In the conflict-ridden realm of international relations, certain terms are particularly useful, and one of them is “Red Lines.” Derived from the concept of a “line in the sand,” first employed in antiquity, the term “Red Lines” appears to have emerged in the 1970s to denote what one nation regards as unacceptable from other nations. In short, it is an implicit threat.
Russian Red Lines
Vladimir Putin, self-anointed restorer of the Russian empire, has tossed about the term repeatedly in recent years. “I hope nobody will get it into their heads to cross Russia’s so-called red line,” he warned in April 2021. “Where it will be drawn, we will decide ourselves in each specific case.” These red lines, although addressing a variety of issues, have been proclaimed frequently. At the end of that November, Putin announced that Russia would take action if NATO crossed its “red lines” on Ukraine, saying that the deployment of offensive missile capabilities on Ukrainian soil would serve as a trigger. In mid-December, as Russian military forces massed within striking distance of Ukraine, the Russian foreign ministry demanded that NATO not only rule out any further expansion, but remove any troops or weapons from NATO members Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Balkan countries and obtain Russian permission before holding any military drills in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or Central Asia.
Finally, on February 24, 2022, Putin―ignoring a U.S. offer to negotiate some of these items―sent a massive Russian military force pouring into Ukraine in a full-scale invasion. “This is the red line that I talked about multiple times,” he said, and “they have crossed it.” Most nations were not impressed by this justification, for the Russian invasion and subsequent annexation of large portions of Ukraine were clear violations of international law and, as such, were condemned by the United Nations General Assembly and the International Court of Justice.
Of course, Putin’s red lines and international aggression, though particularly blatant, are hardly the only features of this kind that have appeared throughout Russian or world history.
American and Chinese Red Lines
The United States has a lengthy record in this regard. As Professor Matthew Waxman of Columbia Law School has written, the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 involved “drawing a red line―with an implicit war threat” against “any European efforts to colonize or reassert control in the Western Hemisphere.” Given the relative weakness of the United States at the time, the U.S. government did not attempt to enforce President James Monroe’s grandiose pronouncement. But, with the emergence of the United States as a great power, its government expanded the Monroe Doctrine to justify frequent U.S. meddling in hemispheric affairs, including conquering and annexing Latin American territory. Even in recent decades, when U.S. annexations have become a relic of the past, the U.S. government has engaged in military intervention in other lands, especially in the Caribbean and Central America, but also in Asia and the Middle East (where President George W. Bush drew what he called “a line in the sand”).
In recent years, as China’s military and economic power have grown, its government, too, has begun emphasizing its red lines. Meeting with U.S. President Joseph Biden in mid-November 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that Taiwan was the “first red line that must not be crossed.” Xi did not mention the tension-fraught situation in the South China Sea, where China had set up military fortifications on islands claimed by its neighbors, including Vietnam and the Philippines. But here, as well, China had red lines―leading to the current dangerous confrontations between U.S. and Chinese warships in the region. Sharply rejecting a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague that denied China’s control of the area, the Chinese government continued to build up fortifications on the disputed islands. Furthermore, Chinese troops have continued for more than six decades to engage in violent military clashes with Indian troops along the disputed border, in the Himalayan region, between their two nations.
The Dangers of Red Lines Drawn by Individual Nations
Although it could be argued that red lines are only an innocent expression of what a nation considers unacceptable in world affairs, it’s worth noting that they are employed especially by major nations. The “great powers,” after all, have the military strength to give their warnings some credibility. Conversely, smaller, weaker nations do not usually bother to issue such pronouncements, as their warnings―and even their interests―are rarely taken as seriously. For this reason, the issuance of red lines usually boils down to a matter of what nation has the power to compel other nations to accept its demands.
Consequently, red lines lead inevitably to spheres of influence that other nations are supposed to respect―including a U.S. sphere in Latin America, a Russian sphere in Europe, and a Chinese sphere in Asia. Naturally, people and nations living in the shadow of these major powers are not enthusiastic about this arrangement, which explains why many Latin Americans want the Yankees to go home, many Europeans fear Russian hegemony, and many Asians are wary of the rise of China.
Another problem with the issuance of red lines is their tendency to inspire international conflict and war. Given their roots in the professed interests of a single nation, they do not necessarily coincide with the interests of other nations. In this competitive situation, conflict is almost inevitable. Where, in these circumstances, is there a place for collective action to fashion a common agreement―one recognizing the fundamental interests of all nations?
A World Federalist Alternative
Rather than a world of red lines proclaimed by a few powerful nations, what humanity needs is a strengthened United Nations―a global federation of nations in which competing national priorities are reconciled and enforced through agreements, treaties, and international law.
