Like many paradigms across the globe, the pandemic and its associated economic downturn have changed the paradigm shaping debates about Gulf security that was inevitably set to gradually migrate from a unipolar US defense umbrella that shielded energy-rich monarchies against Iran to an architecture that was more multilateral. In many ways, the pandemic’s fallout has levelled the playing field and not necessarily in ways that favour current policies of Gulf states.
Saudi Arabia’s relations with the West are increasingly being called into question, with the Saudi–Russian oil price war in March potentially having broken the camel’s back. The Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stand to lose at least some of the financial clout that allowed them to punch above their weight even if they are likely to exclude arms purchases from their austerity measures.
Weakened financial clout comes at a moment when the Gulf states and Iran are gearing up towards an arms race in the wake of Iran’s recent satellite launch and unveiling of an unmanned underwater vehicle against the backdrop of the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme inching towards collapse. The unmanned underwater vehicle puts Iran in an elite club, of which the only other members capable of producing them are the United States, Britain and China. The satellite adds Iran to a group of only about a dozen countries able to do launches of their own. 
Add to this the fact that none of the regional players — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Iran, Turkey and Israel — feel secure that any of the external powers — the United States, China and Russia — are reliable security and geopolitical partners.
Gulf states have, for years going back to the era of Barak Obama if not Bill Clinton, increasingly perceived the United States as unfortunately their only option on the premise that they are not willing to change their policies, particularly towards Iran, but one that is demonstrably unreliable, unwilling to defend Gulf states at whatever cost, and at times at odds with them in terms of policy objectives.
The Gulf states’ problem is that neither Russia nor China offer real alternatives at least not on terms that all Gulf states are willing to accept. Russia is neither interested nor capable of replacing the United States. Moreover, its Gulf security plan is at odds with at least the policy of Saudi Arabia.
The plan calls for a security arrangement modelled on that of Europe under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It would be an arrangement that, unlike the US defence umbrella in the Gulf, includes Iran, not directed against it. It would have to involve some kind of regional agreement on non-aggression.
Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has made clear that it is not interested, as is evident in the pandemic where it has refrained, in contrast to other Gulf states, from reaching out to Iran with humanitarian aid even though it last year engaged in an indirect exchange with the Islamic Republic. That exchange died with the killing by the United States in January of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani.
The Elephant in the Room
China is obviously the elephant in the room.
Logically, China and the Gulf states are in the same boat as they grapple with uncertainty about current regional security arrangements. Like the Gulf states, China has long relied on the US defence umbrella to ensure the security of the flow of energy and other goods through waters surrounding the Gulf in what the United States has termed free-riding.
In anticipation of the day when China can no longer depend on security provided by the United States free of charge, China has gradually adjusted its defense strategy and built its first foreign military facility in Djibouti facing the Gulf from the Horn of Africa. With the People’s Liberation Army Navy tasked with protecting China’s sea lines of communication and safeguarding its overseas interests, strategic planners have signalled that Djibouti is a first step in the likely establishment of further bases that would allow it to project long-range capability and shorten the time needed to resupply.
But like with the Russians, Chinese strategic planners and their Gulf counterparts may part ways when it comes to what would be acceptable geopolitical parameters for a rejuvenated regional security architecture, particularly with regard to Iran. Any new architecture would break the mould of Chinese engagement in the Middle East that is designed to shield the People’s Republic from being sucked into the region’s myriad conflicts.
The assumption has long been that China could at best postpone execution, but that ultimately, it would have no choice but to engage in the politics of the region. More recently, influential Chinese analysts are suggesting that China has another option: turn its back on the region. That may seem incredulous given China’s dependence on Middle Eastern energy resources as well as its significant investments in the region.
These analysts argue, however, that China is able to diversify its energy sources and that Chinese investment in the Middle East is but a small percentage of overall Chinese overseas investment. They describe Chinese Middle Eastern economic relations as past their heyday with economies of both in decline and the prospects of the situation in the Middle East getting worse before it becomes better.
“China–Middle East countries is not a political strategic logic, it’s an economic logic. For China, the Middle East is always on the very distant backburner of China’s strategic global strategies … Covid-19, combined with the oil price crisis, will dramatically change the Middle East. (This) will change China’s investment model in the Middle East … The good times of China and the Middle East are already gone… Both China and the Middle Eastern economies have been slowing down … In the future, the pandemic, combined with the oil price problem, will make the Middle East situation worse. So, the China economic relationship with the Middle East will be affected very deeply,” said Niu Xinchun, director of Middle East studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), widely viewed as China’s most influential think tank.
Pessimistic forecasts of economic prospects in the Middle East bolster Niu’s prediction. Data and analytics company GlobalData predicted in an email that depressed oil markets and prices in the Middle East and North Africa would lead to a contraction in non-oil sectors, including construction. “Construction activity for the remainder of 2020 is set to see poor performance … In addition, public investment is likely to be moderate, which will translate into fewer prospects for private sector businesses to grow — especially within sectors such as infrastructure. Expected increase in taxes, selected subsidy cuts and the introduction of several public sector service charges will influence households’ purchasing power, having a knock-on effect on future commercial investments,” said GlobalData economist Yasmine Ghozzi.
