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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?

Ever?

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.

               Never.[37]

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: http://www.acpr.org.il/ENGLISH-NATIV/03-ISSUE/daniel-3.

See also, by Professor Louis René Beres, at Harvard Law School: https://harvardnsj.org/2014/06/staying-strong-enhancing-israels-essential-strategic-options-2/

[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): https://mwi.usma.edu/creating-seamless-strategic-deterrent-israel-case-study/

[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:  https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/nuclear-decision-making-and-nuclear-war-an-urgent-american-problem/

[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): https://harvardnsj.org/2013/10/lessons-for-israel-from-ancient-chinese-military-thought-facing-iranian-nuclearization-with-sun-tzu/

[12] See, for example, by this author, at Yale:  https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/nuclear-treaty-abrogation-imperils-global-security

[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:  https://www.usnews.com/opinion/world-report/articles/2017-09-06/10-years-later-israels-operation-orchard-offers-lessons-on-north-korea

[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, https://www.21global.ucsb.edu/global-e/march-2020/virulent-pathogens-and-global-solidarity-unseen-benefits-covid-19

[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;  https://sectech.tau.ac.il/sites/sectech.tau.ac.il/files/PalmBeachBook.pdf

[24] On the primary importance of doctrine, by this author, see Louis René Beres,  https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/01/louis-beres-seeking-plausible-strategic-goals-iran/  See also, concerning US ally Israel: https://strategicassessment.inss.org.il/wp-content/uploads/antq/fe-676949421.pdf

[25] See, by this author (who was Chair of Project Daniel for Israeli PM Ariel Sharon):  http://www.acpr.org.il/ENGLISH-NATIV/03-ISSUE/daniel-3.htm  See also: https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/israel-nuclear-ambiguity/ and  https://www.idc.ac.il/he/research/ips/Documents/2013/%D7%A0%D7%99%D7%99%D7%A8%D7%95%D7%AA/LouisReneBeres.pdf

[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:  https://harvardnsj.org/2015/06/core-synergies-in-israels-strategic-planning-when-the-adversarial-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/

[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: https://blog.oup.com/2011/10/war-winning/

[30] For much earlier similar warnings, by this author, see his October 1981 article at World Politics (Princeton):  https://www.jstor.org/stable/2010149?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[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) 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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How Uncle Sam views the world by 2040

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How the US is seeing the future world is revealed in a recent report, Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World, published by the National Intelligence Council of the US. This report of political, social and economic estimates is prepared through an integrated process for every incoming President of the USA. For Biden, the report was published in March this year. The world, its politics, economics and societies, is going to change under the forces stemmed in changes in demographic modalities, environmental fluctuations, economic preferences and technological transformations. These together are going to impact on societies, states and international systems which would end in sketching five different futures of the world. Uncle Sam seems to be shaking the world, and this time even more intensely.

Starting off how the forces will interact and intersect, it all begins with the changes in demographics. The developed economies are aging bringing a global slow economic growth whereas the contracting working age will weigh on the economies of these developed countries as Japan and South Korea will reach the median age of 53 and Europe the median age of 47 by 2040. On the other side, in developing countries the converse will be happening as Sub Saharan Africa will reach median age of less than 15 years whereas Pakistan, Egypt and Afghanistan will reach the median age of 30 years. This seems opportunity but these economies will be challenged to meet the demands of the growing working age populace in their economies with the slow global economic growth remaining constant dragging the societies into  social volatilities while testing the performances of states too.

The forces of environment will leave no country unaffected especially the developing countries that lack in adaptations skills and technologies. The occurrence of heat waves, melting of Arctic, land degradation, water misuses, food insecurity, loss of biodiversity, rising sea levels and pollution will erode the ‘human security’ while affecting states and societies, politics and economics coequally. For curtailing environmental threats, countries may apply geoengineering by interacting with the natural system of earth to counteract threats of climate change like releasing the sun’s energy back into space through Solar Radiations Management or Stratospheric Aerosol Injection spraying to cause global dimming. The developed countries especially US and China will see suspicions on sincerely working on environmental threats as this would require economic sacrifices.

