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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.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Presidential Evil And American Good: Can They Coexist?

Prof. Louis René Beres

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Niccolò Machiavelli

If men or nations do evil in a good cause; if they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice.-Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History

When Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr posited the tragic choice of evil for the sake of good – a choice inherent in both the “human condition” and the anarchic state of nations – he was not focused on differences within a specific national government. Today, however, in the dissembling United States, a similarly tragic choice confronts America’s citizens in particular. Here the apparent choice is bold and straightforward:

               Shall Americans support an evil president in the greater interest of some wider political good?

               Though plausible in principle, no such dilemma actually exists. In  current US political circumstances, there is no supportable argument that Donald Trump’s disjointed and seat-of-the-pants policies, either foreign or domestic, can bestow any verifiable net benefits. To the main point, by allowing a willfully corrosive president to act in its name, the United States has defiled American national interests and  global human interests simultaneously.

               Apropos of proper logic, one presumptive conclusion is unambiguous: There is notragic” choice involved here (the choice identified above by Realpolitiker[1] Reinhold Niebuhr),  just an obvious and overriding imperative to rid both nation and planet of Trump-era toxicity. Prima facie, in this case at least, presidential evil and American good are mutually exclusive.

               There is more. With each passing day, weary Americans must face several stark and ironic contradictions. At an historical  moment when uplifting numbers of good people are making great personal sacrifices to help others (e.g., medical communities working against Covid19;  firefighters in the west; hurricane search-and-rescue personnel in the south, etc.), a US president acts wittingly to undermine his own country’s safety and security. This behavior includes a continuously incomprehensible stance of support for Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who it would appear can wish no harms upon the United States.[2]

               While according to any reasonable criteria of intellectual assessment these cumulative Trump behaviors are injurious and inexcusable,[3] millions of US citizens still maintain that his plainly deranged presidency represents a calculable “net positive.”

               What does this really mean? By definition, even now, these Trump-supporting Americans believe that manifest presidential evil can be compatible with national welfare and national progress. Somehow, in this case, they believe that such once-unimaginable evil can also be good. Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers, “I believe because it is absurd.”

               How can all this be helpfullyexplained? Conceptually, it would be best to begin at the beginning. The contradiction we are so painfully witnessing with this stumbling White House administration is not uniquely American. Already, back in the sixteenth-century, philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli observed famously,  “A man who wishes to  make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good.”

               Machiavelli need not always be clarifying or relevant. There is nothing here to suggest that this classic argument from The Prince would in any way support Donald J. Trump’s foreign and/or domestic policies. This president’s particular descents into wrongdoing and dereliction are not an expression of any gainful policy “realism.” Rather, they are singularly lamentable expressions of wantonly gratuitous harms.

               In an unsteady age when the risks of a nuclear war[4] could coincide with expanding biological destructions – that is, with the devastating microbial assaults of a Corona-Virus “plague”[5] – such harms can have no conceivable justifications.

               None at all.

               There is more. Context is important. All humans, wherever they may live, must bear persistent witness to the distressingly thin veneers of  “civilization.” Recalling William Golding’s marooned boys in Lord of the Flies, we must repeatedly discover, beneath any delicate varnish of supposed coexistence, a lascivious human inclination to brutalize  certain “others.”

               However informally it may be calculated, this primal inclination is “normally” judged agreeable and cost-effective.

                Science and technology notwithstanding, empathy and compassion remain in calculably short supply on planet earth. Accordingly, substantial fractions of humankind remain slouched in a perpetually bruising darkness, hoping not to create promising new forms of human civilization, but to “better” inflict myriad varieties of unspeakable slaughter. During the debilitating “Trump Years,” years of steadily-expanding presidential evil, the United States has made an egregious choice.

               Knowingly, it has placed itself directly within such nefariously cascading “darkness.”

               As “analysts,” Americans should now be more policy-specific. In Donald Trump’s United States, there is always some blatantly self-serving presidential explanation for human rights abuse. To wit, we are instructed, the latest victims are despicable, “illegal” or, in some ways at least, not fully human. Always, they are “others,”  mere others. And as we are repeatedly informed by the president’s reliably obsequious minions, this particular victim population is not at all like us. It is deserving of necessary “punishment.”