Moreover, the downplaying of Chinese economic interest in the Middle East fits a pattern of reduced Chinese capital outflows. “What we may not have seen is how much China has retreated financially already for the past four years … Especially since 2016, China’s outflows have come down dramatically in both lending and investment. Foreign direct investment is now at about 30 per cent of what it was in 2016,” said Agatha Kratz, associate director of Rhodium Group, an independent research provider.
To be sure, Chinese officials and analysts have consistently maintained that the Middle East is not a Chinese priority, that any future battles with the United States will be fought in the Asia Pacific, not in the Gulf. Their assertions are backed up by the fact that China has yet to articulate a comprehensive policy towards the region and in 2016 issued its one and only white paper on policy towards the Arab world that essentially was an elaboration of its basic foreign and defense policy principles.
More likely than China seriously entertaining turning its back on the Middle East is the probability that it is sending the region a message that is not dissimilar from what Russia is saying: get your act together and find a way to dial down the tension. It is a message that appears to varying degrees to have been heard in the smaller Gulf states but has yet to resonate in Riyadh. It is also a message that has not been rejected out of hand by Iran.
Discussing a possible extension of a United Nations arms embargo against Iran, Saudi Ambassador Abdallah Al Mouallimi, arguing in favour of a prolongation, suggested that it would serve Russian and Chinese interests even though they would not agree with that assessment. “They have their views, we respect their views, but their interests would be better served and promoted with the embargo extended,” said Al Mouallimi.
A Chinese Communist Party newspaper made days later a first reference in the People’s Republic’s state-controlled media to reports of an alleged secret 25-year multi-billion-dollar co-operation agreement in Iran amid controversy in the Islamic Republic. Chinese officials and media have largely remained silent about Iranian reports of an agreement worth anywhere between US$120 billion and US$400 billion that seemingly was proposed by Iran, but has yet to be accepted by China.
Writing in the Shanghai Observer, a subsidiary of Liberation Daily, the official newspaper of the Shanghai Committee of the Communist Party of China, Middle East scholar Fan Hongda argued that the agreement, though nowhere close to implementation, highlighted “an important moment of development” at a time that US–Chinese tensions allowed Beijing to pay less heed to American policies. Fan’s suggestion that the US–Chinese divide gave China more room to develop its relations with Iran will not have gone unnoticed in Riyadh and other Gulf capitals.
An Emerging Tug of War
How all of this may shake out could be determined by the emerging tug of war in the Middle East between China and the US. Israel has already been caught up in it and has made its choice clear, even if it still attempting to maintain some wiggle room. Nonetheless, Israel, in the ultimate analysis, knows where its bread is buttered, particularly at a moment where the United States is the only backer of its annexationist policies. In contrast to Israel, the US is likely to find the going tougher when it comes to persuading Gulf states to limit their engagement with China, including with telecom giant Huawei, which already has significant operations in the region.
Like Israel, UAE officials have sought to convey to the US that they see relations with the United States as indispensable even though that has yet to be put to a test when it comes to China. Gulf officials’ stress on the importance of ties will, however, not shield them from American demands that they review and limit their relations with China, nor its warnings that involvement of Huawei could jeopardise sensitive communications, particularly given the multiple US bases in the region, including the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command, or Centcom, in Qatar.
The US Embassy in Abu Dhabi, in a shot across the Gulf’s bow, last month rejected a UAE offer to donate hundreds of coronavirus tests for screening of its staff. The snub was designed to put a dent in China’s health “Silk Road” diplomacy centered on its experience with the pandemic and ability to manufacture personal protective and medical equipment.
A US official said the tests were rejected because they were either Chinese-made or involved BGI Genomics, a Chinese company active in the Gulf, which raised concerns about patient privacy. The US softened the blow when the prestigious Ohio-based Cleveland Clinic sent 40 nurses and doctor to its Abu Dhabi subsidiary. The Abu Dhabi facility was tasked with treating the UAE’s most severe cases of coronavirus.
The problem for the US is that it is not only Trump’s policy or lack thereof towards the Middle East that undermines confidence but it is also policies that, on the surface, have nothing to do with the Middle East. The United States has been asking its partners including Gulf states to give it time to develop an alternative to Huawei’s 5G network. Yet at the same time, it is barring the kind of people entry that technology companies need to develop systems.
A Silver Lining
No matter how the tug of war in the Middle East evolves, the silver lining is that, like China, the United States despite its desire to reduce its commitment cannot afford a power void in the region. That is what may create the basis for breaking the mould.
It will require a backing away from approaches that treat conflicts as zero-sum games not only on the part of regional players but also of external players, like in the case of the US versus Iran, and it will require engagement by all regional and external players. To achieve that, players would have to recognise that in many ways, perceptions on both sides of the Gulf divide are mirror images of one another: all parties see each other as existential threats.
Failure to break the stalemate risks conflicts becoming further entrenched and threatening to spin out of control. The opportunity is that confidence-building measures and a willingness to engage open a door towards mutually acceptable regional security arrangements and conflict resolution. However, for that to happen, major powers would have to invest political will and energy at a time when they feel they have bigger fish to fry and prioritise geopolitical jockeying.