In the sphere of Economics, the national debt management will push countries to avoid funding on the issues of environment as they will already be pressed hard for matching the needs of the growing demands of their elderly and younger populations alike. Covid 19 has already left indelible imprints on the economies of the world especially the developing countries two fifths of which, according to 2019 IMF assessment, were at debt distress. Automation and rapidly growing AI will reduce 9 percent global jobs and transform one third by 2040 while at the same time creating massive new technology and automation stemmed jobs which will test the states adaptability to manoeuvring technology. This will have disproportionate effect across the countries and regions. The element of Superstar firms, the new multinationals, will critically affect world economies and make definitive inroads in the affairs of politics.

The technological forces will surpass all other forces in intensity especially with the significant rise of AI and Biotechnology. The US-China rivalry in this sphere will be rampant. AI will disrupt global current workforce while also creating new dimensions of labor compelling the countries to remodel their working force structures. The application of AI in warfare will be on the rise and will be adding a new element to the geopolitical dynamics. AI is well positioned to fly and reach space which will turn the space diplomacy in new form and bring the two global rivals face to face. AI will siphon out the human element of emotions in making decisions having social effects.

As these forces interact, world will see five possible scenarios in which the first three are the prominent.

In the first scenario, it will the US and allies led democracy which will manipulate the world. Being democratic, there will be more space for innovation and the rise of technology with robust public private partnerships will prosperously affect economic growth of the countries. This will enable the states to be responsive to their people’s needs while the same time making adaptations unlike in the repressive regimes of Russian and China whose policies will let them on steady decline.

In the second scenario, it will be China which will be mastering the world arena but not exactly acting like leading it due to its inherent repressive dynamics. This will happen on account of failure of international organizations with least interest paid to them by the major powers. The factors of high national debt, the costs of caring for aging populations, and hazardous environmental occurrences will havoc states’ budgets and keep them away from spending on education, infrastructure, and scientific research. In these circumstances due to the integrally centralist and controlled Chinese centralism will help China gain global attention through its global infrastructure packages and other initiatives. Many countries will thus tilt to the Chinese sidelines.

In the third effectual scenario, it will be a contested coexistence of US and China which will emerge. This will be based on shared economic and growth preferences and agreements.

Much of what is stated in the report must be happening in the world ahead but much of what is left unstated is more critical. Summed up, there will be more instability, pandemics, economic recessions, state conflicts and disorders in the five different worlds that lay ahead.

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Understanding Ronald Regan’s approach to the Cold War

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President and Mrs. Reagan at the 1981 inauguration parade. Image source: Wikipedia

President Ronald Reagan’s ascendency in the political hierarchy of the United States, ending in him becoming the President is often regarded as a triumphant victory by American conservatives. His conception of the world order, domestic and international relations show a reflection of a conservative understanding of issues. His legacy as president remains as having effectively brought down the Soviet Union and the threat of Communism. His policies towards the Soviet Union have a transformative nature, as his understanding and approach to US-Soviet relations changed radically after his first term. Though being a staunch Anti-communist and regarding the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”, he sought to ensure that America and its idea of a “Free World” prevailed and later on, that the two most significant military powers would reach common ground in order to make peace more sustainable.

In studying his approach to tackling the Soviet threat, it’s important to first understand the correlation between the policies adopted by previous administrations and Reagan’s own pursuit of defeating the Communist threat which at the height of the Cold War, threatened to spill into a full-scale conflict between the two regional hegemons. Previous administrations had traditionally approached the threat posed by the Soviet Union with a policy of preventing the collapse of European allies at the hands of the Soviet Union. This included stymieing the spread of Communism across the world and the consistent development of Ballistic missiles in order to deter a Soviet military advance into Europe by providing a “nuclear umbrella” to European Allies.  Before the Reagan administration this policy was in large part accepted as the means through which the Soviet threat could be effectively challenged. President Reagan followed a similar policy by pursuing aggressive military buildup and focusing on development of a vast range of ballistic missile platforms which would act as a comprehensive deterrent in preventing the Soviet decision-making elite to pursue a path unacceptable to US strategists (ARBATOV 2019). Being disillusioned with the far left, his opinions and campaign slogans had strong ideological underpinnings which would later on influence his dealings with the Soviet Union.

