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The Trump Doctrine Explained

Luis Durani

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“My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else.” Donald Trump’s recent speech discussed his overall foreign policy theme. In the course of navigating through his speech, Donald Trump attempted to paint a new global direction for America that breaks away from the “rusting” trajectory of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.

While sounding almost elementary, Trump vowed to return the US to a timeless principle of “America First,” which he argued has been absent from US foreign policy objectives for a while. As Trump read through his speech, there was a dialectical engagement of sorts with the audience on whether America has been protected by her foreign policy for the past 25 years. After discussing and critiquing the status quo, Donald Trump laid out his vision for a new America.

Synopsis

After glorifying the past and discussing the necessities of certain wars such as World War II and the Cold War, Trump turned his attention to the current state of foreign policy. He argued that America has lost her way since the end of the Cold War by engaging the world with a vision of “foolishness and arrogance.” Interestingly, this castigation of US foreign policy is bipartisan in the fact that he was critiquing Clinton, Bush, and Obama. More importantly, he gets to the root of failure in American foreign policy. He critiqued the premise that American intervention would lead to Jeffersonian democracies around the world. In such a manner, he condemns the humanitarian interventionist policy of Bill Clinton, nation building of George Bush and neo-democratic interventions of Barack Obama. Trump defies what the media, Republicans, and Democrats all neglect; by stating the large degree of culpability the US shares in decimating the infrastructures of the nations the US has intervened in and creating the environment for terror to thrive due to bad foreign policy principles.

Trump goes on to outline five (5) shortcomings plaguing the current state of American foreign policy:

1.Resources – Trump focuses on America’s solvency and economic state, which appears to be heading towards collapse. The US has become overextended in all aspects leading to a weakened nation that is unable to fix its aging infrastructure.

2.Fair Share – Trump continued his attack on the notion of unequal distribution of costs amongst America’s allies when it comes to defense. He brought up the fact that only a few of America’s NATO partners are adhering to the minimum requirements per the alliance’s charter while the US is carrying the preponderance of costs for defense. Trump plans to end this problem by either having these nations pay their fair share or exclude them from the American defense umbrella.

3.Reliability – Trump accused the Obama administration of not being a dependable partner to America’s historical allies such as Israel and Egypt. Trump believes the fickleness in American foreign policies has left both allies and enemies dumbfounded.

4.Respect – Due to the actions of the US or lack thereof in some cases, ally and foe alike do not respect the US anymore, according to Trump. In order to make his point, Trump alluded to the two recent trips President Obama took (Cuba and Saudi Arabia) and where there were no foreign leaders present to greet him.

5.Lack of Direction/Clarity – Finally, Trump points to the lack of vision for American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. This lack of clarity has led to quagmires in areas where America should not have been involved. While alluding to the fact that his administration will not be isolationist, he points out that this legacy of intervention has led to disarray and tragedy for everyone.

The Trump Doctrine

While “America First” appears to be the theme of Donald Trump’s entire campaign, he has managed to bring it into the foreign affairs realm as well. Trump is creating a foreign policy that is almost reminiscent of a distant past, where nationalism trumped (no pun intended) globalism. Trump claims he will reorient American foreign policy by focusing on imminent and long-term threats. Donald Trump plans to:

  • Eliminate the most looming threat to US national security; ISIS and extremism. He plans to work with regional nations to help eliminate the scourge that threatens Europe, the Middle East, and America.
  • Focus on rebuilding the military to be able to withstand the expanding capabilities of nations such as Russia and China.
  • Concetrate on policies that are a function of American interests. Trump wants a foreign policy that is more centered on Realpolitik than the current Neoliberalism approach.
  • Even though the US appears to be butting heads with Russia and China, Trump thinks the US can coexist with both nations. While being cognizant of their differences with the US, Trump believes rivalry is not the only option. He views cordial relations based on shared interests and fears are key. China will be Trump’s main focus; he believes the Chinese are the key to a prosperous future. While they have taken advantage of America, according to Trump, their behaviors can be rectified if dealt with from a position of strength.
  • Upon becoming president, Trump will call a NATO summit and an Asian summit. The intention is to update the objectives of the alliances threatening today’s world as well as rebalance financial commitments with America’s allies in Europe and Asia.

How is it Different

Trump’s doctrine is looking to hearken back to an era where America’s foreign policy was more nationalistic in nature than globalist. Perhaps the largest difference that can be observed is that when the US gets involved abroad its intent and how it is pertinent to its interests will be well known, thus laying out a clear set of objectives for Americans. The current approach of American foreign policy always tends to have some sort of corporate interest cloaked beneath the justification of humanitarian intervention or nation building. Americans have grown weary of this and do not see any benefit in this approach. Instead the inveterate approach creates more enemies and results in tremendous costs for the American public. Trump promises to change this by focusing his foreign policy on American interests solely. This will be a deviation from the past. In a sense, he is altering the definition of superpower. The long held belief is that as a superpower, nations would have additional responsibility to the international community by being more involved. This type of archaic thinking, according to Trump, is what has gotten the US into quagmires, endless spending, and loss of prestige. In its place, Trump wants a strong US that watches out for its interests and does not intervene in anything that does not pertain to that.

