“This virus is going to disappear.”-US President Donald J Trump, February 27th, 2020
“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”-T S Eliot, The Waste Land
Currently, our greatest challenge is a worldwide struggle against virulent pathogens. At the same time, there is no corollary reason to believe that this overriding menace could remove or preclude other significant hazards, some of them potentially existential. Though such existential threat simultaneity might seem too daunting for calmly rational consideration in these difficult days – and ought therefore to be brought up only in subtle whispers or sotto voce – there can be no reasonable argument for excluding it as a prospective national security hazard.
Now is a time for complete candor. To wit, humankind is never offered any choice in prioritizing existential threats according to any one’s subjective apprehensions or preferences. Moreover, Americans will have to deal with these variously grievous perils together; that is, as they arise, intersect and advance in bewildering tandem with one another. As to identifying significant interactions between such threats systematically, some could emerge as boldly synergistic.
In these cases, the injurious whole would be more-or-less greater than the simple sum of its relevant parts.
This fearful expectation is true by definition.
More to the point, any overlap or congruence between Covid-19 pandemic effects and those of a credible nuclear conflict with North Korea would be more consequential than any simple “adding-up” of numbers or statistics.
Far more consequential.
It follows, inter alia, that nothing could possibly be gained by approaching such galvanizing subject matter without first embracing absolute candor and a science-based precision.
How then shall we best proceed?
To begin, a core obligation for the United States should avoid basing American nuclear strategy on any flagrantly erroneous assumptions. In this regard, at least one thing is already certain: Kim Jung Un does not see the world through the same perceptual lenses as Donald Trump. Kim is notprimarily motivated by assorted promises of expanded personal wealth or national economic improvement.
What he seeks for himself, above all and continuously, is extraordinary and stable political power.
Unsurprisingly, this rather obvious objective is tied closely to North Korea’s secure and recognizable possession of nuclear weapons and related infrastructures.
There is more. For analysts and policy planners, the vital issues here are not dense or ambiguous. For Kim Jung Un, prima facie, “denuclearization” represents an unacceptable option in any form. As a national objective, it is anathema. Period.
Accordingly, while US President Trump now either ignores the North Korean threat altogether or continues to rely on presumed benefits of “attitude” over “preparation,” Kim Jung Un goes ahead with substantial ballistic missile development and testing programs. While Trump continues with strategically meaningless bluster and bravado, Kim readies his nation for an always-possible “final battle.” For the United States, this all-too evident asymmetry could sometime prove to be lethal or even fatal.
We did not elect an American president to serve only on behalf of his own private interests. To properly serve US national security interests rather than his own personal and vanity-centered preferences, Trump must immediately refine and reiterate his still-amorphous North Korea strategy. Among other things, this means developing an American security posture that is more expressly analytic and history-based than are Trump’s current and disjointed orientations.
Still more precisely, it signals that the American president should begin to think systematically and realistically about creating long-term nuclear deterrence relationships with North Korea. For the United States, such creation has worked before, even if in substantially different circumstances. It will now need to work again vis-à-vis North Korea.
In the best of all possible worlds, American (possibly also North Korean) interests would be best served by Pyongyang’s complete denuclearization. But this is not the best of all possible worlds. For now, especially, establishing stable nuclear deterrence relationships between these two adversarial states would represent a markedly worthy and gainful American achievement.
There is more. During any still-upcoming negotiations, Trump should take scrupulous care not to exaggerate or overstate America’s military risk-taking calculus. Such imperative diplomatic caution would derive in good measure from the historical absence of any comparable nuclear crises. Because there has never been a nuclear war, there could be no reliable way for this president (or anyone else, for that matter) to ascertain the true mathematical probability of any US-North Korea nuclear conflict.
None at all.
For Donald Trump, who is accustomed to making wholly unwarranted strategic extrapolations from commercial real estate bargaining or casino gaming examples, this observation could first seem exaggerated. Still, plainly and incontestably, it is a true observation, and truth, in science, if not in US domestic politics, is always “exculpatory.”