 The changes in Reagan’s policy weren’t without the influence of another very important personality, Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet leader’s role in Reagan’s change in policy from antagonism to rapprochement is widely claimed by academic scholars as a major contributing factor for the rethink in Reagans approach to Communist Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s revolutionary approach to International Relations was followed by America’s “reactionary response” in the shape of pursuance of arms control and softening of political rhetoric (Fischer 1997). Ronald Reagan second term in office was marked by a change in his policy of pursuing aggressive development of arms and making space-based missile defense systems having the capability of destroying incoming Soviet missiles. The Strategic Defense Initiative was seen by many in the Soviet ranks as a dangerous escalation of arms race which had the potential of transforming into military conflict. (Britannica, T.Editors of Encyclopaedia 2021). Seeing and acknowledging Gorbachev’s new approach as “revolutionary” President Reagan sought to rely on an intense sustained engagement with the Soviet leader in order to achieve what his previous approach had failed to do (Talbott 2004).

Mikhail Gorbachev’s approach to the subject of foreign policy was based on establishing relations with the west and a recalibration of ties with the United States. At the time of the Cold War a large part of the effort by the two nations was to prevent the other state from gaining a definitive edge in the area of technology, military and nuclear weapons. Apart from the ideological conflict the Cold War witnessed many states in the world becoming the conflict grounds in which the US and USSR sought to establish their control and influence. Mikhail Gorbachev’s arrival into the political spectrum and pursuing a policy of peace and prevention of creation of arms was in large part influenced by the domestic environment of his country. The Soviet Union after Brezhnev had a weakened economy due to extensive spending building and maintaining large military industries and sophisticated missile delivery and defense systems. The Russian political elite largely dominated by Russians. Gorbachev’s “restructuring” in order to improve the economic conditions of the state was also followed by a rethink at the foreign policy front. In his famous interview at Harvard University he described how the conditions of repression, arrests and suppression of critical voices against the state were silenced. This led to perestroika which gained support from the Russian masses. (The Harvard Gazette 2004).

The question as to the extent to which the effect of President Reagan and Gorbachev’s relationship caused “reversal” of US foreign policy with regards to the Soviet Union should be considered through different metrics. Firstly it’s important to study how the “Reagan doctrine” which formulated the plan of tackling soviet expansionism into countries across the globe evolved during the time of Reagan’s Presidential terms. Ronald Reagan’s doctrine was a shift from previous administrations approach to the Soviet threat. In what was previously termed as “containment” of Soviet expansionism, Reagan’s approach constituted of a “roll back” of Soviet expansionist forces across the world. From “Afghanistan to Nicaragua” Reagan’s approach was an active effort to subdue Soviet expansionist forces seeking to gain a foothold in important areas such as South Asia and Central Americas. (US Department of State archive 2001). While toning down the harsh rhetoric and signing important arms control treaties, US efforts to prevent Soviet expansionism continued despite a thaw in relations and a warm cordial relationship between the two world leaders. 

Reagan’s original agenda of an aggressive military buildup and development of ballistic missiles saw a reversal during his second term. Both leaders sought to control the arms race and roll back on the creation of such weapons. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT-1) and other similar treaties was a ‘break away’ from Reagan’s original doctrinal approach. Gorbachev’s willingness to engage in talks was what initiated this change. What is also interesting to note is that despite belonging to radically different ideologies, both leaders shared a similar view on important matters. This is significant as both leaders expressed the desire to regulate arms control and to promote peace.

Another important element is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which saw an all-out Soviet effort to establish control over the region and reach the warm waters of the Arabian sea. The United States, eying an opportunity and realizing the threat of a possible soviet hold of South Asia, actively supported the Afghan Mujahedeen. Through Pakistan, the US pivotal role resulted in the Soviet forces failing to defeat the guerrilla forces despite huge numbers of troops and highly sophisticated weapon systems. This costly conflict was to prove detrimental to Soviet morale and the economy. After having effectively taken over, Gorbachev became heavily involved in restoring the economy and control over the production of arms between the United States and the Soviet Union. Gorbachev sought to move away from previous Soviet leaders doctrines and open diplomatic channels which would result in the final culmination of the Cold War.