Critique

As with any policy or objective, flaws and shortcomings exist. With the Trump Doctrine, there are few points that Trump appears to have omitted or will need to address.

  • While Trump is echoing the frustration of most Americans with respect to the unequal distribution of costs for defense between the US and its allies, Trump appears to neglect the fact that these treaties were not dictated to the US by these nations but in most cases crafted by the US. While the US does pay for the majority of costs, these expenditures are the price the US pays in terms of securing allies, land bases, air space rights, etc. as well as opening foreign markets to American corporations. It doesn’t behoove any nation to just provide free defense or give away aid. The US benefits as well in such agreements. If not economically, it is imperative to the US geopolitical calculus to have such nations on their side.
  • While Trump continues to contend that the US military has gotten weaker, this is not necessarily true. Yes, military spending is reducing but this comes at the heels of it exponentially exploding in the past decade. Simultaneously, technology has greatly improved, thus changing how America fights its wars. The US military is undergoing a philosophical shift to become autonomous by relying more on aerial, ground, and aquatic drones to fight and gather intelligence, hence its reduction in size. A 21st-century military will need to be lean, autonomous and technology adept.
  • When Trump accuses China of taking advantage of its relation with the US through devaluation of currency, he is right but he also ignores similar methods employed by the US. Either Trump is neglecting or uninformed about the current global currency war ongoing between nations. China devalues its currency to boosts its exports because the US devalues its currency as well. The US devaluation takes place through quantitative easing (QE) and interest rate reduction. With the US retaining the major reserve currency status, China and other nations have invested heavily in the US dollar. Through QE, the US has devalued its currency by mass printing, which helps the US reduce its debt burden to China.
  • A major omission from Trump’s speech was the Afghan war. Donald Trump did not discuss the longest war in American history. He has broached the subject before with the idea of maintaining the current contingent of 10,000 troops almost indefinitely until the situation is pacified but he never discusses how. The current situation in Afghanistan epitomizes the true definition of a quagmire. Despite employing an Iraqi-style surge to no avail, the US finds itself lost in Afghanistan with no clear objectives. The Taliban are gaining ground and popularity as each day goes by while the corrupt Afghan government continues to fight internally over money and power. If elected, the Afghan War will pose a major headache for Trump since no solution really exists aside from a full withdrawal.

Conclusion

In order to further promote his credential as a presidential candidate, Donald Trump gave a foreign policy speech outlining his objective and position. Demonstrating a break from the past, Trump plans to take a more nationalistic tone in his vision for America. Citing the failures of the past 25 years of American foreign policy, Trump emphasized how his approach will scrutinize everything before an action is taken and only proceed with actions for the protection of Americans, not other entities be they allies or corporations. While his policy demonstrates inconsistencies and flaws, overall it appears to be a reset in how America will do business abroad.

Luis Durani is currently employed in the oil and gas industry. He previously worked in the nuclear energy industry. He has a M.A. in international affairs with a focus on Chinese foreign policy and the South China Sea, MBA, M.S. in nuclear engineering, B.S. in mechanical engineering and B.A. in political science. He is also author of "Afghanistan: It’s No Nebraska – How to do Deal with a Tribal State" and "China and the South China Sea: The Emergence of the Huaqing Doctrine." Follow him for other articles on Instagram: @Luis_Durani

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Politics as Reflection: Even in an Election Year, Real Change Must Come From “Below”

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane?”-Samuel Beckett, Endgame

Again and again, in vain, Americans seek progress in politics.  But as really ought to have been learned at this point, ritualistic elections can never save the United States. Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, no president or congress can ever halt the corrosive withering of heart, body and mind that now so plainly afflicts the beleaguered nation.

 Here are some pertinent details. No matter how well intentioned and capable, whether Democrat or Republican,  a  US president’s proposed “rescue program” can only tinker at the edges of what is important. Naturally, there can always be various recognizable increments of apparent progress, but nothing that could overcome America’s growing indifference to meaningful education. If truth be candidly told, the glaring detachment of America’s current president from even a modicum of historical or scientific knowledge accrues to his political benefit.

Ironically, this detachment represents anything but a political liability.

Rather, it is a resounding political plus.

Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient philosophers, “I believe because it is absurd.”  Today, in the United States and elsewhere, revealed ignorance has  become a tangible political asset. There is nothing intentionally “cute” or obnoxious about offering such a distressing observation about politics and “mind.”  

It is simply correct.

We should begin at the beginning. Every human society represents the sum total of individual souls seeking some form or other of “redemption.”[1] Ultimately, these searching souls must be mended “at the source,” that is, at the crucially core levels of individual human learning and personal transformation.

These souls can never be  “saved”  by narrowly self-serving institutions of any government or politics.

Never.

It’s not complicated. Like certain others, Americans now inhabit a society so numbingly false that even their most sincere melancholy is wanton and contrived. Wallowing in the mutually-reinforcing twilights of submission and conformance, the people have strayed far from any ordinary expectations of serious learning.

