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What If A North Korea Nuclear Crisis Should Coincide With Election Loss For Donald J. Trump?

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I hold despicable, and always have, anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”-Sophocles, Antigone, Speech of Creon, King of Thebes

Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden worries audibly that Donald Trump could “steal” the upcoming election, including a once-inconceivable concern that this incumbent might simply refuse to vacate the White House. Though any such expressed fear would have been preposterous prima facie in ordinary times, these are notordinary times. Indeed, if a bad election outcome should somehow coincide with a North Korean nuclear crisis,[1] the already-ominous “Biden Scenario” about Trump could prove relatively benign.[2]

The underlying and exceedingly complex strategic issues involved here will not be resolved by a politician’s whim or by intellectual faint-heartedness,[3] whether by persons already in government or those still merely “aspirational.” Inter alia, regarding nuclear decision-making in Washington, there are many intersecting circumstances that will need to be considered, including the more-or-less unpredictable effects of a stubbornly-escalating disease pandemic. Making all the densely critical issues even  more difficult to anticipate or resolve, these effects of “plague” could fall differentially (that is, equally or unequally) on the two contending nation-states.[4]

In any event, we should begin any corresponding analyses at the beginning. Concluding his Singapore Summit with Kim Jung Un back in June 2018,  President Trump returned home offering unwarranted reassurances that “there is no longer any nuclear danger from North Korea.” Though an absurd extrapolation from his visceral personal “diplomacy,” a patently absurd extrapolation, this  unsupportable comment was quickly brushed aside by trump’s solidly-ardent supporters. “What further need might Trump have,” went their corollary queries, “for intellectual preparations?” Plainly, we were then to “learn” from this president, all that could ever be needed to deal satisfactorily with a nuclearizing adversary was a proper presidential “attitude.”

Understandably, this uncannily anti-intellectual presidential stance has led to a  continuously unstable US-North Korea nuclear relationship. Since the time of the Singapore Summit, that adversarial country has actually accelerated all tangible efforts in refining and expanding its national nuclear forces and infrastructures.  Now, to wit, Pyongyang explicitly rejects any further ties or negotiations with Trump. “Never again will we provide another package to be used for achievements without receiving any returns,” said North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon on June 12, 2020.

Though already true by definition, Gwon felt motivated to add: “Nothing is more hypocritical than an empty promise.”

Going forward, Donald Trump will have to rely upon much more than a conspicuously belligerent nationalism in this increasingly perilous dyad.[5] The core problem is that this American president, like any other “Mass Man,” a term used insightfully by 20th century philosophers Carl G Jung and Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, thinks against Reason. More precisely, in Ortega’s selective terminology, the man of the Mass or the Crowd (a comparable term favored by 19th century Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard[6]) “has no energy to spare for Reason. He learns only in his own flesh.”

There is something to be learned here. In preparing for inevitably complex crisis bargaining with North Korea, America will require presidential leadership that thinks far beyond what is palpable in its “own flesh.” It will require leaders who read and analyze diligently rather than annoyingly turn away from all challenging strategic materials.[7] For the moment, of course, US President Donald Trump is anything but such an enlightened leader. This open loathing of all serious thought by America’s head of state is utterly obvious and unambiguous.[8]

“I love the poorly educated” affirmed Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. This was as if to remind voters that he, an aspiring president but otherwise just like them (the “mass” or “crowd”) has no use for any serious learning, erudition or study. Why should he? Wouldn’t every problem he could face promptly melt away in the face of a proper presidential “attitude?”

There is more. In preparing for nuclear negotiations with North Korea – preparations that we  already know he will find objectionably complicated – Donald Trump will have little precedent upon which to rely.[9] When considered together with this president’s verifiably limited capacity to succeed in any complex international negotiations, the United States has much to worry about. In essence, in what quickly emerges as the “best case scenario,” Mr. Trump would gratefully hand over any moment-by-moment crisis deliberations to his most senior military and intelligence agency deputies.

For the most part, those who he had himself selected would be unequal to the preparation-requiring task. At that very late stage, moreover, it could quickly fall  disproportionately upon “the generals” to save us.  This ought not to be taken, however,  as a necessary “positive.” These military leaders, too, because of the unprecedented nature of such a nuclear crisis arising between asymmetrical adversaries, would expectedly be guided by visceral, “seat-of-the-pants” or derivative (from pre-nuclear standoffs) calculations. Among other concerns, just because the United States nuclear capacity would presumptively  be “more powerful” than North Korea’s, this would not automatically signify a US bargaining advantage.

For one thing, even a relatively “small” North Korean nuclear force could threaten and produce “unacceptable damage” to the United States or to its variously dependent regional allies in Japan and/or South Korea.[10]

None of this represents  a per se criticism of “the generals” by any means. It is merely an inescapable acknowledgment (1) that scientific probabilities must always be based upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events; and (2) in this case there have been no pertinent past events. Whatever ultimately unravels between Washington and Pyongyang, therefore, any such genuinely unique ventures in competitive risk-taking between two unequal enemies will have to be navigated in uncharted waters.

