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Aggressive China: India’s Options



India and China had established diplomatic relations 70 years ago. 2020 saw the firing of shots for the first time in over 40 years. Even though disagreements between the two sides are not unusual, border disputes do pose a challenge for the security of both countries. Furthermore, it could have consequences for their economic relations. This paper tries to look at the recent face-off between the two states and explores the options India has in the times to come.

The India-China war took place in 1962, when Indian and Chinese troops fought over the Himalayan territory of Aksai Chin which is situated between Tibet, Xinjiang and Ladakh. At that time, India deployed its troops along the border, but China’s strategy was to launch an all-out attack. The Chinese position was that they should have sovereignty over the territory they were fighting for. India in response had a defensive strategy and they lacked sufficient weaponry and personnel. Consequently, they suffered heavy casualties. The war ended when China announced a unilateral ceasefire on 21stNovember 1962.

Since then, Both India and China have made strides in bolstering their respective capabilities. However, China’s growth has been faster and it has managed to outpace India both economically and militarily. China’s per capita income in 1980 was even lower than that of India, but today it is almost four times higher. China has registered the biggest gains in its GDP share in the global economy in the last 20 years. The gap between the US and China is also closing fast. In 1999 the global GDP share of the US was 31% and that of China was a mere 1.8%. In 2020, the US GDP share is 23.6% and that of China is 15.5%.Hence, in terms of economic strength, no other country matches US and China or even comes close to either of them. It is this transformation that has made China aspire to be the world’s second superpower. It appears that these are early times of the concretization of a bipolar world. This new power dynamics could have serious implications for the countries of the world.

Against this backdrop, India needs to figure out where it stands vis-a-vis China. Its efforts at cultivating China and keeping it pacified appear to have failed for now. China being a global player has a grand strategy and its latest moves at the LAC (Line of Actual Control) between Indian and China are a part of creating a new template for Sino-Indian relations. Clashes between troops of both countries have occurred regularly along the contested border, but this is the first deadly one in the last 45 years. In remote Tibet, ominously high above the Indian plains lies the source of the Brahmaputra, the Indus and other important rivers. The dams China has built and those it plans to construct in future, could pose an existential risk to hundreds of millions living downstream. The Brahmaputra is in great danger. In 2013, China launched a project to build six dams on the Lhasa River, which is one of its tributaries. The project, once completed, will convert the river into a series of artificial lakes. This would cause devastating damage to Tibet’s environment and significantly limit water supply for downstream countries. As it did in 2017, water could again be used as a weapon by China. It could refuse to release water when India needs it, aggravating droughts. It could also release water during rainy seasons and cause dreadful floods. Geopolitically, these dams are weapons that give China an edge against its neighbours.

Many believe that India and China, the two nuclear-armed neighbours could not possibly go to war. The threat of uncontainable escalation is appalling. If one looks at their respective economic strength, India’s per capita GDP is a little more than $2,104, while China’s is a bit above $10,261. When it comes to defence, India’s budget this year is about $66 billion while China’s is almost $179 billion. Moreover, in terms of what in China is called its Comprehensive National Power (CNP), which incorporates scientific and technological power and human capital formation, China far outflanks India. In a long war, Chinese economic might, industrial production and defence superiority would guarantee massive advantage.

Why is China miffed?

There could be various explanations as to why China decided to act now at the disputed Sino-Indian border, which stretches some 3,500 km (2,175 miles). It was the first time in 45 years that shots were fired at the border. Both countries had agreed in 1996 not to use guns and explosives near the border so that any conflict there could be managed short of a hot war. However, some actions in the recent past by the Indian side seem to have irked China.

First, China has always been sensitive about Tibet, Aksai Chin and its border with India since the days of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. In 1962, some in China claim to have taught India a lesson after it refused to back down on its forward policy and turned down its boundary deal. Last year, by a Constitutional amendment, India downgraded Article 370 of Its Constitution which had hitherto granted special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. New Delhi also carved out a new union territory of Ladakh. China was unhappy with these actions of India. Official Indian maps show Pakistani-held Gilgit and Baltistan as well as China-held Aksai Chin to be a part of Ladakh.

