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Donald Trump, Foreign Policy Incoherence and Inadvertent Nuclear War

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“In a surrealist year….some cool clown pressed an inedible mushroom button, and an inaudible Sunday bomb fell down, catching the president at his prayers on the 19th green.”-Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)

From the start of his presidency,  Donald Trump has displayed unmistakable signs of debility, venality and intellectual impoverishment. Most conspicuous, in this regard, is Mr. Trump’s evident unfamiliarity with history, diplomacy, intelligence and law. Slightly less obvious, but only if one were willfully blind to unassailable evidence, is this president’s rancorous and brittle emotional state.

Even when considered separately, these presidential liabilities are worrisome.

Taken together, however, they become palpably fearful and potentially intolerable.

This cumulative liability reaches its nadir when considered with a debilitated  president’s lawful exercise of nuclear command authority.

In principle, at least, these risks and consequences of US presidential shortcoming are generic; that is, they are not necessarily “Trump specific.” At this level, they also represent bewilderingly complex matters about which I have been lecturing and publishing for half a century. Some of my long term personal conclusions can be pried interpretively from historical examination and from certain more-or-less coinciding logical extrapolations.

In all such matters, analytic competence and confidence must stem from calculably valid assurances that both complementary operations are being carried out dispassionately, and in tandem.

The bottom line here is unhidden. Principal national security risks America currently faces as a nation are prospectively immediate and formidably existential. Such risks can be fully understood only in light of the plausible or at least conceivable intersections arising between them. This is because such critical intersections are more-or-less likely (a conclusion based on formal logic, and not on any actual history) and because some of these reinforcing intersections could sometime prove “synergistic.”

Contradicting what was first learned in the eighth grade, this means (by definition)  that the “whole” of  intersectional nuclear risk effects must be greater than the simple arithmetic sum of component “parts.”

Always, in any staggeringly complex strategic risk assessments regarding military nuclear intentions and military nuclear forces, the concept ofsynergy must be included.[1]

Always, any such necessary inclusion must be reasonable, rational and purposeful.

The only conceivable argument for a president ignoring possible effects of synergy  is that US defense policy consideration is “too complex” (i.e., intellectually bewildering) and therefore “too daunting.”

When US national security is at stake – as it is in this case – any such dismissive argument is unacceptable.

Prima facie.

How could it not be?

I have been thinking about precisely such difficult issues for fifty years. For analytic purposes, the development of my own personal conclusions about strategic national security decision-making can be summed up in the following brief paragraph:

 After four years of doctoral study at Princeton in the late 1960s, long an intellectual center of American nuclear thought (recall especially Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer) I began to consider adding a modest personal contribution to an already evolving nuclear literatures.  By the late 1970s, I was cautiously preparing a manuscript on US nuclear strategy, and by variously disciplined processes of correct inference, on  certain corresponding risks of a nuclear war.[2]  

Already, at that early time, I was especially interested in US presidential authority to order the use of American nuclear weapons.

From day one of my studies, I learned, inter alia, that allegedly reliable safeguards had very systematically been built into all operational nuclear command/control decisions, but that these same safeguards could not be applied at the highest or presidential level. To a young scholar searching optimistically for nuclear war avoidance opportunities, this ironic disjunction didn’t make any obvious sense.  Nonetheless, within the broader context of credible nuclear deterrence requirements, there did exist a reasonable argument for accepting such a significant gap in relevant decisional protections.

For needed clarifications, I had reached out directly to retired General Maxwell D. Taylor, a former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. In reassuringly rapid response to my query, General Taylor sent me a detailed handwritten reply. Dated 14 March 1976, the distinguished General’s informed letter concluded presciently: “As to those dangers arising from an irrational American president, the only protection is not to elect one.”

Until recently, I had never given any extended thought to this candid and authoritative response. Today, during the increasingly problematic presidency of  Donald J. Trump, General Taylor’s 1976 warning must take on  substantially greater and more demonstrably urgent meanings. Based on ascertainable facts and logical derivations (technically called “entailments” in philosophy of science terminology) rather than on narrowly wishful thinking, we should reasonably assume that if President Trump were ever to exhibit any accessible signs of emotional instability, irrationality or openly delusional behavior, he could still order the use of American nuclear weapons. He could so this officially, legally and without any compelling expectations of  nuclear chain-of-command “disobedience.”

Still more worrisome, President Trump could become emotionally unstable, irrational or delusional, but still not exhibit such intolerable liabilities manifestly or plainly.

What then?