President Ronald Reagan’s presidency was marked with a significant contrast in approaches to the Soviet threat. Having become president, his strong ideological standpoints were the driving forces behind his policies. With the Soviet Union, Reagan’s original approach was that of confronting, condemning and a protectionist mindset. Being a vocal proponent of American values of free speech, liberty and democracy his political campaigns to his televised addresses portrayed the Soviet Union as the principals threat to the very principals that America stood for. Like previous administrations, combating soviet expansionism and attaining global hegemony were prized objectives which defined much of US policies during the first term of President Reagan. His second term however saw a ‘shift’ in part of Reagan’s understanding of greater and more pressing issues at hand which demanded attention. Having originally promoted military spending and development of sophisticated missile weapon systems, Reagan’s view changed by the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Both leaders, seeking initially to control production of arms, sought other means to create an environment more conducive for peace. While motivations differed, there was consensus between the two leaders on important matters which made diplomatic summits productive and resulted in many arms treaties. Both leaders established a relationship of trust and warmth which had largely been unseen since the start of the Cold War. These meetings were then followed by confidence building measures and trips to respective capitals which allowed a further thaw in the relations. Despite continued conflict in other states, both leaders relationship saw a significant reversal in the policies of US under the Reagan administration.

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A Time For Candor: What Have We Learned From The Pandemic?

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“The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”

Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1971)

By definition, Covid-19 has been a crisis of biology. Nonetheless, certain core explanations for American death and suffering are discoverable outside the boundaries of medicine and pathology. In essence, at least to the extent that these tangible costs express America’s deeply-rooted antipathy to various considerations of intellect – to what twentieth century philosopher Karl Jaspers would call a “spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth” – we have also been enduring a crisis of philosophy.

               This is not an easy argument to make in the United States. “Philosophy” is a tough term to embrace for an American audience. Prima facie, it is “elitist.” At a minimum, it is (allegedly) impractical, contrived and “highfalutin.” In this country, after all, even the most casual mention of “intellect” or “intellectual” will normally elicit cries of disapproval or howls of execration.

                No “real” American, we have been instructed from the start, should ever be focused on such a needlessly arcane subject matter or pretentiously elevated discourse.

               Big words be damned. Plainly, this a nation of impressively tangible accomplishments, of conspicuous “greatness” and “common sense.” Who needs abstract and disciplined learning, especially when so many philosophers were themselves never “real Americans”?

               Still, truth is exculpatory and any proper answer ought to be prompt, unhesitant and unambiguous. Accordingly, there are times for every nation when history, science and intellect deserve an absolute pride of place. Recalling Plato’s parable of the cave in The Republic, our politics are always just reflection, merely a misleading “shadow” of reality, merely epiphenomenal.

                In the United States, as anywhere else that has built carefully upon millennia of dialectical education, politics can offer only a deformed reflection of what lies more meaningfully below. It is largely because of our collective unwillingness to recognize this telling relationship, and not just a virulent virus per se, that we Americans have now suffered substantially more than a half million pandemic fatalities.

               This lethal unwillingness represents a self-evident result of American anti-intellectualism. Though unverifiable by science-based standards,  it also reveals a palpable vacancy of “soul.”[1]  Sometimes, such less tangible or “soft” problems still warrant very close attention.

               This is one of those times.

               There also remains more to consider. Donald J. Trump is gone, but the crudely retrograde and “common sense” sentiments that first brought him to power endure unabated. Generally lacking the refined intellectual commitments of mind, We the people should not express undue surprise or incredulity at the sheer breadth of our collective failures. Over too many years, the always- seductive requirements of wealth and “success” were casually allowed to become the highest ideal of American life. Among other things, these vaunted requirements turned out to be very high-cost delusions.