There is still more. The experiential uniqueness would be mutual. Still, such mutuality would not necessarily prove to be in the best interests of the United States. This is because an overly confident Kim Jung Un and/or Donald Trump could generate a more-or-less uncontrollable cycle of move and counter-move, an out-of-control escalation leading inexorably toward  some mutual atomic catastrophe.

President Donald Trump and his counselors ought never forget that this sort of rapid cycle deterioration could be rendered incrementally more precarious as a result of  unforeseen interactions between one side’s fully executed moves and the other’s. In more technical terms, any such perilously opaque interactions would be known correctly as “synergies.”[11]  As there are no extant experts on nuclear war[12] – not in the United States, not in North Korea, and not anywhere on this persistently beleaguered planet – there could even emerge a hideously bewildering “synergy of synergies.”[13]

 Formally, this conspicuously indecipherable sort of multilayered and overlapping intersections is what computer scientists are sometimes apt to call “cascades.”

All things considered, whatever the relevant political context (e.g., the expected presidential election outcome), Mr. Trump should proceed in any impending North Korean crisis with exquisite prudence and a corresponding caution, recalling at every point of concession and demand the inherently limited body of available strategic thought. At the same time, he and his counselors will need to bear closely in mind that while nuclear war avoidance should remain the most important and ongoing legal objective,[14] maintaining “escalation dominance” would also be pronouncedly central to American national security. In such utterly difficult and many-sided matters, US success will require an almost unimaginably meticulous “balance,” a tenuous level of analytic equilibrium that has rarely ever been witnessed or expected.[15]

There is more. Despite his generally dismissive attitude toward learning and professional preparation, President Trump’s strategic plan for North Korea ought never be constructed ex nihilo, out of nothing.  Nonetheless, this plan, ipso facto,  must still be the intended result of assorted deductions or extrapolations drawn more or less skillfully from pre-nuclear forms of conflict management.[16] For these deductions and extrapolations ever to be up to the expectedly herculean intellectual task at hand, they must accurately represent the correctly-determined outcome of dialectical modes of military reasoning.

What exactly does this mean? Plato, in the middle dialogues, describes the dialectician as the one who knows best how to ask and then answer sequential questions. Two and a half thousand years later, even in the currently advanced computer age, it is this person or persons who should be placed in charge of reaching valid and effectively purposeful strategic outcomes. These are not people who learn only “in their own flesh.” On the contrary, they are the indispensable analysts who are vastly more comfortable with “preparations” than with “attitude.”

The conclusions are unmistakable. America’s key strategists and negotiators must employ more than “common sense” thinking or crude publicity-centered methods drawn from reality television shows or raw commerce. In essence, they must become or at least learn to become very capable dialecticians.

Among other things, this ancient scientific method of seeking answers by correct and sequential reasoning remains best suited for handling any North Korean nuclear crisis now lying ahead. To be sure, there is no elaborate computer program or algorithm that can possibly substitute for actually mastering such  disciplined reasoning. Now needed to rescue the United States from certain corollary and prospectively expanding nuclear hazards are sufficiently imaginative human beings, most notably dedicated thinkers who have long been nurtured by impressively broad sectors of knowledge and learning, not just by the latest in vogue statistical techniques or computer technologies.

There is more. In all expectedly nuanced presidential deliberations with the North Koreans, America might sometimes do better to rely, at least in part, on talented diplomats, poets, philosophers and mathematicians than on career soldiers. Significantly, in the grievously measureless history of warfare, the military professional has more than just occasionally made distressingly consequential mistakes. Looking ahead, Americans should be demanding that trained strategists carefully avoid future errors in planning what is still an altogether unique form of warfare, one for which their formal training has been largely extraneous and with which they could have had absolutely no tangible acquaintance.

For the United States, the  North Korea crisis, whether protracted or episodic, will immediately become a contest of “mind over mind,” and not just one about “fire and fury” or “falling in love.” This is no longer a time for sterile clichés and embarrassingly empty presidential witticisms. Earlier, President Trump had said of  his special relationship with Kin Jung Un: “We fell in love.”

Plainly, it has been a short and conspicuously ill-fated “romance.”

During any upcoming diplomatic struggle, belligerent nationalism from Donald Trump will offer us nothing more than gratuitous presidential buffoonery. Here, hopefully, each side, as long as it is still able to remain recognizably rational, will seek “escalation dominance” without simultaneously endangering its own national survival. If the American side should sometime calculate that its North Korean counterpart is not fully rational, the apparent incentives to undertake far-reaching military preemptions could then become overwhelming.

What then?

This occasion would not be a matter for the intellectually faint-hearted, even if the American calculation on enemy rationality should turn out to be wrong. Also relevant here would be certain understandably anticipated prospects of any North Korean plans to “preempt the preemption,” cautionary scenarios concerning anticipatory self-defense that could make compelling strategic sense in Pyongyang.[17] Predictably, President Kim’s closest military counselors could sometime seek to clarify for their leader that the United States would have considerable damage-limiting advantages to striking-first, especially while North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile assets were still evidently in early stages of development and still relatively few in number.

