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The Atom And The Virus: A Progressively Lethal Convergence For The United States

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“It is only in the thick of calamity that one gets hardened to the truth – in other words, to silence.”-Albert Camus, The Plague

Americans may too easily forget, in the midst of a biological plague, that assorted “ordinary” geopolitical threats have not thereby gone away. In this regard, multiple risks of nuclear war with several adversarial nations have actually been growing. Here, too, grievously fearful developments are largely attributable to an incompetent and indifferent American president.

Prima facie, the prognoses are plain. Going forward with Donald J. Trump, the United States could only anticipate the utterly worst forms of catastrophic convergence. Without hyperbole, should this president somehow remain in office, America’s plausible future could include variously intersecting and steadily escalating existential harms.

It’s time for recognizing particularities. In narrow geostrategic terms, North Korea and Iran represent the most obvious and compelling nuclear threats. This assessment is credible even though Iran is not yet operationally nuclear.[1] Why? It is because Iran is still capable of fighting a massive conventional conflict against America’s principal Middle Eastern ally.

In brief, Tehran could at some point prod the United States to consider using some of its extant nuclear forces on behalf of Israel.

There is more. Certain Sunni Arab states worried about an impending “Persian bomb” could also seek to obtain a countervailing nuclear capacity for themselves.[2]  In this connection, Egypt and Saudi Arabia come most immediately to mind.

What happens next? What particular intersections or synergies might arise here involving Iran and Israel? And what might be the concurrent effects of “plague” (Covid19 pandemic) upon all of the pertinent “players?”

In  essence, however the plausible conflict scenarios might be configured, all pertinent prospects are unprecedented and all portend unique outcomes that are sui generis.

Looking ahead, US policy attention should also be directed toward ongoing nuclear developments in Russia and China. As we are very clearly in the midst of a second Cold War, or “Cold War II,” these ongoing Russian and Chinese developments provide a background for other nuclear  developments underway in Pyongyang and Tehran. “Cold War II,”[3] recently underscored by the growing scandal of Russian bounties to the Taliban for killing US forces in Afghanistan, represents the system within which virtually all contemporary world politics should now be categorized and assessed.[4]

In brief, the current Great Powers’ disposition to war, however it might be ascertained, isrelevant analytic background for still-wider nuclear interactions.

Planning ahead, what explanatory theories and scenarios could best guide the Trump administration in its many-sided interactions with North Korea, Iran, China and Russia? Before answering this basic question with any adequate and clarifying specificity, a “correct” answer – any correct answer – must depend upon one single overarching assumption. This is the inherently problematic expectation of adversarial rationality.

It now follows, among other things, that a primary “order of business” for those American strategic analysts and planners focused on this most urgent set of security problems will be reaching informed judgments about each determinable adversary’s ordering of preferences. By definition, only those particular adversaries who would value national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences would be acting rationally.

For scholars and policy-makers, some further basic questions must now be considered. First, what are the operational meanings of relevant terminologies and/or vocabularies? Accordingly, in the formal study of international relations and military strategy, decisional irrationality never means the same thing as madness. Nonetheless, certain residual warnings about madness should still warrant very serious US policy consideration. This is because both “ordinary” irrationality and full-scale madness could exert more-or-less comparable effects upon any examined country’s national security decision-making processes.

Again, nothing here for the intellectually faint-hearted.

Sometime, for the United States, understanding and anticipating these ascertainable effects could display existential importance. In all such prospective considerations, words would matter a great deal. In normal strategic parlance, “irrationality” identifies a decisional foundation wherein national self-preservation is not summa, not the very highest and ultimate preference.

A prospectively irrational decision-maker in Pyongyang, Tehran or elsewhere need not be determinably “mad” in order to become  troubling for policy analysis by aptly designated leaders in Washington. Such an adversary needs “only” to be more conspicuously concerned about certain discernible preferences or values than about its own collective self-preservation. One example would be preferences expressed for  certain feasible outcomes other than national survival.  Normally, any such behavior would be unexpected and counter-intuitive, but it would still not be unprecedented or inconceivable. Moreover, identifying the specific criteria or correlates of any such considered survival imperatives could prove irremediably subjective and/or simply indecipherable.

Whether an examined American adversary were sometime deemed irrational or “mad,” US military planners would have to input a generally similar decisional calculation. An analytic premise here would be that the particular adversary “in play” might not be suitably deterred from launching a military attack by any American threats of retaliatory destruction, even where such threats would be fully credible and presumptively massive. Any such failure of US military deterrence could include conventional and nuclear retaliatory threats.

In fashioning America’s nuclear strategy vis-à-vis nuclear and not-yet-nuclear adversaries,[5] US military planners must include a mechanism to determine whether a designated adversary (e.g., North Korea or Iran) will more likely be rational or irrational. Operationally, this means ascertaining whether the identifiably relevant foe will value its collective survival (whether as a sovereign state or an organized terror group) more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. Always, this early judgment must be based upon defensibly sound analytic principles.

In principle, at least, it should never be affected in any tangible way by what particular analysts might themselves simply “want to believe.”[6]

A corollary US obligation, depending in large part upon this prior judgment concerning enemy rationality, will expect strategic planners to assess whether a properly nuanced posture of  “pretended irrationality” could purposefully enhance America’s nuclear deterrence posture.  On several occasions, it should be recalled here, President Donald Trump had openly praised at least the underlying premises of such an eccentric posture. Was such presidential praise intellectually warranted and/or properly justified?


It depends. US enemies include both state and sub-state foes, whether considered singly or in various assorted forms of collaboration. Such forms could be “hybridized” in different ways between state and sub-state adversaries.[7] In dealing with Washington, each recognizable class of enemies could sometime choose to feign irrationality.

In principle, this could represent a potentially clever strategy to “get a jump” on the United States in any expected or already-ongoing competition for “escalation dominance.”[8]  Naturally, any such calculated pretense could also fail, perhaps calamitously. Cautionary strategic behavior based on serious conceptual thinking should always be the presidential “order of the day.”[9]

There is something else. On occasion, these same enemies could “decide,” whether consciously or unwittingly, to actually be irrational.[10]  In any such innately bewildering circumstances, it would then become incumbent upon American strategic planners to capably assess which basic form of irrationality –  pretended or authentic – is actually underway. Thereafter, these planners would need to respond with a dialectically orchestrated and optimally counterpoised set of all possible reactions.

Once again, in purely intellectual terms, this would represent an uncommonly “tall order.”

There is more. In this context, the term “dialectically” (drawn originally from ancient Greek thought, especially Plato’s dialogues) is used with very precise meanings. This is done in order to signify a continuous or ongoing question-and-answer format of relevant strategic reasoning.