In essence, without any real or compelling reasons, Americans have freely abandoned the once-residual elements of Jeffersonian good citizenship.

In consequence, together with the unceasing connivance of charlatans and fools, a lonely American crowd now hides without shame from even its most accurate kinds of reflection.

There will be a price to pay. Any society so clearly willing to abjure its obligations toward dignified learning – toward what American Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once called “high thinking” – is one that should never reasonably expect to endure. What else ought we to expect from a society that elects a president who reads nothing, absolutely nothing at all, and who then affirms with wholly undiminished pride: “I love the poorly educated?”[2]

Today, in the United States, the evidence of abject surrender to “mass” (the term embraced by the great Spanish existentialist philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset and Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung);  to “herd” (the word favored by German/Swiss philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud[3]); or “crowd” (the choice of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) is everywhere to be detected. Resigned, at best, to an orchestrated future of dreary work and civilizational mediocrity, Americans too often lurch foolishly from one forfeiture to the next. Now, the people  remain oddly content to wage rancorous culture wars between ideological groupings.

At the same time, treating all formal education as a narrowly instrumental obligation (“one should get better educated in order to get a better paying job”), Americans very easily accept flagrantly empty witticisms as profundities (“We will build a beautiful wall;” “Barbed wire can be beautiful;” “The moon is part of Mars;” etc.), and then consult challenging ideas only rarely.

Always, the dire result is more-or-less predictable; that is, a finely trained work force that manages to get the particular job done, but displays (simultaneously) nary a hint of  learning, compassion or worthwhile human understanding.

One never hears of any literary, artistic or cultural presence in the Trump White House, unless we should be willing to count the president’s rapper meeting with Kanye West or the humiliating appearance of Duck Dynasty as main “speaker” at Trump’s 2016 Republican Convention .

Credo quia absurdum.  Every sham can have a reinforcing patina. This president who has never even glanced at the US Constitution, might well be re-elected. How shall this glaring contradiction be explained?

Whatever the answer, The American people should never express surprise at the breadth and depth of their present and still-impending national failures. Within the currently celebrated hierarchy of collective American  values, we may conclude, and without any hesitation, “You are what you buy.” Plausibly, without ever-more frenzied buying (aka the “retail sector”), our stock markets (together with all others) could soon find themselves in irreversible peril.

What this means, inter alia, is that American economic progress is contingent upon a ceaseless American willingness to subordinate what is truly important to whatever can readily be purchased.

There is more. In the bitterly fractionated United States, an authentic American individualis now little more than a charming artifact.  Among other things, the nation’s societal “mass,”  more refractory than ever to intellect and learning, still has no discernible intentions of taking itself seriously. To the contrary, an embittered American ‘mass” or “herd” or “crowd” now marches in deferential lockstep, foolishly, toward even-greater patterns of imitation, unhappiness and starkly belligerent incivility.

Incontestably, for Americans, searching self-examinations are fully in order. Already, it is possible for We the people to be lonely in the world or lonely for the world, and – regrettably – an anti-intellectual American mindset has simultaneously spawned both remorseless forms of  lamentation. On the plus side, there is an ascertainable antidote. Before it can be “applied,” however, and before a more harmonized nation can be detached from any such bifurcated loneliness, there will first have to be an “awakening.” The pertinent message of this call to consciousness would be as follows:  A society constructed upon willfully anti-intellectual foundations must inevitably be built upon sand.

Nothing more.

The American future is not hard to fathom. More than likely, whatever might be decided in politics and elections, Americans will continue to be carried forth not by any commendable nobilities of principle or purpose, but instead, by a steady eruption of personal and collective agitation, by endlessly inane candidate repetitions and by the perpetually demeaning primacy of extended public ignorance.  At times, perhaps, We the people may be able to slow down a bit and “smell the roses,”  but their visibly compromised and degraded country now imposes upon its exhausted people the breathless rhythms of a vast and struggling machine.

Much as many might eagerly wish to deny it, the plausible end of this delirium will be to further prevent Americans from remembering who they are and (far more importantly) who they might once still have become.

 What can be done to escape the menacing pendulum of America’s own mad clockwork?  Conveniently, though the country continues to pay lip service to the high ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution  ( no one seriously presumes that the American president has taken even a few minutes to read through these musty old documents), these lofty principles are invoked only for ostentation. For the most part,  Americans now lack any more genuine sources of national cohesion than celebrity sex scandals,  sports team loyalties and the always comforting distractions of war, terrorism and genocide.[4]

Sadly, Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once, we harbored a preciously unique potential to nurture individuals, that is, to encourage Americans to become more than a smugly inert mass,  herd or crowd. Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson (also fellow Transcendentalists Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau) described us optimistically as a people animated by industry and “self-reliance.” Now, however, beyond any serious contestation, we are stymied by collective paralysis, capitulation and a starkly Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling.”