Second, India has built the world’s highest airfield at Daulat Beg Oldi. Long back this was an old campsite on the base of the strategic Karakoram Pass that led to the Tarim Basin in southern Xinjiang. It lies on the legendary Silk Route through which travellers moved on their journeys from Beijing to Constantinople. Located at 5,065 meters above sea level, this airfield is close to Siachen Glacier, where Indian and Pakistani troops face off. India has also built the 255-kilometer Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road that offers it far better access to the LAC. Some experts believe that it is India’s forward-moving posture in the LAC area that has peeved the Chinese.

Moreover, the LAC, has different connotations across the Western (Eastern Ladakh), Central (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand), and Eastern (Sikkim, Arunachal) Sectors. In the Western Sector, the Indian claim line includes the whole of Aksai Chin and is based on the 1865 Johnson Line, while the Chinese had generally accepted the 1899 Macartney-McDonald Line along the Laktsang range till East of Karakoram Pass. After 1962, the Chinese have come further ahead. In the Central Sector, the boundary lies along the watershed has limited claims by China, while the Eastern Sector has the famous Macmahon line dividing Tibet and British India. It is drawn on a very small-scale map, with no clear definition, except that it follows the watershed, based on the 1914 Shimla Agreement between British India, Tibet, and China. After the annexation of Tibet by China in 1950, it has refused to accept the treaty the Qing dynasty had signed with the British in 1914. Hence, the fact remains that the LAC had neither been correctly defined nor segregated, even during British times. Thus it suffers from a weakness of differing perceptions of the LAC by both India and China.  These disputes have become increasingly difficult to contain in recent years. An exercise to clarify the LAC by the two countries could not take off in the early 2000s. The main region of disagreement was the Western sector where the Chinese did not agree to the Indian maps.

Third, India opposed the BRI (Belt and Road initiative) last year on the grounds of territorial sovereignty. The Doklam confrontation in 2017 occurred when India did not attend the first BRI summit earlier that year. In 2019, India joined the US in categorically opposing BRI. This raised many eyebrows in Beijing. Chinese have also taken umbrage at BJP MPs Meenakshi Lekhi and Rahul Kaswan’s “virtual participation” in the swearing-in ceremony of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.

Fourth, India has questioned China’s concealment of information and its role in the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. India’s stand and statements on the pandemic have annoyed China.

Fifth, India has been pressing for moving manufacturing away from China in the post-COVID-19 world. It has made a big noise about a higher trust factor in India. India claims to be a democracy with a free press where investments would have a lower long-term risk. China is particularly sensitive to this argument.

Finally, some analysts argue that China’s Xi Jinping was trying to divert attention from his handling of the Covid-19 fallout. He might also have been trying to ease domestic pressures. He might have even calculated that at the time when all countries were busy fighting Covid-19; it was perhaps a better time to take advantage of their divided attention.

Opinion in China:

Positions in China are divided to the extent that some people in China are strongly critical of Chairman Mao for his handling of the 1962 war with India.  They call Mao a national sinner because China did not gain control over southern Tibet at that time.

There is a view among China’s strategic community that China-India relations hold no great prospect in the current international situation. Zhang Jiadong, director of South Asian Studies Center of Fudan University rules out any possibility of a negotiated settlement of the border dispute in the near future. India, he argues, is already a quasi-ally of the United States and there is no way China can thwart further intensity in US-India relations. Hence, violent conflicts are predicted to be the new normal in China-India ties.

Some experts in China argue that China should prepare for simultaneous war-like situations on both fronts – with the PLA Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps focusing on the eastern front, and the Chinese army concentrating on the western front with. Sui snow Mongolia of the School of International Studies, Renmin University of China maintains that they take inspiration from India on this matter, arguing that “Isn’t India preparing on two fronts all the time? Why can’t we fight on two fronts?” 

A Chinese military expert Li Jie argued in Huanqiushibao, that by aggressive actions the Indian side is giving indication that if an irrepressible conflict occurs on the land between China and India on the border, it may choose to retaliate against China at sea by aiming at China’s oil and gas transport vessels, thereby, urging the Chinese government to take proper countermeasures to deal with the disturbances at the sea.