By definition, any instance of enemy irrationality would value certain specific preferences (e.g., presumed religious obligations or personal and/or regime safety) more highly than collective survival. For America, the grievously threatening prospect of facing some genuinely irrational nuclear adversary is prospectively most worrisome with regard to North Korea and at least possibly, in a now rapidly closing future, Iran.[11] Apropos of all such more-or-less credible apprehensions, it is unlikely that they could ever be meaningfully reduced by way of formal treaties or law-based agreements.[12]

Here it would be well worth remembering seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ classic warning in Leviathan:  “Covenants, without the sword, are but words….”[13] If this  traditional problem of global anarchy were not daunting enough for American strategists and decision-makers, it is further complicated by the largely unforeseeable effects of worldwide pandemic and, perhaps correspondingly, the effects of any consequent chaos.

Chaos is not the same as anarchy. Chaos is much “more than” anarchy. We have lived with anarchy or absence of central government in modern world politics since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648,[14] but we have yet to descend into any genuine worldwide chaos.[15]

 How should the United States proceed? At some point, at least in principle, the very best option could seem to be some sort of preemption;  that is, a defensive non-nuclear first-strike directed against situationally appropriate North Korean or Iranian hard targets. In actuality, however, it is already very late for launching an operationally cost-effective preemption against North Korea, and – even if it could be properly defended in law as “anticipatory self-defense”[16] – any such action would likely come at a much-too-substantial human and political cost.

In specific regard to any current and potentially protracted US-Iran enmity, the American side must consider how its nuclear weapons could best be leveraged against that adversarial state in virtually any war scenario. A rational answer here could never include any operational use of such weapons. The only pertinent questions for US planners, therefore, should concern the calculable extent to which an asymmetrical US threat of nuclear escalation could sometime be made sufficiently and aptly credible.[17]

Once again, by definition, as long as Iran should remain non-nuclear, any US nuclear threat would necessarily be asymmetrical.

By applying all available standards of ordinary reason and logic (there are, after all, no usable historical points of reference in such unprecedented situations), Washington could most suitably determine that certain nuclear threats against Iran would serve American security interests only when Iranian military capacities, though still non-nuclear, were convincingly overwhelming. Any such daunting scenario, though difficult to imagine ex nihilo, might nonetheless be conceivable. This “strategic dialectic” holds most convincingly if Tehran were willing to escalate (a) to massive direct conventional attacks upon American territories or populations, and/or (b) to the significant use of biological warfare capabilities.

In any matter of prospective biological warfare, it is worth noting that we are currently in the midst of a naturally-occurring biological “assault,” and that even in the complete absence of any specific adversarial animus or intent, the injurious consequences are already at the outer limits of tolerability and sustainability.

 Inter alia, all this should now imply a primary obligation for the United States (c) to focus continuously on incremental enhancements to its implicit nuclear deterrence posture; and (d) to develop a wide and nuanced range of plausible nuclear retaliatory options. The specific rationale of (d) (above), is the counter-intuitive understanding that credibility of nuclear threats could sometime vary inversely with perceived levels of destructiveness. In certain  foreseeable circumstances, this means that the successful nuclear deterrence of Iran could depend upon nuclear weapons that are deemed sufficiently low-yield or small.

Sometimes, in fashioning a national nuclear deterrence posture, counter-intuitive strategic insight is most correctly “on the mark,” and therefore most indispensable. This is likely one of these “multi-layered” times.

  There is more. Washington should continue to bear in mind that any US nuclear posture must focus on prevention rather than punishment. In any and all identifiable circumstances, using a portion of its available nuclear forces for vengeance rather than deterrence would miss the proverbial point; that is, to fully optimize US national security. Any American nuclear weapons use that were based on narrowly corrosive notions of revenge, and even if only as a residual or default option, would be irrational.

 These are all complex intellectual issues, not simply political ones. America’s many-sided nuclear deterrent must be backed up by recognizably robust systems of active defense (BMD), especially if there should arise any determinable reason to fear an irrationalnuclear adversary. Although it is already well-known that no system of active defense can ever be entirely “leak-proof,” there is still good reason to suppose that certain BMD deployments could help safeguard both US civilian populations (soft targets) and American nuclear retaliatory forces (hard targets).[18] This means that technologically advanced anti-missile systems must remain indefinitely as a steadily-modernizing component of this country’s nuclear deterrence posture. Among other elements of permissible self-defense, this suggests continuously expanding emphases on laser-based weapon systems.

While it may at  first sound annoyingly obvious, it must still be remembered that in the bewildering nuclear age, seemingly defensive strategies could sometime be viewed by uneasy adversaries as offensive. This is because the secure foundation of any system of nuclear deterrence must be some reasonable presumption of mutual vulnerability.“Everything is very simple in war,” says Clausewitz, in On War, “but the simplest thing is still difficult.”

To progress in its most vital national security obligations, American military planners must more expressly identify the prioritized goals of this country’s nuclear deterrence posture. Before any rationaladversary could be suitably deterred by an American nuclear deterrent, that enemy would first need to believe that Washington had capably maintained the capacity to launch appropriate nuclear reprisals for relevant forms of aggression (nuclear and perhaps biological/non-nuclear), and also the will[19] to undertake such uniquely consequential firings.

About the first belief criterion, it would almost certainly lie beyond any “reasonable doubt.”

Well beyond.

The second expectation, however, could sometime prove problematic and thus more-or-less “fatally” undermine US nuclear deterrence. In assorted ways that are not yet clearly understood, the necessary national will could be impacted by pandemic-related or even pandemic-created factors.[20] Significantly, too, there would be certain hard-to-foresee interactions or synergies taking place between US policy decisions and those of pertinent American adversaries.

 In more perplexing matters involving an expectedly irrationalnuclear enemy,[21] successful US deterrence would need to be based upon distinctly credible threats to enemy values other than national survival. Here, too, the actual prospect of enemy irrationality could be related to pandemic factors. In the most extreme cases, disease could actually play a tangible and determinative role in producing an enemy’s decisional irrationality.

 More typically, America will also need  to demonstrate the continuously substantial invulnerability of its nuclear retaliatory forces to enemy first strike aggressions. More precisely, it will remain in America’s long-term survival interests to continue to emphasize its variegated submarine-basing nuclear options.[22] Otherwise, as is plainly reasonable to contemplate, America’s land-based strategic nuclear forces could potentially present to a strongly-determined existential enemy (e.g., North Korea) as “too-vulnerable.”

For the moment, this is not a significantly serious concern, though Washington will want to stay focused on any still-planned deployment of submarines by its Israeli ally in the Middle East. The general point of such a secondary focus would be on strengthening Israeli nuclear deterrence, which – in one way or another – would simultaneously be to the overall strategic benefit of the United States.[23] Israel’s own nuclear deterrence could be affected by assorted pandemic-related variables, including some with serious reciprocal consequences for the United States.

There is more. Increasingly, America will have to rely on a broadly multi-faceted doctrine of nuclear deterrence.[24] In turn, like its already-nuclear Israeli ally,[25] specific elements of this “simple but difficult” doctrine could sometime need to be rendered less “ambiguous.” This complex and finely nuanced modification will require an even more determined focus on prospectively rational and irrational enemies, including both national and sub-national foes.

