion­ist ambi­tions in its own neigh­bor­hood and effec­tive­ly mak­ing it a pari­ah state,” Peter Bak­er reports in The New York Times.

Amer­i­can red lines, in short, are firm­ly placed at Rus­si­a’s bor­ders. There­fore Russ­ian ambi­tions in its own neigh­bor­hood” vio­late world order and cre­ate crises.

The point gen­er­al­izes. Oth­er coun­tries are some­times allowed to have red lines — at their bor­ders (where the Unit­ed States’ red lines are also locat­ed). But not Iraq, for exam­ple. Or Iran, which the U.S. con­tin­u­al­ly threat­ens with attack (“no options are off the table”).

Such threats vio­late not only the Unit­ed Nations Char­ter but also the Gen­er­al Assem­bly res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing Rus­sia that the Unit­ed States just signed. The res­o­lu­tion opened by stress­ing the U.N. Char­ter ban on the threat or use of force” in inter­na­tion­al affairs.

The Cuban mis­sile cri­sis also sharply revealed the great pow­ers’ red lines. The world came per­ilous­ly close to nuclear war when Pres­i­dent Kennedy reject­ed Pre­mier Khrushchev’s offer to end the cri­sis by simul­ta­ne­ous pub­lic with­draw­al of Sovi­et mis­siles from Cuba and Amer­i­can mis­siles from Turkey. (The U.S. mis­siles were already sched­uled to be replaced by far more lethal Polaris sub­marines, part of the mas­sive sys­tem threat­en­ing Rus­si­a’s destruction.)

In this case too, the Unit­ed States’ red lines were at Rus­si­a’s bor­ders, and that was accept­ed on all sides.

The U.S. inva­sion of Indochi­na, like the inva­sion of Iraq, crossed no red lines, nor have many oth­er U.S. depre­da­tions world­wide. To repeat the cru­cial point: Adver­saries are some­times per­mit­ted to have red lines, but at their bor­ders, where Amer­i­ca’s red lines are also locat­ed. If an adver­sary has expan­sion­ist ambi­tions in its own neigh­bor­hood,” cross­ing U.S. red lines, the world faces a crisis.

In the cur­rent issue of the Har­vard-MIT jour­nal Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty, Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor Yuen Foong Khong explains that there is a long (and bipar­ti­san) tra­di­tion in Amer­i­can strate­gic think­ing: Suc­ces­sive admin­is­tra­tions have empha­sized that a vital inter­est of the Unit­ed States is to pre­vent a hos­tile hege­mon from dom­i­nat­ing any of the major regions of the world.”

Fur­ther­more, it is gen­er­al­ly agreed that the Unit­ed States must main­tain its pre­dom­i­nance,” because it is U.S. hege­mo­ny that has upheld region­al peace and sta­bil­i­ty” — the lat­ter a term of art refer­ring to sub­or­di­na­tion to U.S. demands.

As it hap­pens, the world thinks dif­fer­ent­ly and regards the Unit­ed States as a pari­ah state” and the great­est threat to world peace,” with no com­peti­tor even close in the polls. But what does the world know?

Khong’s arti­cle con­cerns the cri­sis in Asia, caused by the rise of Chi­na, which is mov­ing toward eco­nom­ic pri­ma­cy in Asia” and, like Rus­sia, has expan­sion­ist ambi­tions in its own neigh­bor­hood,” thus cross­ing Amer­i­can red lines.

Pres­i­dent Oba­ma’s recent Asia trip was to affirm the long (and bipar­ti­san) tra­di­tion,” in diplo­mat­ic language.

The near-uni­ver­sal West­ern con­dem­na­tion of Putin includes cit­ing the emo­tion­al address” in which he com­plained bit­ter­ly that the U.S. and its allies had cheat­ed us again and again, made deci­sions behind our back, pre­sent­ing us with com­plet­ed facts with the expan­sion of NATO in the East, with the deploy­ment of mil­i­tary infra­struc­ture at our bor­ders. They always told us the same thing: Well, this does­n’t involve you.’ “

Putin’s com­plaints are fac­tu­al­ly accu­rate. When Pres­i­dent Gor­bachev accept­ed the uni­fi­ca­tion of Ger­many as part of NATO — an aston­ish­ing con­ces­sion in the light of his­to­ry — there was a quid pro quo. Wash­ing­ton agreed that NATO would not move one inch east­ward,” refer­ring to East Germany.

The promise was imme­di­ate­ly bro­ken, and when Gor­bachev com­plained, he was instruct­ed that it was only a ver­bal promise, so with­out force.

Pres­i­dent Clin­ton pro­ceed­ed to expand NATO much far­ther to the east, to Rus­si­a’s bor­ders. Today there are calls to extend NATO even to Ukraine, deep into the his­toric Russ­ian neigh­bor­hood.” But it does­n’t involve” the Rus­sians, because its respon­si­bil­i­ty to uphold peace and sta­bil­i­ty” requires that Amer­i­can red lines are at Rus­si­a’s borders.

Rus­si­a’s annex­a­tion of Crimea was an ille­gal act, in vio­la­tion of inter­na­tion­al law and spe­cif­ic treaties. It’s not easy to find any­thing com­pa­ra­ble in recent years — the Iraq inva­sion is a vast­ly greater crime.

But one com­pa­ra­ble exam­ple comes to mind: U.S. con­trol of Guan­tanamo Bay in south­east­ern Cuba. Guan­tanamo was wrest­ed from Cuba at gun­point in 1903 and not relin­quished despite Cuba’s demands ever since it attained inde­pen­dence in 1959.

To be sure, Rus­sia has a far stronger case. Even apart from strong inter­nal sup­port for the annex­a­tion, Crimea is his­tor­i­cal­ly Russ­ian; it has Rus­si­a’s only warm-water port, the home of Rus­si­a’s fleet; and has enor­mous strate­gic sig­nif­i­cance. The Unit­ed States has no claim at all to Guan­tanamo, oth­er than its monop­oly of force.

One rea­son why the Unit­ed States refus­es to return Guan­tanamo to Cuba, pre­sum­ably, is that this is a major har­bor and Amer­i­can con­trol of the region severe­ly ham­pers Cuban devel­op­ment. That has been a major U.S. pol­i­cy goal for 50 years, includ­ing large-scale ter­ror and eco­nom­ic war­fare.

The Unit­ed States claims that it is shocked by Cuban human rights vio­la­tions, over­look­ing the fact that the worst such vio­la­tions are in Guan­tanamo; that valid charges against Cuba do not begin to com­pare with reg­u­lar prac­tices among Wash­ing­ton’s Latin Amer­i­can clients; and that Cuba has been under severe, unremit­ting U.S. attack since its independence.

But none of this cross­es any­one’s red lines or caus­es a cri­sis. It falls into the cat­e­go­ry of the U.S. inva­sions of Indochi­na and Iraq, the reg­u­lar over­throw of par­lia­men­tary regimes and instal­la­tion of vicious dic­ta­tor­ships, and our hideous record of oth­er exer­cis­es of uphold­ing peace and stability.”

Noam Chom­sky is Insti­tute Pro­fes­sor and Pro­fes­sor of Lin­guis­tics (Emer­i­tus) at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books.
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