If push comes to shove, especially in the midst of a dissembling presidential election, Donald Trump could decide to undertake selective military action against North Korea. In response, Pyongyang – then having no realistic option to launching certain presumptively gainful forms of armed reprisal  –  could choose to strike American military forces in the region, and/or certain other carefully selected targets in Japan, Guam, or South Korea. Them whatever North Korea’s preferred configuration of selected targets, Kim Jung Un’s retaliatory blow would  likely be designed not to elicit any unacceptably massive (possibly even nuclear) American counter-retaliations.

Assuming enemy rationality, this assumption is persuasive even if Kim were correct that he had already the required range-capacity to strike American cities. Nonetheless, amid unprecedented circumstances of in extremis atomicum, virtually anything could happen.

If Trump should sometime decide to launch a defensive first-strike, a “preemption,” perhaps as the apocalyptic apotheosis  of Joe Biden’s utterly worst fears, the North Korean response, whether rational or irrational, could be “disproportionate.”[18] In that very unstable case, one  rife with uncertain potential for a more continuously unfettered escalation, any contemplated introduction of nuclear weapons into the mix might not be rejected.

Not at all. What then?

There is more. Such an introduction would not necessarily have to originate on the American side. This sobering inference is unassailably valid, in part, because North Korea has previously displayed verifiable forms of nuclear weapons/ballistic missile capability. According to sources within the South Korean intelligence services, North Korea maintains approximately one hundred nuclear-related sites, including thirteen specific “Research Institutes.” The same sources estimate thirteen to eighteen enriched uranium warheads, and at least thirteen different kinds of missiles.

The Pukguksong 1and 2; and Hwasong – 12, 13, and 14, can allegedly reach targets up to 12,000 kilometers from launch site.[19]

In any such escalating circumstances, Mr. Trump could settle upon using a “mad dog” strategy vis-à-vis President Kim. The American leader could render himself dependent upon an untested strategy of pretended irrationality, or what I have frequently  called in my own published books and monographs (produced over the past fifty years) the “rationality of pretended irrationality.”Any such belligerent dependence, while intuitively sensible and compelling to Mr. Trump, could backfire, thereby opening up an irreversible path to certain potentially unstoppable escalations.

If, on the other hand, President Donald Trump’s defensive first strike against North Korea were recognizably less than massive, a fully rational  adversary in Pyongyang might determine that his own chosen reprisal should be correspondingly “limited.” But if Mr. Trump’s consciously rational and systematically calibrated attack upon North Korea were wittingly or unwittingly launched against an irrational enemy leadership, the response from Kim Jung Un could then be an “all out” retaliation. Plausibly, such an unanticipated response, whether nuclear or  non-nuclear, would be directed at some as yet undeterminable combination of U.S., South Korean, and Japanese targets.

Cumulatively, this sort of response could inflict substantial or even catastrophic harms. North Korea’s unconventional weapons already include biological agents (Pyongyang maintains three Biological Research Institutes within the country’s National Academy of Sciences) and chemical ordnance (currently estimated at 5,000 tons of weaponized material). Even a perfectly rational North Korean leadership could sometime calculate that all-out retaliations would make perfect strategic sense.

In facing off against each other, even under optimal assumptions of  mutual rationality, both President Trump and President Kim Jung Un would have to concern themselves with all possible miscalculations, errors in information, unauthorized uses of strategic weapons, mechanical or computer malfunctions and myriad nuances of cyber-defense/cyber-war. In other words, even if both President Trump and President Kim were abundantly capable, humane[20] and focused – a markedly generous assumption, to be sure – northeast Asia might still descend rapidly toward some form or other of uncontrollable nuclear war. If this dire prospect were not already sobering enough, it is also reasonable to expect that the corresponding erasure of a once-prevailing nuclear taboo would substantially heighten the likelihood of nuclear conflict in other parts of the globe, especially southwest Asia (e.g., Pakistan and India), and/or the Middle East (e.g., Israel and Iran).

Regarding the given Middle East scenario, a war between Israel and Iran could still be nuclear if the Islamic Republic were not yet in the Club. Here, for whatever reasons, correctly or incorrectly, lawfully or unlawfully, the Israeli side would accept the rationality of using some elements of its nuclear arms against a non-nuclear Iran.

When Pericles delivered his famous Funeral Oration, it was to express confidence in an ultimate victory for Athens. Simultaneously, as recalled by Thucydides, the Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE), Pericles had expressed variously deep fears about self-imposed setbacks along the way. “What I fear more than the strategies of our enemies,” lamented Pericles, “is our own mistakes.”