To deal most successfully with its presumptively irrational or non-rational enemies, and whether or not impacted by pandemic factors, this country will need to compose a continuously-updating strategic “playbook.” Here, it could become necessary for Washington to consider, at least on occasion, policies of feigned irrationality. In such analytically-challenging cases, it would be important for the American president not to react in an ad hoc or “seat-of-the-pants” fashion to each and every new strategic development or eruption, but instead to derive or extrapolate all specific policy reactions from a suitably pre-fashionedand comprehensive strategic nuclear doctrine.

Without such a thoughtful doctrine as guide, pretended irrationality could quickly become a “double-edged sword,” effectively bringing more rather than less security harms to the United States.[26]

There is one penultimate but still critical observation.  It is improbable, but not inconceivable, that certain of America’s principal enemies would be neither rational nor irrational, but mad. While irrational decision-makers would already pose special problems for US nuclear deterrence  – by definition, because these decision-makers would not value collective survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences – they might still be rendered susceptible to various alternate forms of deterrence.

 Here, resembling  rational decision-makers, they could still maintain a fixed, determinable and “transitive” hierarchy of preferences. This means, at least in principle, that “merely” irrational enemies could still sometimes be successfully deterred.  This is an observation well worth further analytic study.

Mad or “crazy” adversaries, on the other hand, would have no such calculable hierarchy of preferences, and would therefore not be subject to any strategy of American  nuclear deterrence. Although it would likely be far worse for the United States to have to face a mad nuclear enemy than a “merely” irrational one, Washington would have no foreseeable choice in this matter. This country, like it or not, will need to maintain, perhaps indefinitely, a “three track” system of nuclear deterrence and defense, one track for each of its still-identifiable adversaries that are presumptively (1) rational (2) irrational  or (3) mad.

Again, this will not be task for the narrowly political or intellectually averse US decision-maker.

Further, for the most notably unpredictable third track, special plans will be needed for undertaking certain potentially indispensable preemptions, and, simultaneously, for corresponding/overlapping efforts atballistic missile defense.

Naturally, there could be no assurances that any one “track” would always present exclusively of the others. This means, portentously, that American decision-makers could sometimes have to face deeply intersecting or interpenetrating tracks, and also that these complicated simultaneities could be synergistic.[27]

There is one final observation to be noted. Even if America’s military planners could reassuringly assume that enemy leaderships were fully rational, this would say nothing about the accuracy of the actual information used by these foes in making their particular calculations. Always, it must never be forgotten, rationality refers only to the intention of maximizing certain designated preference or values. It says nothing about whether the information being used is either correct or incorrect.

There is more. In this extraordinary time of global “plague,” any such intention – American or adversarial – could have pandemic-related determinants. At a minimum, this fact should be regarded as sobering to America’s national security decision-makers. For these officials, this will be a moment in history to disavow any inclinations to hubris, to excessive pride, and to accept, instead, an abundance of prudential caution.

America is not automatically made safer by having rational adversaries. Even fully rational enemy leaderships could commit serious errors in calculation that lead them toward a nuclear confrontation or to a nuclear/biological war. There are also certain related command and control issues that could impel a perfectly rational adversary or combination of rational adversaries (both state and sub-state) to embark upon various risky nuclear behaviors. It follows that even the most pleasingly “optimistic” assessments of enemy leadership decision-making could never reliably preclude authentically catastrophic outcomes.[28]

For the United States, understanding that no scientifically accurate judgments of probability can ever be made about unique events (by definition, any nuclear exchange would be sui generis, or precisely such a unique event), the very best lessons for America’s president should favor a determined decisional prudence and a deliberate posture of humility. Of special interest, in this connection, is the always erroneous presumption that having greater nuclear military power than an adversary is automatically an assurance of future bargaining or diplomatic success. When Donald Trump said on several occasions that he and Kim Jung Un both have a “nuclear button,” but that his button “is bigger,” the American president overestimated the US advantages of any such presumptive asymmetry.

Wholly overestimated.

Why? Because the tangible amount of deliverable nuclear firepower required for deterrence is necessarily much less than what could ever be required for “victory.”[29] This is now a time for displaying nuanced and purposeful counter-intuitive wisdom in Washington, and not for more clichéd presidential thinking or further rancorous barrages of some stunningly empty witticism.

For Washington, especially for this president, operating in the largely-unpracticed nuclear age, ancient Greek tragedy warnings about excessive leadership pride are not only still relevant, they are also palpably and irrefutably more important than ever before.

For the United States,  these classical commentaries concerning hubris, left unheeded, could bring forth once unimaginable spasms of “retribution.”[30] The Greek tragedians, after all, were not yet called upon to reason about nuclear decision-making. None of this culminating suggestion is meant to build gratuitously upon America’s most manifestly reasonable fears or apprehensions, but only to remind everyone involved that competent national security planning must remain a bewilderingly complex struggle of “mind over mind.”[31]

Always, these remain fundamentally intellectual problems,[32] challenges requiring meticulous analytic preparation[33] rather than just a particular “attitude.”[34] Above all, such planning ought never become just another calculable contest of “mind over matter;”[35] that is, never just a vainly reassuring inventory of comparative weaponization or some presumptively superior “order of battle.” Unless this rudimentary point is more completely understood by senior US strategic policymakers and by the president of the United States – and until these same policymakers can begin to see the utterly overriding wisdom of expanded global cooperation and human “oneness”[36] – America can never make itself sufficiently secure from nuclear or biological war.


In his 1927 preface to Oxford Poetry, W.H. Auden wrote: “All genuine poetry is in a sense the formation of private spheres out of public chaos….” Looking ahead with an appropriately avant-garde orientation, American strategists must essentially seek to carve out livable national spheres from a steadily expanding global chaos. Ultimately, of course, following Nietzsche, they must understand that such chaos originally lies within each individual human being, but – at least for the moment of their present strategic deliberations – they must focus upon collective survival in a true Hobbesian “state of nature.”

With the predictable spread of nuclear weapons to additional states (and, perhaps, to sub-national terror groups), the historical conditions of nature bequeathed at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 could soon come to resemble the primordial barbarism of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Long before Golding, the seventeenth-century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, had warned insightfully in Leviathan (Chapter XIII)  that in any such circumstances of human disorder here there exists “continual fear, and danger of violent death, the “life of Man” must inevitably be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To best plan its strategic future, America will first need to understand a plausible world system transformation from anarchy to chaos, and to accommodate this drastic pandemic-hastened transformation with some more authentically imaginative thinking.

In such crucial matters, recalling Italian film director Federico Fellini,

“The visionary is the only realist.”