In any logical assessment of conflict, meaningful probabilities must be drawn from one quantifiable calculus only. This calculus references the determinable frequency of pertinent past events. When there are no such events, there can be no such extrapolation.
This does not mean that Trump’s senior strategists and counselors should steer away from offering clear-eyed assessments regarding prospective nuclear costs and risks, but only that such assessments be drawn knowingly from various constantly shifting and hard-to-decipher geopolitical trends. At this time, such trends must include complex considerations of worldwide disease pandemic. But this sort of inclusion won’t be easy.
Among other concerns, some attendant problems would emerge as more complicated and steeply problematic than others. For one, world security processes must always be approached in toto, or as a totality; that is, as a more-or-less coherent system. What is happening now, in such far-flung places as India-Kashmir, China, Russia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, could have significant “spillover effects” in the northeast Asian theatre and beyond. This is true even while Covid-19 rages in some measure across these countries.
Rather than ignore such complex and seemingly distant effects altogether – in part, because they could appear too intellectually demanding – this American president will first have to accord them a more appropriate position of policy-making priority.
Today, military threats from an already-nuclear North Korea remain genuine, substantive and determinedly “robust.” The fact that Trump’s nuclear “button” is “bigger” than Kim’s, however, is less than determinative. In strategic deterrence relationships, a condition of relative nuclear weakness by one of the contending adversarial states need not imply any corresponding absence of power or influence.
Even the presumptively weaker party in such asymmetrical dyads could deliver “unacceptable damage” to the stronger.
There is more. President Trump will need to bear in mind that many or all of northeast Asia’s continuously transforming developments will be impacted by “Cold War II,” an oppositional stance with Russia and (somewhat comparably or derivatively) China. Similarly important will be this US leader’s willingness to acknowledge and factor-in certain consequential limits of “expert” military advice. These generally unseen limits are not based upon any presumed intellectual inadequacies of America’s generals, but only on the unassailable knowledge that no person has ever fought in a nuclear war.
Again, this all-too relevant bit of knowledge is indisputable.
By definition – and going forward with all inherently time-urgent considerations of US – North Korea policy formation – American strategic calculations will be fraught with various and utterly daunting uncertainties. Still, it will be necessary that Donald Trump and his designated counselors remain able to offer the best available war-related estimations. Among prospectively causal factors – some of them overlapping, interdependent or (again) even “synergistic” – the plausible risks of a nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang will depend upon whether such a catastrophic conflict would be intentional, unintentional or accidental.
In principle, at least, this tripartite distinction could prove vitally important to any hoped for success in US nuclear war prediction and prevention processes.
In facing any future North Korean negotiations, it will be necessary that competent US policy analysts systematically examine and measure all foreseeableconfigurations of relevant nuclear war risk. Expressed in the game-theoretic parlance of formal military planning, shifting configurations could present themselves singly or one-at-a-time (the expectedly best case for Washington), but they could also arise suddenly, unexpectedly, with apparent “diffusiveness,” or in multiple and overlapping “cascades” of strategic complexity.
What is to be done? To properly understand such bewildering cascades will require carefully-honed, well-developed and formidable analytic skills. This will not likely be a suitable task for a presidential political appointee or for the otherwise intellectually faint-hearted. It will require sharply refined combinations of historical acquaintance, traditional erudition and a demonstrated capacity for advanced dialectical thinking. Such disciplined thinking goes back to the dialogues of Plato, and the ancient but timeless awareness that reliable analysis calls for continuous asking and answering of key questions.
There is more. This challenging task could require American strategic thinkers who are as comfortable with classical prescriptions of Plato and Descartes as with the more narrowly technical elements of modern military theory and hardware. For the moment, these are obviously not the sorts of thinkers one finds around US President Donald Trump.
There is more. It is conceivable that neither Washington nor Pyongyang is currently paying sufficient attention to the residually specific risks of an unintentional nuclear war. To this point, each president would seem to assume the other’s complete decisional rationality. If, after all, there were no such mutual calculation, it would then make no ascertainable sense for either side to negotiate further security accommodations with the other.