Today, as US President Donald Trump must prepare to face off capably with Kim Jung Un, perhaps even at a time coinciding with the 2020 election, the expected consequences of American mistakes could be vastly destructive, perhaps even authentically intolerable. It follows that in choosing a cost-effective style of escalation and negotiation with Pyongyang in such circumstances, the United States must remain wary of locking in to any lethal pattern of interaction for which the other side’s reaction must likely or invariably be deeply harmful to the United States. More precisely, Mr. Trump and his counselors must continuously and vigilantly refrain from offering any provocation for which the unpredictable North Korean adversary could then have only one “rational” response, nuclear war.

We began this informed strategic dialectic with a uniquely fearful hypothesis; that is, that the risks of a genuine nuclear crisis with North Korea could be purposely and wrongly enlarged by Donald Trump. In this plainly menacing scenario, the inexcusable presidential enlargement could sometime become unmanageable or even existential. Then, concerning the specific “Biden Scenario,” America would have opened itself up to literally unprecedented military harms,[21] the result of its wholly incapable president’s near-total preoccupation with personal image and nefarious self-promotion. Recalling ancient Greek playwright Sophocles’ Antigone, we would be reminded after the fact of what can happen when a leader places his own presumed popularity “before his country.”

Though himself entirely unfamiliar with both world and US national history, Donald Trump’s malfeasance in this worrisome scenario could prove staggering. In essence, it could represent the ultimate presidential dereliction, one displaying various egregious violations of both US Law and international law[22] and an irremediable opening to an enemy’s existential attack. Not to be ignored is that even this presumptively worst case scenario could be further  exacerbated by a still-uncontrolled biological plague.

There is only one sensible way to “give the lie” to any such intolerable outcomes. It is to ensure that Americans never again elect a president who thinks and learns only “in his own flesh.”


[1] In specifically legal terms, there would likely be jurisprudential uncertainties concerning whether or not an authentic state of war obtained. Under international law, which has long been “incorporated” into US law, the question of whether a formal condition of war exists between adversarial states is inherently unclear.  Traditionally, a “formal” war was said to exist only when a contesting state issued a formal declaration of war.  The Hague Convention III codified this position in 1907.  This Convention provided that hostilities must not commence without “previous and explicit warning” in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum.  See Hague Convention III on the Opening of Hostilities,  Oct. 18, 1907, art. 1,  36 Stat. 2277,  205 Consol. T.S. 263.  Presently, a declaration of war may be tantamount to a declaration of criminality because international law prohibits aggression.  See Treaty Providing for the Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy, art. 1,  46 Stat.  2343,  94 L.N.T.S.  57 (also called Pact of Paris or Kellogg-Briand Pact), August 27, 1948;  Nuremberg Judgment, 1 I.M.T.  Trial of the Major War Criminals 171 (1947),  portions reprinted in  Burns H. Weston, et. al.,  International Law And World Order  148,  159 (1980);  U.N. Charter, art. 2(4).  A state may compromise its own legal position by announcing formal declarations of war.  It follows that a state of belligerency may obtain without formal declarations, but only if there exists a recognizable “armed conflict” between two or more states and/or at least one of these states considers itself to be “at war.”

[2] A North Korean nuclear crisis is used here as example because it would be both plausible and potentially catastrophic, but there are other conceivably pertinent sources of presidential deflection, e.g., an India-Pakistan nuclear crisis, and/ or a dramatic nuclear breakthrough by Iran.

[3] Anticipating political indifference to strategic complexity, Clausewitz warned presciently in his classic On War: “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult.”

[4] The multiple problems here stemming from complexity and intersection bring to mind the Clausewitzian concept of “friction.” This always-sobering consideration usefully emphasizes various recurring and core elements of pertinent decisional difficulty. See Carl von Clausewitz, On War, especially Chapter VI, “Friction in War.”

[5] In this connection, one must recall Donald Trump’s core philosophy of belligerent nationalism, an “America First” dogma fundamentally contrary to the basic principles of international law.  Inter alia, international law is an integral part of the legal system of all states in world politics, and assumes a reciprocally common obligation of states to supply reasonable benefits to one another. This immutable assumption of jurisprudential solidarity is known formally as a “peremptory” or jus cogens expectation, that is, one that is never properly subject to question or reversal. It can be discovered early 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). Later, it was given special prominence by William Blackstone in his foundational (for the United States) Commentaries on the Law of England.

[6]The Kierkegaardian concept of “crowd” is also roughly analogous to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “herd” or Sigmund Freud’s “horde.”

[7] See, by this writer, at Harvard Law School, Louis René Beres https://harvardnsj.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2020/04/Beres_Complex-Determinations_v2.pdf

[8] In narrowly legal terms, either the United States or North Korea could (especially amid so many contextual uncertainties) commit “aggression.”  For the specified crime of aggression under international law, see: Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, adopted by the UN General Assembly, Dec. 14, 1974. U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 UN GAOR, Supp (No. 31), 142, UN Doc A/9631 (1975) reprinted in 13 I.L.M., 710 (1974).

[9] 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.

