“And we are
here as on a darkling plain, Swept by confused alarms of struggle and flight,Where
ignorant armies clash by night”. -Matthew Arnold, Dover
With the evident expansion of Trump-induced instabilities around the world (most recently in Syria, Iran, Turkey, Ukraine and North Korea), a recurring word on scholarly minds is “chaos.” Going forward, however, such usage will need to become more conspicuously nuanced and intellectually precise. Or to clarify:
In world politics, anarchy is an old story.
Chaos is not.
But what, exactly, are the noteworthy differences?
In part, at least, a correct answer must be determinedly jurisprudential. Under modern international law, system wide anarchy was first formally instituted at the Treaty of Westphalia. Back in 1648, by the end of the Thirty Years’ War (the last of the major religious wars sparked by the Reformation), a decentralized system of world politics had been expressly codified. Thereafter, a so-called “balance of power” became the ritualistically dominant template of all national foreign policy behaviors. Concurrently, it became the dominant national objective in almost any “game of nations.”
Still, this balance is “so called” because it was (and remains ) a simplifying fiction; intangible, non-measurable and quite plainly unrealizable. In essence, it offers intellectually-unambitious statesmen and politicians a convenient slight-of-hand metaphor, and, correspondingly, a ready pretext for virtually all manner of manipulative foreign policy interventions. Ironically, over time, this alleged goal has triggered repeated systemic breakdowns, and also fostered an effectively permanent global imbalance.
Under international treaty law, language is always of signal importance. Accordingly, the terms of this seventeenth-century Treaty call, inter alia, for “a just equilibrium of power.” War avoidance is never actually mentioned in the document. Significantly, in world law, aggressive war was never properly criminalized until the much later Pact of Paris (aka Kellogg-Briand Pact) of 1928.
What do we now have left of this treaty-based international regime? Basically, we can now preserve only the crumbling architecture of what Irish poet William Butler Yeats (The Second Coming) had termed “mere anarchy.” For the most part, some representative forms of chaotic disintegration are visibly underway in the Middle East, and also in Africa, Asia and assorted other places in Europe and South America. In these increasingly dissembling areas, the traditional threat mechanisms of Westphalian anarchy are either decreasingly viable or entirely absent. In several more places than we might care to admit, many already-muted expressions of reason and rationality have already given way to grievously unbridled passions or even to genuine madness.
War and genocide are now often mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive.
Nowadays, there no longer remains any plausible pretext of system-wide national searches for “balance.” To some extent, the more traditionally “normal” calculations of equilibrium have already been rendered infeasible or inconceivable because of nuclear weapons proliferation. In these ominous cases, individual states have become unable to decipher or delineate any usable measures of balance with other pertinent states.
Though the concept may still sound pleasing or reassuring, there is no ascertainable “balance of power” in world politics.
None at all.
Derivatively, international law will not adequately save the United States or any other state or alliance of states. Following US President Donald Trump’s unilateral termination of the INF Treaty with Russia, and with the very serious follow-on prospect of a Trump abrogation of the US-Russia INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) Treaty, further nuclear proliferation is virtually assured. In quick succession, especially if accompanied by expectedly deficient plans for national command and control among the new nuclear powers, once “unthinkable” weapons could very quickly become “thinkable.”
In the past several years, portentously, US President Donald Trump has mused openly about nuclear weapons as rational instruments of war – and not just as passive elements of essential national deterrence.
There is more. There are also various foreseeable interactions between individual catastrophic harms, so-called synergies that could make the overriding risks of any looming global nuclear chaos still more pressing. Immediately, these interactions must be taken into suitable analytic account. Under no circumstances should an American president ever choose to disregard such complex interactions simply because they are too daunting, confusing or bewildering.
Mr. Trump’s expressed decisional priorities notwithstanding, the best way to deal with an expanding global chaos is not by “attitude,” but by “preparation.”
For Israel, a country smaller than Lake Michigan, the dangers of Trump’s latest policies concerning Syria are especially great and prospectively sui generis. Facing not only an expanding nuclear threat from Iran (a consequence in part, of Trump’s earlier US withdrawal from the JCPOA Iran Pact of 2015), but also the general regional disorder occasioned by an American president’s sudden capitulations to Syria, Turkey and Russia, Israel could soon find itself with active adversaries on several simultaneous fronts. These adversaries could be assorted sub-state Jihadist enemies (e.g., a reconstituted ISIS) and include even state-sub state “hybrids.”
