Five Tropes I Hope Not To See In The New Year (But We Will)

It’s harder to analyze events than to paste labels on them. Events come thick and fast, and pundits have to say something. It’s mostly pundits I’m talking about, but not entirely. History may not repeat, but it does rhyme, they say, and then they reach for one of these tropes. When the tropes are repeated again and again, they can influence policymakers. They flatten everyone’s thinking.

Here are five that I find particularly irritating.

Red Lines. Although they frequently appear in op-eds, nobody has identified these precious markers. Party A has a red line that Party B must not cross, or package of responses C will ensue. War doesn’t work this way. Most diplomacy doesn’t work this way. Each side has a number of options to choose from that depend on the situation in which a decision is made: timing, balance of interests, balance of power. The New York Times has an excellent explainer on red lines, although they couldn’t resist writing the headline as if the trope was worth considering.

The Cold War. The situation with China is not a cold war and will not be. The US relationship with Russia after their war on Ukraine will not be a cold war. The Soviet Union was a unique entity, committed to a rigid ideology that removed it from normal economic interactions with the rest of the world. Further, that ideology was evangelistic – the rest of the world must change, perhaps at the point of a gun! Additionally, the world was working out how to live with nuclear weapons, with lurches and starts in different strategic directions. It’s much better analysis to compare specifics of today’s situation with particular aspects of the Cold War, if one feels they must drag it in.

“If Ukraine had kept its nukes.” No. Just stop. Ukraine didn’t have control over them, and no other nation wanted them to keep the missiles and warheads on their territory. If, somehow, Ukraine had retained them, its development over the past thirty years and its relationship to Europe and the United States would be completely different. Those using this conditional clause seem to have in mind  a whole Ukraine ready to be integrated into Europe and no threat from Russia. I would love to see a counterfactual from them that shows a path for this development. Daniel Larison quotes Mariana Budjeryn in this respect.

Thucydides Trap. The phrase refers to a tendency for an established power to go to war against an emerging power. It’s usually pasted on to relations between the United States and China. Sounds learned, though.

Deterrence. The all-purpose word, used for everything and has come to mean nothing. It’s a euphemism for the nuclear arsenal, and “integrated deterrence” is supposed to be what the US military is doing today. Nuclear deterrence is taken to mean deterrence generally, so there is a lot of complaining that nuclear weapons haven’t prevented Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine, rather he rattles them occasionally to try to deter us back. We must not say that we are deterred; only the other guy is deterred. It also leads to bizarre thinking when we recognize that China is increasing its nuclear arsenal.

These are lazy ways to produce something that looks like analysis. They are useful for generating frightening scenarios. People who use one are likely to use another; deterrence is allegedly the reason Ukraine should have kept its nukes, and deterrence will get us into a Thucydides trap. They are also a quick way to identify analysts you don’t need to read.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money


  1. cdguyhall · 23 Days Ago

    I’ve posted a quote and a link to this. Nice post.


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