Connect with us


Science, Security and American Nuclear Strategy: An Intellectual Challenge



“…. science – 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….”José Ortega y’Gasset, Man and Crisis (1958)

Strategy and Truth: The Immutable Primacy of Intellect

Sometimes,truth is counter-intuitive. At first, observers might think, and especially during bewildering times of “plague,”[1] that verifiable considerations of science must outweigh any proposed remedies of politics. In fact, however, for the United States, this has been an historical moment of utterly rabid anti-intellectualism. Even more specifically, it has been a retrograde era, one in which conspicuous delusions and conspiratorial gibberish have often superseded Reason and Rationality.

               What has been happening? The resultant perils remain potentially existential; they ought not be ignored. In essence, by exhibiting a once-unimaginable level of citizen indifference to biology and medicine – an indifference vigorously applauded by former US President Donald J. Trump – millions of Americans wittingly surrendered their very lives. As we earlier learned from former White House Covid advisor Dr. Deborah Birx,[2] the American nation suffered more than a 400,000 unnecessary deaths[3] during virulent stages of the Covid19 pandemic.

               Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher Tertullian.“I believe because it is absurd.” We live at an unsteady time wherein faith in politicized absurdity could prove recurrently lethal, and not just in glaringly palpable matters of virology. Though less apparent, enhanced theoretic understanding is similarly indispensable for explanation and prediction in various other subject disciplines. These worrisome areas include military strategy in general and nuclear strategy in particular.[4] 

               This essay concerns the latter.

               To begin, variously unseen connections must be brought to the fore. A determinable disease trajectory could have tangible or calculable bearing on a country’s nuclear posture. It follows, in such cases, that learning more about certain pathogens (e.g., the Corona virus) could also prove useful to enhancing national security protections. Looking back systematically over several thousand years of recorded human history, those nation-states that were purposefully attentive to war-disease intersections likely fared much better in security terms than those that foolishly chose to downplay Reason.

               Even for experienced military planners and nuclear strategists, the core importance of refined strategic theory is all-too-frequently minimized or disregarded. Whenever this happens, no matter how savvy and sophisticated individual planners’ résumés may first appear, investigative conclusions (both tactical and operational) will prove too narrow or limited. There is a residual chance that these results could lead an otherwise capable analyst in productive policy directions, but there also exists no defensible reason for strategic inquiry to have been “backward” in the first place. 

               Irony can sometimes be detected in such circumstances. Today’s US military planners and strategists are impressively familiar with myriad and deeply complex aspects of war and defense; still, they simultaneously lack in certain closely associated and necessary philosophical skills. This tangible deficiency has nothing to do with any specifically methodological shortcomings. On the contrary, America’s relevant thinkers are visibly talented in virtually every pertinent area of data collection, data manipulation and analytic assessment. Nonetheless, such a pervasively unphilosophical spirit[5] does reflect a lamentable lack of acquaintance with philosophy of science.

               Significantly, for any such lack of acquaintance, there will be serious policy costs.

               There is more. One prospective policy cost is “epistemological.” This means it has to do with willful scholarly detachment from even the most elementary “rules” of concept formation, hypothesis creation, the so-called “problem of induction”[6] and an assortment of closely related intellectual expectations.[7] Going forward, the decipherable consequences of epistemological detachment, however inadvertent, could range from reassuringly trivial to plausibly catastrophic.

               There will be correct and incorrect ways to commence inquiry. In any scientific study of strategic military issues, inquiry must begin with an appropriate hypothesis.[8] Thereafter, and further to what we first learned from Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Karl Popper, Carl Hempel and various others,[9] this tentative explanation, with its identifiable and testable linkages between independent and dependent variables, would need to undergo apt deductive elaboration.[10] This “unpacking” would then be followed (wherever possible) by empirical testing of all logically “entailed” propositions.

               The hoped-for result of such systematic efforts must always be a detailed network of deductively interrelated propositions; that is, an intellectual construct more formally known as theory. Without suitable theoretical guidance, strategic thinking must inevitably be ad hoc, partial and problematic. A recent example is former President Donald J, Trump’s post-Singapore Summit conclusion that North Korea would “denuclearize” (instantly) because the two respective leaders had “fallen in love.”

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

               For US military planners – especially those with prospectively nuclear responsibilities – strategic theory should exhibit inestimable practical value. In all sectors of human knowledge, not just in US national security matters, refined theory provides the capable investigator with an indispensable “net.” Regarding such expressions of sustained and disciplined scientific thought, not merely ones regarding America’s strategic challenges, only those scholars who “cast” can expect to “catch.”[11]

World System Structure and America’s Nuclear Strategy

                To optimize their difficult and conscientiously non-political work, US strategists will need to begin at the beginning, acknowledging that global anarchy, the unchanging structural context of subsequent inquiries, is never just an idiosyncratic circumstance. As these strategists  should immediately learn to recognize, anarchy and chaos are both deeply rooted in the codified and customary foundations of modern world politics.[12] More than anything else, these legal and geopolitical structures point to still-expanding conditions of chaotic regional disintegration.

               Yet, even in chaos, which is never the same as anarchy, there may be discernible regularities, a sort of fixed “geometry”[13] which will then need to be properly identified and carefully studied.

               Out of the bewildering mêlée of what is now unraveling in widely-scattered American policy venues, US strategic thinkers can still identify a usable tableau for national survival, but only if they first choose to cast finely-crafted analytic “nets.” One current arena of concern is Russia’s ongoing military buildup near Ukraine. During the non-theoretic Trump years, Vladimir Putin   felt (understandably) that the American president was under Moscow’s will (Lenin and Stalin would have called Donald Trump “Putin’s Useful Idiot”), but this demeaning presumption is no longer warranted.

               There is more. World and regional politics remain notably multifaceted and bewildering. There can be no good argument for examining current and future threats to US national security as if each threat were expressly singular or logically unrelated to other threats. Always, there are foreseeable interactions between individual catastrophic harms, so-called synergies.

                Prima facie, these complex interactions could make the potentially existential risks of anarchy and chaos incrementally more pressing.

From Anarchy to Chaos

                 “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” warned the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, “and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”  Now, assembled in almost two hundred armed tribal camps formally termed nation-states, all peoples coexist uneasily and more-or-less insecurely on a fractured planet. History takes no sharp corners. The  jurisprudential and civilizational[14] origins of this radically decentralized world lie in the Peace of Westphalia (1648), a foundational/civilizational treaty that ended the Thirty Years War and inaugurated the still-extant “balance-of-power” state system.[15]

               Now anarchy is more portentous than ever before. This enlarged vulnerability owes largely to the manifestly unprecedented fusion of chaoswith potentially apocalyptic weaponry. Even worse, such never-to-be-used weaponry is expected to expand or “proliferate.” Accordingly, in the United States, the head of STRATCOM, the country’s top nuclear commander, muses openly about deterioration of the American strategic triad. More specifically, Admiral Charles Richard worries that the aging Minuteman III ICBM force could be abandoned, and that a robust US bomber force would need to take its place as the always-ready leg of America’s nuclear deterrent.

               For the moment, only the missile-bearing submarines and ICBMs are ready to go at a moment’s notice.

