The top several tiers of the annual Failed States Index (FSI) are often occupied not only by weak and fractured states at risk for conflict, but also states that have, over the years, been the proverbial thorns in the side of the international community. Each year these chart toppers, often impervious by either choice or circumstance to reform, test the mettle of world leaders tasked with coming up with strategies for dealing with their dangerous behavior. Once we recognize that states — such as those near the top of the FSI — are a threat to the international system, what is the appropriate strategy for dealing with them? For 2012, that strategy can be summed up as the year of red line diplomacy.

The two most notorious recipients of red line diplomacy in 2012 were Iran and Syria, both around the development or deployment of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In both cases, the United States and Israel issued what appeared to be stark ultimatums to each country that once certain red lines were crossed, harsh retaliatory action would be taken. The problem, in both cases, was that neither Israel nor the U.S. seemed to be on the same page as to what constituted a red line and, if indeed crossed, what specific actions would be taken.

Other states on the Index have also, at various times, been subjected to rhetoric that, if not specifically invoking the term “red line,” was similarly ominous. North Korea, Pakistan, and China have been duly warned for wide-ranging transgressions from unfair trade practices to harboring designated terrorist networks. However, as pointed out by Rosa Brooks in a May 2, 2013 article on Foreign Policy’s online National Security series, in addition to red line diplomacy, the usage of such terms as “intolerable” and “unacceptable” have been increasingly employed by political leaders to indicate that if a state does not cease and desist in specific actions and policies, an uncertain and potentially hostile fate awaits.

In embracing terminology meant to intimidate and isolate, the range of options available in dealing with rogue or fractured states also becomes increasingly narrow. As further pointed out by Brooks, when we treat fractured and fragile states and their leaders like misbehaving brats, we greatly limit our range of available diplomatic, non-lethal options. Red line diplomacy has made for a confusing and potentially dangerous game of political brinkmanship when dealing with rogue, fracturing and fragile states.

One of the lessons from recent red line diplomacy in Iran and Syria to our eight-year involvement in Iraq is to not define the nature of states solely through the personalities that represent them. In dealing with weak and failing states held together by strong men, we are calling into question the actions of the individual and not the state. A leader’s bellicosity or intransigence, such as in Iran and Syria, often provoke knee-jerk reactions of the “or else” variety. When the threat or action we are trying to prevent or stop is coming from an individual and not the state, red-line diplomacy may not only leave us backtracking, as demonstrated by the recent kerfuffle over Syria’s possible use of chemical weapons, but may serve to further encourage the very behavior we are trying to prevent.

Whether red line diplomacy works depends on the context, of course, and also the very changing nature of fragile states. Yesterday’s pariah can be today’s rebounder, such as Myanmar, the state everyone loved to hate only a couple of years ago. Many would argue, however, that the rehabilitation of Myanmar was not the result of years of isolation and hectoring but rather of a quiet and gradual effort at multisectoral statebuilding. Many, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have argued that red lines were successful during the Cold War nuclear arms race as the ultimate deterrent, citing the Cuban missile crisis and Moscow’s ultimate withdrawal of its missiles. Many others would be quick to question, however, whether successful red line diplomacy should be celebrated at the knife’s edge of a nuclear Armageddon. States and their leaders can also be vilified, rehabilitated, and then vilified again, permanently, as Colonel Qaddafi would most certainly attest — if he could. In Libya’s case, red line diplomacy might be said to have worked because the threat was eventually followed by action. At the same time, however, it did create unrealistic expectations on how other international bullies might be dealt with in the future. And, of course, there is the perennial favorite, the Hermit Kingdom, where the opacity of the state and the dangerous eccentricities of the leadership combine to create one of the world’s most vexing foreign policy challenges. Multiple lines have been drawn in the sand for North Korea over the years, sometimes leading to negotiations and other times leading to yet more saber-rattling and dangerous nuclear one-upmanship. Overall, however, North Korea appears impervious to such ultimatums, and perhaps for good reason.

Red line diplomacy is rife with uncertainties that are difficult to manage once unleashed. One man’s red line is another man’s red cape, particularly when bullying states and their leadership have few friends but large arsenals. Plus, as in the case of the American and Israeli red lines over Tehran’s nuclear weapons program, red lines can shift over time and for different purposes, creating confusion that can possibly lead to further entrenchment. If a red line is being used as a deterrent, as one assumes in the case of Iran, then continuously moving the red line can make it an ineffective tool. Similarly, regarding Syria, President Obama’s threshold of “a whole bunch of chemical weapons” is extremely difficult to quantify and qualify, leading to further confusion and dithering.

Furthermore, as pointed out by Paul Pillar, a former career CIA analyst and current Georgetown University professor, red lines can serve to relieve domestic pressure to act, such as in the insistence from Congress that President Obama take a harsher stance on both Iran and Syria. However, as Pillar was quoted in a May 2013 National Journal article, “Now that Syria seems to have crossed [Obama’s] red line, we’re seeing that such short-term diplomacy of the moment carries long-term risks.”

In the case of Iran and North Korea, multiple and contradictory red lines can lead to leaders walking up to the threshold, or even crossing it, purposely or inadvertently. A red line meant for domestic consumption can become a taunt on the international stage, and sometimes it may be accepted. The risks can include very real human costs, like the 80,000 and counting lives lost in Syria as red lines have been set, reached, and crossed. Moreover, as Syria continues to fracture, it risks becoming like the Yugoslavia of the 1990s, where Slobodan Milosevic called our “boy who cried wolf” bluff and an entire region was ultimately sucked into conflict before decisive action was finally taken years, and tens of thousands of deaths, later.

It seems that only time will tell in the cases of Iran, Syria and North Korea how red line diplomacy will fare. To be certain, while red line diplomacy became the rage in 2012, it may ultimately be determined that it carries far too many risks with too few benefits and at too high of a cost in dealing with weak and failing states.