In a twist of irony, geopolitical jockeying may prove to be an icebreaker in a world, and certainly a region, where everything is interconnected. Increasingly, security in the Gulf is not just about security in the Gulf. It is not even just about security in the Middle East. It is about security in the Mediterranean, whether one looks at Libya on the sea’s southern shores, Syria in the east, or growing tension in the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean. And it does not stop there with regional rivalries reaching into the Black and Caspian Seas and into Central Asia.
Finally, there are the grey and black swans built into partnerships and alliances that are either becoming more fragile like those of the United States or ones that have fragility built into their DNA like the ties between Iran, Turkey, China and Russia. Those swans could at any moment swing the pendulum one way or another.
To be sure, contrary to Western perceptions, relations between Iran, Turkey, Russia and China are not just opportunistic and driven by short-term common interests but also grounded in a degree of shared values. The fact of the matter is that men like presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei find common ground in a view of a new world order that rejects democracy and the rule of law; disregards human and minority rights; flaunts, at least for now, violations of international law; and operates on the principle of might is right.
That glue, however, is insufficient, to prevent Turkey and Russia from ending up on opposite sides of conflicts in Libya and Syria. It is also unlikely to halt the gradual erosion of a presumed division of labour in Central Asia with Russia ensuring security and China focusing on economic development. And it is doubtful it would alter the simmering rivalry between Iran and Russia in the Caspian Sea and long-standing Russian reluctance to sell Iran a desperately needed anti-missile defense system.
In short, fasten your seat belt. Gulf and broader regional security could prove to be a bumpy ride with unexpected speed bumps.
 “Iran’s UUV to add new dimension to its warfare capability: Forbes”, Tehran Times, 30 May 2020, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/448370/Iran-s-UUV-to-add-new-dimension-to-its-warfare-capability-Forbes.
 Mike Wall, “Iran launches its 1st military satellite into orbit: reports”, Space.com, 22 April 2020, https://www.space.com/iran-launches-first-military-satellite.html.
 Theodore Karasik, “Is Russia’s ‘old’ Gulf security plan the best it can do?”, Arab News, 20 July 2019, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1533096.
 Niu Xinchun speaking on “How are China’s Relations with the Middle East Evolving During the COVID-19 Pandemic?”, Chatham House, 19 May 2019, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2721841274725780.
 Agatha Kratz speaking on “China and the Mediterranean Region in and Beyond the Pandemic, German Marshal Fund”, 3 July 2020, https://www.gmfus.org/events/china-and-mediterranean-region-and-beyond-pandemic.
 Joyce Karam, “Russian and Chinese interests ‘better served’ if Iran arms embargo is extended, says Saudi official”, The National, 2 July 2020, https://www.thenational.ae/world/the-americas/russian-and-chinese-interests-better-served-if-iran-arms-embargo-is-extended-says-saudi-official-1.1042822.
 Seth J Frantzman, “Iran media discuss 25-year deal between Iran and China”, The Jerusalem Post, 3 July 2020, https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/iran-media-discuss-25-year-deal-between-iran-and-china-633739.
 Fan Hongda, “Iran announced a 25-year comprehensive cooperation plan with China, can Sino-Iranian relations get closer?” [观察家 | 伊朗宣布与华25年全面合作计划，中伊关系能否进一步走近？], Shanghai Observer, 20 June 2020, https://www.shobserver.com/news/detail?id=264494.
Interview with the author, 8 June 2020.
Author’s note: This story first appeared as an MEI Insight
Eastern seas after Afghanistan: UK and Australia come to the rescue of the U.S. in a clumsy way
In March 2021 the People’s Republic of China emerged as the world’s largest naval fleet, surpassing the US Navy. An advantage of around 60 ships, which will increase in 2024, when China will count on a fleet of at least 400 units. A goal already announced in 2018 by President Xi Jinping.
After the unsuccessful withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States announced the establishment of a new security cooperation alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia, whose first task is to assist Australia in building nuclear-powered submarines.
Considering its allies, the White House has shared only nuclear propulsion technology with the UK and Australia will be the next. Although the officials from the three countries denied that the new alliance was targeted to any country, European and US media believe that the move is intended to counter Chinese power and strength.
In addition to nuclear-powered submarines, the three countries will also strengthen cooperation in the areas of network technology, artificial intelligence and quantum technology. White House officials revealed that Britain played a strategic leadership role in reaching the alliance.
In Global Britain in a Competitive Age. The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy of March 2021 – which sets out the government’s geopolitical strategy after Brexit and outlines the UK role in the world over the next 10 years – the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, proposed to reposition UK’s global strategy after Brexit. He announced the foreign and defence policy, stressing that the country would be deeply involved in the Indo-Pacific region in the future.
According to a statement released by the White House on September 15, the US-UK-Australia security alliance is named AUKUS, and is designed to strengthen the three countries’ diplomatic, security and defence cooperation in the said region.