In the final analysis, as Nietzsche himself acknowledges, chaos is an intra-personal condition before it can ever become an international one.[38] This means that the core problem of chaos must be “solved” at the behavioral level before it can be solved in any larger arenas of nuclear strategy, international relations or international law. On this irremediably central understanding, one now made substantially more urgent by global pandemic, it would be worthwhile for engaged strategists to heed and assess the thoughtful  words of Trappist monk and 20th-century thinker Thomas Merton, not because they could have any immediate “practical” value, but because they can serve as a long-term reminder of what is ultimately being asked of us all:

 “When there is a deep, simple, all-embracing love of man, of the created world of living and inanimate things, then there will be respect for life, for freedom, for truth, for justice, and there will be humble love of God. But where there is no love of man, no love of life, then make all the laws you want, all the edicts and treaties, issue all the anathemas, set up all the safeguards and inspections, fill the air with spying satellites, and hang cameras on the moon. As long as you see your fellow man as a being essentially to be feared, mistrusted, hated and destroyed, there cannot be peace on earth.”[39]

Summing up, US foreign policy initiatives concerning nuclear war avoidance must shift from traditional notions of “realism” to more enduring ideas of “planetization.”[40] Though seemingly utopian, these ideas are ultimately more realistic than any global continuance of Thomas Hobbes’ “state of nature.” For the time being, pertinent American policies will still have to be founded upon intellectually supportable principles of nuclear deterrence and corresponding elements of “preparation,” but such foundations should not be expected to last indefinitely. It follows that keeping the United States safely distant from nuclear conflagration will require an American leadership that can navigate all current and foreseeable risks – including some that are pandemic-related – and also plan competently for the problematic future.

In the end, as illustrated by both the more-or-less predictable effects of a nuclear war[41] and long-established effects of “plague,” we humans are all evident creatures of biology and all of us mustfinally recognize each other in this commonality. Moreover, this is a primal commonality, a determinative “oneness” worth adapting to all of America’s national security policies. Such structural interdependence underscores our interpenetrating existential vulnerabilities as individual human beings and our leaders’ corollary obligation to place the common good above any narrowly personal interests.[42]

The atom and the virus now pose a lethal convergence for the United States. To render this perilous simultaneity more manageable and tolerable will require an American leadership with suitably intellectual moorings and inclinations.  Failing to meet this indispensable requirement would compel a once-promising nation to become hardened to a terrible and irremediable truth.

Then, recalling Albert Camus’ The Plague, we would need to get hardened “to silence.”

[1] For early warnings about Iranian nuclearization from a specifically Israeli perspective, see Louis René Beres (Chair of Project Daniel/PM Sharon), Jerusalem: Israel’s Strategic Future:

See also, by Professor Louis René Beres, at Harvard Law School:

[2] For earlier conceptualizations of this capacity, by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (1983) and Louis René Beres, America Outside the World: The Collapse of U.S. Foreign Policy (1987).

[3] Identifying “Cold War II” means expecting the world system to become increasingly bipolar. For early writings, by this author, on the global security implications of any such expanding bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, “Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

[4] In late June 2019, Russia announced that current US policies concerning bilateral nuclear treaty termination and also then-prospective US anti-missile deployments in eastern Europe could threaten “another Cuban missile crisis.” This suggests that Russia remains important in military nuclear terms not only for its obvious shaping of “Cold War II” context, but also (once again) as a direct and increasingly immediate nuclear threat to the United States.

[5] For a very recent analysis of deterring not-yet-nuclear adversaries in the case of Israel, see article co-authored by Professor Louis René Beres and (former Israeli Ambassador ) Zalman Shoval at the Modern War Institute, West Point (Pentagon):

[6] Recall here the classic statement of Julius Caesar: “Men as a rule believe what they want to believe.” See: Caesar’s Gallic War, Book III, Chapter 18.

[7] This “hybrid” concept could also be applied to various pertinent ad hoc bilateral state collaborations against US strategic interests. For example, during June 2019, Russia and China collaborated to block an American initiative aimed at halting fuel deliveries to North Korea. The US-led cap on North Korea’s fuel imports had been intended to sanction any continuing North Korean nuclearization. Prima facie, of course, this narrowly visceral plan was entirely futile.

[8] On “escalation dominance,” see recent article by Professor Louis René Beres at The War Room, US Army War College, Pentagon:

[9]The seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarks prophetically in Pensées: “All our dignity consists in thought….It is upon this that we must depend…Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Similar reasoning characterizes the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Pascal’s 17th-century contemporary. In Book II of his Ethics Spinoza considers the human mind, or the intellectual attributes, and – drawing further upon René Descartes – strives to define an essential theory of learning and knowledge.

[10] In his own work, Sigmund Freud sought to “excavate” deeper meanings concerning irrational human behavior. Always, he was a modern-day philosophe, a proud child of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, one who discovered profound analytic and therapeutic advantages in exploring sometimes-arcane literary paths to psychological knowledge. Freud maintained an extensive personal collection of antiquities which suggested certain penetrating psychological insights to him. Some of his pertinent collection was placed directly on his work desk; reportedly, he would often touch and turn the artifacts while deeply engaged in some challenging thought.

[11] See, also by this author, Louis René Beres, at Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School):

[12] See, for example, by this author, at Yale:

[13] Regarding “covenants,” US decision-makers should nonetheless be continually attentive to relevant considerations of law as well as strategy. More particularly, under authoritative law, states must judge every use of force twice: once with regard to the underlying right to wage war (jus ad bellum) and once with regard to the means used in conducting an actual war (jus in bello). Following the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the United Nations Charter (1945), there remains no defensible legal right to waging an aggressive war. However, the long-standing customary right of post-attack self-defense does remain codified at Article 51 of the UN Charter. Similarly subject to conformance, inter alia, with jus in bello criteria, certain instances of humanitarian intervention and collective security operations may also be consistent with jus ad bellum standards. The law of war, the rules of jus in bello, comprise: (1) laws on weapons; (2) laws on warfare; and (3) humanitarian rules. Codified primarily at the Hague and Geneva Conventions, these rules attempt to bring discrimination, proportionality and military necessity into all belligerent calculations.

[14]International law remains a “vigilante” or “Westphalian” system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119, Together, these two treaties comprise the Peace of Westphalia.

[15] Though composed in the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan may still offer us a prophetic vision of this prospective condition in modern world politics. During chaos, which is a “time of War,” says the English philosopher in Chapter XIII  (“Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery.”):  “… every man is Enemy to every man… and where the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Still, at the actual time of writing Leviathan, Hobbes believed that the condition of “nature” in world politics was less chaotic than that same condition extant among individual human beings. This was because of what he had called the “dreadful equality” of individual men in nature concerning the ability to kill others. This once-relevant differentiation has effectively disappeared with the continuing manufacture and spread of nuclear weapons, a spread soon apt to be exacerbated by an already-nuclear North Korea, by a not-yet-nuclear Iran and by the largely unpredictable effects of an ongoing disease pandemic.

[16] For a pertinent Israeli example, see, by this author:

[17]In regard to such questions, US strategic thinkers must inquire whether accepting a visible posture of limited nuclear war would merely exacerbate enemy nuclear intentions or whether it could actually enhance this country’s overall nuclear deterrence. Such questions have been raised by this author for many years, but usually in more explicit reference to broadly theoretical or generic nuclear threats. See, for example, Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1972); Louis René Beres, Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (1979; second edition, 1987); Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (1984); Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (1986); and Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (2016).