None at all.
Viable nuclear deterrence (not denuclearization) must become the overriding US strategic goal with North Korea. But this complex objective is contingent upon certain basic assumptions concerning enemy rationality. Are such assumptions realistically valid in the particular case of a potential war between two already-nuclear powers? If President Donald Trump, despite once “falling in love” with Kim Jung-Un, should sometime begin to fear enemy irrationalityin Pyongyang, issuing new threats of US retaliation might then make starkly diminishing diplomatic sense.
At that literally unprecedented stage, American national security could come to depend upon some residually optimal combinations of ballistic missile defense and defensive first strikes. Again, by definition, determining such complex combinations would necessarily lack any decisional input or counsel from relevant concrete and quantifiable historical data.
In an imaginably worst case scenario, the offensive military element could entail a situational or comprehensive preemption – a defensive first strike by the United States – but at that manifestly late stage, all previous hopes for bilateral reconciliation would already have become moot. There would then obtain no “ordinary” circumstances wherein a preemptive strike against a North Korean nuclear adversary could still be considered “rational.”
None of these difficult strategic decisions should be reached casually or easily. With the steadily expanding development of “hypersonic” nuclear weapons, figuring out optimal US policy combinations from one North Korean crisis to another could quickly become overwhelming. Though counterintuitive amid such prominently intersecting complications, the fact that one “player” (the US) was recognizably “more powerful” than the other (North Korea) could quickly prove irrelevant.
In all foreseeable circumstances, there would obtain certain overlapping issues of law and strategy. Under international law, which remains an integral part of US law, the option of a selective or comprehensive defensive first-strike might be correctly characterized as “anticipatory self-defense.” But this would be the case only if the American side could also argue coherently and persuasively that the “danger posed” by North Korea was recognizably “imminent in point of time.” Such discernible “imminence” is required by the authoritative standards of international law; that is, by the formal criteria established after an 1837 naval incident famously called “The Caroline.”
Now, in the expanding nuclear age, offering aptly precise characterizations of “imminence” could prove sorely abstract and densely problematic. For example, in justifying his earlier assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, Trump used the term “imminence” incorrectly (sometimes even confusing “imminence” with “eminence”) and without any convincing factual evidence.
For the moment, especially in the midst of a worldwide biological crisis, it seems reasonable that Kim Jung Un would value his own personal life and that of his nation above every other imaginable preference or combination of preferences. In any corresponding scenario, Kim is visibly and technically rational, and must remain subject to US nuclear deterrence.But it could still become important for a negotiating American president to sometime distinguish between authentic instances of enemy irrationality and contrived or pretended irrationality.
Is US President Donald Trump – a self-declared “very stable genius” – up to meeting such a challenging task?
This is no longer a silly question.
In the past, Trump has praised pretended irrationality as a potentially useful US national security strategy. Apropos of this problematic praise, his earlier “fire and fury” warnings (issued before he “fell in love” with Kim Jung Un) might have reflected a prospective “rationality of pretended irrationality” posture for the United States. Ultimately, such a posture could be adopted by either one or both sides.
What happens next?
This particular prospect adds yet another layer of complexity to the subject at hand, one that could sometime include certain force-multiplying biological synergies. These would be interactive outcomes where the “whole” was effectively greater than the mere sum of its apparent “parts.”
Although neither side would likely seek a shooting war, either or both heads of state could still commit assorted errors in the course of their respective strategic calculations. Such errors could represent an unintended consequence of jointly competitive searches for “escalation dominance.” Arguably, these errors are more apt to occur in those circumstances where one or both presidents had first chosen to reignite hyperbolic verbal rhetoric.
Even when the two leaders were reportedly once “in love.”
Portentously, even in reassuringly calm periods of polite and congenial diplomatic discourse, major miscalculations, accidents or “cyber-confusions” could accumulate. Again, such ill-fated accumulation could sometime be hastened by the unpredictable effects of disease pandemics.