Under the new regional arrangement, the three countries will further strengthen information and technology sharing, as well as integrate science and supply chains and security and defence-related industrial bases.
The first key basis of the arrangement is the United States of America and the United Kingdom, with the aim of assisting Australia in building nuclear-powered submarines. The three countries will spend 18 months discussing how to implement the plan.
As said above, before Australia the United Kingdom was the only country with which the United States shared nuclear propulsion technology. It should be recalled that during the Cold War, after the Soviet Union had launched the first artificial satellite (the Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957), the United States and Britain signed a joint defence agreement on July 3, 1958 (the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement) to share key military nuclear technology. Britain obviously ignored the rest of Europe, about which, even before Napoleon, it had cared very little except as a rampart from the South and the East. However, let us revert to the present day.
Compared to conventional submarines, nuclear-powered ones are faster; they have greater endurance and attack capabilities and are more difficult to detect. Currently, only six countries in the world have this type of weapon: the United States, the People’s Republic of China, Russia, France, India and the United Kingdom.
According to the AUKUS plan, these submarines will be built in Adelaide, the capital of the State of South Australia, but the Commonwealth of Australia has no nuclear industry nor the necessary fissile materials. US officials have revealed that nuclear materials can be shipped from other countries to that federal State. The USA and Australia already signed an agreement in 2010, which stipulates that Australia will not retract or increase the amount of nuclear materials sent to the country from the United States, and it should also be recalled that Australia is also a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, however, has already put his hands on, declaring that the construction of nuclear-powered submarines does not necessarily mean the production of nuclear weapons. He emphasised that Australia did not seek to acquire nuclear weapons, nor did it seek a chance in civilian nuclear power.
Nevertheless, some experts believe that Australia’s construction of nuclear-powered submarines is off to a bad start. In an interview with The Washington Post, James Acton – Director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace – pointed out that the move severely undermined the nuclear non-proliferation system and could also trigger an arms race.
He sharply predicted that, after Australia’s precedent, Iran might also announce the construction of nuclear-powered submarines: after all, Iran is a subject of international law and a co-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as is Australia.
In the past, while such a possible Iranian request might have been opposed by the international community, with AUKUS it will be lent credence, unless the aforementioned international law also formally establishes the existence of first-ranking and second-ranking States.
On the political level, Hugh White, a former Australian defence official, stated in an interview with The New York Times that Australia’s move was not just to build nuclear-powered submarines, but also a strategic adjustment to significantly deepen anti-Chinese cooperation with the United States.
When the new Indo-Pacific security alliance was announced on September 15, US President Joseph Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison were careful not to mention the People’s Republic of China.
President Biden said that the establishment of the new alliance was used for ensuring long-term peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. US officials stressed that the trilateral cooperation was not directed against any other country, but was designed to safeguard the strategic interests of the three countries.
But whether it is the Australian media, the British media such as The Guardian or the US media such as CNN, they all agree that the alliance is directly targeting China.
Over the next few days, President Biden will also meet at the White House with the leaders of the “four-country group”: the United States, Japan, India and Australia.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, on the other hand, said at a press conference on September 16 that mutual respect and trust are the prerequisites for dialogue and cooperation between the countries.
He stressed that the current difficult situation in China-Australia relations stemmed solely from Australia. The most urgent task for Australia is to address the setback in relations between the two countries, as well as seriously assess whether it views the People’s Republic of China as a partner or a threat, and hence sincerely uphold mutual respect and treat each other as equals.
Let the principles and spirit of a comprehensive strategic partnership – not a sectoral one targeted against someone – govern the relations between the two countries.
In an interview with The Guardian, a senior White House official revealed that, when the new understanding was established, the UK played the role of mediator on all key issues and was “a very strong strategic leader”.
It should be noted that, on the issue of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Britain and the USA had severe divergences. The British Secretary of State for Defence, Robert Ben Lobban Wallace, repeatedly criticised the United States. Therefore, in theory, the USA can also bypass Britain and directly reach an agreement with Australia on nuclear-powered submarines.
The senior White House official – who disclosed the above mentioned issue – believes that this time the UK is so active in the three-nation military alliance because it had to “pay a deposit” for the policy described in Global Britain.
Global Britain, in itself, is a grandiose and vague concept. According to the UK government’s official website, the core of Global Britain is to invest again in UK’s relations with other countries, so as to promote an international order based on well-defined rules, and to demonstrate that the UK is a well-advised and trusted country in the international arena.
Some analysts believe that Boris Johnson’s Global Britain is trying to emulate Churchill’s three-circle diplomacy, e.g. the three areas of influence in British foreign policy: the Empire and the Commonwealth, the Anglo-Saxon world – in particular, the special relationship with the United States, i.e. the 51st star – and Europe.
The UK uses its close relationship with the second circle to act as a link between the other two circles to safeguard Britain’s interests and status as a (former) great power.
Meanwhile, let us see what France thinks about it. The French Ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thebault, was recalled to Paris on September 18. Before leaving, he criticised Australia for having made a “huge mistake” on the issue of submarine construction. Ambassador Thebault arrived at Sydney airport on the evening of September 18th, from where he took a flight to leave Australia and return to France.
