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American Foreign Policy and Nuclear War: Existential Crisis Management In A Time Of Plague

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Abstract: For the moment, Americans devote scant attention to any apparent risks of a nuclear war, but whatever residual attention remains centered on such risks focus on North Korea and Iran. Though concurrent hazards from Russia and China are potentially more existential and longer-term, the seeming plausibility of suffering a major conflict with another superpower  or superpowers is presumptively lower.[1] Moreover, regarding North Korea and Iran, there never was any appropriate reason for Washington to expect Pyongyang’s “denuclearization[2]  or Tehran’s “slowing-down” of active nuclearization.

Now, largely on  account of US President Donald J, Trump’s policy miscalculations vis-à-vis North Korea and Iran,[3] America faces expandingstrategic threats from both adversary states.

 Going forward, to best secure itself from increasingly complex and force-multiplying military threats, the United States will require (1) an improved assessment of risks from a still-growing assortment of recalcitrant state enemies; and (2) a corresponding willingness to link this doctrine-based assessment to more consistently refined conceptualizations, theories and scenarios. In the final analysis, all capable formulations of coherent US nuclear strategy will insistently demand a tangible American triumph of “mind over mind.”  This means, inter alia, a conspicuous elevation of analytic “preparation” over belligerent  rhetoric; that is, over a manifestly contrived “attitude.” To achieve such antecedent victory at a time of “plague” – by definition, a dissembling and bewildering time – the US president and his counselors will need to consciously factor in the impacts of viral pandemic[4] upon (3) adversarial decision-making processes and (4) identifiable synergies obtaining between these consequential impacts and American national security  processes.[5]

Summing up, as the following essay shall now seek to clarify, this will not be a task for the analytically disinclined or intellectually averse  (i.e., those like the current US president who mistakenly favor “attitude” over “preparation”). It will, instead,  be for those Americans who can unhesitatingly commit to properly science-based strategic assessments, and who would never consider launching US foreign  policies based upon narrowly self-serving or propagandistic national goals.

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“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”-W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

Introduction

When heading for his June 12, 2018 Singapore Summit with Kim Jung Un, US President Donald Trump declared famously: “What matters is attitude, not preparation.” At that time, the US President was openly committed to North Korean “denuclearization,” an expressed commitment that made no policy sense at the time, and makes even less policy sense today. Aside from representing a patently irrational option for Pyongyang, getting rid of its extant atomic arms and infrastructures remains contrary to North Korea’s unambiguous policy announcements. By mid-June of this year (2020), exactly two years later, the country’s Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon announced that any earlier hopes for accommodation with Trump had now “shifted into  despair,” and that any earlier cause for optimism had “faded away into a dark nightmare.”[6]

That country is not America’s only adversarial nuclear problem. For the United States, Iran also represents the most obviously compellingly pertinent threat hazard. This worrisome assessment obtains though Iran is not yet nuclear.[7]

 Significantly, Iran remains fully capable of fighting a massive conventional conflict against America’s principal Middle Eastern ally. Accordingly, Tehran could at some point prod the United States to consider using some of its extant nuclear forces on presumed behalf of Israel. At the same time, certain Sunni Arab states worried about an impending “Persian bomb” could seek to obtain a suitably countervailing nuclear capacity for themselves.[8]  

In this connection, Egypt and Saudi Arabia should come most immediately to mind.

What happens next? What complex intersections or synergies might arise here involving Iran and Israel? And what might be the concurrent effects of “plague” (Covid19 pandemic) upon some or all of the pertinent “players?” In  essence, however the plausible conflict scenarios might be configured, all of these foreseeable prospects are altogether unprecedented and all portend various unprecedented outcomes.

There is more. Fully continuous 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, a condition  of tacit belligerence exacerbated by misconceived Trump Administration withdrawals from several core nuclear arms control agreements, these ongoing and escalating Russian and Chinese developments define a strategic background for assorted other nuclear  developments underway in Pyongyang and Tehran.

“Cold War II”[9] this represents a comprehensive systemic structure within which virtually all contemporary world politics could be meaningfully categorized and properly assessed. Current Great Power dispositions to war, however they might be usefully ascertained, ispertinent analytic background for various still-wider nuclear interactions.

What next? 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 – will 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 specific 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.

Basic Questions and Plausible Answers

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 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, there is nothing here for the intellectually faint-hearted. This is not about “attitude,” but about “preparation.”

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. This would have decidedly significant policy consequences.