               Too-many American debilities remain rooted in “common sense.” Over the years, American well-being and “democracy” have allegedly sprung from an orchestrated posture of engineered consumption. In this steeply confused derivation, our national marching instructions have remained clear and shameless:  “You are what you buy.” It follows from such shameless misdirection that the country’s ever-growing political scandals and failures were the altogether predictable product of a society where anti-intellectual and unheroic lives are actively encouraged. Even more insidiously, American success is measured not by any rational criteria of mind,  compassion and “soul,” but dolefully, mechanically, absent commendable purpose and without any “collective will.”[2]

               There is more. What most meaningfully animates American politics today is not a normally valid interest in progress or survival, but a steadily-escalating fear of personal defeat or private insignificance. Though sometimes most readily apparent at the presidential level, singly, such insignificance can also be experienced collectively, by an entire nation. Either way, its precise locus of origin concerns certain deeply-felt human anxieties about not being valued, about not “belonging,”[3] about not being “wanted at all.”[4]

                For any long-term national renaissance to become serious, an unblemished candor must first be allowed to prevail. Perpetually ground down by the demeaning babble of half-educated pundits and jabbering politicos, We the people are only rarely motivated by elements of real insight or courage. To wit, we are just now learning to understand that our badly injured Constitution was subjected to variously dissembling increments of abrogation, assaults by an impaired head of state who “loved the poorly educated,”[5]  who proudly read nothing, and who yearned not to serve his country,[6] but only to be gratifyingly served by its endlessly manipulated citizens.

               Openly, incontestably, Donald J. Trump abhorred any challenging considerations of law, intellect or independent thought. For the United States, it became a literally lethal and unforgivable combination. At the chaotic end of his self-serving tenure, Trump’s personal defeat was closely paralleled by near-defeat of the entire nation. Lest anyone forget, the catastrophic events at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 were designed to undermine or overthrow the rule of Constitutional order in the United States.

               Nothing less.

               There is more. To understand the coinciding horrors of the Corona virus and Trump presidency declensions, we must first look more soberly beyond mere “reflections,” beyond transient personalities and the daily news. Even now, in these United States, a willing-to-think individual is little more than a quaint artifact of some previously-lived or imagined history. At present, more refractory than ever to courage, intellect and learning, our American “mass” displays no decipherable intentions of  taking itself more seriously.[7]

               None at all.

               “Headpieces filled with straw…” is the way poet T S Eliot would have characterized present-day American society. He would have observed, further, an embittered American “mass” or “herd” marching insistently backward, cheerlessly, wittingly incoherent and in potentially pitiful lockstep toward future bouts of lethal epidemic illness. About any corollary unhappiness, let us again be candid.

               It is never a happy society that chooses to drown itself in limitless mountains of drugs and vast oceans of alcohol.

                What’s next for the still-imperiled Republic? Whatever our specific political leanings or party loyalties, We the people have at least restored a non-criminal resident to the American White House.[8] At the same time, our self-battering country still imposes upon its exhausted people the hideously breathless rhythm of a vast and uncaring machine.Before Cocvid-19, we witnessed, each and every day, an endless line of trains, planes and automobiles transporting weary Americans to yet another robotic workday, a day too-often bereft of any pleasure or reward or of hope itself.  Now there is good reason for greater day-to-day political hope, and for this we should be grateful.

               But there is still no American “master plan” for a suitably transformed national consciousness.

               “I think therefore I am,” announces Descartes, but what exactly do I think?”

               Answers come quickly top mind. Even now, We the people lack any unifying sources of national cohesion except for celebrity sex scandals, local sports team loyalties, inane conspiracy theories and the comforting but murderous brotherhoods of war.[9] As for the more than seven million people stacked cheek to jowl in our medieval prisons,  two-thirds of those released will return to crime and mayhem. Simultaneously, the most senior and recognizable white collar criminals – in part, those Trump-era sycophants who managed to effortlessly transform personal cowardice into a religion – can look forward to lucrative book contracts. These agreements are for manuscripts that they themselves are intellectually unfit to write.

                We Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once we displayed a unique potential to nurture individuals to become more than just a “mass,”  “herd” or “crowd.”[10] Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson had described us as a people animated by industry and self-reliance, not by moral paralysis, fear and trembling.  Friedrich Nietzsche would have urged Americans to “learn to live upon mountains” (that is, to becomewillfully thinking individuals), but today an entire nation remains grudgingly content with the very tiniest of elevations.