Lin Minwang, a prominent expert from Fudan University, agrees that American political support is crucial to India’s toughened stance against China. He further notes that since the outbreak of the epidemic, India and the United States have maintained close communication. India is now more anti-China than many of the other US allies. Lin argues that from the foreign policy of the Indian government it is now very clear that India has decided to stand with the United States in the great power competition.

Another argument is that the recent conflict is intended to sidetrack Indian public opinion, given the worsening COVID situation in the country and the sinking economy and create nationalistic fervor to bring together the people against China.

India’s Options:

Against this backdrop one needs to see what are the options for India in the near term?

First, India needs to modernize its military and bolster its security. It does not need to put all its eggs in the American basket by assuming that the US will come to its help when it is threatened by China. Since all countries are guided by their national interests and so is the US, therefore, its support would be only to the extent it serves the US interest. Beyond it, India will have to fend for itself. Hence, the basic way of seeking security is to build deterrence capacity on its own. This however, appears to be a tall order in the immediate context, given the fragile condition of the Indian economy and its negative growth. However, it needs to be given top priority in the times ahead. At present, India has not articulated in definite terms the threats emanating from China as it still is not very sure about the extent of American assistance in restraining China. India is conscious of the domestic compulsions of the US and its limitations in backing India to the end. Moreover, there would be uncertainty in US politics till a new administration takes office in Washington. Picking a fight with China, therefore, is not the wisest strategy; obfuscating the exact nature of the China threat is indeed a much better strategy.

Second, India needs to get more active in arrangements like the Quad Security Dialogue. It may gain traction if all these countries make sincere efforts, as all of them have a common claim of being democratic countries and have common interests of unobstructed maritime trade and security. Quad underlines the rising importance of maritime geopolitics in an increasingly integrated world. Economically, the strategy is viewed as an answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is instituting a China-centric trade route. However, India needs to tread carefully and not be taken in by the enthusiastic support which the others are offering India to contain China. Our actions in this group should be cautious and limited by our abiding national interest. We are the only ones sharing a long boundary with China and we have to live with this for all times.

Third, the government of India should not be guided by the aggressive nationalistic rhetoric, which has been mainstreamed in India by the party in power at the Federal level. The government needs to make a distinction between its domestic politics – where it might need to employ such a tactic- with international politics, where India needs to have a long term strategy. It needs to appreciate that China is a rising power with claims to superpower status. Understanding the consequences of a confrontation, India needs to tread carefully and avoid a skirmish with China in every possible way. However, it needs to continuously work on bolstering its deterrence capability.

India also needs to engage with China more meaningfully. China had been told, during the recent talks in Moscow, that its frontline troops were engaged in provocative behaviour and had disregarded bilateral agreements and protocols. It was also emphasised that the Indian troops had scrupulously followed all agreements and protocols pertaining to the border areas. In Moscow, the Foreign Ministers of both countries agreed on a five-point plan to deescalate the situation and thwart any unpleasant incident in the future. 

Beijing’s position is that New Delhi should meet it halfway, which is seen as an indication that India accepts the new Chinese claim lines. New Delhi has maintained that Chinese troops should move back to the pre-April 2020 position. Such an engagement would help India to limit the damage from Chinese incursions and to ensure that such unilateral aggressive behaviour from China is avoided in future.

Finally, in international politics, a country can choose its friends but she cannot choose its neighbours. China is a neighbour, sharing a boundary of thousands of kilometres with India. Since they have to live with China, Indian strategic planners need to do some out of the box thinking. They can even think of looking at China differently, not necessarily as an adversary but a potential partner. It cannot be denied that India’s efforts at cultivating China till now have not borne much fruits, but India needs to think about its own missteps in engaging with China and stop harping on the same old line of playing a victim of Chinese betrayal. India would have nothing to lose if it invests more in this option. It is possible to engage constructively with both the US and China; India does not necessarily need to take sides between the two. We need not be over-excited with the sudden outburst of affection from the US. It is nobody’s case that we should ignore the American overtures, but we need to have our feet firmly planted on the ground.