 Surely, all must eventually acknowledge, there is more to this chanting country than viscerally-driven rallies, tsunamis of hyper-adrenalized commerce or gargantuan waves of abundantly cheap entertainments: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” rhapsodized the American poet Walt Whitman, but today, the American Selfhas devolved into a delicately thin shadow of true national potential. Distressingly, this Self has already become a twisting reflection of a prior authenticity.  Now it is under final assault by far-reaching  societal tastelessness and by a literally epidemic gluttony.

Regarding this expressly gastronomic debility, it’s not that we Americans have become more and more hungry, but rather that we have lost any once residual appetites for real life.

In the end, credulity is America’s worst enemy. The stubborn inclination to believe that wider social and personal redemption must lie somewhere in politics remains a potentially fatal disorder. To be fair, various social and economic issues do need to be coherently addressed by America’s political representatives, but so too must the nation’s deeper problems first be solved as a matter for individuals.

Should Americans continue to live within a hypnotizing cycle of blatantly false expectations, and thereby celebrate the vague and atrophied impulses of a primeval mass instinct, the sole remaining national ambition will be to stay alive. Surely America must be capable of sustaining substantially higher ambitions.

In the end, American politics – like politics everywhere [5]– must remain a second-order activity, a faint reflection of what is truly important. For now, it continues to thrive upon a vast personal emptiness, on an infirmity that is the always-defiling reciprocal of any genuine personal fulfillment. “Conscious of his emptiness,” warns the German philosopher Karl Jaspers in his modern classic Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), “man (human) tries to make a faith for himself (or herself) in the political realm. In Vain.”

 Only a rare few can ever redeem themselves and the American nation, but these quiet and self-effacing souls will generally remain hidden, more-or-less in “deep cover,” perhaps even from themselves. Still, America’s imperative redemption as a nation and as a people will never be found among those who chant meaningless gibberish in ritualized political chorus. We shouldn’t seek more fevered political “rallies” in America; we need a population that can take learning[6] and thinking seriously.[7]

A declining civilization compromises with its most threatening afflictions, sometimes shamelessly. To restore the United States to long-term health and “high thinking” – an Emersonian task so daunting that it could sometime become a pretext for society-wide convulsions  – Americans must look beyond their perpetually futile faith in politics. Only when such an indispensable swerve of consciousness can become an impressively conspicuous or even universal gesture – that is, when Americans finally seek their “justifications” on a different plane – can the people hope to heal a splintering and nearly-broken land.


[1] This insightful metaphor is drawn from the writings of Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung.

[2] In a markedly similar vein, warned Joseph Goebbels, Third Reich Minister of Propaganda: “Intellect rots the brain.”

[3] Sometimes, however, Sigmund Freud used his own version of Nietzsche’s “herd,” which was “horde.” Significantly, perhaps, Freud maintained a general antipathy to all things American. In essence, he most objected, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to that country’s “shallow optimism” and its corollary commitment to a crude form of materialism. America, thought Freud, was very evidently “lacking in soul.” See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), especially Chapter X.

[4] In terms of international law, which remains an integral part of US law, such sources represent, inter alia, a violation of this timeless jurisprudential axiom: “Rights cannot derive from wrongs,” or  Ex injuria jus non oritur. For properly jurisprudential sources of authoritative “incorporation” into US law, see: See especially The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 678-79 (1900); The Lola, 175 U.S. 677, 700 (1900); and Tel Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir, 1984).

[5] Nothing in this essay is meant to suggest that the pertinent national failings are in  any way uniquely American. To the contrary, the problem being discussed is presumptively worldwide or “generic.”

[6] See, by this writer, at The Daily Princetonian: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/06/a-core-challenge-of-higher-education

[7] This brings to mind Bertrand Russell’s keen observation in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916): “Men fear thought more than anything else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death.”

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Why the Weird and Uncompromising Get Elected

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Why is it that the US and Britain have chosen weird uncompromising leaders when the essence of statesmanship is calculated compromise.  Worse, if not shocking, is that 43 percent of India’s new parliament elected in May are facing criminal charges, including rape and murder.  Out of the 303 lawmakers in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, 116 face charges.  He himself was not considered suitable for a US visa because of the organized 2002  killings/pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat while he was leader; he was given a visa only after he became prime minister.

Trump has just fired John Bolton his third National Security Adviser in two-and-a-half years.  Ever since taking office, he has been abrogating agreements unilaterally.  Iran now refuses to talk to him, and announced that the removal of Bolton, a notorious Iran hawk, makes no difference.  This lack of trust after Trump walked out of the previous agreement, one with the imprimatur of the Security council and major world powers, is to be expected but there is also the matter of dignity.  No self-respecting nation can tie itself to the whims of an erratic leader.

Boris Johnson meanwhile is flouting the norms and traditions of parliament.  He has prorogued the current session not for two or three days as customary but for nearly five weeks until October 14.  Uproar and an appeal to the courts against this upending of democracy followed.  A Scottish judge has now ruled the prorogation illegal.  Tellingly, the 21 Tory members, who were turned out of the Tory party in parliament, joined the opposition to pass a law requiring Boris to seek an extension preventing the no-deal Brexit on October 31 if he has not come up with an agreement by October 19.  Boris’  hands have been tied, his government losing control of the parliamentary agenda.  His scheme to end debate on the issue by proroguing parliament has backfired badly, leaving commentators wondering if Boris has been the worst prime minister this century.