[10] Professor Louis René Beres is the author of some of the earliest books on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, including Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (1979); Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980) and Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (2016; 2018). His pertinent writings on this topic have been published in The New York Times; The Atlantic; Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (West Point); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon) International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Jurist; Modern Diplomacy; International Security (Harvard); Yale Global Online; The Brown Journal of World Affairs; Israel Defense (Tel-Aviv) and The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

[11] 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 (Pentagon):  Louis René  Beres https://mwi.usma.edu/threat-convergence-adversarial-whole-greater-sum-parts/

[12] In logic and scientific method, there can be no genuine “experts” on historically unprecedented events.

[13] Such bewildering interactions could shed light upon an entire global system’s degree of order or disorder, a more focused view that would reflect what the physicists call “entropic” conditions. In part, at least,  any such perspective could be dependent upon the pertinent decision-maker’s subjective metaphysics of time. For a very early article by this author dealing with linkages between such subjective metaphysics and national decision-making processes, 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.

[14] In 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)).Further, the specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”

[15] In a still-broader jurisprudential sense, Donald Trump should be reminded that all states, but especially the leading actors, have a continuing legal obligation to “produce happiness” in world politics. Though intrinsically difficult to measure, a minimum threshold here would be to prevent overtly destabilizing prospects for expanding international warfare. Says Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations (1758),  “The first general law, which is to be found in the very end of the society of Nations, is that each Nation should contribute as far as it can to the happiness and advancement of other Nations.”

[16] Under the law of armed conflict, these pre-nuclear forms – but potentially also certain post-nuclear ones – concern three categories of criminality: crimes of war; crimes against peace and crimes against humanity.  These crimes are defined succinctly but authoritatively in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal (“The London Charter”),  Aug. 8, 1945,  art. 6(a) – (c),  59 Stat. 1546, 1547,  82 U.N.T.S.  279.

[17] This peremptory principle of anticipatory self-defense has its modern origins in the so-called Caroline Case, which concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this landmark case, even the serious threat of an armed attack can sometimes be taken as sufficient legal justification for defensive military action. In more narrowly technical jurisprudence, the criterion of permissibility revolves around a danger presumed to be “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment or deliberation.” Of course, during the first third of the nineteenth century, there could have been no conceivable thought of forestalling a nuclear attack.

[18] The specifically legal  principle of proportionality is contained in the rules governing the resort to armed conflict (jus ad bellum) and in rules governing the actual conduct of hostilities (jus in bello).  In the former, proportionality relates to self-defense.  In the latter, it relates to conduct of belligerency. Proportionality is itself derivative from the more basic principle that belligerent rights are not unlimited (See notably Hague Convention No. IV (1907), Annex to the Convention, Section II (Hostilities), Art. 22: “The right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited”).

[19] See Giancarlo Elia Valori, “How Global Powers Could Achieve a Denuclearized Korea,”  Israel Defense, June 27, 2017.

[20] Though normally not discussed in the context of strategic planning and nuclear war, human rights would be broadly affected by virtually any pertinent decisions. In this connection, the cornerstone of the human rights regime is the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  G.A. Res. 217A,  U.N. Doc. A/810,  at 71 (1948).  This document, together with the following authoritative codifications,  comprise what is generally called an International Bill of Rights:  International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,  6 I.L.M. 360 (entered into force, Jan. 3, 1976); and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,  6 I.L.M.  368 (entered into force,  Mar. 23, 1976).

[21] One may think here of the High Lama’s warning in James Hilton’s classic Lost Horizon: “The storm…this storm that you talk of….It will be such a one, my son, as the world has not seen before. There will be no safety by arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. It will rage until every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are leveled in a vast chaos….The Dark Ages that are to come will cover the whole world is a single pall; there will be neither escape nor sanctuary.”

[22] For authoritative sources of international law, see art. 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice: STATUTE OF THE INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE, Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force, Oct. 24, 1945; for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945.  59 Stat. 1031,  T.S. No. 993,  3 Bevans 1153, 1976 Y.B.U.N., 1052.Court of Justice: STATUTE OF THE INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE, Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force, Oct. 24, 1945; for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945.  59 Stat. 1031,  T.S. No. 993,  3 Bevans 1153, 1976 Y.B.U.N., 1052.

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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The crisis of positivist, “evidence-based” political science in US

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Right from its birth in the 18th century, the United States of America emerged as one of the most advanced countries, or even the most advanced one in terms of government organization and the ideology of state building. The newly independent British colony got a chance to shed off the past and start from the ground up, and the Founding Fathers, as they are called in the US, used this chance to the max, erecting the three pillars of the American political order – the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which laid out the most progressive ideas of their time: human rights, democratic procedures, separation of powers, trial by jury, broad state autonomy, social contract, free speech, and many others.

The period of the rapid development of these ideas, akin to the French Enlightenment, has since been known in America as the “Age of Reason.” This time period, just like the ideas and principles it generated, is closely associated with empiricism and positivism – the two dominant philosophical streaks of that time, which denied philosophy as such and prioritized a scientific fact, an observed phenomenon, an experiment, logic, and ignored theoretical philosophical constructions, complex models and hypotheses not supported by scientific data. Back then, this new philosophy was the philosophy of science and was conceived as something that would replace the outdated classical philosophy with its interweaving of worldview, morality and faith, and remove ethics from the speculative structure of society, with its characteristic disregard for experiment as a method of cognition.