Whatever the actual configuration of meaningful foes, Israel could then be face-to-face with a genuinely unique species of chaos.
The evident portent of any Middle East chaos – here we may point most convincingly to Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and perhaps even Pakistan – would be accelerated or enlarged by enemy irrationality. If, for example, Israel should sometime have to face a Jihadist adversary that would value certain presumed religious expectations more highly than its own physical survival, the tiny country’s core deterrent posture could be undermined or immobilized. Among other things, any such paralysis of Israeli military power could signify a heightened threat of nuclear war.
Some further clarifications are necessary. In world politics, irrationality is never the same as madness. More precisely, an irrational adversary is one that could sometime value certain goals more highly than its own national self-preservation. A mad adversary, however, would display absolutely no preferred ordering of goals or values. It follows, plausibly, at least from the standpoint of maintaining successful Israeli deterrence, that facing enemy irrationality would be “better” than facing enemy madness.
Realistically, however, any such analytic choice is unavailable. Whether Israel, the United States or any other state shall capably confront irrationality, madness, neither, or both, is not up to national decision-makers to determine. These possible outcomes are literally undeterminable.
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” prophesied the poet Yeats, “and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Now, assembled in almost two hundred tribal armed camps known as states, all peoples coexist insecurely on a mercilessly fractionated planet. Ultimately, to reveal a more palpable understanding of where all are heading, we may conjure up the particularly nightmarish circumstances of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. On such a fearfully sorrowful landscape, the traditional playbook of nations would likely shift ominously from Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz to De Sade and Dostoyevsky.
Summing up succinctly, our historic world system anarchy has now become more unstable than ever before. While this declension of global order owes largely to a growing fusion of chaos with leadership irrationality and/or apocalyptic weaponry, it is also the result of America’s newly incoherent foreign policy. Led by a president who takes his own historical illiteracy as a distinct asset, as a badge of pride, the United States can no longer be assumed to represent a stabilizing force in world politics.
Quite the contrary.
What should we expect? In time, with no longer any pretext of a “just equilibrium of power,” there will be no safety in arms, no rescue by political authority, no reassuring answers from science or technology. Even though we humans had seemingly become “civilized” over time, new wars could rage until every once-sturdy flower of culture had been trampled and all things human had been decimated or leveled. Then, civilization, unless rescued by presently still-unforeseen remedies, would perish in relentlessly paroxysmal quakes of primordial disintegration.
What shall we do to avoid such an unspeakable chaos? How shall such unbearable circumstances best be averted? Before answering, we much all first acknowledge something markedly counter-intuitive: Chaos and anarchy actually represent opposite points of a single global continuum. Though counter-intuitive, they are essentially opposite conditions of world politics.
“Mere” anarchy, or the absence of central world authority, has always been “normal.” Chaos, however, is anything but normal. Rather, it is fully “abnormal.”
Since the seventeenth century, our anarchic world can best be described as a system. What happens in any one part of this ungoverned world can affect what happens in some or all of the other parts. Whenever deterioration is marked, and begins to spread from one nation-state to another, the corollary effects can undermine all previously existing infrastructures of “balance.”
When this deterioration is rapid and catastrophic, as would be the case following the start of any unconventional war or unconventional terrorism, the effects would be immediate and overwhelming. These particular effects would be chaotic.
Aware that even an incremental collapse of remaining world authority structures would impact its few remaining friends as well as its growing cadre of enemies, leaders of the United States will sometime need to advance lamentably plausible premonitions of collapse. The sole point of this distressing task would be to chart more appropriately durable paths to national security and survival. Soon, and in partial consequence of certain Trump-generated policy fantasies, Americans could need to consider how best to respond to life in a more progressively unmanageable state of chaos.
In the context of classical political philosophy, this would resemble the “state of nature” famously described in the seventeenth-century by Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, a condition wherein the life of every person could be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Already, largely because of current US presidential unpreparedness and shortsighted White House manipulations, we are at the sobering brink of this particular condition of “nature.”
Or to meaningfully recall certain oft-recited stanzas of poet Matthew
Arnold, “….we are here as on a darkling plain.”
 For the most part, these breakdowns could be classified in authoritative law as recognizable “aggressions.”
 When arriving in Singapore for his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, the American president stated that what would prove most important at the meeting was “not preparation, but attitude.”
 In 2003, Professor Louis René Beres served as Chair of Project Daniel for PM Sharon in Israel (Iranian nuclear weapons).