One of the persons Boris threw out of his party was Nicolas Soames, a grandson of Winston Churchill and a 37-year member of parliament, another was its longest serving member.  No grace in the graceless as they say. 

Trump on the other hand is fixated on golf.  Until July this year, he had spent over $105  million of taxpayers’ money on his golfing trips.  Extrapolated over his entire tenure including re-election, he could cost the taxpayer $340 million according to Forbes, which is far from a left-wing magazine. 

So why do people elect such leaders?  Perhaps the underlying cause is income stagnation for the majority (adjusted for inflation) since the late 1970s.  Yes, GDP has grown but the benefits have been skewed to the upper 20 percent quintile.  When the voters have not found an answer from mainstream Democrats and Republicans, they have resorted to mavericks like Obama and now Trump.  In the UK it is Johnson — heaven help them if his no-deal Brexit prevails for it is expected to be an economic disaster. 

When blame is focused on immigration, as in Britain, Hungary, Poland and now the US, extreme right-wingers take center stage with crude but appealing rhetoric, and often get elected.  So there we have it, while Trump denied funding by Congress is drawing funds from the defense budget to build his wall on the Mexican border.

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US-North Korea Crisis Decision- Making: Growing Risks Of Inadvertent Or Unintended Nuclear War In Asia

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“We fell in love!”-US President Donald Trump, referring to North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un after Singapore Summit (June 2018)

Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.” While US President Donald Trump continues to express inexplicable confidence in his North Korean counterpart  (and a simultaneous lack of faith in his own intelligence community), he also fails to understand something rudimentary: The stability of any upcoming crisis decision-making process between Washington and Pyongyang will have less to do with “loving” leader relations than with Kim Jung Un’s unmistakably  core commitment to personal military power.

 In this increasingly worrisome conflict “dyad,” one of the most understated and under-referenced risks to the United States concerns inadvertent or unintended nuclear war.

On such urgent risks, words matter. Initially, in seeking to fashion a coherent security policy, President Trump and his strategic advisors should approach all pertinent issues at the primary or conceptual level. Inter alia, it will soon become necessary for Mr. Trump to understand that the various nuclear war risks[1] posed by inadvertence must be differentiated from the expected hazards of a deliberate nuclear war. These latter perils could stem only from  those Washington-Pyongyang hostilities that had been (1) intentionally initiated with nuclear weapons; and/or (2) intentionally responded to by express retaliation with nuclear weapons.

This is the case whether such unprecedented military actions were undertaken to achieve strategic surprise,[2] or instead as the result (expected or unexpected) of enemy irrationality.[3]

 Prima facie, these are distinctly  many-sided and “dense” calculations. In any deliberate nuclear war scenario, and before any presidential ordering of an American preemption,[4] the designated North Korean leadership would first need to appear(a) nuclear-capable and (b)  irrational. Without this second expectation, any US preemption against an already-nuclear adversary would be irrational on its face[5]. Washington, therefore, must continuously monitor not only tangible North Korean nuclear assets and capabilities, but also the substantially less tangible mental health characteristics of Kim Jong Un.

Although some might mock this second intelligence imperative as unnecessary or “clinically impossible,” it remains conceivable that the dictator in Pyongyang could at some point pretend irrationality.

The decipherable differences here would not be narrowly academic or entirely linguistic.

Factually, moreover, it is Kim Jong Un’s counterpart in the White House (and not Kim himself) who has publicly mused about the potential rationality of pretended irrationality, and who takes  oddly conspicuous comfort from his assessment that the two presidents “fell in love” back in Singapore.

This is not the sort of “romance” upon which to build a core US national security policy.

There is more. When the US president and his national security advisors consider the co-existing and fearful prospects of an inadvertent nuclear war with North Korea, their principal focus should remain oriented toward more institutional directions – that is, to the expected stability and reliability of Pyongyang’s command, control and intelligence procedures. Should it then be determined that these “C3I” processes display unacceptably high risks of mechanical/electrical/computer failure; indecipherable pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority; and/or unpredictable/unreliable launch-on-warning procedures (sometimes also called “launch-on-confirmed-attack”), a still-rational American president could feel the more compelling need to consider a plausibly appropriate preemption option.[6]

Another complex factor in any such prospective decision-making process would be (a) the apparent advent of hypersonic weapons in North Korean arsenals; and (b) the extent to which this emergence were paralleled in American arsenals and/or strategic calculations.

At this already advanced stage in North Korean nuclear military progress, the probable  costs to the United States and certain of its allies accruing from  a defensive first-strike would be more-or-less overwhelming and thus potentially “unacceptable.” This foreseeable understanding seems to have escaped Trump, who first stated publicly at the end of May 2019 that North Korean tests of short-range missiles “do not worry” him. This blithe and manifestly ill-conceived observation suggests that the American president (c) is erroneously focused only on direct (long-range) missile threats to the United States, and (d) is unmindful of conspicuously challenging escalatory possibilities, especially the immediate importance of shorter-range missile threats.

