From “Redlines” to “All Options on the Table”

September 4, 2017

In a world of transformation, diplomatic jargon is also undergoing change. Some key expressions no longer carry the weight they once did.

9:11 Terrorist attacks led to worldwide support for the US. The North Atlantic Council invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty which states that an armed attack against one or more of the Allies in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all. The NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council called on the entire international community to unite in the struggle against terrorism. The unity of the international community provided legitimacy for the US intervention in Afghanistan. The invasion of Iraq was a different case.

“International community” was often referred to in the case of the military intervention in Libya. When Qaddafi reacted to the Arab spring protests with violence, France, UK and the US seized the opportunity to present a draft resolution at the UN Security Council. Moreover, in view of the lessons from the Iraq and Afghanistan military interventions they sought other instruments of international legitimacy to pave the way for what was to follow. The Arab League adopted a resolution asking the Security Council to declare a “no-fly zone” over Libya. African Union and Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned Qaddafi for the ongoing violence. However, the force with which anti-Qaddafi coalition intervened in Libya caused discomfort in Arab capitals. Russia and China, which had abstained when Resolution 1973 was adopted, expressed concern over the scale of air the strikes. Yet, the intervening countries continued to pretend that it was the “international community” which had launched the operations. The reality was that the international community was not at all united and became more and more divided as Libya descended into chaos.

The expression “international community” was used again in the early years of the Syrian conflict. However, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council draft which was intended to pave the for another Western intervention. Gradually, references to the “international community” were replaced by references to the “global coalition against ISIS” or the “69-nation coalition”.

Merriam-Webster defines “ultimatum” as “a final proposition, condition, or demand; especially:  one whose rejection will end negotiations and cause a resort to force or other direct action.” Precisely for that, their formulation was no easy task. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 and it took Austria-Hungary nearly a month to deliver an ultimatum in Belgrade.

In 1998, Turkey delivered Syria an ultimatum. This was not a conventional one. The Commander of Turkey’s Land Forces made a threatening statement at the Turkish-Syrian border saying that either Syria deported PKK’s leader Ocalan or the Turkish Army would move in. Hafez Assad who for years had denied Ocalan’s presence in Syria immediately complied.

In recent years, “redlines” have replaced “ultimatums” putting the emphasis on preventive diplomacy.  Redlines are more convenient because they do not have to be put in writing; they do not have to delivered formally through diplomatic channels and although they constitute a threat, usually expressed at very high levels, they primarily seek to deter rather than punish. Sometimes they disappear in the sand, at other times an alternative emerges. President Obama drew a redline in Syria and has since then been bitterly criticized by some for his failure to enforce it. So, others should think twice before uttering the word.

Again, in recent years, the statement “all options are on the table” has become popular in conflict situations. It is not as strong a statement as the setting of a redline, but also has threatening overtones. It sounds like stating the obvious but makes one wonder what is under the table. After his “fire and fury” statement, President Trump used it last week in the context of tensions with North Korea. Later, “Talking is not the answer!” Mr. Trump tweeted taking the principal option off the table. And, Mr. Trump’s Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said, “North Korea has violated every single U.N. Security Council resolution that we’ve had and so I think something serious has to happen”. Yesterday’s nuclear test was “something very serious happening” and it shows that leaving the handling of the North Korea crisis to voices of reason is the best option. This is a time for effective multilateralism, not for sanctions and counter sanctions between major powers.

“All options are on the table” may remain, for some time at least, the preferred language of diplomatic pressure because while it needs to be perceived as a threat, it is not a specific commitment. Its widespread use, however, may render it meaningless too.

For the last four days, the world of Islam has been celebrating Eid al-Adha, also known as the “Festival of Sacrifice”. In his congratulatory message, the Secretary General of the defunct Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) expressed the hope that “Muslims take their unity and compassion during the performance of haj as a means and example to bolster their unity and solidarity and realize the hopes and aspirations of the peoples of the Muslim world”. Sadly, there is neither unity nor solidarity. Instead, it is “all weaponry on the table”.


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