[18] On the prospective shortcomings of Israeli BMD systems, from which certain authoritative extrapolations could be made about US systems, see: Louis René Beres and (Major-General/IDF/ret.) Isaac Ben-Israel, “The Limits of Deterrence,” Washington Times, November 21, 2007; Professor Louis René Beres and M-G Isaac Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iran,” Washington Times, June 10, 2007; and Professor Louis René Beres and M-G Isaac Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iranian Nuclear Attack,” Washington Times, January 27, 2009.

[19] The modern philosophy origins of the term “will” lie in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer,  especially The World as Will and Idea (1818). For his own inspiration, Schopenhauer drew freely upon Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Later, Nietzsche drew just as freely and perhaps even more importantly upon Schopenhauer. Goethe was also a core intellectual source for Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’Gasset, author of the singularly prophetic work, The Revolt of the Masses (Le Rebelion de las Masas (1930). See, accordingly, Ortega’s very grand essay, “In Search of Goethe from Within” (1932), written for Die Neue Rundschau of Berlin on the occasion of the centenary of Goethe’s death. It is reprinted in Ortega’s anthology, The Dehumanization of Art (1948), and is available from Princeton University Press (1968).

[20] A prospectively positive impact, however, could center on improved opportunities for world-wide cooperation. See, on this hopeful point, by this author,. Louis René Beres,

[21] See, on deterring a prospectively irrational nuclear Iran, Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely deter a Nuclear Iran? The Atlantic, August 2012; and Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Israel; and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog), February 23, 2012. Though dealing with Israeli rather than American nuclear deterrence, these articles authoritatively clarify the common conceptual elements. General Chain was Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[22] On the Israeli sea-basing issue, see Louis René Beres and Admiral Leon “Bud” Edney, “Israel’s Nuclear Strategy: A Larger Role for Submarine-Basing,” The Jerusalem Post, August 17, 2014; and Professor Louis René Beres and Admiral Leon “Bud” Edney, “A Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent for Israel,” Washington Times, September 5, 2014. Admiral Edney was NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic (SACLANT).

[23] See, in this connection, by Professor Louis René Beres and General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey, Israel’s Nuclear Strategy and America’s National Security;

[24] On the primary importance of doctrine, by this author, see Louis René Beres,  See also, concerning US ally Israel:

[25] See, by this author (who was Chair of Project Daniel for Israeli PM Ariel Sharon):  See also: and

[26] This brings to mind the closing query of Agamemnon in The Oresteia by Aeschylus: “Where will it end? When will it all be lulled back into sleep, and cease, the bloody hatreds, the destruction”?

[27] See, for example, by this author, at Harvard National Security Journal:

[28] In this connection, expressions of decisional error (including mistakes by the United States)  could take different and overlapping forms. These forms include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and internal dissonance generated by any authoritative structure of collective decision-making (e.g., the US National Security Council).

[29] See, by this author, at Oxford University Press:

[30] For much earlier similar warnings, by this author, see his October 1981 article at World Politics (Princeton):

[31] Clausewitzian friction refers to the unpredictable effects of errors in knowledge and information concerning strategic uncertainties; on presidential under-estimations or over-estimations of US relative power position; and on the unalterably vast and largely irremediable differences between theories of deterrence and enemy intent “as it actually is.” See: Carl von Clausewitz, “Uber das Leben und den Charakter von Scharnhorst,” Historisch-politische Zeitschrift, 1 (1832); cited in Barry D. Watts, Clausewitzian Friction and Future War, McNair Paper No. 52, October, 1996, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University Washington, D.C. p. 9.

[32] This also brings to mind an apt warning by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, in The New Spirit and the Poets (1917): “It must not be forgotten that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.” Today, when the United States is under the flagrantly anti-intellectual leadership of Donald J. Trump, the poet’s warning should have a very clear and compelling resonance.

[33] Or “thorough study,” in the language of Sun-Tzu.

[34] The meaningless bifurcation of “attitude” and “preparation” was expressly invoked by Donald Trump before going off to his first summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un. In that curious distinction, the US President openly favored the former.

[35] This vital reminder is also drawn from the strategic calculations of ancient Greece. See, for example, F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War (University of California, 1962).

[36] Accordingly, we may learn from ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, “”You are a citizen of the universe.” A broader idea of such “oneness” followed the death of Alexander in 322 BCE; with it came a coinciding doctrine of “universality.” By the Middle Ages, this political and social doctrine had fused with the notion of a Respublica Christiana, a worldwide Christian commonwealth, and Thomas, John of Salisbury and Dante were looking at Europe as a single and unified Christian community. Below the level of God and his heavenly host, all the realm of humanity was to be considered as one. This is because all the world had been created for the same single and incontestable purpose; that is, to provide  background for the necessary drama of human salvation. Only in its relationship to the universe itself was the world correctly considered as a part rather than a whole. Said Dante in De Monarchia: “The whole human race is a whole with reference to certain parts, and, with reference to another whole, it is a part. For it is a whole with reference to particular kingdoms and nations, as we have shown; and it is a part with reference to the whole universe, which is evident without argument.” Today, of course, the idea of human oneness can be fully justified and explained in more purely secular terms of analytic understanding.

[37] In this connection, says Thomas Hobbes in Chapter XXI of Leviathan, “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them.”

[38] “I tell you,” says Nietzsche in Zarathustra, “ye have still chaos in you.”

[39] See Merton’s The Nonviolent Alternative, 1980. Similar sentiments can be found in the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s remark: “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is  made, nothing entirely straight can be built.” This is my own translation from the original German: “Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert warden.” See: Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, xi (Henry Handy, ed., 1991) quoting Immanuel Kant’s Idee Zu Einer Allgemeinen Geschichte In Weltburgerlicher Absicht (1784).

[40] These ideas have been most closely associated with the French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, especially his modern classic The Phenomenon of Man (1955).

[41] Among some of the early books dealing with these effects ion a serious and informed way, see: Franklyn Griffiths and John C . Polanyi, editors, The Dangers of Nuclear War (1979); Arthur M. Katz, Life After Nuclear War (1982); and by this author, Louis René Beres: Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980).

[42] See Sophocles, Antigone, Speech of Creon, King of Thebes: “I hold despicable and always have….anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”

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) 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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Bulletproof Panama: An Isthmus of Stability Becomes a Magnet for Migration



On the sidewalk along Vía Argentina, one of Panama City’s busiest streets, a Colombian bodybuilder passes digital nomads from the US and Europe at laptops in a café. Beneath a statue of boxer Robert Durán, a Venezuelan professional leans out of an expensive SUV to hear a fellow Venezuelan migrant recount how she recently crossed the Colombian border through the mosquito-ridden swamps of the Darién Gap, as her child holds a bowl to collect money. A block down, a tour guide leads retired Americans scouting beach and mountain homes into an traditional eatery and introduces them to ropa vieja, chimichurri, yuca, plantains, and other Panamanian foods. Despite their differences, these foreigners were all drawn to Panama in part because in a region plagued by civil unrest, inequality, inflation, broken borders, and economic mismanagement, it is unusually safe and secure.