On September 17, the French Foreign Ministry issued a communiqué announcing the immediate recall of the Ambassador to the United States, Philippe Étienne, and of the Ambassador to Australia, the aforementioned Thebault.
The communiqué stated that Australia had abandoned the submarine-building agreement reached with France and had instead established a “new partnership” with the United States on the development of nuclear submarines – an “unacceptable behaviour” between allies.
Before returning to France, Ambassador Thebault said that Australia’s cancellation of the submarine contract with France was a “big mistake” and that Australia’s handling of the partnership was “very bad”. He revealed that this was not just a contractual issue, but an issue of partnership based on trust and mutual understanding.
Ambassador Thebault reiterated that at no time did Australia give France any clear signal to suspend the relevant contract. He said that France was kept completely in the dark about the steps taken and during that period many Australian officials not only continued to discuss the project with France, but also expressed their willingness to make the project a success.
No comments have come so far from Australia.
AUKUS: Human-made disaster
AUKUS is a new military alliance that emerged recently, among Australia, UK, and The US. Under this alliance, it has been declared that Australia will be equipped with nuclear submarines. There exists a panic in the region as Australia was not a declared nuclear state and if equipped with a nuclear submarine, whether or not, it is safe? Scholars and intellectuals have various opinions, but, agreed on one point that it will promote a nuclear race in the region. I believe, the spread of nuclear weapons, especially those who have no experience of handling nuclear submarines, maybe not be safe. It can be mishandled or accidentally, can cause any incident of disaster not only for Australia but for the whole region. Keeping nuclear weapons, need special safeguards and different temperament. To be a mature and responsible state is a prerequisite for having nuclear weapons, it also needs different ethics and principles to be equipped with such lethal weapons.
On the other hand, while NATO is there and Quad was created to specifically counter China, was there any genuine need for creating a new alliance like AUKUS? Is NATO abandoned? How the NATO member state thinks to ward AUKUS, one can imagine. Anyhow, they are hurt and mistrust has been created among NATO and the US. First of all, The US is not at its peak to offend or compel any other country, like EU member states, and on other hand, the US economy is not in such a state, where it can support the luxury of defense expenditure like before. It is right to approach to cut defense expenditures and spend more of the socio-economic welfare of the country, but to create a new alliance is negating such an approach.
Many EU member states are confused and upset and in the days to come, the gap may widen further. First of all, some of the EU countries are in close cooperation with China economically. China has become the largest trading partner and investor for many EU countries. Dependency on the US has reduced considerably.
Especially, France is offended as it was in the advanced stage of negotiations with Australia for a similar deal but suddenly hijacked by the US and UK. France has lost a big opportunity and it’s her right to react and protest. France has called back its Ambassadors from Australia and the US. This is an initial reaction, but, more actions may be seen in the near future.
France, in a reaction, has announced to collaborate with India in a similar manner, which is not welcomed by Asian partners, as it will create a race in the region. Furthermore, India is in the hands of an extremist Hindu political party – RSS. RSS is a fanatic party and can go to any extent, without thinking about the consequences. It is not safe for the region to equip India with nuclear submarines.
This region is highly populous, China with its population of 1.4 billion, India itself is 1.2 billion, and the rest of countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, Maldives, collectively constitutes almost half of the world’s population. If any misadventure happened in this region, half of the population of the whole world is under threat.
It will be not a wise decision to promote nuclearization, either by the US, UK, or France. One mistake cannot be compensated for by making another one. It will be a total disaster for humankind.
Humankind needs peace and prosperity. Human-made disasters can be averted and must be averted. It is the right time to take appropriate measures to stop nuclearization and the promotion of the nuclear race in this part of the world or any other part of the world. It is our individual’s responsibility to raise our voice and bring public awareness of such human-made disasters. Collectively we may avert such disasters, all peace-loving nations and individuals must join efforts to neutralize such deals and agreements. Countering China, to take such extreme actions is not justified. The US may review its decisions and avert disaster to humankind.
Presidential Irrationality and Wrongdoing in US Nuclear Command Authority
Abstract: In post-World War II memory, no greater political danger has confronted the United States than the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Endowed with nuclear command authority, this unstable and openly law-violating American leader pointed the United States toward existential harms. Recognizing this threat to the nation’s physical survival, General Mark Milley acted honorably and effectively to protect an imperiled republic. By expanding pertinent safeguards against any presidential abuse of nuclear command authority, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff did what was necessary and proper. The following assessment by Professor Louis René Beres, who has been publishing on nuclear war-related issues for more than half a century, underscores what should never again be allowed to defile America’s national security decision-making. “The safety of the people,” reminds Cicero in The Laws, “shall be the highest law.”
“As to dangers arising from an irrational American president, the best protection is not to elect one.”
General Maxwell D. Taylor, from personal letter to the author, 14 March 1976
Meanings of Decisional Irrationality
Strictly speaking, irrationality is not a proper medical or psychiatric term; rather, it is a more-or-less scientific description of human distortion and behavioral disposition. Still, as a convenient shorthand for exploring mental or emotional debility in US presidential decision-making, this colloquial reference is adequate, timely and potentially useful. In essence, though now just retrospective, America’s most senior general officer revealed assorted verifiable grounds for questioning former President Donald J. Trump’s mental stability. Now, looking ahead, it is necessary to take a longer term and generic look at US presidential nuclear authority.