Notwithstanding age-old border tensions, India and China have considerable multilateral cooperation, mainly through alternate global institutions created over the last several years. The BRICS, including Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa; the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), in which India is the second-largest capital contributor; the New Development Bank; and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, have all been platforms for cooperation regardless of the countries’ continuous security competition. Hence, in today’s world of interdependence, for India to totally cut off its entire links with China is neither possible nor desirable. We should bear in mind that China is India’s primary trading partner with annual trade worth $92 billion.

However, China’s periodic assertions complicate issues. For example, its recent contention that it abides by the LAC as proposed by Premier Zhou Enlai has complicated the border row in eastern Ladakh, and called into question Beijing’s intention to restore status quo ante of early April and de-escalate the conflict. Basically they confirm that the old Confidence Building Measures Regime inaugurated by the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement of 1993 is no longer valid. In the wake of the 15 June Galwan incident, India had decided to be pro-active in its engagement with Chinese troops. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had given go ahead to the army to deal with China to protect Indian territory. Hence engaging China constructively is something which is easier said than done.

On the other side, to deal with a resurgent India, Chinese hardliners suggest a policy of “three nos”: no weakness, no concession and no defensive defence. It means, China should take all openings to crack down on India, and have the enterprise to hit it hard whenever possible. This, it is maintained, will not dent China-India relations; on the converse, it will lend it more stability.

China also intends at conveying a message to the international community. Allen Carlson, director of Cornell University’s China and Asia Pacific Studies program, argued that they are demonstrating to the global audience that China is no longer a reactive player on the world stage, it intends to be proactive, and more direct in achieving what are viewed as the country’s core national interests.

Someanalysts say that these developments are a consequence of India’s irresponsible posturing. But then India did something that irritated China. A few months after Modi won a landslide election, his Home Minister, Amit Shah vowed to take back Ahsai Chin. During a speech in Parliament about the disputed region of Kashmir, Mr. Shah declared that Aksai Chin and all of Kashmir was an inalienable part of India and it would go to any extent to regain it.

International Concern:

This ongoing conflict between India and China has elicited attention from other powers in the world. China’s aggressiveness in pushing a brash narrative through ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy has raised alarm bells in other countries of the world. Two prominent proponents of this are Hua Chunying and Zhao Lijian, top spokespeople at China’s Foreign Ministry. China has shown extreme anxiety to show its might from the Western Pacific to Eastern Ladakh. The Americans consider it as a challenge to their ascendancy in world politics. Hence, there is the new emphasis on the Quad to contain China. The visit of high-level US officials to India just on the eve of US presidential elections, was to convey to New Delhi the urgency which the US attached to this issue and that it stands with India to respond to China’s hegemonic plans.

The recent Indo-US 2+2 meeting and theinking of four foundational agreements between India and USA are indicative of India and the US getting closer. In addition, the Malabar military exercises where Australia participated for the first time pointed towards the fact that Quad is progressively getting more militarised. Under the US-India Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) huge amount of military equipment from the USA has already been delivered to Indian troops who are manning the borders in Ladakh. The US knows it.

Way ahead:

India is determined not to let the situation congeal into a status quo. Even though officially it has taken an indistinct stand, declaring that the Chinese were not in occupation of any Indian territory, the fact is that the Chinese have occupied some 1,000 sq kms of the grey zone in Depsang, Galwan, Gogra and Pangong Tso. The Indian plan now is to press the Chinese to the point where they are willing to return to status quo ante as of April in these areas. However, this is a loaded strategy, and any of these incidents could escalate to a wider skirmish with consequences neither side may intend.

Nonetheless, if relations continue to worsen over territorial boundaries and the border issues remains unsettled, this could have consequences for the future of relationship between both these countries. Furthermore, India should tread with caution as countries in the neighbourhood are becoming increasingly more accommodative of China.

Professor, Department of Political Science, A.M.U., Aligarh. He specializes in Strategic Studies.His work has been published in journals like The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, Economic and Political Weekly, Seminar, Humanities and Social Science Review, Studies in Indian Politics, South Asian Studies, Studies in Islam, Foreign Affairs Reports and Indian Journal of Politics etc. He has written one book and edited three volumes.