Panama’s currency is stable, as it uses both the US dollar and the Balboa, which is pegged to the dollar. Its political stability is partly a result of the 1977 Carter-Torrijos Treaties it signed with the US, which guarantee Panama’s permanent neutrality—and that the US can use its military to defend the Panama Canal against any threat to its neutrality. As 72% of all ships passing through the Panama Canal are headed to or from the US, the US considers maintaining security in Panama vital to its national interest. And Panama abolished its standing army in 1900, following the lead of neighboring Costa Rica, which abolished its army in 1949. The 2022 Global Peace Index ranked Panama the second-safest country in Central America after Costa Rica.

Francynat León is an English and Spanish language instructor from Venezuela who has lived in Panama City since 2014. From 1999 to 2013, she lived through the Hugo Chavez administration, which expropriated industries and destroyed Venezuela’s economy. Amid rising inflation and food shortages in the early 2000s, she began researching other countries and found Panama had both low inflation and high political stability, a rare combination in Latin America. While a “pink tide” of left-wing socialist leaders swept over much of Latin America in the 2000s, Panama has been immune, in part because of its close ties to the US. “Panama is bulletproof,” says León.

By contrast, nearby Colombia and Venezuela have long been plagued by civil unrest. Medellín and Caracas are among the world cities with the highest “extreme risk,” according to the 2022 Cities@Risk Security Index. Hence some 25% of Venezuela’s population and 5% of Colombia’s now live abroad, which helps to explain why Panama City is loaded with Colombians and Venezuelans. The number of Venezuelans in Panama further escalated last October, when the Biden administration closed the US border to Venezuelans seeking asylum. This suddenly stranded thousands of Venezuelan migrants in mid-journey in transit countries from Panama to Mexico. Prior to the change, Biden administration policies had induced a staggering 40-fold increase in US Border Patrol encounters with Venezuelans from 4,520 in FY 2020 to 50,499 in FY 2021 and 189,520 in FY 2022.

Despite its overall security, starting this past July, Panama had its first major social unrest in decades. Amid inflation due to COVID and the Russia-Ukraine War, protesters across the country blocked the Pan-American Highway, and in August the teachers’ union went on strike. But unlike some of its neighbors, Panama has no talk of civil war on the horizon, no Marxist rebel guerillas plotting in the countryside, no cartels taking over whole towns. Drug trafficking does go on here, but in isolated areas like the backstreets of San Miguelito and the distant jungle coastline of Darién province, and without the extreme violence common in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

Panama is also one of Latin America’s popular destinations for expat workers and retirees from the US and Western Europe. Many come seeking some combination of affordability, a tropical climate, urban life, Hispanic and indigenous culture, and nature. Some seek a sunny paradise where they can live by the beach and go fly fishing, or sip local coffee in a mountain town while looking up at cloud forests on the slopes. And some seek simply normalcy. “America is not the same country I grew up in,” said a fellow expat teacher who, like me, has lived for several years in Panama. Like many others, he has no plans to go back.

Panama has a long history of receiving migrants from outside the Americas. Since the 16th century, it has been a “crisol de razas,” a cultural melting pot where Spanish, indigenous, and black populations have mixed. Starting in the mid-19th century, large waves of Chinese, Europeans, Barbadians and other West Indians, and South Asians arrived to build the Panama Railway and later the Panama Canal. The Chinese often intermarried with other races such that today, some estimate that 20% of Panamanians have some Chinese ancestry. Many Panamanians are a genetic mix of three or more racial groups, which helps bring society together around a common multicultural identity. The US-controlled Panama Canal Zone era (1903-1979) brought American culture and hundreds of thousands of US soldiers and civilians. And steady Jewish migrations over the centuries have led to a well-established Jewish community of 20,000, which has produced three Panamanian presidents, including the current president, Laurentino Cortizo.

In Panama City, people entering a bus or a restaurant often say “buenas,” short for buenos días or buenas tardes. Not to anyone in particular, to everyone. And someone usually says buenas back. If you sit next to a stranger, they often say “buen provecho,” “enjoy your meal.” And when they get up to leave, “permiso,” excuse me. These are signs of traditional civility and fraternity, civic virtues declining in some circles of the US, in part due to polarization promoted by social media and identity politics. While Americans tend to discuss national politics incessantly and publicly, Panamanians generally do not (although they do on the internet). In fact, it is rare to hear anyone in Panama arguing in public about anything at all. The “decent drapery of life,” as Edmund Burke put it, is still hanging. And civility and traditional values are among the reasons why many Americans are moving to Latin American countries like Panama.

In Book 8 of The Republic, Plato described an oligarchic city as “not one, but two, a city of the rich and a city of the poor, dwelling together, and always plotting against one another.” Panama City only partly fits this description. Unlike many other oligarchic societies in Latin America, despite its glaring inequalities, Panama is relatively safe, low in crime, and politically stable. But to be sure, the rich have their luxury enclaves, like Costa del Este and Punta Paitilla, and the poor have their decrepit barrios, like Curundú and El Chorillo. “This wealth dichotomy exists in many cities throughout the world,” wrote Jessica Reilly, “but in Panama City it all happens within sight of [$4.2 billion in cargo] floating past their drying laundry every year.”

Like Latin America in general, Panama is a land of contrasts, with the fourth-highest inequality in Latin America, as measured by the 2022 GINI coefficient. Sleek skyscrapers of glass and steel line Panama City’s Pacific coastline; yet there are huge piles of trash on almost every block in many central areas of the city. Panama’s postal service does not deliver mail domestically door to door; yet the country is a global shipping hub at the crossroads of the Americas and hosts the Panama Canal. Some 14,000 ships pass through the canal each year, connecting Panama to ports on every inhabited continent.

Panama is far from perfect. It is rainy for eight months of the year, service can be slow and unreliable, inequality is high, and it has a major trash problem. But many of those moving to Panama are not looking for perfect, just a stable place where there are no wars or socialist takeovers, where crime and inflation are low, the currency is stable, rent and health care are affordable, the weather is warm, the internet works, the products they need are available or can be shipped from the US via forwarding services in Miami, and people have traditional values and generally get along. Panama ticks all these boxes, promising that it will remain a magnet for migrants long into the future.

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Air Balloon and U.S.-China Relations



Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Tyler Thompson/US Navy

The story of the Chinese Automatic Drifting Balloon (ADB) violating the U.S. airspace in late January–early February 2023 will be a symbolic marker for a new phase of deterioration in the US-China relations.

