Red lines and rash decisions: Syria, metaphor and narrative

Federica Ferrari, Ben O'Loughlin

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Obama’s “red lines” metaphor nearly triggered a military intervention in Syria in the summer of 2013. This chapter questions the work that metaphor does in shaping understandings and conduct in international affairs. The term is used by political leaders to express likely behavioural consequences to international rivals and allies and to domestic publics. We explore what difference in diplomatic practice it makes to speak of a line, and a red one, as well as how such metaphors trigger or sustain narratives, and how narratives interact with metaphors. In the context of conflict in Syria we examine the trajectory and remediation of the red lines metaphor, taking as an empirical nexus a series of officials’ speeches in September 2013 by Kerry, Power, Lavrov and other political leaders. We find that the red line initially trapped Obama, leading to rhetorical shifts, before a trajectory shift from the red line to the path forward in mid-September as the US and Russia reach a deal to eliminate the Assad regime’s chemical weapons. The study brings together approaches from International Relations and Cognitive Linguistics to open up theoretical reflection on the function of metaphor and narrative in steering sense-making in diplomatic practice. The political significance of the analysis is to bring into question what alternative metaphors Obama could have used in the first place.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDoing Politics
Subtitle of host publicationDiscursivity, performativity and mediation in political discourse
EditorsMichael Kranert, Geraldine Horan
Place of PublicationAmsterdam
PublisherJohn Benjamins Publishing Company
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9789027263148
ISBN (Print)9789027201935
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018

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