This look must become a task for disciplined strategic thinkers, not politicians.
How to begin? This uniquely critical area of presidential decision-making – one that has remained ambiguous or deliberately “opaque” – concerns both the right and capacity to order a launch of US nuclear weapons. To be tangibly meaningful, these intersecting decisional components must always be examined together. This is the case though any presidential nuclear capacity functioning without correct antecedent authority would be worrisome per se.
By definition, as I have discovered personally over the past half century, these are all complicated intellectual matters. In 1976, then just five years out of Princeton as a newly-minted Ph.D., I began work on an original book about nuclear war and nuclear terrorism. From the start, I focused especially on US presidential prerogatives to order the firing of nuclear weapons. I was most particularly interested in the potentially-plausible prospect of presidential nuclear irrationality and/or wrongdoing.
In technically scientific terms, this did not mean a US president who was “clinically insane” (obviously the most fearsome sort of scenario), but “only” a Head of State who might sometime value some specific preference or combination of preferences more highly than American national survival. Today, at least until General Milley’s revelations, we worry more about leadership irrationality in certain other countries, most conspicuously in North Korea and Iran. Nonetheless, as the JCS Chair recently disclosed, the worst atomic decisional errors could happen here. Even if this were not the case, there could still take place variously unforeseen decisional synergies between (1) a fully rational American president and his irrational negotiating counterparts in Pyongyang or Tehran; or (2) an irrational American president and his expectedly rational counterparts in such conspicuously adversarial states.
In the Beginning
Back “in the early days” of apocalyptic nuclear issues, and with an expressly American decision-making focus in mind, I entered into ongoing communication with then-former JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor. In my last correspondence with the distinguished and decorated general, he responded with a handwritten letter (attached hereto) dated 14 March 1976. As the Taylor response explicitly referenced only the dangers of an “irrational American president,” I could legitimately undertake no automatic extrapolation of his diagnosis to other strategic risks.
Still, there are various related hazards that ought never be disregarded prima facie. For example, we must become better prepared to deal with a US Chief Executive who appears more than irrational. This means a president who was seemingly “crazy,” “insane,” or “mad.”
It is difficult for me to imagine that General Taylor would have hesitated to adapt these characterizations of more advanced decisional “pathology” to the extant subject-matter scope of nuclear decision making. This is the case even though such characterizations could never be seriously scientific. To obtain authentically scientific assessments of nuclear event probability, there must first exist a determinable frequency record of pertinent past events. Unassailably (and fortunately), there has never been a nuclear war from which to draw valid strategic inferences.
There is more. Any US presidential order to launch nuclear weapons would be effectively sui generis. The US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II did not constitute a nuclear war, but rather the American use of nuclear weapons in an otherwise conventional war. In August 1945 (the month of my own birth in war-torn Europe), there were no other atomic bombs anywhere on earth.
Not a one.
Whether concerned with presidential irrationality or madness, present analytic concern should be focused upon an emotionally or mentally debilitated president. Whichever applies, the truly vital questions going forward will have to do with Constitutional, statutory and other recognizable sources of US war-making authority, especially presidential right to order the use of nuclear weapons.
International Law and US Law
Urgent questions here will relate to assorted and sometimes subtle intersections of international law and US law. From the beginning of the United States, international law has been an integral part of its national law. Early on, Chief Justice John Marshall asserted and reasserted that all international law – whatever its source – had been incorporated into the domestic law of the United States. Before Marshall, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on The Law of England clarified that the “law of nations” is always “a necessary part of the law of the land.”
These Commentaries represent the authoritative foundation of all United States law.
Under current US law, whatever its apparent jurisprudential origins, a president may correctly use military force once Congress has declared a war or after the US (and/or its citizens) have been attacked. As to the permissible kinds of force and levels of force, these operational decisions would have to be determinable according to longstanding laws of war of international law (the comprehensive law of armed conflict or humanitarian international law), and also the municipal law of the United States. In any such foreseeable circumstances, there would exist no clearly identifiable prohibitions against nuclear force per se.
For better or for worse, non-weapon-specific prohibitions would apply broadly, to the extent that any US retaliation or counter-retaliation would violate the always-binding expectations of discrimination (sometimes called “distinction”), proportionality, or military necessity.
Both the US Constitution and the War Powers Act place strict limits on any president’s authority to initiate hostilities with a foreign power, whether by conventional or nuclear means. A significant grey area has to do with the Commander-in- Chief’s right to strike first defensively or preemptively; that is, as a presumptive expression of “anticipatory self-defense. Here, the authorizing component of permissibility must be the perception of any grave danger that is “imminent in point of time.”
Logically, the relevant criteria of “imminence” could not reasonably be the same today as they were back in a pre-nuclear 1837. That was the year of the Caroline, the classic case setting the correct legal standard for all subsequent preemptive national action.