Today, almost 250 years since the adoption of the US Constitution, many elements of the American state system have not only lost their original progressive meaning but even look downright archaic. The most vivid examples of this are the life-long appointment of Supreme Court justices, who maintain their positions for decades, the electoral system of voting, whereby members of state electoral colleges are not obligated to vote according to the will of the people of that state, and the decentralized legal system, where precedents are superimposed on precedents, and the passage of a new law does not entail a revision of the old one.

Even though this archaism is obvious to any unbiased observer, not only are there no active discussions about constitutional reform or at least new amendments to the fundamental law of the land, but there are heated discussions going in Congress, the media and universities about how to interpret provisions of the ancient document in such a way as to better reflect the founding fathers’ ideas.

Any liberal arts education in the United States, from the high-school level  up, includes a detailed study, not critical, but apologetic, of the history of the founding of the United States, the adoption of the Constitution and the early  period of the US as a country. The personalities of the founding fathers and their philosophical views are front and center in most of these courses, and the higher the prestige of the educational institution, the more diligently the knowledge of the “essential foundations” of American statehood is implanted in the students’ minds.

As a result, the overwhelming majority of America’s intellectual elite leave their universities with deep faith in the sacredness of the US Constitution and the principles embedded in it. They are also steeped in the very spirit of empiricism and positivism of the Age of Reason. These are exactly the philosophical doctrines that shaped the development of humanitarian sciences in the United States and continue to do so today, even though they have long been considered in Europe as limited, to say the least.

This is also why scientific psychology has been reduced to behaviorism and the theory of historical stages has been dismissed, replaced by a civilizational approach and the so-called “evidence-based” or “fact-based” political science, which is the centerpiece of this article.

The seeds of political science and sociology, which fell into the fertile American soil in the first half of the 20th century, were soaked in the juices of the developed political class, their young shoots basked in the rays of a fleeting electoral cycle and an all-pervading electoral system, and their flowers were brighter than anywhere else. Election managers have never experienced any shortage of money and resources, and experts, who were able to predict the voters’ reaction, awaited universal respect and cushy jobs. 

Now, in the run-up to the 21st year of the new century, America has a whole army of sociologists and political scientists, with regiments and divisions “deployed” in every state and in every district of each state. This army is big enough to simultaneously serve the election campaigns of two presidential candidates, dozens of candidates for state governors, hundreds of congressional and senatorial hopefuls, and thousands of candidates for elected positions in local administrations. This 300,000-strong army has its own soldiers – street agitators, and its generals – campaign managers. It also has its own intelligence – sociological institutions and political spin doctors, trying to analyze the voters’ preferences and work out the best strategy and tactics.

It would seem that all this multitude of people, endowed with almost unlimited resources, should have long ago studied the political landscape of every single corner of America and provided an accurate forecast of the locals’ reaction to statements made by a politician, or steps taken by his  opponent. This doesn’t happen, however, and forecasts made by political scientists are disproved by reality. The biggest such flop ever was Donald Trump’s victory in the November 2016 presidential election.

This discrepancy between spent human and economic resources and the results attained has much to do with the culture of science and positivism that still prevails in American science. The positivist approach to science focuses on the search for objective truth, which can almost exclusively be achieved with the help of empirical facts and formal logic. This logic for centuries prevailed in physics, but even there it has been a subject of scathing criticism as it eventually turned out that the research method can affect the result of the research, and that one and the same object can have mutually exclusive properties, depending on how it is measured. This means that the fact obtained with so much effort is no longer absolute, and formal logic is simply insufficient in its toolbox.

These are the conclusions reached by physicists who study laws that are not subject to rapid change and are independent of human culture – a discovery that seems to have been completely overlooked by US political scientists, who still conduct public opinion polls as if the question never predetermines the answer, even though this is almost always the case. They avoid making assumptions, because they do not know all the facts, and try to objectively measure the immeasurable – the constantly changing moods of the mass of people divided into thousands of groups according to geographic, gender, age, educational, professional and other factors. And each of the millions of people polled represents a mixture of cultures, religions and ideologies and can change his or her opinion on a given issue every day, even a dozen times a day.

Such a system of studying the electorate and the related forecasting method are doomed to failure. Even if the combined forces of sociologists and political scientists were a hundred times larger and at a certain moment in time could collect data on the people’s preferences that would meet the strictest scientific criteria, the next day this information would be no longer relevant, and the whole work would have to be done again… In real life, however, this does not happen either.

Thus, US political scientists, who have always been taught not to invent theories, but only generalize the available facts, are chasing these facts and use them indiscriminately. Can an ordinary Biden election campaign expert run a scientific check on and compare multi-page descriptions of survey methods, when dozens of surveys are conducted each week, and sometimes, each day? Of course not, and so experts rely on the authority and decency of the organization that provides the “facts.” At best, they summarize the results of several surveys, and at worst, they use the one that suits them best.