               Russia, of course, has its own nuclear triad; China is progressing along very similar theoretic lines. Today, says Admiral Richard, what you have in the US “is basically a dyad.” In 2017, the Department of Defense announced that the USAF was preparing to put back nuclear bombers on 24-hour alert, but this vital step was never actually taken.

               What happens next? Will America allow itself to be guided by vacant political rhetoric and bravado (the Trump concept of nuclear strategizing) or take seriously the intellectual imperatives of fashioning sound strategic theory?[16] In a plausible worst case scenario, circumstances will obtain where there will be no safety in arms and no promising rescues from legitimate political authority. In time, recurrent wars could rage until every flower of sustainable culture is trampled and until all things human are more-or-less leveled in some primal disorder.The worst,” remarked Swiss playwright, Friedrich Durrenmatt succinctly, “does sometimes happen.”

               In history and world politics, the “worst” is a very old story. So, too, is anarchy. Chaos, however, is not.

               There are meaningful differences between anarchy and chaos. Oddly, chaos and anarchy may even represent opposite end points of the same dissembling continuum.Historically,”mere”anarchy, or the absence of viable central world authority, is “normal.” Chaos, however, is sui generis.[17] It is “abnormal.”

               There is more. Since the seventeenth century, our anarchic world can best be described as a system.  What happens in any one part of this interconnected world necessarily affects what happens in some or all of the other parts.  When a deterioration is marked, and begins to spread from one nation to another, the corrosive effects can undermine regional and/or international stability. When this deterioration is rapid and catastrophic, as it would be following the start of any unconventional war and/or act of unconventional terrorism, the corollary effects would be correspondingly immediate and overwhelming.

               These effects would be chaotic.

               Aware that even an incremental collapse of remaining world authority structures would impact America’s friends and allies as well as its foes, US leaders will need to heed Durrenmatt’s compelling observation about the “worst,” and advance precise and plausible premonitions of collapse. These fearful premonitions would be needed to chart more durably scientific paths to national security. Presumably, such critical awareness is not yet in place. It is, nonetheless, a meaningful warning.[18]

               Looking beyond Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and a political philosophy that formed much of the wellspring of America’s founding fathers and documents, the specific triggering mechanism of our beleaguered world’s incremental descent into chaos could originate from mass-casualty attacks, from similar attacks against other western democracies, from a mass-dying occasioned by disease pandemic or even from assorted synergies between these causes. Alternatively, it could draw literally explosive nurturance from the belligerent use of nuclear weapons in seemingly distant regions. If, for example, the first military use of nuclear weapons after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were initiated by North Korea or Pakistan, Israel’s nuclear survival strategy could then have to be re-considered and aptly modified.[19]

               The precise “spillover” impact on the United States of any nuclear weapons use by North Korea or Pakistan would depend, at least in part, upon the specific combatants involved, the expected rationality or irrationality of these combatants, the yields and ranges of the nuclear weapons actually fired and the aggregate calculation of civilian and military harms suffered in the affected areas. These would be intellectual calculations, not political ones.

Systemic Changes, Science and America’s Nuclear Strategy

               Any chaotic disintegration of the world system wouldfundamentally transform the American system. Again, recalling Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, such a transformation could ultimately involve total or near-total destruction. In anticipation, the US will soon have to orient its basic strategic planning to an assortment of worst-case prospects, thereby focusing far more deliberately on science than politics.[20] Such a re-orientation is already underway at STRATCOM with particular respect to America’s strategic triad.

                The State of Nations remains the State of Nature. For the United States, certain prominent but time-dishonored processes that are conveniently but erroneously premised on allegedly “scientific” assumptions of reason and rationality will have to be renounced.[21]  For Americans, the expectedly fragmenting situation in post US-withdrawal Afghanistan represent just a beginning. Here, wider patterns of anarchy, chaos and disorder are more-or-less inevitable. What might still be avoided by proper intellectual attention is mega-destruction.

               Such indispensable avoidance will require more than just good luck. It will demand a distinctly primary and antecedent awareness that in our current world politics, as in any other primordial state of nature, survival ultimately demands resolute courage, an openly intellectual imagination and the determined conviction that any huge short-term national losses are preferable to long-term collective disappearance. Any such awareness would represent a fundamentally intellectual challenge, not just a narrowly operational one.

Rationality, Irrationality, and Enhancements of American Strategic Planning

               Historically, a science-based correlation of forces approach to strategy has generally been applied as a tangible measure of competitive armed forces, ranging from quantitative considerations at the subunit level and extending to clarifying assessments of major military formations. It has also been used to compare resources and capabilities at operational levels of day-to-day strategy and at much higher levels of “grand strategy.” At times, this particular application has been related to the similar but less comprehensive strategic notion of”force ratios.”

               Presently, facing a conceivably broader and more ominous variety of existential security threats than before, perils originating from both state and sub-state adversaries, the United States must undertake various broader and more complex correlation of forces assessments.  In this new and determinedly scientific search, President Biden’s appropriate planners must consciously employ more than the traditionally “objective” yardstick for scientific measurement of potentially adversarial forces. Though US defense strategists routinely compare all available data concerning the numerical and qualitative characteristics of relevant units, including personnel, weaponry and equipment, field commanders will also need to cultivate certain newly subjective kinds of understanding.

               Such an unorthodox recommendation may appear to fly in the face of the usual military science emphases on tangible facts, but – in war as well as in peace – these “facts” are often the result of manifestly personal and particular interpretations.

               There is more. In exploiting a suitably improved concept of a science-based strategic theory, President Biden’s senior planners will seemingly have to reject a basic axiom of “geometry.” They will need to recognize, among other things, that certain critical force measurements must not only remain imprecise, but that such imprecision may also include important forms of strategic understanding. A particular enemy’s consuming dedication to certain presumed religious expectations, its utterly uncompromising strength of will,[22] could sometime resist any traditional sorts of measurement, but would still remain determinative.

               In science-based strategic assessments, just as in various judgments of human psychology, there are ascertainable variables that will remain refractory to measurement, but still be of considerable explanatory importance.[23]

               Always, history has primary pride of place. Several emerging hazards to America’s national security will be shaped by the durably “Westphalian” geometry of chaos. In this delicately unbalanced and largely unprecedented set of imprecise calculations, the “whole,” paradoxically, may turn out to be more (or less) than the sum of its “parts.” It follows, looking ahead, that US strategic planners will need to bring a still more nuanced and intellectually unorthodox approach to their science-based work. This means, especially, an original awareness that proper planning could sometimes presume enemy irrationality[24] and that such planning must also be able to distinguish between authentic enemy irrationality and pretended enemy irrationality.

                How can the American military planner recognize the difference between real and contrived irrationality? This is an increasingly urgent question; it cannot be answered by any standard references to more traditionalmodes of strategic analysis. Nor can it ever be answered by an American president who would value “attitude” over “preparation,” claiming, as did former President Donald J. Trump, that risks of a nuclear war had disappeared because two national leaders “fell in love.”

               Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               Any such preposterous presidential claim ought to have elicited myriad howls of execration, not widespread public acquiescence or deafening silence.

               Any such presidential claim was caricatural, not intellectual.