Setting red lines for the world is too important to be left to individual, self-interested countries. They should be set―and respected―by all.
The Ukraine War has provided a challenging time for the nations of the world and, particularly, for international law.
Since antiquity, far-sighted thinkers have worked on developing rules of behavior among nations in connection with war, diplomacy, economic relations, human rights, international crime, global communications, and the environment. Defined as international law, this “law of nations” is based on treaties or, in some cases, international custom. Some of the best-known of these international legal norms are outlined in the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva Conventions.
International Law and Ukraine
The UN Charter is particularly relevant to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Article 2, Section 4, perhaps the most important and widely-recognized item in the Charter, prohibits the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” In Article 51, the Charter declares that “nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations.”
Ukraine, of course, although partially or totally controlled by Russia or the Soviet Union during portions of its past, has been an independent, sovereign nation since 1991. That year, the Soviet Union, in the process of disintegration, authorized Ukraine to hold a referendum on whether to become part of the Russian Federation or to become independent. In a turnout by 84 percent of the Ukrainian public, some 90 percent of participants voted for independence. Accordingly, Ukraine was recognized as an independent nation. Three years later, in the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine’s government officially agreed to turn over its large nuclear arsenal to Russia, while the Russian government officially pledged not only to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” but to “refrain from the threat or use of force” against that country. In 1997, Ukraine and Russia signed the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership, in which they pledged to respect one another’s territorial integrity.
The Russian Military Assaults of 2014 and 2022
Despite these actions, which have the status of international law, the Russian government, in 2014, used its military might to seize and annex Crimea in southern Ukraine and to arm pro-Russian separatist groups in the nation’s eastern region, the Donbas. Although a Russian veto blocked a UN Security Council rebuke, the UN General Assembly, on March 27, 2014, passed a resolution (“Territorial Integrity of Ukraine”) by a vote of 100 nations to 11, with 58 nations abstaining, condemning the Russian military seizure and annexation of Crimea. Ignoring this condemnation of its behavior by the world organization, the Russian government incorporated Crimea into the Russian Federation and, in August, dispatched its military forces into the Donbas to bolster the beleaguered separatists. Over the following years, Russia’s armed forces played the major role in battling the Ukrainian government’s troops defending eastern Ukraine.
Then, on February 24, 2022, the Russian government, in the most massive military operation in Europe since World War II, launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Although UN Security Council action was again blocked by a Russian veto, the UN General Assembly took up the issue. On March 2, by a vote of 141 countries to 5 (with 35 abstentions), it demanded the immediate and complete withdrawal of Russian military forces from Ukrainian territory. Asked for its opinion on the legality of the Russian invasion, the International Court of Justice, the world’s highest judicial authority, ruled on March 16, by a vote of 13 to 2 (with Russia’s judge casting one of the two negative votes) that Russia should “immediately suspend” its invasion of Ukraine.
The Illegality of Russia’s Annexation of Ukrainian Territory
In late September 2022, when the Kremlin announced that a ceremony would take place launching a process of Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that “any annexation of a state’s territory by another state resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the principles of the UN Charter and international law.” Denouncing the proposed annexation, Guterres declared:
- It cannot be reconciled with the international legal framework.
- It stands against everything the international community is meant to stand for.
- It flouts the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
- It is a dangerous escalation.
- It has no place in the modern world.
Nevertheless, the following day, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an accord to annex the regions, declaring that Russia would never give them up and would defend them by any means available.
In turn, the nations of the world weighed in on the Russian action. On October 12, 2022, the UN General Assembly, by a vote of 143 countries to 5 (with 35 abstentions), called on all nations to refuse to recognize Russia’s “attempted illegal annexation” of Ukrainian land.
Law Without Enforcement
What, then, after surveying this sorry record, are we to think about the value of international law? It is certainly useful for defining the rules of international behavior―rules that are essential to a civilized world. Addressing the UN Security Council recently, the UN Secretary General declared that “the rule of law is all that stands between peace and stability” and “a brutal struggle for power and resources.” Even so, although it is better to have agreed-upon rules rather than none at all, it would be better yet―indeed, much better―to have them enforced.
And therein lies the fundamental problem: Despite agreement among nations on the principles of international law, the major entities providing global governance―the United Nations and the International Court of Justice―lack the power to enforce them. Given this weakness at the global level, nations remain free to launch wars of aggression, including wars of territorial conquest.
Surely the Russian invasion of Ukraine should convince us of the need to strengthen global governance, thereby providing a firmer foundation for the enforcement of international law.
Although all wars are not imperialist wars, it is remarkable how many imperial conquests have occurred over past centuries.