A corollary core question must now also come to mind:

What precise stance should be assumed by the National Command Authority (Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several others) if it should ever decide to oppose an “inappropriate” presidential order to launch American nuclear weapons?

Could the National Command Authority (NCA) “save the day,” informally, by acting in an impromptu or creatively ad hoc fashion? Or should indispensable preparatory steps already have been taken, preemptively – that is, should there already be in place certain credible and effective statutory measures to (1) assess the ordering president’s reason and judgment; and (2) countermand the presumptively inappropriate or wrongful order?

 Presumptively, in US law, Article 1 (Congressional) war-declaring expectations of the Constitution aside, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an apparently irrational president or by an otherwise incapacitated one, would have to be obeyed. To do otherwise, in such incomparably dire circumstances, would be illegal. Here, in other words, any chain-of-command disobedience would be impermissible on its face.

There is more. In principle, at least, US President Donald Trump could order the first use of American nuclear weapons even if this country were not under any specifically nuclear attack. In this connection –  again, in principle at least – some further strategic and legal distinctions would need to be made between a nuclear “first use” and a nuclear “first strike.”

While there exists an elementary yet markedly substantive difference between these two options, it is a distinction that candidate Donald Trump had fully failed to understand during the 2016 presidential campaign debates.

What next? Where should the American polity and government go from here on such urgent decision-making issues? To begin, a coherent and comprehensive  answer will need to be prepared for the following basic question:

If faced with any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, and not offered sufficiently appropriate corroborative evidence of any actually impending existential threat, would the  National Command Authority be: (1) be willing to disobey, and (2) be capable of enforcing such expressions of disobedience?

In any such literally unprecedented crisis-decision circumstances, all authoritative decisions could have to be made in a compressively time-urgent matter of minutes, not hours or days. As far as any useful policy guidance from the past might be concerned, there could be no scientifically valid way to assess the true probabilities of possible outcomes. This is because absolutely all scientific judgments of probability – whatever the salient issue or subject – must be based firmly upon the discernible frequency of pertinent past events.

In relevant matters of nuclear war, there are no pertinent past events. This is, of course, a markedly fortunate absence, but one that would inevitably stand in the way of rendering reliable decision-making predictions. The irony here is both conspicuous and problematic.

Still, whatever the scientific obstacles, the optimal time to prepare for any such incomparably vital US national security difficulties is now.

In the immediately specific matter of North Korea (Iran is not yet nuclear), President Trump must take special care to avoid any seat-of-the-pants analogies  (whether openly expressed or “merely” internalized) between commercial and military brinksmanship. Faced with dramatic uncertainties about his counterpart Kim Jung Un’s own expected willingness to push the escalatory envelope, the American president could sometime (suddenly and unexpectedly) find himself faced with a stark choice between outright capitulation and nuclear war.

Even for a genuinely gifted US president, any such grievously stark choice could prove paralyzing.

To avoid being placed in such a limited choice strategic environment, Mr. Trump should understand from the start that having a larger national nuclear force (a “bigger button”) in these sorts of negotiations might not bestow any critical bargaining advantages. To the contrary, it could actually generate unwarranted US presidential overconfidence and various resultant forms of decisional miscalculation. In essence, in any such wholly unfamiliar, many-sided and basically unprecedented matters, size might “count” inversely, or even not at all.

The field of international foreign policy making is not comparable to the commercial bargaining arenas of hotel construction and casino gaming. While the search for “escalation dominance” may be common to both sorts of deal-making, the cumulative costs of any corollary losses would be wholly incomparable. In brief, money or status losses in the commercial sector can never reasonably be compared to mass death or civilian dismemberment.

In  certain matters of world politics, even an  inadvertent decisional outcome could sometime be a nuclear war.

Here, whether occasioned by accident, hacking, or “simple” miscalculation, there could be absolutely no meaningful “winner,” not even for the side with the once cherished “bigger button.”

In the paroxysmal aftermath of any unintended nuclear conflict, those authoritative American decision-makers who had once accepted President Donald J. Trump’s stated preference for “attitude” over  “preparation” in strategic negotiations would question their once-visceral loyalties. But it would assuredly be too late. Most plausibly, as survivors of a previously preventable conflagration, these now-disoriented officials would merely envy the dead.

With their president, they too would have been caught unprepared on the “19th green.”


[1] See earlier, by this author, at Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School): https://harvardnsj.org/2015/06/core-synergies-in-israels-strategic-planning-when-the-adversarial-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/

[2] This book was subsequently published in 1980 by the University of Chicago Press: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics. http://www.amazon.com/Apocalypse-Nuclear-Catastrophe-World-Politics/dp/0226043606

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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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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