Why so urgently important?

 In the first place, North Korea’s short-range missiles could target US allies South Korea and Japan; also, US military forces in the region. While an attack on these forces would carry a near-automatic assurance of a more or less measured American retaliation, aggression against regional US allies would almost certainly call for such a reprisal. In essence, therefore, Kim Jung Un’s short-range missiles could sometime bring the United States into a full-blown war, even though these missiles would never have been launched against the American homeland.

In the second place, it is improbable but not inconceivable that South Korea could wittingly or unwittingly initiate a conventional conflict with North Korea,  thereby realistically mandating a US military involvement in the conflict. Were this to happen, Seoul would have effectively “catalyzed” a North-Korea-US war. In any such many-sided belligerency, even nuclear weapons could be fired. Also worth studying in the unprecedented realm of catalytic nuclear war would be a narrative wherein an altogether different state or sub-state could arrange an anonymous first-strike against South Korea, Japan and/or regional US forces.

What about a US preemption? In principle, at least, certain calculable preemption options could not be dismissed out of hand in any balance-of-power world system.[7] More precisely, any residual American resort to “anticipatory self-defense”[8] could be nuclear or non-nuclear and could be indicated without any express regard for Kim Jung Un’s presumed rationality. Still, the well-reasoned cost-effectiveness of any US preemption would almost certainly be enlarged by including such carefully calculated presumptions.

What would be the most plausible reactions concerning a Trump-ordered preemption against North Korea? When all significant factors are taken into account, Pyongyang, likely having no meaningful option to launching at least some massive forms of armed response, would intentionally target certain designated American military forces in the region and/or high-value South Korean armaments and personnel. President Trump, still assuming enemy rationality, should then expect that whatever North Korea’s precise configuration of selected targets, Kim Jung Un’s retaliatory blow would  be designed to minimize or avoid any massive (including even nuclear) American counter-retaliations.

There is more. All such high-consequence calculations would involve adversarial policy intersections which could be genuinely “synergistic”[9] and assume perfect rationality on all sides. If, for example, the American president should sometime decide to strike first, the response from Kim Jung Un should then expectedly be proportionate; that is, more-or-less similarly massive. In this particular escalatory “game,” the willful introduction of nuclear weapons into any ensuing conflagration might not be dismissed out of hand by either “player.”

What then?

 Noteworthy, too, at least at that markedly uncertain and unstable point, any such a game-changing introduction would more likely originate from the American side. This sobering inference is based upon the understanding that while North Korea already has some nuclear weapons and missile delivery vehicles, it is also still rational and not yet prepared operationally to seek “escalation dominance” vis-à-vis the United States. For the moment, at least, it would seemingly be irrational for Pyongyang to launch any of its nuclear weapons first.

Sometime, at least in principle,  Mr. Trump, extending his usually favored stance of an argumentum ad bacculum (an appeal to force)  could opt rationally for a so-called “mad dog” strategy. Here, the American president, following his just-ordered preemption, would deliberately choose a strategy of pretended irrationality.

Any such determined reliance, while intuitively sensible and arguably compelling, could backfire, and thereby open up a slippery path to a now unstoppable escalation. This self-propelling competition in risk-taking could also be triggered by the North Korean president, then pretending to be a “mad dog” himself. Significantly, any feigned irrationality stance by Kim Jong Un might be undertaken exclusively by the North Korean side, or in an entirely unplanned tandem or “synergy” with the United States. In all conceivable variants of crisis bargaining between Washington and Pyongyang, even those without any synergies, the highest-level decision-making processes would be meaningfully interdependent.

This means still greater levels of complexity and still lesser significance assignable to any presumptive “love” relationship between the two presidential adversaries.[10]

Regarding complexity, in absolutely all of these plausible bargaining postures, each side would have to pay reciprocally close attention to the anticipated wishes and intentions of  Russia and China. Accordingly, one must now inquire, does President Trump actually believe that China would find it gainful to support him in any still-pending nuclear crisis with North Korea? To answer such a query, it ought to be quite plain that Mr. Trump’s ongoing and potentially accelerating trade war with China would be manifestly unhelpful.

Regarding further complexity, what transpires between Washington and Pyongyang in crisis decision-making circumstances could be impacted by certain other ongoing or escalating wars in Asia. In this connection, most portentously relevant would be any substantial escalations of the Kashmir conflict, especially those that might involve an introduction of nuclear weapons. Unquestionably, any correlative crossing of the nuclear threshold in that India-Pakistan conflict dyad would fracture a longstanding taboo in world politics, and presumptively heighten the likelihood of a US-North Korean nuclear exchange.

Notwithstanding President Donald Trump’s exaggerated confidence in basing foreign policy decision-making upon extrapolations from commerce, it is all genuinely complex, stunningly complex,[11] even bewilderingly complex. Also reasonable to assume is that in any such many-sided circumstances, the North Korean president would no longer be pretending irrationality. He could, at some point, have become authenticallyirrational. Regardless of difficulty, however, the differences here would be well worth figuring out.

