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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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