               This ought already to have been obvious by definition.

               But it was the open and never-modified claim of US President Donald Trump following his June 12, 2018 Singapore Summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.[25]

               These same issues of rational decision-making will have to be looked at from the standpoint of optimizing America’s capacity to project purposeful images of strategic nuclear policy. Reciprocally, US planners will have to decide when (if ever) this country would be better served in its deterrence and war-fighting capabilities[26] by some deliberate projections of limitedor partial irrationality.Naturally, any such projection would be enormously problematic, and strategists would need to remain ever-mindful of pretended irrationality as a double-edged sword. Brandished too provocatively, after all, various strategic preparations could unexpectedly encourage enemy preemptions.

               By its improved use of science-based strategic thinking, the US president would need to seize every available operational initiative, including appropriate intelligence and counterintelligence functions, to best influence and control a particular enemy’s matrix of values and expectations. This is a tall policy order, of course, especially as multiple enemies could include both state and sub-state adversaries, (“hybrid” enemies), often with substantial and subtle interactions taking place between them. Moreover, at some point in an age of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the consequences of assorted strategic planning failures spawned by politics could become overwhelming. The only foreseeable remedy for such intolerable failures must be an antecedent national focus on science and intellect.

Moving Toward a Science-Based Correlation of Forces

               More precise strategy questions should now arise. In greater detail, with new and particular uncertainties arising, what should be the more holisticUS concept of a correlation of forces? Always, this is a proper question for science and intellect, not for politics.

               This concept must take careful account of all enemy leaders’ intentions as well as capabilities. Such an accounting is always more subjective than any more traditional assessments of personnel, weapons and basic logistical data.  Any such accounting will also need to be thoughtful and nuanced rather than based exclusively on behavioral profiles.

               It will not be enough for US plannersto judiciously gather and examine relevant hard data from all of the usual sources. It will also be important to put American planners directly into the “shoes” of each relevant enemy leader, president, king or terrorist, thus determining, among other things, what US capacity and vulnerability looks like to them. In the language of philosophy of science, such a perspective is commonly identified as “Verstehen.”[27]

               Next, expanding more precisely what has just been discussed, any properly scientific correlation of forces concept must take close account of enemy leaders’ presumed rationality.  Any adversary that does not conform to the rules of rational behavior in world politics might not be deterred by any US threats, military or otherwise. This is the case even where this country would possess both the capacity and resolve to make good on deterrent threats. 

               Where an enemy state or sub-state would not value its own continued survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences, the standard logic of deterrence could be immobilized. Correspondingly, all bets would be off concerning probable enemy reactions to US retaliatory threats. What then?

               Insofar as assassination/targeted killing may be considered a particular form of preemption (“anticipatory self-defense[28] under international law),[29] it is plausible that the United States could sometime abandon any operational plans for more standard and recognizable forms of a defensive first-strike, but still remain more or less willing to selectively target enemy leaders and/or nuclear scientists. In essence, viewed from the standpoint of an expanded and science-based strategic orientation, this could mean a more formal inclusion of assassination[30] and sabotage within this country’s overall strategic doctrine.[31] It goes without saying that any such inclusion would be fraught with both legal and operational difficulties.

                There is more. US strategic planning assessments will also need to consider the organization of changing enemy state units; their training standards; their morale; their reconnaissance capabilities; their battle experience; and their suitability/adaptability to the prospective battlefield.  Traditionally, these sorts of assessment are quite ordinary, and not exceedingly difficult to make or innovate on an individual or piecemeal basis.  But now, suitably creative policy planners will be those who are best able to conceptualize such ordinarily diverse factors together, in tandem.  Recalling Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War,one vital purpose of this new strategic holism should be to avoid protracted warfare. The ancient Chinese strategist’s observation that “No country has ever profited from protracted warfare….” is always meaningful to American strategic thought. Now it should be even more meaningful. This is because the longer a particular conflict proceeds, the greater may be compelling national incentives to escalate to progressively higher forms of military destructiveness.

                Always, US assessments must consider scientifically the cumulative capabilities and intentions of America’s non-stateenemies; that is, the entire configuration of anti‑American terrorist groups. In the future, such assessments must offer more than any simple group by group consideration. The particular groups in question should be considered in their entirety, collectively, as they may interrelate with one another vis-à-vis the United States.  These several hostile groups might also need to be considered in their particularly interactive relationship with certain core enemy states. This last point would best be characterized as an essential science-based search for prospective synergies between assorted state and sub-state adversaries.

               This brings our analysis to the concept of “asymmetric warfare.” Today, especially in the Middle East and southwest Asia, crucial asymmetries may lie not in particular force structures or ratios, but rather in hard-to-measure levels of determination or strength of will. Clausewitz, in his Principles of War (1812), speaks of a comparable need for “audacity.” This special quality represents a potentially crucial variable for American strategic planners. Still, by definition, it must elude any kind of sharply precise or tangible measurement.

               Finally, and once again recalling Sun Tzu – this time, his spatial injunction that “If there is no place to go, it is fatal terrain” –  US strategic planning judgments should take suitable note of still-ongoing metamorphoses of fragmented non-state adversaries into sovereign state adversaries.  To wit, in post-US withdrawal Afghanistan, Taliban elements could rapidly undergo such worrisome transformations. Similar concerns could resurface with Hezbollah elements in a once-again deteriorating Lebanon. Here, nothing accomplished by former US President Trump’s Abraham Accords could be helpful or remediating.

Synergies and Force-Multipliers

               In the inherently bewildering matter of synergies, American strategic planners will need to consider and search for new “force multipliers.” A force multiplier is a collection of related characteristics, other than weapons and force size, that may make any military organization more effective in combat. A force multiplier may be generalship; tactical surprise; tactical mobility; or certain command and control system enhancements. It could  include less costly forms of preemption such as assassination[32] and sabotage. It could include certain well-integrated components of cyber-warfare, and also a reciprocal capacity to prevent and blunt incoming cyber-attacks.

               Now, this particular force multiplier could prove more decisive than any others. Though plainly nonexistent in times of Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz, “cyber-audacity” already represents a core component of America’s broadened scientific approach to nuclear strategy.

               There is more. The insertion of certain force multipliers may create synergy.

Before this can happen, senior strategists must ensure that their analyses and consequent recommendations are systematically detached from any false hopes. Accordingly, the ancient advice of Thucydides (416 BCE), writing on the ultimatum of the Athenians to the Melians during the Peloponnesian War, should remain instructive: “Hope is by nature an expensive commodity, and those who are risking their all on one cast find out what it means only when they are already ruined….” A good recent example of such a perilous leadership contrivance was former President Donald Trump’s dissembling assurance to Americans that North Korea would no longer be a threat because he and Kim Jong Un had “fallen in love.”

               The overriding objective of any science-based strategic nuclear plan must be to inform leadership decisions about two complementary variables: (1) perceived vulnerabilities of the United States; and (2) perceived vulnerabilities of enemy states and non-states. This means, inter alia, gathering and assessing crucial accessible information; for current example, information concerning the expected persuasiveness of this country’s nuclear deterrence posture. To endure well into the increasingly-uncertain future, such information, and not a concocted series ofunfounded political hopes, must always remain at the core of US nuclear strategy

                Conceptually, in a world of growing international anarchy and possible chaos,[33] this means that science-based US strategy  include (1) recognizing enemy force multipliers;  (2) challenging and undermining enemy force multipliers;  and (3) developing and refining America’s own force multipliers.