Mobilizing their military forces, powerful states and, later, nations carved out vast empires at the expense of weaker or less warlike societies. Some of the largest and best-known empires to emerge over the millennia were the Persian, the Chinese, the Mongol, the Ottoman, the Russian, the Spanish, and the British.
The standard policy for these and other empires was to absorb new, conquered lands into their domains, either as parts of the mother country or as colonies. In the eighteenth century, the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese empires used their military muscle to seize substantial portions of the Western Hemisphere from the native inhabitants. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, imperial conquest accelerated rapidly around the world. By 1913 almost all of Africa had been colonized by European powers, while Imperial Russia, having annexed its neighbors, had become the world’s largest nation. Asia, too, had fallen largely under foreign domination. Meanwhile, the United States, established by a thin string of colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America, expanded across the continent to the Pacific, mostly thanks to successful wars against Mexico and Indian nations. Thereafter it moved on to colonize Hawaii, the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
Rising Resistance to Imperialist Wars
But imperialist conquests didn’t sit well with the emerging democratic spirit of the early twentieth century. They didn’t sit well with the rising socialist movement that denounced imperialism as a tool of the ruling class. They didn’t sit well with subject nationality groups and nations that were beginning to demand national self-determination and independence.
Consequently, as the horrors of World War I engulfed large portions of the globe and as war-weary soldiers and the public turned increasingly against imperialist war aims, government leaders adapted to the new mood. Having, belatedly, brought the United States into an alliance with Britain and France in their war against the Central Powers, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson issued his Fourteen Points in January 1918. This document promised no secret imperialist treaties, an adjustment of colonial claims, and a League of Nations to guarantee “political independence and territorial integrity to great and small States alike.” The Fourteen Points evoked an enthusiastic response, including from the young Ho Chi Minh, who turned up at the 1919 Versailles peace conference to press for Vietnam’s independence from French colonial rule.
In many ways, the Versailles peace settlement proved a failure. The promised “self-determination” was limited to Europe, and although the League did establish a “mandate” system to prepare colonies elsewhere for independence, it merely shifted their rulers from the Central Powers to the war’s victors. Moreover, the rising fascist nations—Germany, Italy, and Japan—threw off even a pretense of favoring decolonization and launched imperialist wars in Africa, Europe, and Asia.
Important Breakthroughs and Setbacks After World War II
Ultimately, it took World War II to shatter the old colonial system. In its aftermath, the imperial powers gradually abandoned their colonial rule in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In some cases (for example, in Indonesia, Algeria, and Vietnam), they were driven out by anti-colonial revolutions. More often, however, internal agitation for independence and external pressure by the United Nations led to the advent of self-government, after 1945, in most of the former 80 colonies.
Even so, as the old-style imperialism crumbled, a newer model—replacing outright colonialism with political control through occasional military intervention—arose during the Cold War. For the most part, this new imperialism was practiced by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan and by the United States in Latin America, and Vietnam. With the end of the Cold War, however, even the new imperialism declined.
Therefore, it came as a shock when, this February, the Russian government, having formally recognized Ukraine’s independence in 1994, launched an old-fashioned imperialist war against that nation. Only a few days before the invasion, Vladimir Putin issued a proclamation denying Ukraine’s right to an independent existence and claiming that Ukraine was “Russian land.” Not surprisingly, the UN General Assembly condemned the invasion by a vote of 141 to 5.
Although Putin justified the military assault by claiming that Ukraine’s membership in NATO would provide an existential threat to Russia, that membership was not at all imminent when the invasion occurred. A month later, when President Zelensky offered to have his nation remain neutral in exchange for a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, Putin ignored the offer. In May, when Finland and Sweden, horrified by the Russian invasion, announced plans to join NATO, Putin failed to halt it. Instead, this October, Russia annexed about a sixth of Ukraine’s territory. Nor has Putin ever renounced gobbling up the rest of Ukraine.
Stopping Imperialist Aggression
Can anything be done to bring an end to imperialist wars?
Yes, several things could be done. One that has been effective on some occasions is to mobilize an anti-imperialist movement in the aggressor nation and elsewhere. Another that has worked is for the colonized to militarily resist the imperialist power―although, of course, the human cost can be enormous. Furthermore, the international community can roundly condemn imperialist wars and refuse to recognize territorial annexations that flow from them.
Ultimately, though, the world needs a strengthened international security system that will reject both the old and the new imperialism. In some ways, the United Nations already provides this framework through the UN Charter, the power to levy economic sanctions, and a structure for the mediation of conflicts. Even so, the world organization is not yet strong enough to wipe out the vestiges of imperialist aggression. No single country―and certainly not the imperial nations of the past―has the credibility and power to tackle this project alone. But the world community might just possess enough wisdom and determination to finish the job it began a century ago.