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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.

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Presidential Irrationality and Wrongdoing in US Nuclear Command Authority



Credit: U.S. Air Force

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.[1] 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,[2] 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[3] 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[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]  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.[7] 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;[8] or (2) an irrational American president and his expectedly rational counterparts in such conspicuously adversarial states.[9]

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.[10]

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.”[11]

               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.[12]  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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15]

               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,[16] or military necessity.[17]

               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.[18] 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.[19]

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?[20]

               In actual state practice, applicable questions of law are apt to be subordinated to the overarching and ubiquitous assumption[21] 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)[22] 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.[23]

               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.[24] 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.”[25]

               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.[26] For US national integrity and survival, it was indispensable.

But what should we do now?

[1] 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).

[2] This expansion included urgent consultations with chiefs of the armed forces and conversations with foreign leaders concerned about Trump-induced US instabilities.

[3] These publications have been both strategic and legal in focus.

[4] 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.

[5] “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.”

[6] This book was published by the University of Chicago Press as Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980).

[7]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).

[8] 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).

[9] 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.

[10] 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.”

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13]  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).

[14] 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).

[15] See, on such issues: Summary of the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Advisory Opinion), 1996.

[16]  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.

[17] 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.

[18] 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.

[19] 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.

[20] 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.

[21] 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.”

[22] 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).

[23] See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 9 December 1948; Entered into force, 12 January 1951.

[24] “The safety of the people,” Cicero warns prophetically in The Laws, “shall be the highest law.”

[25] 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,; and at Princeton: Louis Rene Beres:

[26] 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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American Weaponry in the Hands of the Taliban



Source: Twitter

The hasty withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan attests to both the indifference of the U.S. administration as regards the future of Afghanistan as a state and the neglect for its obligations to its allies. Besides, Washington has clearly violated the current UN Security Council sanctions regime against the Taliban, which was established in accordance with Resolution 1988 (2011).

Paragraph 1, subparagraph (c), of the Resolution calls on all countries to “prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of arms and related material of all types including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment, and spare parts” to the Taliban and other individual groups, undertakings and entities associated with them [1].

Washington faced serious backlash for violating the UN sanctions regime upon abandoning weaponry and ammunition during an abrupt evacuation of troops from the country—such as when U.S. troops left Bagram, the largest airbase in Afghanistan, without warning the local Afghan army in early July, 2021. General Mir Asadullah Kohistani, the new commander of Bagram Air Base, stated that Afghan soldiers only later learned of the Americans having departed, once they had all “disappeared into the night.” This is important as this proves that the Americans did not transfer weaponry and ammunition to the Afghan army through official channels. Since U.S. troops had turned off electricity at the airbase, looters soon found their way in, with barracks and storage tents ransacked. Among the “trophies” left by the Americans were hundreds of armored vehicles and ammunition, all of which ended up in the hands of the Taliban, either that very night or after Bagram being taken over (see image 1).

Image 1: Armored vehicles (left) and ammunition (right) deserted by the Americans at Bagram Airbase.

Source: RIA Novosti (left) and Haroon Sabawoon – Anadolu Agency (right)

According to The Military Balance, a military journal published annually, Afghan government forces had 640 MSFV armored security vehicles, 200 MaxxPro armored fighting vehicles and several thousand Hummers at their disposal. The Afghan Air Force had 22 EMB-314 Super Tucano (А-29) light attack aircraft (see image 2), four C-130H Hercules transport aircraft, 24 Cessna 208B and 18 turboprop PC-12s. The Army Air Corps boasted 41 MD-530F light turbine helicopters and as many as 30 multi-mission UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters (see image 2).

Image 2: A light attack EMB-314 Super Tucano (А-29) aircraft captured by the Taliban at Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport (left) and a light MD-530 F multi-role helicopter (center); a multi-mission UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter in the sky above Qandahar with what seems to be a person hanged by the Taliban (right).

Source: Twitter

On August 17, 2021, Jake Sullivan, U.S. National Security Advisor, confirmed that a significant amount of U.S. weapons had fallen into the hands of the Taliban. “And obviously, we don’t have a sense that they are going to readily hand it over to us at the airport,” he noted, thus confirming that the United States allowed the indirect transfer of weapons to what the UN Security Council has designated a terrorist organization.