               It is routinely assumed that US security from enemy missile attack is ensured by American nuclear deterrence, however opaque. But any such vital strategy of dissuasion must depend upon many complex and interpenetrating conditions and perceptions. Per se, America’s possession of nuclear weapons can never automatically bestow real national security.

               A rational nation-state enemy of the United States will always accept or reject a first-strike option against this country or America’s allied states by comparing the costs and benefits of each available alternative. Where the expected costs of striking first were presumed to exceed expected gains, this enemy would be deterred. But where these expected costs were believed to be exceeded by expected gains, deterrence would fail. Here, an American ally could be faced with enemy nuclear attack, whether as a “bolt from the blue” or as outcome of anticipated or unanticipated crisis-escalation.

               An example would be crisis in northeast Asia involving North Korea and US security guarantees of “extended deterrence” to South Korea and/or Japan. Here, in extremis atomicum, contendingstates vying for “escalation dominance” could suddenly find themselves in midst of uncontrollable nuclear war,[34]

 Strengthening America’s Science-Based Nuclear Deterrent

               In thinking about science and strategy, an immediate task for Washington will be to strengthen its nuclear deterrent such that any enemy state will always calculate a first-strike to be irrational. This means taking all proper steps to convince these enemy states that the costs of such a strike will always exceed the benefits. To accomplish this overriding objective, America must convince prospective attackers that it maintains both the willingness and the capacity to retaliate with presumptively calibrated (not “one size fits all”) nuclear weapons.

               Should an enemy state considering an attack upon a US ally be unconvinced about either one or both of these essential components of nuclear deterrence, it might then choose to strike first, depending upon the particular value or “utility” that it places on the expected consequences of such an attack. In part, it is precisely to prevent just such an “unconvincing” nuclear deterrence posture that the United States should now consider revealing still more specifics of its pertinent nuclear force.

               To protect itself against enemy nuclear strikes, particularly attacks that could carry intolerable costs, US defense planners will need to prepare to exploit every relevant aspect and function of their nation’s nuclear arsenal. The success of America’s effort here will depend not only upon its particular choice of targeting doctrine (“counterforce” or “counter value”), but also upon the extent to which this choice is made known in advance to enemy states and their sub-state surrogates. Before such enemies could be suitably deterred from launching first strikes against US allies, and before they could be deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following any American-supported preemptions, it may not be enough for them to know that this country maintains a vast nuclear arsenal.

               Regarding US ally Israel, American planners working on a more science-based strategic paradigm will need to understand the following: Removing the bomb from Israel’s “basement” could enhance Israel’s nuclear deterrent to the extent that it would enlarge enemy perceptions of secure and capable Israeli nuclear forces.[35] Any such calculated end to deliberate ambiguity could also underscore Israel’s willingness to use these nuclear forces in reprisal for certain enemy first-strike and retaliatory attacks. From the standpoint of a science-based Israeli nuclear deterrent, IDF planners should always proceed on the assumption that perceived willingness is just as important as perceived capability.

Maintaining a Viable Preemption Option

               There are determinable circumstances in which a science-based nuclear deterrence strategy would lead American and/or Israeli planners to consider certain preemption options. This conclusion obtains because there could sometime arise circumstances in which the existential risks of continuing to rely upon some combination of nuclear deterrence and active defenses would  become too great.[36] In such perilous circumstances, US decision-makers would need to determine whether such essential defensive strikes, known jurisprudentially as expressions of “anticipatory self-defense,”[37] would be cost-effective. [38] Here, their judgments would depend upon a number of potentially intersecting and critical factors, including:  (a) expected probability of enemy first-strikes; (b) expected cost (disutility) of enemy first-strikes; (c) expected schedule of enemy unconventional weapons deployments; (d) expected efficiency of enemy active defenses over time; (e) expected efficiency of active defenses over time; (f) expected efficiency of hard-target counterforce operations over time; (g) expected reactions of unaffected regional enemies; and (h) expected world community reactions to US and/or Israeli preemptions.

               No doubt, US strategic planners will note that rational American and/or Israeli inclinations to strike preemptively would be affected by the particular steps taken by prospective target states (e.g., Iran, North Korea) to guard themselves against preemption. Science-based planners must presume that such policies could sometime call for the retaliatory launch of bombers and/or missiles upon receipt of warning that an enemy attack is already underway. By requiring launch before the attacking US or Israeli warheads actually reached their intended targets, any enemy reliance of launch-on-warning processes could carry very grave and expanded risks of catastrophic atomic error.

               The single most important factor in rendering science-based judgments on preemption must be the expected rationality of enemy decision-makers. If, after all, these leaders could be expected to strike the US or a US ally with nuclear forces irrespective of anticipated counterstrikes, deterrence would cease to work. This means that certain enemy strikes could be expected even if the enemy leaders fully understood that the US and/or US ally had “successfully” deployed its nuclear weapons in survivable modes; that its nuclear weapons were believed to be capable of penetrating the enemy’s active defenses; and that leaders were conspicuously willing to retaliate.

               Also conceivable is that pertinent foes would sometime be neither rational nor irrational, but mad. While irrational enemy decision-makers would already pose special problems for nuclear deterrence, they might still be rendered susceptible to certain alternate forms of deterrence. This means, much like fully rational enemy decision-makers, that they could still be expected to maintain a fixed, determinable and “transitive” hierarchy of preferences.

               Genuinely mad adversaries, on the other hand, would display no such calculable hierarchy of preferences and would not be subject to any ordinary strategies of nuclear deterrence. Although it would be worse for the US or pertinent US ally to face a mad nuclear adversary than a “merely” irrational one, Washington would have no meaningful say in such a matter. Conceptually, this means that America and certain of its allies will need to maintain a “three-track” system of nuclear deterrence and defense, one track each for adversaries that are presumed to be rational, irrational, or mad.

               A seriously complicating factor in utilizing any such trichotomous distinction would be the practical difficulty of sorting out the correct enemy inclination in particular moments of adversarial confrontation and decision.

Science, Asymmetry and Nuclear War Fighting

                 Now facing variously new forms of chaotic regional disintegration,[39] it is time for the United States to go beyond its already-expanded science-based paradigm of numerical military assessments to various additional considerations. Within this wider and more self-consciously scientific  strategic paradigm, US planners should focus, among other areas, upon the cumulative and interpenetrating importance of unconventional weapons[40] and low-intensity warfare in the region. This is an area of concern that is uniquely complex and increasingly urgent; “geometrically,” it suggests that the “whole” of security threats now facing the US and certain US allies is prospectively greater than the calculable sum of its discrete and more-or-less observable “parts.”