               Credo quia absurdum.  “I believe because it is absurd.” It is a very old story. The struggle between “Us and Them” is very plainly generic, not US-specific. If we are “good,” they are not. Period. Such grimly bifurcated reasoning is especially perverse and ironic today, during a pandemic crisis when the common biological “oneness” of the human species couldn’t possibly be more obvious

               In high tragedy, as originally performed back in fifth-century BC Athens, humans were routinely presented as inherently flawed guests in a divinely-created universe. This ancient presentation, though presently “modified” with assorted  regional and religious nuances, remains difficult to dispute. After all, following even a “small” nuclear war –  a plausible event, at least in the currently downward trajectory of world affairs – cemeteries the size of whole cities could be needed to bury the uncountable dead.

               Then, recalling the pre-nuclear imagery of poet T S Eliot, there could be no “lilacs breeding out of the dead land.” Then, there would be no discernible “good,” only variously decaying bearers of “evil.”

               Promptly, in far-flung parts of the world, both within and between individual nation-states, a “waste land” could become the new normal. Such “normalcy,” one substantially worse than even the new-normal of Covid19 life on earth, ought never become an intentionally sought-after expectation. For rational thinkers, this point hardly requires any present-moment clarifications.

               No sane person can be in favor of necropolis.

               “Art is a lie,” noted Pablo Picasso, “that lets us see the truth.” In this paradoxical description, theatrical tragedy can remind us that earthly spheres of order, justice and good remain severely compromised  by evil, and that  no amount of technology or science can ever compensate for our species’ multiple leadership transgressions. If, as in high tragedy, we humans should sometimes be punished in apparent excess of our specifically personal wrongdoings –  “Whom God wishes to destroy,”  warned the Greek tragedian, Euripides, “He first makes mad.” –  even this “unfair” fate could not declare us to be “innocent.”

               Not reasonably.

               There is more. Always, it is the gripping silence and self-inflicted fears of ordinary people that sustain the human world’s abundant madness. Often, these primal fears center on certain irrepressible expectations of personal death. But sometimes they can also rest on various corollary anxieties about personal exclusion. More than anything else, and for several markedly different yet intersecting reasons, we humans continue to seek the comfortingly calming warmth of  “mass.”

               It is the “mass man.” an elucidating and derivative construct of Spanish existentialist philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses,1930) who created US President Donald J. Trump. Stated differently, this American president, who promises to “Make America Great Again” is the openly evil product of American “mass.”[6] By itself, this collective does not intend to create evil, but intent is not at all determinative.

               It is quite enough that the mass prefers baseless opinion to documented fact and a willful anti-Reason to proper learning or tangible science.

               There is more. As a species, not just as Americans, there exists no compelling or defensible reason for us to fawn upon myriad past mistakes. Now, instead, with a view to achieving some still-plausible and verifiable progress, Americans must look back courageously. “How much treasure,” they must finally inquire, “how much science, how much labor and planning, how many vast oceans of sacred poetry, have we already ransacked, just to render our disparate human civilizations even more miserable and more imperiled?”

               I don’t know each pertinent answer. I do know, however, that our shallow and corrupted civilizational institutions, including America’s humiliating presidential elections, can never save us. This nation’s most revered universities,  perched deliberately above the distressingly mundane clamor of work, politics and family, remain unmindful of the world’s most urgently important intellectual questions.

               Thoroughly unmindful.

               Unassailably, though painfully indelicate to acknowledge, higher education in the  expansively deranged Trump-Era proceeds hand in hand with a ubiquitously crude and predatory commerce. In partial consequence, our colleges and universities shamelessly crush most residual reflexes of lingering student intellect or individuality. This crushing is not undertaken with any insidious intent – and the challenges to academic success during a pandemic are anything but minor –  but the US posture of anti-Reason is nonetheless destructive. Sorely destructive.

               In today’s Trump-defiled United States, American Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson’s once venerable goal of a people that is “plain living and high thinking” is more than just forgotten. This once-lofty objective presently now lies very far beyond any identifiable popular interest or hint of public imagination. Why not? Living together with unhidden presidential evil, what else should we expect?

                The American university, a dutifully obliging adjunct of the wider corporate/political universe, now lies distant not only from human learning, but also from human survival. French philosophers of the eighteenth-century Age of  Reason had preferred to speak optimistically of a siècle des lumieres, a “century of light,” but today, the ivy-covered walls are inestimably fouled by a congealing darkness, by a suffocating pall of excruciating conformance, vulgar self-interest and even a peculiarly-fashionable loathing of anything detached from money.

               There is a professionally favored euphemism here. It’s called “wealth maximization.” The language provides cover for a nation’s abject indifference to serious learning.