This is the case at the level of data synthesis and forecasting, based on this generalization, but things are even worth when it comes to research and data collection. In an ever-changing environment, when precious “facts” become irrelevant in a matter of hours, research teams have to rely on the speed of research, rather than its coverage, representativeness or accuracy. This constant race leads to the emergence of such Frankenstein sociological monsters as a poll, where the difference in the candidates’ ratings is less than the margin of error allowed by the researcher, or a methodologically flawed survey, deliberately presented as an All-American poll that less than 1,000 people took part in.

And yet, US sociologists and political scientists still stick to positivism, because positivism is the true-blue American way. Never mind that these principles and methods, invented to study the eternal laws of nature, are now used to “study” the ever-changing mood of the crowd.

The bigger the process that the American system of public opinion research  tries to study or predict, the worse the result: while it works almost impeccably in local elections, at the level of elections to Congress it starts to fail, and during presidential elections things get real bad. A positivist analysis is impossible where you have no positivist facts, which means that the winner will be the one who better applies different methods of analysis. However, such methods are nowhere to find in the American universe, and those who successfully apply them are said to have “guessed.”

According to the American elite, in 2016, Trump “guessed” exactly what the conservative voter wanted. He is “guessing” again this year, while Democrats, also forced to engage in guesswork, use their favorite tactics of “identity politics”: they nominate those who they believe best relate to their typical supporter in terms of demographic indicators – an elderly white middle-aged male, and an African-American woman.

Which of them guessed better the whole world will know very soon.

From our partner International Affairs

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Israel, the Middle East and Joe Biden

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Photo by Adam Schultz

How will a Biden Administration change American policies on Iran, the Palestinians and Israel’s tightening relationships with Arab states?

Some two years ago, Democrats harshly attacked Trump for withdrawing US troops from Syria and thereby undermining the alliance with the Kurds. However, Democratic leaders also favor a reduced US presence in the Middle East and understand the region’s declining relevance to US global policy.  It was Democrat Obama who withdrew US troops from the Iraqi bloodbath; Biden, if elected, will presumably continue a similar course. The US is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, China is perceived as its greatest threat, and the defeat of ISIS has lowered the strategic terror threat level to US national security.

Biden, just like Trump and Obama, probably believes that the US can downscale its presence in the region and rely on its allies (the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, of course) and on the alliances being forged between its partners over the past two decades. The US could increase aid to a specific ally at a time of need (as was the case with the massive 2014 influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan) or Iraq (during the fighting with ISIS), but it is loath to continue meddling in local conflicts. What is more, the painful lesson of the intervention in Iraq has dissolved the Bush Administration’s messianic belief in the democratization of the Middle East. Concern about Russia or China filling the vacuum left by the US is also no longer deterring US leaders (like Obama and Trump) who are trying to score points with voters by troops drawdowns and free the administration up to deal with different matters, among them the “Pivot to Asia”.

As a Democrat, Biden is expected to be more sensitive than Trump to human rights violations in the Middle East. He condemned the conduct of the Saudi regime following the murder of exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi in fairly harsh language several times and also called for curbing weapons sales to Riyadh.

However, if elected, Biden’s first order of business will be dealing with the biggest health and economic crisis the US has experienced since 1929. He will have to create jobs and deal with thousands of burning domestic matters. Those will be his flagship issues. He may have to set aside his moral repugnance and allow weapons exports to prevent job and profit losses for Americans. Trump, too, was harshly critical of Saudi Arabia prior to his election, but subsequently changed his tune and conducted his first overseas trip there as president.

One can cautiously assess that any change in US policy toward the Gulf would not undermine Israel’s rapprochement with those states. The strategic regional threats (expansion of Iran’s hegemony and its violations of the nuclear agreement, as well as Turkish activity in the region) will remain unchanged, and therefore the interest in economic and security cooperation between Israel and Gulf states will remain. Arab states that traditionally view Israel as a bridge to the White House could try to exploit this now official relationship to promote their standing with Congress and a new administration, if one is installed.

Biden’s position on the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) is of concern these days to both Israeli and Arab leaders, which could further cement their ties. Arab leaders are concerned about Biden rejoining and reviving the deal that Trump abandoned. They are relying on Biden’s criticism of the unilateral US pullout from the agreement and his declaration that he would make every effort to rejoin it. Nonetheless, Biden’s people seem to understand that they cannot simply turn back the clock. Blinken, one of Biden’s closest aides and potential future national security adviser, has said in interviews that the US would not return to the agreement until Iran fulfills all its commitments – meaning, until Iran walks back all its violations of the agreement. It is hard to predict just how Biden might draw Iran to the negotiating table, but as long as such an option is viable, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states will have sufficient grounds to close ranks.