In certain expectedly worst case scenarios, negotiations gone wrong could result in a nuclear war. This ought never to be overlooked, In the words of Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “The worst does sometimes happen.”
There is more. An inadvertent nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang could take place not only as the result of various misunderstandings or miscalculations between fully rational national leaders, but also as the unintended consequence (singly or synergistically) of mechanical, electrical, computer malfunctions or of “hacking”-type interventions. Going forward, these interventions could even include the clandestine intrusions of “cyber-mercenaries.”
In any still-impending crisis between Washington and Pyongyang, each side will inevitably strive to maximize two critical goals simultaneously. These are (1) to dominate the dynamic and largely unpredictable process of nuclear crisis escalation; and (2) to achieve desired “escalation dominance” without sacrificing vital national security obligations. In the final analysis, this second objective means preventing one’s own state and society from suffering catastrophic or even existential harms.
This recalls a prior point concerning obligatory assessments of relative military power. When President Trump, in an earlier verbal competition with Kim Jung Un, stated that the North Korean president may have his own nuclear “button,” but that his was “bigger,” the US leader revealed a major military misunderstanding. It is that today, in the still advancing nuclear age, atomic superiority is potentially per se insignificant, and could lead the presumptively stronger nuclear adversary toward certain potentially lethal expressions of overconfidence.
In such paradoxical circumstances, having had the “bigger button” would have become the dominant source not of strength, but of weakness. Here, size would actually matter, but only in a starkly unexpected or counter-intuitive way.
As Donald Trump should better understand, even an enemy with a smaller “nuclear button” could inflict grave harms upon the “stronger” United States and/or its close allies in Japan, South Korea or elsewhere. It follows that to take any discernible comfort from the observation that North Korea has been testing “only” shorter-range ballistic missiles is to miss the main analytic point entirely. To clarify, several of North Korea’s nuclear test firings expressed a yield at least 16X larger than the Hiroshima bomb. That 14KT WW II bomb produced almost 100,000 immediate fatalities.
Such vital understandings about nuclear “button size” must obtain as long as Kim Jung Un’s “inferior” nuclear arms are seemingly invulnerable to any American preemptions and seemingly capable of penetrating ballistic missile defenses deployed in the United States, Japan or South Korea. Because of the extraordinary harms generated by even low-yield nuclear weapons, a small percentage or tiny fraction of Kim’s “inferior” nuclear arsenal could and should still appear unacceptably destructive in Washington, Tokyo or Seoul. Worth noting, too, is that in all of these critical dimensions of strategic judgment, the only reality that would figure in ongoing adversarial calculations would be perceived reality.
The bottom line of all such informed assessments concerning a possible US – North Korea nuclear war is that the underlying issues of contention and calculation are enormously complicated and well-nigh indecipherable. Faced with challenging measures of complexity, both operational and legal, each side must proceed warily, in a fashion that is both suitably purposeful and appropriately risk-averse. Although such prudent counsel may at first seem to run counter to assorted inter-linking obligations of “escalation dominance,” any still-upcoming Trump-Kim negotiations would necessarily involve very deep and variously uncharted “waters.”
All this is especially worrisome in the midst of Corona virus pandemic.
Looking ahead, any aggressive over-confidence (or what the ancient Greeks called “hubris” in theatrical drama) by President Trump or President Kim will have to be scrupulously avoided. Although everything at some upcoming negotiation might at first appear simple and calculable, history calls to mind Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s sobering observations about “friction.” This element represents “the difference between war on paper, and war as it actually is.”
In certain plausible cases, this difference could mean total war.
To avoid any such intolerable outcome between the United States and North Korea, a prudent and informed nuclear posture must be fashioned, not with barren clichés and empty witticisms, but with refined intellect and cultivated erudition. Much earlier, the ancient Greeks and Macedonians had already understood that war planning must be treated as a continuously disciplined matter of “mind over mind,” rather than just one of “mind over matter.” Today, in more specific regard to US-North Korea nuclear negotiations and rivalry, a similar understanding should promptly obtain in Washington.