               None of this devaluation was initially created by the Trump “ascendancy,”[7] but it has been strongly reaffirmed in absolutely every respect by a starkly unworthy American president.[8]

               As an easily verifiable matter of human history, resisting evil has had little to do with human intelligence. More often than we may care to admit, such intelligence is conveniently manipulated to justify or enlarge certain “others'” most excruciating forms of  human suffering. Indeed, looking over the still-mounting wreckage of Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, we see the palpably grim results of such manipulation,  both domestically and in various other countries harmed by the dissembling American foreign policies.

               In some cases, these are harms of US omission or inaction, rather than of commission. A specific case in point would by Syria, where Trump’s immutable unwillingness to get on the wrong side of Vladimir Putin has already created societal disintegration and unspeakable torment.[9]

               The main theme or question before us allows only a single coherent response. There is no way that a “good” American society can be created or sustained by an “evil” American president. Period. Before the United States allows itself to become even more thoroughly lost to any still credible hopes for human improvement  and national survival, American citizens will have to build more purposefully upon this rudimentary wisdom. To be sure, we remain disturbingly far from understanding (let alone electing) Plato’s “Philosopher King,”[10] but now we are at least better advised to reject American presidential evil at absolutely all costs.

               Donald J. Trump does no evil for the sake of good. There is nothing “tragic” about his persistent across-the-board choice of evil              postures and policies. In essence, he makes these barbarous choices because he is authentically committed to evil for evil’s own sake.

               Left uncorrected, Trump will continue to bring to these deeply unhappy United States a self-inflicted future of national humiliation and determined anti-reason.

               No such future could ever “make America great again.”


[1] On Realpolitik or power politics, see, by this author, Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpoliitk: US Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington Books, 1984). See also his later book: Louis René Beres, America Outside the World: The Collapse of US Foreign Policy (Lexington Books, 1987).

[2] Incontestably, of course, Russia remains a significant nuclear threat to the United States. See, for example, by this author, Louis René Beres, at The War Room (US Department of Defense: Pentagon): https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/nuclear-decision-making/

[3] Journalist Bob Woodward called Trump’s efforts to conceal his knowledge of the virus from the public “one of the most tragic, outrageous acts by a sitting president in, maybe in history.”

[4] For early and informed assessments of nuclear war risks and consequences by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd. ed., 2018);   Louis René Beres,  Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1983);  Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington MA;  Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, ed.,  Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1986). See also, by Professor Beres, at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: https://thebulletin.org/2016/08/what-if-you-dont-trust-the-judgment-of-the-president-whose-finger-is-over-the-nuclear-button/

[5] Such biological assaults have thus far been considered only as natural occurrences. Going forward, however, it is possible that pertinent pathogens could be weaponized, and that future instances of “plague” could emerge as a deliberate form of warfare and/or terrorism.

[6]Like Jose Ortega y’Gasset, the Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung spoke usefully of  “mass.” Earlier, Friedrich Nietzsche, had referenced this demeaning phenomenon as the “herd;” Sigmund Freud, as the “horde;” and Soren Kierkegaard, as the “crowd.”

[7] See,  by this author, at The Daily Princetonian, Louis René Beres: https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/06/a-core-challenge-of-higher-education

[8] See, by this author, at Yale Global Online, Louis René Beres: https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/trump-and-destruction-american-mind

[9] These are not just matters of moral responsibility. The United States is obligated by the international law of human rights to intervene on behalf of such cruelly victimized populations. These international legal obligations are also incorporated in the national law of the United States, per Article 6 of the US Constitution (the “Supremacy Clause”) and several major US Supreme Court decisions. In the precise words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).

[10] See, by this author, at Oxford University Press, Louis René Beres: https://blog.oup.com/2011/08/philosopher-king/

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Americas

In Praise of the Lioness of Law: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her Jurisprudence

Punsara Amarasinghe

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image credit: Wikipedia

The death of the US Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg has created an abyss in the court for the liberal voice where justice Ginsburg was seen as the linchpin of the liberal block of the Supreme Court at a time when that block was shrinking. Especially late judge had vociferously advocated for women ‘rights, environmental issues and often came up with unique dissents in delivering her judgements which were propelled by her jurisprudence which embodied the solemn ideal in American legal system “Equal Protection under the Law “. She was on a quest to defend the delicate balance between honoring the timelessness of American Constitution and recognizing the depth of its enduring principles in new centuries and under new circumstances.

She grew up in an era where men held the helm in every aspect of social life and especially the legal profession was utterly dominated by men. Recalling her legal studies at Harvard law school in the 50’s judge Ginsburg had stated later how she was once asked by the Dean of Harvard law school to justify her position as a law student that otherwise would have gone to a man. Yet she had the spunk to overcome all the obstacles stood on her way and excelled as a scholar becoming the first female member of the Harvard Law Review.