Biden is a sworn supporter of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is expected to re-open the US Consulate in East Jerusalem, restore US aid to the Palestinians and invite the PLO ambassador back to Washington. However, this does not mean that he will place the Palestinian issue on his list of priorities, especially given the domestic crisis and ongoing tensions with China. The Palestinian issue is unlikely to return to center stage following a change in the US administration. The Arab world is growing increasingly weak as the coronavirus continues to spread, the economic crisis deepens and unemployment rises. Arab states also fear that the major non-Arab states in the region – Turkey and Iran – will exploit this weakness. Should that happen, the Palestinian issue is unlikely to attract much interest from key Arab states, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, which also dictate the conduct of the Arab League.

That said, should Biden decide to revive the Arab Peace Initiative and mobilize Saudi and other Arab support (perhaps in return for a more determined US stand on Iran, the supply of US strategic weapons, etc.), pressure on Israel over the Palestinian issue could re-emerge. If Israel chooses to respond with accelerated construction in the settlements, in defiance of US policy, states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE would likely toe the line of the US administration but would not cut ties with Israel as a result.

In conclusion, a Biden victory would not affect the strengthening relationship between Israel and Arab states, especially if he opts to focus on the Iranian issue and a US return to the JCPOA. The Middle East’s relevance to the US is expected to continue its decline, prompting cooperation among its partners in the region in order to forge a robust front and repel threats from the non-Arab states (Iran and Turkey). A changed US approach to the Palestinian issue could increase pressure on Israel slightly, but is not expected to substantially change the current dynamics.

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Prospects for U.S.-China Relations in the Biden Era

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The U.S. presidential election which will be held on November 3 is drawing ever closer. As the Trump administration performs poorly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, where the death toll in the U.S. exceeded 210,000, the election trend appears to be very unfavorable for Donald Trump.

According to a recent poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, Joe Biden led Trump by 14 percentage points in the national elections. It is worth noting that retired American generals, who have traditionally been extremely low-key in politics, publicly supported Biden this year, something that is quite rare. On September 24, 489 retired generals and admirals, former national security officials and diplomats signed a joint letter in support of Biden. Among them are Republicans, Democrats, and non-partisans, showing that they have crossed the affiliation, and jointly support Biden to replace Trump. Although the opinion polls do not represent the final election, with the election only being one month away, the widening of the opinion gap is enough to predict the direction of the election.

For the whole world, especially for China, it is necessary to prepare for the advent of a possible Biden era of the United States. During Trump’s tenure, U.S.-China relations have taken a turn for the worse, and China has been listed as the foremost “long-term strategic competitor” of the United States.

There is a general view in China that after the Democratic Party comes to power, U.S.-China relations may worsen. The reason is that the Democratic Party places more emphasis on values such as human rights and ideology and is accustomed to using values such as human rights, democracy, and freedom in foreign policies against China. However, as far as U.S.-China relations are concerned, it is too vague to use the simple dichotomic “good” or “bad” to summarize the relationship of the two countries.

However, it is certain that after Biden takes office, his policies will be different from Trump’s. An important difference between Biden and Trump is that Biden will follow a certain order and geopolitical discipline to implement his own policies, and he will also seek cooperation with China in certain bottom-line principled arrangements. It should be stressed that it is crucial for China and the United States to reach some principled arrangements in their relations.

From an economic point of view, should Biden become the next President, the United States will likely ease its trade policy, which will alleviate China’s trade pressure. It can be expected that the Biden administration may quell the U.S.-China tariff war and adjust punitive tariff policies that lead to “lose-lose” policies. If Biden takes office, he might be more concerned about politics and U.S.-China balance. In terms of trade, although he would continue to stick to the general direction of the past, this would not be the main direction of his governance. Therefore, the U.S.-China trade war could see certain respite and may even stop. In that scenario, China as the largest trading partner of the United States, could hope for the pressures in the trade with the U.S. being reduced.

China must also realize that even if Biden takes power, some key areas of U.S.-China relations will not change, such as the strategic positioning of China as the “long-term strategic competitor” of the United States. This is not something that is decided by the U.S. President but by the strategic judgment of the U.S. decision-making class on the direction of its relations with China. This strategic positioning destined that the future U.S.-China relations will be based on the pattern dominated by geopolitical confrontation. Biden sees that by expanding global influence, promoting its political model, and investing in future technologies, China is engaging a long-term competition with the U.S, and that is the challenge that the United States faces.

On the whole, if and when Biden takes office, the U.S. government’s domestic and diplomatic practices will be different from those of the Trump administration, although the strategic positioning of China will not change, and neither will it change the U.S.’ general direction of long-term suppression of China’s rise. However, in terms of specific practices, the Biden administration will have its own approaches, and will seek a certain order and geopolitical discipline to implement its policies. He may also seek to reach some bottom-line principled arrangements with China. Under the basic framework, the future U.S.-China relations will undergo changes in many aspects. Instead of the crude “an eye for an eye” rivalry, we will see the return to the traditional systemic competition based on values, alliance interests, and rules. Facing the inevitable changes in U.S.-China relations, the world needs to adapt to the new situation.

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