Relevant scenarios must soon be posited and examined dialectically. If President Donald Trump’s initial defensive first strike against North Korea were less than massive, a still rational adversary in Pyongyang would likely take steps to ensure that its own preferred reprisal were correspondingly limited. But if Trump’s consciously rational and calibrated attack upon North Korea were wittingly or unwittingly launched against an irrational enemy leadership, the response from Pyongyang could then be an all-out retaliation. This unanticipated response, whether  non-nuclear or non-nuclear-nuclear “hybrid,” would be directed at some as yet indeterminable combination of US and allied targets.

Inevitably, and by any sensible measure, this response could inflict grievous  harms.

It is now worth considering that a North Korean missile reprisal against US interests and personnel would not automatically exclude the American homeland. However, should the North Korean president maintain a determinedly rational “ladder” of available options, he would almost certainly resist targeting any vulnerable civilian portions of the United States. Still, should he remain determinably willing to strike targets in South Korea and/or Japan, he would incur very substantial risks of an American nuclear counter-retaliation.

In principle, any such US response would follow directly from this country’s assorted treaty-based obligations regarding “collective self-defense.”[12]

There is more. Such risks would be much greater if Kim’s own aggressions had extended beyond hard military assets, either intentionally or as unwitting “collateral damage” brought to various soft civilian populations and/or infrastructures.

 Even if the unimaginably complex game of nuclear brinksmanship in Northeast Asia were being played only by fully rational adversaries, the rapidly accumulating momentum of events between Washington and Pyongyang could still demand that each “contestant” strive relentlessly for escalation dominance. It is in the notably unpracticed dynamics of such an explosive rivalry that the prospect of an “Armageddon” scenario could be actualized. This outcome could be produced in unexpected increments of escalation by either or both of the dominant national players, or instead, by any sudden quantum leap in destructiveness applied by the United States and/or North Korea.[13]

Looking ahead, the only foreseeable element of the “game” that is predictable in such complicated US-North Korean calculations is the contest’s inherent and boundless unpredictability. Even under the very best or optimal assumptions of enemy rationality, all relevant decision-makers would have to concern themselves with dense or confused communications, inevitable miscalculations, cascading errors in information, unauthorized uses of strategic weapons, mechanical, electrical or computer malfunctions and certain poorly-recognized applications of cyber-defense and cyber-war.

Technically, one further analytic distinction is needed between inadvertent nuclear war and accidental nuclear war. By definition, an accidental nuclear war would be inadvertent, but reciprocally, an inadvertent nuclear war need not be accidental.[14] False warnings, for example, which could be spawned by mechanical, electrical or computer malfunction (or by hacking)[15] would not signify the origins of an inadvertent nuclear war. Instead, they would fit under clarifying narratives of an accidental nuclear war.

“Everything is very simple in war,” says Carl von Clausewitz in On War, “but the simplest thing is still difficult.” With this seemingly banal but profound observation, the classical Prussian strategist makes plain that serious military planning is always problematic. Largely, this is because of what he famously called “friction.” In essence, friction describes “the difference between war as it actually is, and war on paper.”

Unless President Trump is able to understand this core concept and prepare to manage unpredictable risks of an unintentional war with North Korea, any future “love letters” from Kim Jung Un would be beside the point. While the specific  risks of a deliberate or intentional  nuclear conflict between the United States and North Korea should remain front and center in Washington, these risks ought never be assessed apart from these closely associated hazards of crisis decision-making. All of these risks could be overlapping, mutually reinforcing or even synergistic, daunting circumstances in which the plausible “whole” of their effect would be tangibly greater than the simple sum of their constituent “parts.”

There is one last matter to be clarified. This has to do with the nature  of “superpower” relations within the underlying balance of power structure of world politics.[16] Whatever the differences in preferred nomenclature, it is apparent that we are now entering (wittingly or unwittingly) an era of “Cold War II.”[17] Depending upon the dominant configurations of this new Cold War, US-North Korea nuclear decision-making will be more-or-less destabilizing. It follows, for President Donald Trump and the United States, that Washington-Pyongyang nuclear bargaining must takes its dominant cues from two different though intersecting directions.

In the end, a great deal will depend upon the American side’s willingness to base relevant policies upon intellectual or analytic foundations.

In the end, such willingness will trump any alleged benefits of having fallen “in love.”


[1] Whatever these particular risks, they could be intersecting, “force multiplying” or even “synergistic.” Where an authentic synergy were involved, the “whole” of any attack outcome could then be greater than the tangible sum of its component “parts.”

[2] In his seminal writings, strategic theorist Herman Kahn introduced a further distinction between a surprise attack that is more-or-less unexpected, and one that arrives “out of the blue.” The former, he counseled, “…is likely to take place during a period of tension that is not so intense that the offender is fully prepared for nuclear war….” A total surprise attack, however, would be one without any immediately recognizable tension or signal. This particular subset of the surprise attack scenario would be very difficult to operationalize for national policy benefit. See: Herman Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s (Simon & Schuster, 1984).