The relations were rapidly eroding throughout 2022 and early 2023. In some aspects, U.S.-China relations in 2022 evoked obvious associations with U.S.-Russian relations in 2021. While trying to engage in cooperation with Beijing on certain issues (particularly on Ukraine), Washington simultaneously kept imposing increasingly painful sanctions against the country.

Among important steps recently taken in this direction, there have been restrictions on supplies of advanced microchips and equipment for their production to China, effective since October 2022, as well as the pressure exerted on Japan and the Netherlands (key manufacturers of equipment for the microelectronics industry) to join these restrictions. Licenses to supply virtually any components and equipment to China’s Huawei have been terminated, and a significant number of sanctions were imposed on smaller Chinese companies and individuals.

Most of the Chinese measures have been defensive and involved steps to ensure the security of production chains and the national economy. In the meantime, Beijing is also discussing measures to limit certain items of Chinese exports, with potential thermonuclear consequences. Semi-finished products, raw materials and equipment for the production of solar panels can be affected—given China’s monopoly on a number of products, this could be a shock for the renewable energy industry in the West.

The visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in early August 2022 played a disastrous role in the military and political situation in East Asia. That trip, despite repeated warnings from Beijing, triggered a period of rapid increase in Chinese military activity around Taiwan, which still continues.

Chinese activities include numerous live-fire exercises in the waters around the island, large groups of combat aircraft and drones flying along the island’s perimeter, and systematic violations of the median line in the Taiwan Strait by PRC ships and aircraft. For its part, the U.S. is increasing military aid to Taiwan, although it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so against the backdrop of ongoing hostilities in Ukraine.

The November 2022 meeting of Xi Jinping and Joseph Biden in Bali was similar in content to the Geneva summit of Biden and Vladimir Putin in June 2021. We saw similar attempts to achieve at least partial stabilization of relations, establishing rules of the game, unblocking channels for political communication by creating joint working groups, and the same predictable failure. So far, we can only hope that the final outcome of these efforts will not be so disastrous as the one between Moscow and Washington.

The U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit was canceled due to the balloon incident, while it was supposed to restore the ruined channels of dialogue. The U.S.-Chinese relation is still lagging far behind the U.S.-Russian relationship in matters of mutual alerting, preventing dangerous incidents, and maintaining emergency channels of communication, where relevant experience has continuously been accumulated since the 1960s. Given the rapid progress of China’s transformation into a new nuclear superpower, conservation of this situation could be dangerous.

Nothing more was expected from Blinken’s visit – no U-turn in relations, no strategic deals, including those concerning Beijing’s positions on the Ukrainian issue. Now, the visit has been postponed indefinitely and the dialogue has been suspended amid the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Pacific.

The circumstances of the very incident with the Chinese ADB over the United States allow us to take a fresh look at the behavior of China’s leadership in the heating confrontation with the United States. According to U.S. military statements, the ADB shot down on February 4, 2023 was the fourth Chinese apparatus to violate U.S. airspace. The previous three ADBs that visited the U.S. during Donald Trump’s tenure were not detected by U.S. airspace controls in time, and the Americans became aware of their existence belatedly via intelligence channels.

If this is true, China is deliberately and systematically doing what the USSR never afforded during the entire Cold War—flying reconnaissance aircraft directly over U.S. territory. For its part, the U.S. used ADBs on a large scale for flights over the USSR and the PRC in the 1950s and 1980s, and the explanation of their purpose was exactly the same as that used by the Chinese now: border violations due to navigation error or malfunction, meteorological research, observations of airstreams, etc.

China’s contemporary political culture attaches great importance to careful observance of the principle of reciprocity, avoiding situations that could be interpreted as Beijing’s recognition of its unequal position vis-à-vis any major power. This is partly due to the severe historical trauma of the “century of humiliation” in 1840–1945, a time of foreign domination over China.

The current use of the ADB over the United States is by no means a retaliation against historical grievances. Rather, it is a response to some U.S. actions within its “freedom of navigation patrols” in the South China Sea, where U.S. ships and aircraft deliberately violate 12-mile territorial water zones around a number of Chinese-controlled islands. The Americans justify their behavior by saying that these Chinese islands are artificial and do not create rights to territorial waters.

Surely, China believes that the Americans are violating the integrity of its national territorial. From China’s perspective, the U.S., as a power external to the region, should not interfere in any of its territorial disputes with the countries of Southeast Asia. Besides, the high activity of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft along China’s borders—and sometimes over disputed water bodies—has long been a matter of Chinese concern.

From China’s perspective, the use of ADB over U.S. territory may well look like an appropriate response to the U.S. actions. Chinese leaders may have seen this action as a necessary step to confirm China’s status as a great power equal to the United States, even if only a limited number of people knew about these operations for the time being.

The political motivation behind the use of the ADB can also be discerned in the Chinese response to the incident. In a normal situation, if the balloon lost control and inadvertently entered (or risked entering) U.S. airspace, the owner would have contacted the Americans, provided the necessary data and information, and tried to avoid a fallout.

China, for its part, responded to the incident only twelve hours after Pentagon’s statement to that effect. There was a dry statement from the PRC about the loss of control of the weather balloon due to force majeure, for which “regret” was expressed.

Shortly thereafter, China declared that it would not tolerate “hype and speculation” about the balloon and accused the United States of indiscriminate and excessive use of force after it was shot down, threatening some “consequences.”

Under the circumstances, it is difficult to assess this as anything other than China’s deliberate humiliation of the United States as well as demonstration of its own strength and confidence. The Chinese consciously chose this course of action in the run-up to Blinken’s visit—now, as the conflict in Ukraine is escalating, the U.S. is more interested in dialogue than the PRC.

The Americans had to choose between continuing the dialogue in a poorer bargaining position after the humiliation they had endured and abandoning the dialogue altogether. The reaction of American public opinion predetermined the choice for the latter. However, this decision was apparently not easy to make.

The visit has not been canceled, but postponed, and the U.S. will probably look for opportunities to carry out negotiations in the not-too-distant future while saving face. Alongside with Blinken’s visit, there were plans for an even more important visit to China, to be paid by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. On February 9, 2023, Yellen announced that she was still planning a trip to China, although it was not yet possible to give a date.

The incident has shown that the Americans are not overly prepared for a tough confrontation with a comparable superpower as soon as it stops playing at giveaway with them. As it turned out, the few previous Chinese ADBs had not been detected at all, and the last one was shot down only after it had crossed the entire U.S. territory, flying over, among other things, an intercontinental ballistic missile base.

There is nothing surprising or particularly embarrassing about it: the ADB is an extremely difficult aerial target because of its low radar visibility, extremely low speed, and a very high flight altitude. The Soviet Union has been practicing its tactics against ADB for decades. The ability to counter such targets was taken into account in the design of some Soviet air defense interceptors. These include, for example, the MiG-31 still in service in Russia, which has the highest maximum flight altitude among modern fighters and is equipped to fight balloons with a GSh-23-6 cannon.