               “Everything is very simple in war,” says Carl von Clausewitz in his On War, “but the simplest thing is still difficult.” For America, looking forward, this means, inter alia, an overriding obligation to forge, dialectically and deductively, sound strategic theory – that is, a coherent network of interrelated propositions from which suitable policy options could be readily identified, rank-ordered, and selected. In more starkly conceptual terms, this means a self-consciously theoretical consideration of (1) all plausible interactions between available strategic options; and (2) all plausible synergies between expected enemy attacks (state and sub state).

               Always, these are proper matters for science, not politics.

               Various additional nuclear narratives now demand US scientific attention. Certain terror attacks could draw in one or more of America’s state enemies, or the adversarial terror group itself could become more-or-less independently nuclear. In this plausibly more ominous second scenario, the expected danger would arrive not in the form of any “chain reaction” nuclear weapons attack, but instead as a relatively tolerable “dirty bomb.”

               Taken by itself, the dirty-bomb variant of nuclear terrorism would pose no authentic hazards of mass destruction; yet, at least in some expected synergies with other kinds of attack, both state and sub-state, the overall security costs could still prove considerable.

The Overall Strategic Challenge:  A Bewildering Contest of “Mind Over Mind”

               Figuring out a dense amalgam of propositions will present US military nuclear planners with a computational task on the highest order of intellectual difficulty. But there is no other serious option. Whatever else these planners may decide is best in their ongoing strategic assessments, they must never lose sight of the central fact that their most basic task concerns a continual scientific struggle of “mind over mind,” never merely one of “mind over matter.”[41]

               There is one last compelling observation to be made about science, doctrine and America’s strategic posture. It is that this incomparable component of national security planning must include an ever-present and dynamic “avant garde, a commitment to “advance” that could continuously enrich US strategic studies. In essence, by embracing this originally-military notion of a constantly changing and cross-fertilizing intellectual vanguard, America’s nuclear planners could be best positioned to remain creative and useful in executing their complex and daunting security obligations.[42]

                According to Thucydides, when the ancient Athenian leader Pericles delivered his first Funeral Speech at the start of the Peloponnesian War, he cautioned: “What I fear more than the strategies of our enemies is our own mistakes.” It is such imperishable wisdom that should now guide US nuclear strategists in the uncertain years ahead. This means avoiding not merely the most conspicuously worthless kinds of strategies –  e.g., former President Donald J, Trump’s incoherent conclusion at the June 12, 2018 Singapore Summit that North Korea was no longer a nuclear problem because he and Kim Jong Un had “fallen in love”[43] – but also more seemingly sensible and fact-based strategies. These strategies would be anti-science orientations and policies founded upon an apparent “common-sense.”[44]  

               For the United States, no subject could be more urgently important than nuclear strategy, a set of problems that will never yield to narrowly visceral intuitions or to the related banalities of domestic politics. Going forward in the current Biden Era, America must return to an earlier post-World War II awareness that any such set warrants a response that is inherently and conspicuously intellectual.[45] To be sure, recalling Trump’s presidential nuclear promises regarding both North Korea and Iran, reassuringly simplistic phrases of ordinary political discourse would appear less daunting and thus more popular. Inevitably, however, offering such disingenuous palliatives (akin to saying that a grave pandemic disease would “disappear on its own”) would prove embarrassing, foolish and dangerously wrong.

               At that late date, it would be too late to elevate science-based strategy over a perpetually futile politics.

               On June 22, 1633, the Inquisition delivered its final verdict on astronomer-scientist Galileo Galilei. “We say, sentence and declare that you, Galileo, by reason of the evidence arrived at in the trial, and by you confessed as above, have rendered yourself in the judgment of this Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy.” Galileo had gotten in trouble for using scientific observation to support evidence-based Copernican theory that the Earth was in orbit around the sun. More precisely, ruled the Inquisitors, Galileo had believed in a doctrine “false and contrary to divine Scripture” that the Sun (not the earth) is the center of the universe. It was perhaps the quintessential example of humankind’s most refractory and anti-intellectual inclinations. Ultimately, it was driven by the ubiquitous religious promise of human salvation, an always-compelling promise that duly compliant individuals can acquire power over death.[46]

               By definition, there can be no greater form of power on planet Earth.


               Though no longer in a seventeenth century grip of doctrinal anti-reason, the present day United States is facing certain similar problems of faith and science. Even today, there are various dominant orthodoxies animating citizen politics, and such fear-based orientations to human reasoning are also casually indifferent to verifiable scientific truth. Now, when such deeply entrenched belief-systems come up against properly fashioned hypotheses, systematically-gathered data and diligent analysis, it is too-often the former that emerge triumphant. Soon, should such an ironic triumph of incoherence and anti-reason take hold in matters of American nuclear deterrence, the cumulative result could be worse than the forced confession of a great, gifted and honorable scientist.

               Far worse.

               It could be a result, as portended in Hamlet, that “would harrow up thy soul.”

[1] Observes 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.”

[2] See:

[3] Former US President Donald J. Trump, who received his own Covid19 vaccination in secret and consistently ridiculed mask wearing, advised Americans that the disease would eventually “disappear on its own,” that “only about 1 per cent” of afflicted individuals would suffer any palpable discomfort and that injecting household disinfectants could have a useful therapeutic role. ( This was the same president who had earlier counseled the use of nuclear weapons against hurricanes and praised American Revolutionary War military forces for “taking control of all airports” during the 18th-centiry conflict.

[4] “Theory is a net,” philosopher Karl Popper learned from the German poet Novalis, “only those who cast, can catch.”

[5] In his sweeping defense of Reason, German philosopher Karl Jaspers writes generically: “The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of Truth.” See, Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (Archon Books, 1971; first English edition, 1952).

[6] Still the best discussion of the “problem of induction” is found at Karl R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), especially Chapter 1. In essence, Popper explains “…it is far from obvious, from a logical point of view, that we are justified in inferring universal statements from singular ones, no matter how numerous.” And in his most famous passage, he continues: “…no matter how many instances of white swans we may have observed, this can never justify the conclusion that all swans are white.” (p. 27).

[7] One such expectation is known as “Occam’s Razor” or the “principle of parsimony.” In essence, it stipulates a preference for the simplest possible explanation still consistent with scientific method. Regarding our current concerns for American nuclear strategy, it suggests, inter alia, that this country’s military planner not seek to identify and examine absolutely every potentially-important variable, but rather to “say the most, with the least.” This presents a significant and often neglected cautionary idea, because, all too often, strategists and planners mistakenly attempt to identify every conceivably pertinent factor, effectively distracting themselves from forging more purposefully efficient or “parsimonious” theory.

[8] A hypothesis is a necessary guide. It does not emerge spontaneously when inquiry is concluded. It should function throughout the entire conduct of inquiry, organizing and integrating all empirical findings into a single coherent system. Without a tentative “answer” in the express form of an hypothesis, there would exist no usable criterion for properly judging whether considered “facts” are relevant or irrelevant.

[9] One should also recall, in this connection, Morris R. Cohen, Ernest Nagel, Rudolf Carnap and John Stuart Mill.

[10] A hypothesis is said to be “scientific” only where it is expected to yield deductive consequences which are then suitably testable by experience. A classic example would be Newton’s famous demonstration that Kepler’s early findings in Astronomia Nova (The New Astronomy) on planetary motion and elliptical planetary orbit was mathematically deducible from the law of universal gravitation.