A prospectively irrational decision-maker in Pyongyang, Tehran or elsewhere need not be determinably “mad” in order to become  troubling for policy analysis undertaken by aptly designated leaders in Washington. Such an adversary would need “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 both 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,[10] 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.”[11]

Rationality and Pretended Irrationality

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.[12] 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.”[13]  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.”[14]

There is something else. On occasion, these same enemies could “decide,” whether consciously or unwittingly, to actually be irrational.[15]  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 analytic 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.[16] 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.[17]

Here it would be well worth remembering seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ classic warning in Leviathan:  “Covenants, without the sword, are but words….”[18] 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,[19] but we have yet to descend into any genuine worldwide chaos.[20]

Preemption, Asymmetry and Strategic Dialectic

 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 any operationally cost-effective preemption against North Korea, and – even if it could be properly defended in law as “anticipatory self-defense”[21] – 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 plausible 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.[22]

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 still 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 of plague are already at the outer limits of tolerance and sustainability.

 Inter alia, all this should now imply a primary obligation for the United States (c) to focus continuously on various incremental enhancements to its implicit nuclear deterrence posture; and (d) to develop a wide and nuanced range of credible nuclear retaliatory options. The specific rationale of (d) (above), is the counter-intuitive understanding that the credibility of nuclear threats could sometime vary inversely with perceived levels of destructiveness. In certain  foreseeable circumstances, this means that 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 duly “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 always 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 simply on narrowly corrosive notions of revenge, 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 good reason to suppose that certain BMD deployments could help safeguard both US civilian populations (soft targets) and American nuclear retaliatory forces (hard targets).[23] 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 various laser-based weapon systems.

Deterrence, Defense and Mutual Vulnerability

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 in a complicating time of pandemic, 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, this enemy would first need to believe that Washington had capably maintained the capacity to launch appropriate nuclear reprisals for certain relevant forms of aggression (nuclear and perhaps biological/non-nuclear) and the will[24] to undertake such uniquely consequential firings.

About the first belief criterion, it would almost certainly lie far 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.[25] 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,[26] 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.[27] 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.[28] Israel’s own nuclear deterrence could be affected by assorted pandemic-related variables, including some with serious reciprocal consequences for the United States.

Deterrence, Rationality and Diminished US Strategic Ambiguity

There is more. Increasingly, America will have to rely on a broadly multi-faceted doctrine of nuclear deterrence.[29] In turn, like its already-nuclear Israeli ally,[30] 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, 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.[31]

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 very 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, especially at a time when sweeping disease effects are both palpable and unexamined.

Mad or “crazy” adversaries, on the other hand, would have no such calculable hierarchy of preferences, and would 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 sort of 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. Among other things, it will require a capable assessment of pertinent synergies, some of them distressingly subjective and biological.

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

There could be no reliable 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 that these always-complicated simultaneities could be synergistic.[32]

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 information used by these foes in making their own 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.

 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 absolutely any inclinations to hubris, that is, to excessive pride, and to accept, instead, a conspicuous abundance of prudential caution.

Disutility, Probability and Miscalculation

America is not automatically made safer by having only rational adversaries. To wit, even fully rational enemy leaderships could commit serious errors in calculation that would lead them toward a nuclear confrontation and/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.[33]

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 some 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? Among other things, because the tangible amount of deliverable nuclear firepower required for deterrence is necessarily much less than what could ever be required for “victory.”[34] This is a time for displaying nuanced and purposeful counter-intuitive wisdom in Washington, not for more clichéd presidential thinking or further rancorous barrages of stunningly empty presidential witticisms.

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.”[35] 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 always remain a bewilderingly complex struggle of “mind over mind.”[36]

These remain fundamentally intellectual problems,[37] challenges requiring meticulous analytic preparation[38] rather than just a particular “attitude.”[39] Above all, such planning ought never become just another calculable contest of “mind over matter;”[40] that is, never just a vainly reassuring inventory of comparative weaponization or 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”[41] – America can never render itself sufficiently secure from nuclear or biological war.

Never.[42]

Poetry, Policy and Public Chaos

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 seek to carve out livable national spheres from a steadily expanding global chaos. Ultimately, of course, following Nietzsche, they must also understand that such chaos lies originally within each individual human being. But – at least for the moment of their present strategic deliberations – they must remain focused upon collective survival in a 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 the need for a plausible world system transformation, from anarchy to chaos, and to accommodate this drastic pandemic-hastened transformation with more authentically imaginative thinking.