Matters of Chronology and Crisis
What should we have expected from former President Donald Trump if he had sometime reasoned that a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies was “imminent in point of time?” Should we have remained comfortable with leaving such a prospectively existential judgment to his own personal decisional standards of the moment? Or should this eleventh-hour option have been be a matter of more plainly shared or “concurrent authority” with the US Congress?
In actual state practice, applicable questions of law are apt to be subordinated to the overarching and ubiquitous assumption that any president’s final authority in defending the United States should never be challenged during an impending or already-ongoing crisis. This sort of assumption would become especially worrisome in circumstances where an enemy nuclear attack could be contemplated and anticipated. In brief, this means that a verifiably irrational or mad American president would likely have his military commands obeyed, up to and including an order to use nuclear weapons. This reasoning applies also to preemptive American strikes, whether launched in retaliation or counter-retaliation. It also means that while a wide variety of redundant safeguards already exists to prevent unauthorized uses of American nuclear weapons up and down the identifiable nuclear chain of command, no parallel safeguards can exist at the top or apex of this unique decisional hierarchy.
This was the precise conclusion reached in General Maxwell Taylor’s 1976 letter to me (attached hereto) on nuclear command authority.
There is more. It remains possible, of course, and even potentially desirable, that a presidential order to use nuclear weapons would be disobeyed at one or another recognizable level of implementation. Strictly speaking, however, as any such expression of disobedience would be “illegal,” it is not sufficiently probable or reliable in extremis atomicum. The staggering irony of actually having to hope for certain high-level instances of disobedience or chain-of-command failures ought not be too casually set aside.
Prima facie, this irony reveals that extant US nuclear-decision safeguards are sorely and overwhelmingly inadequate.
The Best Protection Lies with the American Voter
Is the US nuclear presidential authority dilemma remediable in any still-promising ways? “The best protection,” I learned from General Maxwell Taylor almost fifty years ago, is “not to elect” an irrational president. But now, as such straightforward advice cannot be acted upon retroactively, the residually “best protection” must lie elsewhere Among potentially gainful sources, this suggests more vigilant statutory oversight by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor and certain select others. This oversight also includes a more predictably reliable willingness – either singly or in appropriate collaboration with the others – to disobey any presumptively irrational or insane presidential nuclear command.
Such willingness could be correctly defended as law-enforcing under those universally binding Nuremberg Principles (1946) that obligate all persons (especially senior government officials everywhere) to resist “crimes of state.” Because war and crimes against humanity are not mutually exclusive, compliance with overriding Nuremberg Principles could become necessary not only to limit aggression, but also to prevent genocide.
Ultimately, America’s best chance of avoiding or surviving such a grievous threat could depend less upon any codified law or tangible institutions than the last-minute or impromptu courage of a handful of senior officials. Though any such estimation must be less than ideal or optimal, it may simply be “realistic.” To wit, it was the courage and insight of a single senior decision-maker, JCS Chair Mark Milley, that firmed up necessary Constitutional protections against a severely debilitated commander-in-chief.
Buttressed by national and international law, it is incumbent upon voting American citizens to act upon General Maxwell Taylor’s 1976 warning. That earlier alarm, which cautioned “not to elect” a potentially “irrational” American president, should be extended to include even a potentially “insane” Commander-in-Chief. In the final analysis, however, we may not be able to rely upon prudential and law-oriented voters to effectively save the United States from itself – that is, from prospectively aberrant nuclear decision-making. In that intolerable case, all narrowly statutory or technical directions on nuclear decision making would be overtaken by visceral expectations of American “mass.”
Then it would be too late.
American democracy owes a sincere debt to US General Mark Milley. In the sycophancy-driven Trump world, a world of determined anti-reason, Milley’s reliance upon law and virtue was much more than merely acceptable. For US national integrity and survival, it was indispensable.
But what should we do now?
 For informed accounts by this author of nuclear attack effects, see: Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1973); Louis René Beres, Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (1975); Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy ((Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1984); Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1986); and Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (2016; 2nd ed., 2018).
 This expansion included urgent consultations with chiefs of the armed forces and conversations with foreign leaders concerned about Trump-induced US instabilities.
 These publications have been both strategic and legal in focus.
 General Taylor was an earlier Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. His handwritten letter to Professor Beres follows this article and the author’s bio. On August 18, 2017, Rep. Zoe Lofgren introduced a bill to the US House of Representatives that would have required President Donald Trump to undergo a mental health examination to determine if he is emotionally stable enough to remain in office. The proposed legislation expressly invoked the 25th Amendment, a rarely-used Constitutional provision allowing the vice-president and members of the Cabinet to remove a president from office. Rep. Lofgren’s bill did not become law.
 “Science,” says 20th-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Man and Crisis, ” by which I mean the entire body of knowledge about things, whether corporeal or spiritual – is as much a work of imagination as it is of observation…. the latter is not possible without the former.”
 This book was published by the University of Chicago Press as Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980).
Irrational adversaries would likely not be deterred by the same threats directed at presumptively rational foes. On pertinent errors of correct deterrence reasoning (here regarding Iran in particular) see: 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. General Chain (USAF/ret.) served as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).