Even international alliances can unravel when nations confront the insanity of a nuclear holocaust.
An illustration of this point occurred recently, after Vladimir Putin once again threatened Ukraine and other nations with nuclear war. “To defend Russia and our people, we doubtlessly will use all weapons resources at our disposal,” the Russian president said. “This is not a bluff.” In response to this statement and to sharp UN condemnation of Russian nuclear threats, Chinese president Xi Jinping issued a public statement early this November, assailing “the use of, or threats to use nuclear weapons.” To “prevent a nuclear crisis” in Europe or Asia, he insisted, the world should “advocate that nuclear weapons cannot be used” and “a nuclear war cannot be waged.”
Aren’t these two nuclear-armed nations currently aligned in their resistance to U.S. foreign policy? Yes, they are, and when it came to Putin’s war upon Ukraine, Xi refrained from suggesting a Russian withdrawal. But nuclear war, as the Chinese leader made clear, was simply not acceptable.
This was not the first time a Russian-Chinese alliance was ruffled by a dispute over the use of nuclear weapons. An even deeper conflict occurred during the late 1950s and early 1960s when, ironically, the roles of the two nations were exactly the reverse.
At that time, the Chinese government, led by Mao Zedong, was embarked on a crash program to develop nuclear weapons. In October 1957, China’s weapons program secured a major gain when the Russian and Chinese governments signed the New Defense Technical Accord, in which the Russians agreed to supplementing the nuclear assistance they had already provided to the Chinese by supplying them with a prototype atomic bomb, missiles, and useful technical data.
But Russian officials soon had reason to doubt the wisdom of assisting China’s nuclear weapons development program. As Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev recalled, the following month, at a Moscow conclave of Communist party leaders from around the world, Mao gave a speech on nuclear war that startled those in attendance. According to the Soviet leader, the “gist” of Mao’s speech was: “We shouldn’t fear war. We shouldn’t be afraid of atomic bombs and missiles. No matter what kind of war breaks out―conventional or thermonuclear―we’ll win.” When it came to China, Mao reportedly said, “we may lose more than three hundred million people. So what? War is war. The years will pass, and we’ll get to work producing more babies than ever before.”
Khrushchev found Mao’s remarks “deeply disturbing,” and recalled with irritation: “Everybody except Mao was thinking about how to avoid war. Our principal slogan was ‘On with the Struggle for Peace and Peaceful Coexistence.’ Yet here came Mao . . . saying we shouldn’t be afraid of war.’ In early 1958, as Soviet doubts increased about the reliability of China’s leadership in dealing with nuclear weapons, Khrushchev decided to postpone shipment of the prototype atomic bomb to China.
Eventually, the Soviet government not only withdrew its assistance to the Chinese nuclear weapons program in 1960, but took steps that placed the Soviet Union at loggerheads with the Chinese leadership. Key among these steps was working out an agreement on a nuclear test ban treaty with the governments of the United States and Britain—an agreement that, in part, was designed to block the ability of China to become a nuclear power. This Soviet shift toward a nuclear arms control and disarmament treaty with the West was bitterly opposed by China’s rulers, who were determined to develop nuclear weapons and, by 1964, succeeded in doing so. Meanwhile, the Sino-Soviet rift grew ever more heated, with the Chinese pulling out of the Soviet-dominated World Peace Council and ferociously competing with the Russians for leadership of the world Communist movement.
There are some lessons that can be learned from these incidents, in which major powers displayed signs of veering toward nuclear war. The obvious one is that even military allies might balk, at times, when they see an international confrontation slipping toward a nuclear disaster. Another, less evident, is that nations with access to nuclear weapons are not necessarily restrained from threatening or waging nuclear war by the prospect of nuclear retaliation from other nuclear powers. Or, to put it another way, nuclear deterrence is unreliable. Above all, these events and others underscore the fact that, while nuclear weapons exist, the world remains in peril.
Fortunately, abolishing nuclear weapons before they destroy the world is not an utterly utopian prospect. Thanks to popular pressure and disarmament treaties, the number of nuclear weapons around the globe has been reduced since 1986 from about 70,000 to 12,700. Moreover, a UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, crafted and approved by an overwhelming majority of the world’s nations, went into effect in January 2021.
Unfortunately, none of the world’s nine nuclear powers has signed or ratified this nuclear weapons abolition treaty. Until they do so and, therefore, stop producing, stockpiling, and distributing nuclear weapons to other countries, the world will continue to live in a state of nuclear peril, subject only to occasional flashes of sanity by these same nuclear-armed nations.
Surely, people around the world deserve a better future.