In any 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.[43] 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 finally heed the thoughtful  words of Trappist monk and 20th-century thinker Thomas Merton, not because they could have any immediate “practical” value, but because they could 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.”[44]

 US foreign policy initiatives concerning nuclear war avoidance must shift from traditional notions of “realism” to the more enduring ideas of “planetization.”[45] Though seemingly utopian, these ideas are more realistic than any global continuance of Thomas Hobbes’ endlessly corrosive “state of nature.” For the time being, of course, 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 never be expected to last indefinitely.

It follows, unassailably, that keeping the United States safely distant from nuclear conflagration will require an American leadership that can suitably navigate all current and foreseeable risks – including some hazards that are plausibly pandemic-related – and can plan competently for the evolving future. This will not be a task for the intellectually faint-hearted.

In the end, as illustrated by the more-or-less predictable effects of a nuclear war[46] and by long-established effects of “plague,” we humans are all evident creatures of biology and mustfinally recognize each other in this ubiquitous and reciprocal commonality. This is a genuinely primal commonality, a determinative “oneness” worth adapting to all America’s national security policies. Above everything else, such structural interdependence underscores both our interpenetrating existential vulnerabilities as individual human beings and our leaders’ corollary obligation to always place polity above any personal interests.[47]

In the still-clarifying imagery of ancient Greek drama, US President Donald J. Trump should become more amply aware of “monarchical-style” hubris and its perpetually perilous threat to any modern nation’s survival. To assume that the continuously failing system of belligerent nationalism first bestowed at Westphalia in 1648 can somehow reliably prevent a nuclear war represents human arrogance at its imaginable worst. For the United States, reasonable freedom from the rapidly growing threat of catastrophic nuclear war can only be based upon the principled rejection of “America First” and of any other policy posture derived from conspicuously false promises. Recalling French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in the precise sentence I used to conclude my PhD, thesis back at Princeton exactly fifty years ago: “Peace waits for us only at that point where we are able to witness a totalisation of the world upon itself, in the unanimous construction of a spirit of the earth.”[48]


[1] This necessarily informal presumption is based upon an antecedent assumption; that is, that the likelihood of any nuclear conflict between states (inter alia) is inversely related to the plausibly expected magnitude of catastrophic harms. This is only an “informal presumption” because we are considering a unique or unprecedented event, one that is plainly sui generis for purposes of determining mathematical probabilities.

[2] See, by this writer, Louis René Beres, at Yale Global, https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/too-late-north-korea-denuclearization

[3] In essence, these miscalculations center on unrealistic disarmament expectations (North Korea) and on erroneous US estimations of unilateral agreement termination benefits  (JCPOA; Iran).

[4] We will see herein that these impacts are a function of their cumulative effect upon creating or sustaining global chaos. More precisely, this will mean effects on accelerating the shift from “normal” global anarchy to a more distressingly unpredictable set of parameters. Anarchy is “normal” because it was effectively codified at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and has never been supplanted by any forms of global centralization or world government. See, earlier, by this author, Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (University of Denver, 1973; originally L R Beres, Ph.D. dissertation at Princeton University; and Louis René Beres, Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (University of Denver, 1975).

[5] Writes Albert Camus in The Plague: “At the beginning of the pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric….It is only in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth, to silence.”

[6] The Devil in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman observes correctly that “Man’s heart is in his weapons….in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself….when he goes out to slay, he carries a marvel of mechanisms that lets loose at the touch of his finger all the hidden molecular energies….”

[7] 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/

[8] 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).

[9] 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.

[10] 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/

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] 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/

[14]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.

[15] In his own work, Sigmund Freud sought to “excavate” certain 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 various 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 individual artifacts while deeply engaged in some challenging thought.

[16] 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/

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

[18] 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 (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 (state and sub-state) belligerent calculations.

[19]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.

[20] 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. Significantly, this once-relevant differentiation has effectively disappeared with the continuing manufacture and spread of nuclear weapons, a dispersion 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.

[21] 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

[22]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).

[23] 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.

[24] 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).

[25] 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

[26] 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).

[27] 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).

[28] 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

[29] 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

[30] 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

[31] 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”?

[32] 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/

[33] 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).

[34] See, by this author, at Oxford University Press: https://blog.oup.com/2011/10/war-winning/

[35] 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

[36] 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.

[37] 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 exists under the openly anti-intellectual leadership of Donald J. Trump, the poet’s warning should have an especially clear and compelling resonance.

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

[39] The meaningless bifurcation of “attitude” and “preparation” was expressly invoked by Donald Trump before going off to his June 2018 “Singapore Summit” meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un. In that curious distinction, the US President favored the former.

[40] 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).

[41] 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.

[42] 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.”

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

[44] 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).

[45] 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).

[46] 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).

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

[48] See Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (1959).

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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Americas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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