[11] The scholar’s “cast” must always be linked to expressly dialectical thought processes. Back in the middle dialogues of Plato, dialectic emerged as the preferred form of early “scientific” investigation. Plato describes the dialectician as one who knows how to ask and then to answer questions. In fashioning a usable strategic theory, US planners will first need to better understand this core expectation –  even before they proceed to the usual analytic compilations of facts, figures, orders of battle and regional balances of power.

[12] This jurisprudential/strategic reference is to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty Years War, and created the still-enduring state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1, Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two agreements comprise the Peace of Westphalia. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was first published in 1651, just three years after the Peace of Westphalia. It is at Chapter XIII that Hobbes famously references the Westphalian “state of nature” as an anarchic situation characterized by “continuall feare; and danger of violent death….” Not much has changed.

[13] The term “geometry” is used here merely as an elucidating metaphor, not in the more technically usual or Newtonian sense of a literally calculable and decipherable space.

[14] On the meaning of “civilizational,” it will be instructive to consider Michel Leiris’ (Born in Paris in 1901, a member of the Surrealist Group from 1924 – 1929) apt metaphor:  “However little taste one might have for proposing metaphors as explanations, civilization may be compared without too much inexactness to the thin greenish layer – the living magma and the odd detritus – that forms on the surface of calm water and sometimes solidifies into a crust, until an eddy comes to break it up.  All our moral practices and our polite customs, that radiantly colored cloak that hides the coarseness of our dangerous instincts, all those lovely forms of culture we are so proud of – since it is thanks to them that we can still call ourselves “civilized” – are ready to disappear at the slightest turbulence, to shatter at the slightest impact (like the thin mirror on a fingernail whose polish cracks or roughens), allowing our horrifying primitiveness to appear in the interstices, revealed by earthquakes, when these cosmic revolutions burst the fragile skin of the earth’s circumference and for a moment lay bare the fire at the center, whose wicked and violent heat keeps even the stones molten.”  See:  Michel Leiris, “Civilization,” in Brisees: BROKEN BRANCHES, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989, p. 19.  Michel Leiris, a poet and member of the Surrealist Group, an art critic and an anthropologist, has had a major impact on French culture for many years.  His comment on “civilization” is offered in Brisees together with other nonfiction pieces, addressing such topics as Joan Miro, Stephane Mallarme, Pablo Picasso, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Marcel Duchamp.

[15] Recalling the Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman, Cicero, in The Letters to His Friends: “For what can be done against force, without force?” During the nuclear age, the traditional term, “balance of power,” has sometimes been replaced with a more appropriate “balance of terror.” For the actual origins of this replacement, se Albert Wohlstetter, “The Delicate Balance of Terror,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 37, No.2., January 1959, pp. 211-234.

[16] Ironically, the Founding Fathers of the United States were intellectuals. As explained by American historian Richard Hofstadter: “The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.” See Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 145.

[17] Whether it is described in the Old Testament or in other discernible sources of ancient Western thought, chaos can also be viewed as a source of human betterment. Chaos is that which prepares the world for all things, both sacred and profane. Further, as its conspicuous etymology reveals, chaos represents the yawning gulf or gap wherein nothing is as yet, but where all civilizational opportunity must inevitably originate. Appropriately, the great German poet Friedrich Hölderlin observed: “There is a desert sacred and chaotic which stands at the roots of the things and which prepares all things.” Even in the pagan ancient world, the Greeks thought of such a desert as logos, which indicates to us that it was presumed to be anything but starkly random or without conceivable merit.

[18] Seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes argues convincingly that the international state of nature is “less intolerable” than that very same condition among individuals in “nature.” This is because, in the latter, the “weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.” Significantly, with the spread of nuclear weapons, this critical difference is disappearing. Interestingly, perhaps, in the pre-nuclear age, Samuel Pufendorf, like Hobbes, was persuaded that the state of nations “…lacks those inconveniences which are attendant upon a pure state of nature….” Similarly, Spinoza suggested that “…a commonwealth can guard itself against being subjugated by another, as a man in the state of nature cannot do.” (See: Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis, University of Denver, Monograph Series in World Affairs, Vol. 10, No.3., 1972-73, p. 65.)

[19] On various intersections of Israel’s nuclear strategy and US nuclear strategy, see: Professor Louis René Beres and General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey, ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY AND AMERICA’S NATIONAL SECURITY, Tel Aviv University, Israel, and Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, Tel-Aviv, December 2016.

[20] Niccolo Machiavelli joined Aristotle’s earlier plan for a scientific study of politics with various core assumptions about geopolitics or Realpolitik. His best known conclusion focuses on the eternally stark dilemma of practicing goodness in a world that is generally evil. “A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything, must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good.”  See: The Prince, Chapter XV. Although this argument is largely unassailable, there is also a corresponding need to disavow “naive realism” and to recognize that, in the longer term, the only outcome of “eye for an eye” orientations to world politics will be universal “blindness.”

[21] In this connection, as we may learn from the philosopher Karl Jaspers, Reason and Existence (1935): “The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it.”

[22] 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).

[23] Oddly, perhaps, one of these variables is the promise of immortality, or primal power over death. This is always the ultimate form of conceivable power. US strategic planners may learn from Lucretius’ poem, On the Nature of Things. The core “message” of this ancient Epicurean text could have very serious current and future implications for America’s security. What the young Virgil, citing Lucretius, called “fear of the doom against which no prayer avails,” still leads many to wantonly destroy human life. Because the affected individual fails to understand the delicate life balance between destructive and creative forces, he/she is deeply anxious about personal dissolution. This individual, to use the precise mythical categories first set forth by Lucretius himself, will be on the “side of mars,” rather than “Venus,” thereby reaching out to the rest of the world aggressively rather than compassionately. Individuals, and therefore also certain states, have now largely accepted an attitude toward death that turns them directly toward the variously presumed and palpable pleasures of violence.  

[24] On deterring a prospectively irrational nuclear Iran, 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).

[25]This incoherent claim, founded upon an irreducible ethos of anti-intellectualism, could be compared to the former president’s observations about Covid-19 pandemic. Said President Donald J. Trump on April 23, 2020: “I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in one minute. And there is a way that we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning, because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs.” If this statement at a Covid-19 Task Force press conference were insufficient evidence of presidential incapacity, Trump then continued: “I said supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way. And I think you said you’re going to test that too…. So, we’ll see, but the whole concept of the light, the way it kills in one minute, that’s pretty powerful.”

[26] Nuclear war fighting per se must never be an acceptable strategic option for Israel. Always, Jerusalem’s nuclear weapons and doctrine must be oriented toward deterrence, not actual combat engagements. This conclusion was central to the Final Report of Project Daniel: Israel’s Strategic Future, ACPR Policy Paper No. 155, ACPR, Israel, May 2004, 64 pp. See also: Louis René Beres, “Facing Iran’s Ongoing Nuclearization: A Retrospective on Project Daniel,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vo. 22, Issue 3, June 2009, pp. 491-514; and Louis René Beres, “Israel’s Uncertain Strategic Future,” Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College, Vol. XXXVII, No.1., Spring 2007, pp, 37-54. Professor Beres was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon).