In tracing her legal career that it becomes a salient fact, Judge Ginsburg marked her name in American legal history even decades before she joined the bench. While at the American Civil Liberties Union in the early seventies she made an upheaval in American in legal system in famous Supreme Court Case Reed Vs Reed. In Reed Vs Reed the brief drafted by Ginsburg provided an astute analysis on the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, the Equal Protection Clause. Ginsburg’s brief changed the aged long practice existed in the State of Idaho on favoring men over women in estate battles by paving the path for a discourse on gender equality rights in the USA.

Judge Ginsburg’s appointment to the Supreme Court in 1994 during Clinton administration marked the dawn of new jurisprudential chapter in the US Supreme Court. Two terms later, in the United States v. Virginia (VMI), Justice Ginsburg applied her lucid perspective to a sharply disputed constitutional claim. The United States challenged Virginia’s practice of admitting only men to its prestigious military college, the Virginia Military Institute. Writing for six Justices, Ginsburg held this policy unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause. In reaching this result, Ginsburg adroitly cut away potentially confounding issues about women’s participation in the military or the advantages of single-sex education.

Her robust activism in securing gender equality often attracted the admirations of the feminist scholars and activists, but it should be noted that her contribution was not only confined to the protection of gender equality. She was a robust critique of racial dissemination which still pervades in American society and she frequently pointed out how racial discrimination has marred the constitutional protections guaranteed to every citizen. Especially in the case of Gratz Vs Bollitnger, she stressed on the commitment that the state ought to fulfil by eliminating the racial biases existing employment and education. Moreover, disabled citizens. In Olmstead v. Zimring, she held that “unjustified institutional isolation of persons with disabilities is a form of discrimination” violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.45 She elaborated a two-fold concept of discrimination, noting that unneeded institutionalization both “perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life”.

In remembering the mortal departure of this prudent judge that one cannot forget her keenness in incorporating international law into her judgements regardless of the disinclination shown by conservative judges like Antony Scalia. Going beyond the mere textualism approach to the law, Ginsburg’s jurisprudence was much more akin to using international law to make substantive decisions. For instance, in her concurring verdict in Grutter Vs Bollinger, Justice Ginsburg relied upon international human rights law, and in particular upon two United Nations conventions, to support her conclusions.

Indeed, the demise of Ruth Ginsburg is a major blow for the liberalists in the USA, especially in an era where liberalist values are at stake under the fervent rise of populist waves propounded by Donald Trump. Especially late judge had been one of the harsh critics of Trump even before ascendency to the Oval office. The void created by the demise of judge Ginsburg might change the role the US Supreme Court if the successor to her position would take a more conservative approach and it will fortify the conservative bloc in the US Supreme Court. Trump has already placed Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and the third pick would more deeply entrench the conservative views in the US Supreme Court, which would inevitably undermine the progressive policies taken during Obama’s administration towards issues such as the environment. The political storm appeared after the death of the late judge has already created a tense situation in US politics as president Trump is determined to appoint a judge to fill before the presidential election in November.

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Americas

The Politics of (In)security in Mexico: Between Narcissism and Political Failure

Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza

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Image credit: Wikimedia

Security cannot be that easily separated from the political realm. The need for security is the prime reason why people come together to collectively form a state. Providing security is, therefore, one of the most basic functions of the state as a political and collective entity.

Last Friday, the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) laughed during his daily morning press briefings over a national newspaper headline about 45 massacres during his presidency. This attitude summarises in a macabre way his approach to insecurity: it is not his top priority. This is not the first time that AMLO has showed some serious and deeply disturbing lack of empathy for victims of crimes. Before taking office, he knew that insecurity was one of Mexico’s biggest challenges, and he has come to realise that curbing it down will not be as simple as he predicted during his presidential campaign.

Since the start of the War on Drugs in 2006, Mexico has sunk into a deep and ever-growing spiral of violence and vigilantism as a result of the erosion of the capacity of the state to provide safety to citizens. Vigilantism is when citizens decide to take the law into their own hands in order to fill the vacuum left by the state, or to pursue their own very particular interests. Guerrero, Michoacán, Morelos, Tabasco, Tamaulipas and Veracruz have over 50 vigilante organisations that pose substantial danger to the power of the state.