It would be far better for the United States to plan carefully for all strategic eventualities than to somehow stumble into a nuclear war with North Korea. The plain fact that such a “stumble” could take place without any ill will or bad intention should provide little tangible consolation for the millions of prospective victims. Assuredly, for these victims, any ounce of diplomatic prevention would have been well worth avoiding an unstoppable nightmare.
Nightmare. According to the etymologists, the root is niht mare, or niht maere, the demon of the night. Dr. Johnson’s famous Dictionary claims this corresponds to Nordic mythology, which identifies all nightmare as some unholy product of demons. This would make it a play on the Greek ephialtes or the Latin incubus. In any event, in all of these fearful interpretations of nightmare, the idea of demonic origin is absolutely integral and indispensable.
But our current worries are of a very different and more secular sort. Recalling the earlier-cited warning of 18th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau concerning diligent scholarship, there are certain inherent complexities in problem solving that must always be accepted, understood and overcome. At a time when our planet is imperiled by the simultaneous and potentially intersecting threats of disease pandemic and nuclear war, there can be no suitable alternative to herculean intellectual efforts.
None at all.
 As part of any answer to this question, it will be vital to understand that these are not easy problems to solve, and that meaningful remedies will need to be studied with extraordinary care. In this connection, I am reminded of philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s timeless observation in The Social Contract, a 1762 work familiar to America’s Founding Fathers: “I warn the reader that this essay requires to be read very seriously, and that I am unacquainted with any art which can make the subject clear to those who will not bestow on it their serious attention.”
 The atomic bombings of Japan in August 1945 do not properly constitute a nuclear war, but “only” the use of nuclear weapons in an otherwise conventional conflict. Significantly, too, following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were no other atomic bombs still available anywhere on earth.
 In essence, hypothesizing the emergence of “Cold War II” means expecting that the world system is becoming increasingly bipolar. For early writings, by this author, on the global security implications of any such 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.
 See, by this writer, at Harvard Law School: Louis René Beres, https://harvardnsj.org/2015/06/core-synergies-in-israels-strategic-planning-when-the-adversarial-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/ See also, by this writer, at West Point: Louis René Beres https://mwi.usma.edu/threat-convergence-adversarial-whole-greater-sum-parts/
 See especially art. 6 of the US Constitution (“The Supremacy Clause”) and the Pacquete Habana (1900). In the words used by the U.S. Supreme Court in The Paquete Habana, “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction, as often as questions of right depending upon it are duly presented for their determination. For this purpose, where there is no treaty, and no controlling executive or legislative act or judicial decision, resort must be had to the customs and usages of civilized nations.” See The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 678-79 (1900). See also: The Lola, 175 U.S. 677 (1900); Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984)(per curiam)(Edwards, J. concurring)(dismissing the action, but making several references to domestic jurisdiction over extraterritorial offenses), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1003 (1985)(“concept of extraordinary judicial jurisdiction over acts in violation of significant international standards…embodied in the principle of `universal violations of international law.'”).
 See Beth Polebau,National Self-Defense in International Law: An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age, 59 N.Y.U. L. REV. 187, 190-191 (noting that the Caroline case transformed the right to self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a customary legal doctrine).
 Even before the nuclear age, ancient Chinese military theorist, Sun-Tzu, counseled, inThe Art of War:“Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” (See: Chapter 3, “Planning Offensives”).
 Expressions of decisional irrationality in US dealings with North Korea could take different and overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).
 Upon returning to Washington DC after the Singapore Summit, President Trump made the following statement: “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”
 There is now a substantial literature that deals with the expected consequences of a nuclear war. For earlier works by this author, see, for example: APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980); MIMICKING SISYPHUS: AMERICA’S COUNTERVAILING NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington Books, 1983); REASON AND REALPOLITIK: U.S. FOREIGN POLICY AND WORLD ORDER (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1984); and SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1986).
 See: F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), p. 63.