[27] The classic article explaining this useful concept is Theodore Abel, “The Operation Called `Verstehen,’” American Journal of Sociology, Vol., 54, 1948-49, pp. 211-218; reprinted in Edward H. Madden, The Structure of Scientific Thought (1960).

[28] The customary right of anticipatory self-defense is the legal expression of preemption, and has its modern origins in the Caroline Incident. This incident was part of the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. See Beth Polebau, “National Self-Defense in International Law: An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age,” 59 N.Y.U. L. REV. 187, 190–91 (noting that the Caroline Incident transformed the right of self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a customary legal doctrine). Following the Caroline, even the threat of an armed attack has generally been accepted as justification for a militarily defensive action. In an exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then-U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for self-defense that does not actually require a prior armed attack. See Polebau, op. cit., citing to Jennings, “The Caroline and McLeod Cases,” 32 AM. J. INT’L L., 82, 90 (1938). Here, a defensive military response to a threat was judged permissible as long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation.”

[29] See, especially, Louis René Beres, “Facing Iran’s Ongoing Nuclearization: A Retrospective on Project Daniel,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol. 22, Issue 3, June 2009, pp. 491-514; Louis René Beres, “Religious Extremism and International Legal Norms: Perfidy, Preemption and Irrationality,” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 39, No. 3., 2007/2008, pp. 709-730; Louis René Beres, “On Assassination, Preemption and Counterterrorism: The View From International Law,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol. 21. Issue 4., December 2008, pp. 694-725. For earlier writings by this author on anticipatory self-defense under international  law, see: Louis René Beres, Chair, The Project Daniel Group, ISRAEL’S STRATEGIC FUTURE: PROJECT DANIEL, ACPR Policy Paper No. 155, ACPR (Israel), May 2004, 64pp (this paper was prepared for presentation to the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and transmitted by hand on January 16, 2003);  Louis René Beres, SECURITY THREATS AND EFFECTIVE REMEDIES: ISRAEL’S STRATEGIC, TACTICAL AND LEGAL OPTIONS, ACPR Policy Paper No. 102, ACPR (Israel), April 2000, 110 pp; Louis René Beres, ISRAEL’S SURVIVAL IMPERATIVES: THE OSLO AGREEMENTS IN INTERNATIONAL LAW AND NATIONAL STRATEGY, ACPR Policy Paper No. 25, ACPR (Israel), April 1998, 74 pp; Louis René Beres, “Assassinating Saddam Hussein: The View From International Law,” INDIANA INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW REVIEW, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2003, pp. 847- 869; Louis René Beres, “The Newly Expanded American Doctrine of Preemption: Can It Include Assassination,” DENVER JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW AND POLICY, Vol. 31, No. 2., Winter 2002, pp. 157-177; Louis René Beres and (Col/IDF/Ret.),  Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto, “Reconsidering Israel’s Destruction of Iraq’s Osiraq Nuclear Reactor,” TEMPLE INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW JOURNAL, Vol. 9, No. 2., 1995, pp. 437-449; Louis René Beres, “Striking `First’: Israel’s Post Gulf War Options Under International Law,” LOYOLA OF LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LAW JOURNAL, Vol. 14, Nov. 1991, pp. 10-24;  Louis René Beres, “On Assassination as Anticipatory Self-Defense: Is It Permissible?” 70 U. DET. MERCY L. REV. U., 13 (1992); Louis René Beres, “On Assassination as Self-Defense: The Case of Israel,” 20 HOFSTRA L. REV 321 (1991); Louis René Beres, “Preserving the Third Temple: Israel’s Right of Anticipatory Self-Defense Under International Law,” 26 VAND. J. TRANSNAT’L L. 111 (1993); Louis René Beres, “After the Gulf War: Israel, Preemption and Anticipatory Self-Defense,” 13 HOUS. J. INT’L L. 259 (1991); Louis René Beres, “Israel and Anticipatory Self-Defense,” 8 ARIZ J. INT’L & COMP. L. REV. 89 (1991);  Louis René Beres, “After the Scud Attacks: Israel, `Palestine,’ and Anticipatory Self-Defense,” 6 EMORY INT’L L. REV. 71 (1992); and Louis René Beres, “Israel, Force and International Law: Assessing Anticipatory Self-Defense,” THE JERUSALEM JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS, Vol. 13, No. 2., 1991, pp. 1-14.

[30] International law is not a suicide pact. Assassination/targeted killing, subject to applicable legal rules of discrimination, proportionality and military necessity (humanitarian international law), may sometimes represent the least injurious form of permissible self-defense. Where genuinely genocidal attacks are being planned, the permissibility of assassination as anticipatory self-defense could even be unassailable. The residual permissibility of assassination derives originally from the “Westphalian” logic of international law. The authoritative world legal order is obligated to protect us all from clear and terrible infringements on our physical safety, yet our fundamentally anarchic system still lacks an independent centralized mechanism to fulfill this obligation. In the best of all possible worlds, assassination/targeted killing could have no defensible place in law and policy. But we do not yet live in such a world, and the manifestly negative aspects of such lethal remedies cannot be properly evaluated apart from other available options. Such aspects must always be compared to what would be expected of these other options. If the expected human costs of assassination/targeted killing should sometimes appear lower than the expected costs of alternative resorts to military force, such lethality can emerge as the rational and moral choice. However odious it might appear in isolation, assassination/targeted killing could, at least in certain circumstances, represent the best overall option. This option will always elicit widespread indignation, even by those who would find ordinary large-scale warfare appropriate. But the civilizational promise of achieving more genuine worldwide security is still far from being realized; inevitably, existentially imperiled states will still need to confront critical policy choices between employing assassination/targeted killing in doctrinally limited circumstances or renouncing such unsavory tactics at the possible expense of survival. In facing such difficult choices, these states could quickly discover that all viable alternatives to the assassination/targeted killing option must include large-scale violence, and these these alternatives are apt to exact a substantially larger cumulative toll in human life and suffering.

[31] From the standpoint of international law, it could also be reasonable to examine assassination/targeted killing as a possible and permissible form of ordinary self-defense; that is, as a forceful measure of self-help short of war that is undertaken after an armed attack occurs. Tactically, however, from a correlation of forces perspective, there are at least two serious problems with such a position: (1) In view of the ongoing proliferation of extraordinarily destructive weapons technologies, waiting to resort to post-attack self-defense could be unacceptably dangerous or even fatal; and (2) assassination/targeted  killing, while it may prove to be helpful in preventing an attack in the first place, is substantially less likely to be useful in mitigating further harms once an enemy attack had already been launched.

[32] In his Utopia, published in 1516, Thomas More offered a curious but clarifying juxtaposition of foreign policy stratagems and objectives. Although the Utopians are expected to be generous toward other states, they also offer rewards for the assassination of enemy leaders (Book II). This is not because More wished to be gratuitously barbarous, but rather because he was a realistic utopian. Sharing with St. Augustine (whose City of God had been the subject of his 1501 lectures), a fundamentally dark assessment of human political arrangements, More constructed a “lesser evil” philosophy that favored a distinctly pragmatic kind of morality. Sir Thomas More understood that the truly tragic element of politics is necessarily constituted of conscious choices of evil for the sake of good. With regard to this investigation of US security and correlation of forces, this suggests that assassination must always be seen as disagreeable in the “best of all possible worlds” (for example, the Leibnizian world satirized by Voltaire in Candide), but that it may still offer an indispensable expedient in a world that remains distressingly imperfect.