This is not the first time that Washington has violated a UN Security Council Resolution. For example, a statement by Sergei Ryabkov, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, suggests that the United States released four Taliban members from Guantanamo in 2014, all of whom were on the Security Council sanctions list, to send them to the Middle East.

This was quite in line with the U.S. policy incepted back in 2010 and aimed at engaging in direct dialogue with the Taliban. This led to the UN Security Council Committee—established pursuant to Resolution 1267 on sanctions against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda—breaking up into two independent sanction mechanisms[2]. The UN Security Council Committee established pursuant to Resolution 1988 devised procedures that allow for a more liberal approach to the Taliban list (compared to those involved with Al-Qaeda), excluding those mentioned in consolidated lists of persons, groups and entities subject to restrictions.

Such facts should, in fact, be subject to the scrutiny of the UN Security Council Committee established pursuant to Resolution 1988 (including its Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team), in whose proceedings the Russian Federation takes part and whose mandate implies monitoring compliance with Taliban-related sanctions as well as presenting periodic reports on sanctions measures to the Security Council.

Prospects of the U.S. imposing sanctions against Russia in connection with the Taliban

It is important to recognize that the “Taliban issue” could become somewhat of a scapegoat for Washington, especially in the eyes of its allies, to impose even more anti-Russia sanctions. In addition to the Executive Order on Blocking Property with Respect to Specified Harmful Foreign Activities of the Government of the Russian Federation signed on April 15, 2021, the White House published a Fact Sheet outlining key accusations against Russia, which include reports on rewards for the murder of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. According to the document, the Biden administration is taking measures following the intelligence reports of Russia having encouraged Taliban attacks on the U.S. and alliance contingent in Afghanistan. Since such allegations directly affect the safety and well-being of U.S. troops, a solution can be found through diplomatic, military and intelligence channels.

Biden’s executive decree foresees the introduction of blocking sanctions for attempts to challenge the credibility of elections in the United States and allied countries, malicious hacker activities, spreading corruption internationally, crackdowns on dissidents and journalists, undermining security and stability in countries and regions important for U.S. national security interests, and the violation of international law, including the territorial integrity of states.

The reason for the Biden administration’s concern is likely a story published in The New York Times in June 2020 claiming that Russian military intelligence had offered Taliban-affiliated militia a reward for the murder of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Sources of the newspaper claimed to have uncovered such information during interrogations of Afghan militia.

As a result, senator Robert Menendez suggested in September 2020 that the U.S. Congress move forward with yet another anti-Russia sanctions package, the Russia Bounty Response Act of 2020. The Act implied freezing assets, visa restrictions for President Vladimir Putin, Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and other high-ranking officials, as well as restrictions on defense enterprises. The initiative was supported by Dem. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. In an interview with MSNBC, she emphasized the need to immediately impose sanctions against Russia for “colluding” with the Taliban.

In his turn, however, former President Donald Trump called The New York Times story “a fake,” stating that the article had been ordered for political reasons. Trump went on to state that the U.S. intelligence had acknowledged the information used in the publication was misleading. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said there was no evidence of a “conspiracy” between Russia and Taliban officials. The Taliban also denied information from The New York Times about existing ties with Russia.

One should bear in mind that the United States and Russia are adopting more polarized stances regarding the situation in Afghanistan, which became evident during the UN Security Council meeting on August 30, 2021, when Moscow and Beijing refrained from supporting the West-drafted resolution on Afghanistan. Thus, Washington will look for any excuse to discredit Russia. An effective instrument in counteracting such sanctions, hoaxes and other foul play common for the United States should be that of keeping a meticulous record of Washington’s violations of the UN Security Council sanctions regime against the Taliban to present the findings to the international community.

  1. The Taliban is a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia under Decision No. 03-116 of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation dated February 14, 2003, which entered into force on March 4, 2003.
  2. Al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia under Decision No. 03-116 of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation dated February 14, 2003, which entered into force on March 4, 2003.

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