[3] Recalling the 20th-century German philosopher, Karl Jaspers: “The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it.” This insight can be found in Jaspers’ “Historical Reflections” on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

[4] Worth noting here too is that any such ordering of a preemptive attack by an American president would be exceedingly problematic under US law (especially under pertinent US Constitutional constraints). There are, therefore, critical jurisprudential as well as strategic implications involved.

[5] Nonetheless, the American president could conceivably still benefit from a preemption against an already nuclear North Korea if refraining from striking first would allow North Korea to implement certain additional protective measures. Designed to guard against preemption, these measures could involve the attachment of “hair trigger” launch mechanisms to nuclear weapon systems and/or the adoption of “launch on warning” policies, possibly coupled with identifiable pre-delegations of launch authority. This means, increasingly, that the US could be incrementally endangered by steps taken by Pyongyang to prevent a preemption. Optimally, this country would do everything possible to prevent such steps, especially because of the expanded risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks against its own or allied armaments and populations. But if such steps were to become a fait accompli, Washington might still calculate correctly that a preemptive strike would be both legal and cost-effective. This is because the expected enemy retaliation, however damaging, could still appear more tolerable than the expected consequences of enemy first-strikes  –  strikes likely occasioned by the failure of “anti-preemption” protocols.

[6] From the standpoint of international law, it is necessary to distinguish preemptive attacks from “preventive ones.” Preemption is a military strategy of striking first in the expectation that the only foreseeable alternative is to be struck first oneself.  A preemptive attack is launched by a state that believes enemy forces are about to attack.  A preventive attack, however, is launched not out of any genuine concern about “imminent” hostilities, but rather for fear of a longer-term deterioration in a pertinent military balance.  In a preemptive attack, the length of time by which the enemy’s action is anticipated is presumptively very short; in a preventive strike, the anticipated interval is considerably longer. A related problem here for the United States is not only the practical difficulty of accurately determining imminence, but also that delaying a defensive strike until appropriately ascertained imminence can be acknowledged could prove “fatal” or existential.

[7] The core concept of a balance of power – an idea of which the nuclear-age balance of terror is a particular variant – has never been more than a facile metaphor. Significantly, it has never had anything to do with creating or ascertaining “equilibrium.” Moreover, as such balance is always a matter of individual and subjective perceptions, adversary states can never be sufficiently confident that pertinent strategic circumstances are actually “balanced” in their favor. In consequence, inter alia, each side to any conflict must “normally” fear that it will be left behind; accordingly, the perpetual search for balance generally produces ever-wider patterns of national insecurity and global disequilibrium.

[8] This term is drawn from customary international law, an authoritative source of world legal norms identified at Art. 38 of the UN’s Statute of the International Court of Justice.  Already, international law, an integral part of the legal system of all states in world politics, assumes a general obligation to supply benefits to one another, and to avoid war at all costs. This core assumption of jurisprudential solidarity is known formally as a “peremptory” or jus cogens expectation, that is, one that is not even subject to question. It can be found in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis, Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625) and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations or Principles of Natural Law (1758).

[9] In any synergistic intersection – whether in chemistry, medicine or war – the “whole” of any result would exceed the simple sum of its policy-determining “parts.”

[10] Pertinent synergies could clarify or elucidate the world political system’s current state of disorder (a view that would reflect what the physicists prefer to call “entropic” conditions), and could themselves be dependent upon each national decision-maker’s own subjective metaphysics of time. For an early article by this author dealing with interesting linkages between such a subjective metaphysics and national decision-making (linkages that could shed additional light on growing risks of a US-North Korea nuclear war), see: Louis René Beres, “Time, Consciousness and Decision-Making in Theories of International Relations,” The Journal of Value Inquiry, Vol. VIII, No.3., Fall 1974, pp. 175-186.

[11] Reciprocally, of course, the White House has been seeking to persuade Americans and others by way of very deliberate simplifications.  See, on the plausible consequences of any such deceptive measures, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s pertinent observation in On Certainty:  “Remember that one is sometimes convinced of the correctness of a view by its simplicity or symmetry….”

[12] For the differences between “collective self defense” and “collective security,” see this writer’s early book: Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (University of Denver Monograph Series in World Affairs)( (1973).

[13] This brings to mind the philosophical query by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett in Endgame: “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane?”

[14] Reminds Herman Kahn in his On Escalation (1965): “All accidental wars are inadvertent and unintended, but not vice-versa.”

[15] This prospect now includes the plausible advent of so-called “cyber- mercenaries.”

[16] For a related conceptual argument by this author concerning Israel’s security in the Middle East, see: Louis René Beres: https://besacenter.org/mideast-security-and-policy-studies/israeli-nuclear-deterrence/

[17] In essence, postulating the emergence of “Cold War II” means expecting the world system to become once again bipolar. For early writings, by this author, on the global security implications of such an expanding bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, “Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

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