 Expressions of decisional irrationality could take different or overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).
 Nuclear risks threatening US security could form an intricately interconnected network. Capable assessments of such risk must eventually include a patient search for synergies, and also for possible cascades of failures that would represent one especially serious iteration of synergy. Other risk properties that will warrant careful assessment within this genre include contagion potential and persistence.
 One such generally ignored risk is “playing to the audience,” that is, seeking personal popularity at the expense of national security. Accordingly, see Sophocles, Antigone, Speech of Creon, King of Thebes: “I hold despicable and always have…. anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”
 Donald Trump’s presidency brings to mind those fragments of Euripides that concern tragic endings. Here we may learn from the classical playwright, “Whom God wishes to destroy, He first makes mad.” Inter alia, Greek tragedy explores the wider civil harms that any deranged “sovereign” mind can produce. Looking at the United States today, struggling with rampant “plague” and with extraordinary domestic instability, there is a still-discoverable wisdom in classical Greek tragedy.
 Significantly, neither the irrational/rational nor insane/sane distinction is narrowly dichotomous. There are, rather, multiple or “continuous” variations of each pairing, an indisputable fact that makes any more far-reaching psychological or legal analysis of these already-complex nuclear decision-making issues even more problematic.
 See also “Supremacy Clause” of the US Constitution (Article VI); The Paquette Habana, 175 US 677,700 (1900); and Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726, F.2d. 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984) per curiam).
 For the crime of aggression under international law, see: Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, adopted by the UN General Assembly, Dec. 14, 1974. U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 UN GAOR, Supp. (No. 31), 142, UN Doc A/9631 (1975) reprinted in 13 I.L.M., 710 (1974).
 See, on such issues: Summary of the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Advisory Opinion), 1996.
 The principle of proportionality has its jurisprudential and philosophic origins in the Biblical Lex Talionis, the law of exact retaliation. The “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” can be found in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah, or Biblical Pentateuch.
 The principle of “military necessity” is defined authoritatively as follows: “Only that degree and kind of force, not otherwise prohibited by the law of armed conflict, required for the partial or complete submission of the enemy with a minimum expenditure of time, life, and physical resources may be applied.” See: United States, Department of the Navy, jointly with Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps; and Department of Transportation, U.S. Coast Guard, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M, Norfolk, Virginia, October 1995, p. 5-1.
 Long before the nuclear age, Swiss scholar Emmerich de Vattel took a position in strong favor of anticipatory self-defense. Vattel concludes The Law of Nations (1758) as follows: “The safest plan is to prevent evil, where that is possible. A nation has the right to resist the injury another seeks to inflict upon it, and to use force and every other just means of resistance against the aggressor.” (See Vattel, “The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations,” reprinted in 3 Classics of International Law, 130 (Carnegie Endowment Trust 1916 (1758). Vattel, in the conspicuously earlier fashion of Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius, (The Law of War and Peace, 1625) drew widely upon ancient Hebrew Scripture and Jewish law.
 The Caroline concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally been sufficient in law to justify certain appropriate militarily defensive actions. In a formal exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then US Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for national self-defense that did not require antecedent attack. Accordingly, the authoritative jurisprudential framework now permitted a military response to threat as long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” Naturally, this standard could sometimes be more easily met in our time-compressed and prospectively apocalyptic nuclear age.
 Reflecting this second point-of-view, Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D, LA County) and Senator Edward J. Markey (D, Massachusetts) introduced H.R. 669 (Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017) back on 24 January 2017. Although this proposed legislation would have prohibited the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a Congressional Declaration of War, it’s not clear that it could also have dealt satisfactorily with the irrationality/insanity issues herein under discussion. Moreover, the proposed legislation seemed to make no meaningful distinction between a nuclear first-strike and a nuclear first-use. https://lieu.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/congressman-lieu-senator-markey-introduce-restricting-first-use-0
 In part, at least, this implicitly core assumption is rooted in our continuously-anarchic system of international relations, a decentralized structure often referred to by the professors as “Westphalian.” The reference here is to the landmark Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty-Years War and created the still-extant state 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 major agreements comprise the historic “Peace of Westphalia.”
 See Affirmation of the Principles of International Law Recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal, Adopted by the UN General Assembly, 11 December 1946. Inter alia, these Principles underscore the formal jurisprudential assumption of solidarity between states. This peremptory expectation, known in formal law as a jus cogens assumption, was already evident in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 CE); Hugo Grotius, 2 The Law of War and Peace (1625; Chapter 20); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations (1758; Chapter 19).
 See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 9 December 1948; Entered into force, 12 January 1951.
 “The safety of the people,” Cicero warns prophetically in The Laws, “shall be the highest law.”
 The “mass-man,” we may learn from 20th century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset The Revolt of the Masses, “learns only in his own flesh.” Seem, also, by Professor Beres, at Yale: Louis Rene Beres, https://archive-yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/call-intellect-and-courage; and at Princeton: Louis Rene Beres: https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/02/emptiness-and-consciousness
 There is no longer a virtuous nation,” warns the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “and the best of us live by candlelight.”
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