               In Zarathustra, Nietzsche warned decent civilizations never to seek the “higher man”[11] at the “marketplace,” but that is where America first discovered Donald J. Trump.

               What could have gone wrong? Trump was, after all, very rich. How then could he possibly not be smart and virtuous? Perhaps, as Reb Tevye remarks famously in Fiddler on the Roof, “If you’re rich they think you really know.”

                There is more. Many could never really understand Vladimir Lenin’s concept of a “useful idiot,” or the recently-pertinent corollary that an American president could become the witting marionette of his Russian counterpart. But, again, truth is exculpatory. The grievously sordid derelictions we Americans were forced to witness at the end of the Trump presidency resembled The Manchurian Candidate on steroids.

               And in what was perhaps the most exquisite irony of this destructive presidency, the very same people who stood so enthusiastically behind their man in the White House had themselves been raised with the fearful idea of a protracted Cold War and ubiquitous “Russian enemy.”

               “Credo quia absurdum,” said the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               The true enemy currently faced by the United States is not any one individual person or ideology, not one political party or another. It is rather We the People. As we may learn further from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “The worst enemy you can encounter will always be you, yourself; you will lie in wait for yourself in caves and woods.” And so we remain, even today, poised fixedly against ourselves and against our survival, battered by an unprecedented biological crisis nurtured by the former US president’s unforgivable policy forfeitures.

                Bottom line? In spite of our proudly clichéd claim to “rugged individualism,” we Americans are shaped not by any exceptional capacity but by harshly commanding patterns of cowardly conformance. Busily amusing ourselves to death with patently illiterate and cheap entertainments, our endangered American society fairly bristles with annoying jingles, insistent hucksterism, crass allusions and telltale equivocations. Surely, we ought finally to inquire:  Isn’t there more to this long-suffering country than abjured learning, endless imitation and an expansively manipulating commerce? Whatever we might choose to answer, the available options are increasingly limited.

                “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” observed the Transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman, but now, generally, the self-deluding American Selfis created by stupefying kinds of “education,”[12]  by far-reaching patterns of tastelessness and by a pervasive national culture of unceasing rancor and gratuitous obscenity.

                There are special difficulties. Only a rare “few” can ever redeem courage and intellect in America,[13] but these quiet souls usually remain well hidden, even from themselves. One will never discover them engaged in frenetic and agitated self-advertisement on television or online. Our necessary redemption as a people and aa a nation can never be generated from among the mass, herd or crowd. There is a correct way to fix our fractionating country, but not while We the people insistently inhabit various pre-packaged ideologies of anti-thought and anti-Reason, that is, by rote, without “mind” and without integrity.[14]

               Going forward, inter alia, we must  finally insist upon expanding the sovereignty of a newly courageous and newly virtuous[15] citizenry. In this immense task, very basic changes will first be needed at the level of microcosm, the level of the individual human person.  Following the German Romantic poet Novalis’ idea that to become a human being is essentially an art (“Mensch werden ist eine Kinst“), the Swiss-German author/philosopher Hermann Hesse reminds us that every society is a cumulative expression of utterly unique individuals. In this same regard, Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung goes even further, claiming, in The Undiscovered Self (1957), that every society represents “the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption.”[16]

               One again, as in our earlier references to Sigmund Freud, the inherently “soft” variable of “soul” is suitably acknowledged.

               Looking to history and logic, it would be very easy to conclude that the monumental task of intellectual and moral reconstruction lies well beyond our normal American capacities. Nonetheless, to accede to such a relentlessly fatalistic conclusion would be tantamount to irremediable collective surrender. This could be unconscionable. Far better that the citizens of a sorely imperiled United States grasp for any still-residual sources of national and international unity, and exploit this universal font for both national and international survival.

               We have been considering the effects of an “unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”[17] During the past several years, huge and conspicuous efforts have been mounted to question the “cost-effectiveness” of an American college education. These often-shallow efforts ignore that the core value of a university degree lies not in its projected purchasing power, but in disciplined learning for its own sake. When young people are asked to calculate the value of such a degree in solely commercial terms, which is the case today, they are being asked to ignore both the special pleasures of a serious education (e.g., literature, history, art, music, philosophy, etc.) and the cumulative benefits of genuine learning to a mature and viable democracy.