In the United States, reconnaissance ADBs did not show up during the Cold War, simply because the Soviet Union lacked the necessary technical capabilities in the early decades of the confrontation, and the late-Soviet gerontocracy was later afraid to respond in kind to violations of its airspace. Now, the Americans faced a more active opponent and have yet to learn many new skills.

The traditional U.S. propensity to make up for real-world failures with media victories was not very convincing either. Covering the incident, U.S. propaganda followed two lines. They claimed that, first, the Chinese balloon could not have caused any serious damage to the U.S. compared to China’s existing reconnaissance satellites, and second, that the vehicle was not shot down so as not to pose a threat to civilians on the ground.

The second claim is patently absurd: a significant part of the Chinese ADB route passed over deserted or sparsely populated areas, where the risk of harm to civilians was equal to zero. As for the former, the ADB surely remains a valuable reconnaissance tool that can significantly supplement satellite data. For its part, the U.S. has made extensive use of balloons in the operations against Iraq and Afghanistan.

The reconnaissance satellite operates at altitudes of hundreds of kilometers above the ground, while the balloon does so in the altitude range of 20–30 km. This gives it additional capabilities to conduct electronic reconnaissance and detailed ground surveys. The ADB is capable of monitoring atmospheric chemistry and making other measurements useful for the reconnaissance of nuclear-weapons-related targets. Finally, the balloon is capable of remaining over the same territory for long periods of time, tracking the situation there dynamically, and its flight time over an area is not predictable, unlike that of satellites.

Was the incident with the balloon an intentional attempt to disrupt Blinken’s visit from the very beginning? Hardly. If the Chinese had flown around the U.S. three times in the Trump presidency with their ADBs and got away with it, it would make sense to continue this successful practice. When the “balloon case” became public, the Chinese might have chosen an escalatory course of action based on their view of the situation. It is likely that Beijing concluded that it would not lose with any possible U.S. reaction to the incident, and this is probably true.

From our partner RIAC

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Can Lula walk the tightrope between Washington and Beijing?

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As Brazil’s New President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (popularly known as Lula) prepares to visit China later this month, maintaining neutrality would be difficult as the winds of change enwrap  Beijing.

Brazil is Back

President Lula’s coming to power has marked a decisive shift in Brazilian foreign policy. With the Pink Tide resurging in South America, the new President has clearly spelled out his foreign policy aims: restoring Brazil’s neutrality and importance in international affairs at par with both the West and East after nearly 4 years of impasse under his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, who had adopted a Sinophobic, pro-Trump foreign policy.

Brasilia’s 39th President, who previously presided over the office between 2003-2010, will have a lot to talk about as he visits his nation’s largest trading partner that imported $89.4 billion in 2022 mostly in soy and iron ore which added a surplus of $28.7 billion to Brazil’s coffers. Boosting the economic partnership with China will be a priority for Lula, who intends to integrate South America into a closely held economic unit. Another important item on the agenda includes the appointment of former President Dilma Rousseff as the new BRICS Bank president.

Lula and the West

Lula had rattled swords with Washington on several occasions during his previous tenure such as alleging the United States for reducing South America to its “backyard” by intervening in its internal politics as well as by opposing the Iraq War. Even though he recognises the importance of maintaining good relations with the superpower up North; several of Lula’s moves including sending a delegation to Maduro-led Venezuela, refusing to sign a UN Human Rights resolution condemning human rights violations in Nicaragua, allowing Iranian warships to dock at Rio de Janeiro, maintaining an ambiguous approach on the Russia-Ukraine War and refusing to send arms to Kyiv, dubbing the ‘Balloongate’ incident a bilateral issue  between the US and China and defining  the Taiwan issue as Beijing’s internal matter, have deeply irked the West.

While tensions remain, Lula’s focus on combating climate change and call for saving the Amazon have earned a thumbs up from the Biden administration as the former’s election to power comes as a breath of fresh air after his staunch “Trump of the Tropics”  predecessor adopted a not-so-friendly approach towards Biden’s entry in the White House. Lula understands Washington’s support is required and hence it was a top spot on his foreign visits list. Lula and Biden held talks amidst a cordial ambience and vowed to reboot bilateral ties by promising to protect democracy and combating climate change.

Winds of Change in Beijing

However, winds of change in the East have dispersed the clouds of ambiguity and China now stands more vocal, more critical and more confident in dealing with the United States.

The recent session of the National People’s Congress, which won Xi Jinping a never-seen-before third term as the President, saw him voicing his criticism against “Washington-led attempts” to “contain, encircle and suppress” China which pose ” serious challenges to its development” (“以美国为首的西方国家对我实施了全方位的遏制、围堵、打压,给我国发展带来前所未有的严峻挑战。”). Sino-US relations have been in the trough since President Trump’s tenure with the recent point of clash being the ‘Balloon incident’ which made Anthony Blinken call off his visit to Beijing.

Xi recently unveiled his new 24 Character Foreign Policy which, Dr. Hemant Adlakha believes, marks “China’s new foreign policy mantra in the ‘New Era’ ” acting as its “ideological map to attain national rejuvenation by 2049”. The characters “沉着冷静;保持定力;稳中求进;积极作为;团结一致;敢于斗争 ” which translate as “Be calm; Keep determined; Seek progress and stability; Be proactive and go for achievements; Unite under the Communist Party; Dare to fight” are set to replace Deng Xiaoping’s 24 Character Strategy  focussed on never seeking leadership and assuming a low profile.

China’s confidence is further boosted by its successful attempt to broker peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have been staunch rivals for the past many years. With the handshake that brought the Sunni Arab Kingdom and the Shiite Persian theocracy together, Beijing has garnered accolades from nations across the region and is all set to play a greater international role by not just pulling American allies such as Riyadh to its side but also through actively putting forth its plans to end wars with Xi all set to pay Putin a visit over the Russia-Ukraine War before he meets Lula at Beijing. Lula too eagerly anticipates what Beijing has to say as he told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz “it is time for China to get its hands dirty”.

Neutrality no more?

If the state of Sino-US relations does not improve, things would get hard for many leaders like Lula who seek to balance between the two superpowers. Lula knows  neutrality is his best bet but money matters– as his former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim noted “Our surplus with China—and I’m talking just about our surplus—is bigger than all of our exports to the United States. It is impossible not to have good relations with China.” Isolating  China, with which Brazil has had a long strategic partnership since the 1990s, at the expense of moving closer to the US might come hard on the purse and exacerbate the many economic challenges he faces. Nor can Washington be isolated– not just because of the economic necessities but also in the face of challenges from far-right forces that both Lula and Biden face.

Lula realises the risks of placing all his eggs in one basket but would he be left with the choice to divide them equally into both? The issue is bound to get stickier but if he successfully manages to escape the quagmire of the unfolding great power rivalry, Lula will set a precedent for not just South America but nations across the globe. The only viable solution would be to strengthen regional alliances in Latin America and boost partnerships with  developing nations like India while using the collective strength to push Beijing and Washington to come together.

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