Vigilantism is not the only factor exacerbating the security crisis in Mexico: since 2006, young people have also started to join drug cartels and other criminal organisations. There are important sectors of the population who feel that the state has failed to represent them. They also feel betrayed because the state has not been able to provide them with the necessary means to better themselves. These frustrations make them vulnerable to the indoctrination of organised crime gangs who promise to give them some sort of ideological direction and solution to their problems.

As a result, it is not enough to carry out a kingpin arrest strategy and to preach on the moral duties we have as citizens as well as on human dignity. People need to be given enough means to find alternative livelihoods that are attractive enough to take them out of organised crime, Mexico can draw some important lessons from Sierra Leone who successfully demobilised and resettled ex-combatants after the armed conflict. Vigilantism, recruitment by organised crime, and insecurity have also flourished because of a lack of deterrence. The judicial system is weak and highly ineffective. A large proportion of the population does not trust the police, or the institutions in charge of the rule of law.

A long-term strategy requires linking security with politics. It needs to address not only the consequences but also the roots of unemployment and deep inequality. However, doing so requires decisive actions to root out widespread and vicious corruption. Corruption allows concentration of wealth and also prevents people from being held accountable. This perpetuates the circle of insecurity. Mexico has been slowly moving towards a borderline failed state. The current government is starting to lose legitimacy and the fragility of the state is further perpetuated by the undemocratic, and predatory governance of the current administration.

Creating a safer Mexico requires a strong, coherent, and stable leadership, AMLO’s administration is far from it. His popularity has consistently fallen as a result of his ineffective policies to tackle the pandemic, worsening insecurity, and the economic crisis. Mexico has reached over 72,000 Covid-19 deaths; during his initial 20 months as incumbent president, there has been 53,628 murders, among them 1800 children or teenagers, and 5888 women (11 women killed per day) This criminality rate is double than what it was during the same period in the presidency of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012); and 55% higher than with the last president, Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018). Mexico is also experiencing its worst economic recession in 90 years.

Insecurity remains as the issue of most concern among Mexicans, seeing the president laughing about it, can only fill citizens with yet more despair and lack of trusts in the government and its institutions. AMLO’s catastrophic performance is not surprising, though. Much of his failures and shortcomings can be explained by both ideology and a narcissistic personality. Having someone with both of those traits ruling a country under normal, peaceful times is already dangerous enough, add an economic crisis and a pandemic to the mix and the result is utter chaos.

AMLO embodies the prototypical narcissist: he has a grandiose self-image; an inflated ego; a constant need for admiration; and intolerance to criticism. He, like many other narcissists, thinks about himself too much and too often, making him incapable of considering the wellbeing of other and unable to pursue the public interest. He has a scapegoat ready to blame for his failures and mistakes: previous administrations, conservatives, neoliberalism, academics, writers, intellectuals, reporters, scientists, you name it, the list is long and keeps getting longer.

AMLO keeps contradicting himself and he does not realise it. He has been claiming for months that the pandemic is under control: it is not. He declares Mexico is ready to face the pandemic and we have enough tests and medical equipment: we do not. He says Mexico is on its way to economic recovery: it is not. He states corruption is a thing of the past: it is not. He says Mexico is now safer than ever before: it is not. When told the opposite he shrugs criticism off and laughs, the behaviour of a typical narcissist.

AMLO, alike narcissists, due to his inability to face criticism, has never cared about surrounding himself by the best and brightest. He chose a bunch of flunkies as members of his cabinet who try to please and not humiliate their leader. A further trait of narcissistic personalities is that they love conflict and division as this keeps them under control. The more destabilisation and antagonism, the better. AMLO since the start of his presidency has been setting states against states for resources and for pandemic responses, instead of coordinating a national response. He is also vindictive: playing favourites with those governors who follow him and punishing those that oppose him.

Deep down, narcissistic leaders are weak. AMLO is genuinely afraid to lead. He simply cannot bring himself to make decisions that are solely his. This is why he has relied on public referendums and consultations to cancel projects or advance legislation. He will not take any responsibility if something goes wrong: It was not him who decided, it was the people, blame them. He inherited a broken system that cannot be fixed during his term, blame the previous administrations, not him.

AMLO is a prime example of a textbook narcissist, unfortunately he is not the only one: Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Recep Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte are only a few more examples of what seems to be a normalised behaviour in contemporary politics. Every aspect of AMLO’s and other leaders presidencies have been heavily marked by their psychopathology. Narcissism, however, does not allow proper and realistic self-assessment, self-criticism, and self-appreciation therefore such leaders will simply ignore the red flags in their administration and have no clue how despicably and disgracefully they will be remembered.

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