               These commerce-based requests are shortsighted. Had these benefits been widely understood long before the 2016 presidential election, the United States might never have had to endure the multiplying horrors of Covid-19 and of variously still-heightened risks of a nuclear war. Only by understanding this underlying point about learning and education could Americans ever correctly claim that they have learned what is most important from the pandemic.

               On its face, such a claim would have potentially existential import. Wanting to partake of authentic truth rather than reflections or shadows, it ought never be minimized or disregarded. At some stage, the costs of any such forfeited understanding could be immeasurable.


[1] Freud was always darkly pessimistic about the United States, which he felt was “lacking in soul” and a place of great psychological misery or “wretchedness.” In a letter to Ernest Jones, Freud declared unambiguously: “America is gigantic, but it is a gigantic mistake.” (See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (1983), p. 79.

[2] The origin of this term in modern philosophy lies in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, especially The World as Will and Idea (1818). For his own inspiration (and by his own expressed acknowledgment), Schopenhauer drew freely upon Goethe. Later, Nietzsche drew just as freely (and perhaps still more importantly) upon Schopenhauer. Goethe also served as a core intellectual source for Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, author of the 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 centenerary of Goethe’s death. It is reprinted in Ortega’s anthology, The Dehumanization of Art (1948) and is available from Princeton University Press (1968).

[3]The extent to which some young Americans are willing to go to “belong” can be illustrated by certain recent incidents of college students drinking themselves to death as part of a fraternity hazing ritual. Can there be anything more genuinely pathetic than a young person who would accept virtually any such measure of personal debasement and risk in order to “fit in”?

[4] “It is getting late; shall we ever be asked for?” inquires the poet W H Auden in The Age of Reason. “Are we simply not wanted at all?”

[5] Said candidate Donald Trump in 2016, “I love the poorly educated.” This strange statement appears to echo Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels at Nuremberg rally in 1935:  “Intellect rots the brain.”

[6] This brings to mind the timeless observation by Creon, King of Thebes, in Sophocles’ Antigone: “I hold despicable, and always have anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”

[7] “The mass-man,” we may learn from Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses, 1930), “has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.”

[8] In this connection, cautions Sigmund Freud: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind, and not merely when the accident of birth had bequeathed them sovereignty. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.”

[9] War, of course, is arguably the most worrisome consequence of an anti-intellectual and anti-courage American presidency. For the moment, largely as a result of the intellectually dissembling Trump presidency, the most plausible geographic area of concern would be a nuclear war with North Korea. https://mwi.usma.edu/theres-no-historical-guide-assessing-risks-us-north-korea-nuclear-war/

[10] “The crowd,” said Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “is untruth.” Here, the term “crowd” is roughly comparable to C.G. Jung’s “mass,” Friedrich Nietzsche’s “herd” and Sigmund Freud’s “horde.”

[11]We can reasonably forgive the apparent sexism of this term, both because of the era in which it was offered and because the seminal European philosopher meant this term to extend to both genders.

[12] In an additional irony, these already unsatisfactory kinds of education will be supplanted by even more intrinsically worthless forms of learning. Most notable, in this regard, is the almost wholesale shift to online education, a shift made more necessary and widespread by the Covid-19 disease pandemic, but unsatisfactory nonetheless.

[13] The term is drawn here from the Spanish existential Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, especially his classic The Revolt of the Masses (1930).

[14] “There is no longer a virtuous nation,” warns the poet William Butler Yeats, “and the best of us live by candlelight.”

[15] As used by ancient Greek philosopher Plato, the term “virtuous” includes elements of wisdom and knowledge as well as morality.

[16] Carl G. Jung eagerly embraced the term “soul” following preferences of Sigmund Freud, his one-time mentor and colleague. Also, says Jung in The Undiscovered Self (1957): “The mass crushes out the insight and reflection that are still possible with the individual, and this necessarily leads to doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny if ever the constitutional State should succumb to a fit of weakness.”

[17]Although this present consideration has been offered as a pièce d’occasion, it also has much wider conceptual applications and implications.

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