[33] This actual condition of anarchy stands in stark contrast to the jurisprudential assumption of solidarity between all states in the presumably common struggle against aggression and terrorism. Such a peremptory expectation (known formally in international law as a jus cogens assumption), is already mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 C.E.); Hugo Grotius, 2 De Jure Belli Ac Pacis Libri Tres, Ch. 20 (Francis W. Kesey, tr., Clarendon Press, 1925) (1690); Emmerich De Vattel, 1 Le Droit des Gens, Ch. 19 (1758).

[34] See, by this author, Louis René Beres:

[35] See Louis René Beres, “Changing Direction? Updating Israel’s Nuclear Doctrine,” INSS, Israel, Strategic Assessment, Vol. 17, No. 3, October 2014, pp. 93-106. See also: Louis René Beres, Looking Ahead: Revising Israel’s Nuclear Ambiguity in the Middle East, Herzliya Conference Policy Paper, Herzliya Conference, March 11-14, 2013 (Herzliya, Israel); Louis René Beres and Leon (Bud) Edney, Admiral (USN/ret.), “Facing a Nuclear Iran, Israel Must Rethink its Nuclear Ambiguity,” US News & World Report, February 11, 2013, 3pp; and Professor Louis René Beres and Admiral Leon (Bud) Edney, “Reconsidering Israel’s Nuclear Posture,” The Jerusalem Post, October 14, 2013. Admiral Edney served as NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic (SACLANT).

[36] On pertinent Israeli liabilities of ballistic missile defense, 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 MG Isaac Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iran,” Washington Times, June 10, 2007; and Professor Louis René Beres and MG Isaac Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iranian Nuclear Attack,” Washington Times, January 27, 2009.

[37] Even before the nuclear age, legal theorists took strong positions in support of anticipatory self-defense. Emmerich de Vattel, the Swiss scholar, concludes in The Law of Nations (1758): “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.” Vattel, similar to Hugo Grotius in The Law of War and Peace (1625) drew upon ancient Hebrew Scripture and derivative Jewish Law. The Torah contains a provision exonerating from guilt a potential victim of robbery with possible violence if, in capable self-defense, he struck down and, if necessary even killed the attacker, before he committed any crime (Exodus, 22:1.) Additionally, says Maimonides, “If a man comes to slay you, forestall by slaying him.” (Rashi, Sanhedrin, 72a). Finally, apropos of pertinent legal criteria here, the Talmud expressly categorizes a war designed “to diminish the heathens, so that they shall not march against them” as milhemet reshut,” or discretionary (Sotah, 44b).

[38] An antecedent or corollary concern must also be the ethical or humanitarian calculus in these circumstances. Although an ideal world order would contain “neither victims nor executioners,” such an optimal arrangement of global power and authority is assuredly not yet on the horizon. (This phrase is taken from Albert Camus, Neither Victims nor Executioners (Dwight Mc Donald., ed., 1968)). Confronting what he called “our century of fear,” Camus asked his readers to be “neither victims nor executioners,” living not in a world in which killing has disappeared (“we are not so crazy as that”), but one wherein killing has become illegitimate. This is a fine expectation of the philosopher, but certainly not one that can be purposefully harmonized with strategic or even jurisprudential realism. Deprived of the capacity to act as lawful executioners, both states and individuals within states facing aggression, terrorism and/or genocide would be forced by Camus’ reasoning to become victims. The core problem with Camus’ argument, therefore, is that the will to kill remains unimpressed by others’ commitments to “goodness.” This means that both within states, and also between them, executioners must still have their rightful place, and that without these executioners, there would only be more victims.

[39] An expression of such a “new form” would be Russia’s substantial buildup of forces in Syria since the collapsed ceasefire in September 2016. This build up includes more trained personnel to operationalize the newly-delivered S-300 surface-to-air missile system. In examining the consequences of this development dialectically, it will likely deter significant U.S. military actions in Syria. During his own dissembling presidential tenure, Donald Trump did nothing to interfere with Vladimir Putin’s geo-strategic ambitions, treating Russia more as an ally than adversary.

[40] For earlier looks at the expected consequences of specifically nuclear attacks, by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: 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); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1986).  See also, much more recently, by Ami Rojkes Dombe, “What Happens When a Nuclear Bomb Hits a Wall?”  Israel Defense, September 10, 2016.

[41] For this generically useful distinction, I am indebted to F.E. Adcock’s classic volume, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), especially Chapter IV.

[42] More generally, on the search for an avant garde in strategic studies, see, by this author: Louis René Beres, “On the Need for an Avant Garde in Strategic Studies,” Oxford University Press, OUP Blog, July 4, 2011.

[43] This Trump comment expressed the reductio ad absurdum of uninformed strategic thinking. The fact that it was not immediately and totally rejected by competent government and military authorities in the United States was both unfathomable and inexcusable.

[44] In philosophy of science terms, a key policy problem here concerns the difference between knowledge that is independent of experience (a priori) and knowledge that is rooted in experience (a posteriori). For pertinent philosophic origins of this important distinction, see Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

[45] The Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin coined a new term to denote the vital sphere of intellect or “mind.” This term is “noosphere;” it builds upon Friedrich Nietzsche’s stance well-known (especially in Zarathustra) that human beings must always challenge themselves, must continuously strive to “overcome” their otherwise meager “herd”-determined yearnings.

[46] See, by Professor Louis René Beres, at Horasis (Zürich):  Nonetheless, having been born augurs badly for immortality. In their desperation to live perpetually, human societies and civilizations have embraced a broad panoply of faiths that promise life everlasting in exchange for “undying” loyalty. In the end, such loyalty is transferred from the Faith to the State, which then battles with other States in what is generally taken to be a “struggle for power,” but which is often, in reality, a perceived Final Conflict between Us and Them, between Good and Evil. The advantage to being on the side of “Good” in any such contest is nothing less than the incomparable promise of power over death.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Continue Reading


North Korea’s Nuclear Shadow: A Worrisome Expansion



Abstract: The nuclear news from North Korea remains clear and threatening.  Ignoring both political warnings and legal prohibitions, Kim Jong Un has continued testing shorter range weapons that could imperil U.S. allies South Korea and Japan. In September, the North tested a new cruise missile it intends to arm with nuclear warheads and demonstrated a new system for firing ballistic missiles from trains. Kim’s escalatory launch from rail cars came just hours before the South reported its first test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Tackling such complexities, the following article by Professor Louis René Beres recommends issue-specific forms of dialectical thinking to US planners and policy-makers. His focused recommendations include a US policy shift in strategic objective from enemy “denuclearization” to mutual nuclear deterrence.

“The worst does sometimes happen.”-Friedrich Durrenmatt, Swiss Playwright

 Pyongyang’s recent missile tests reveal more than narrowly technical information about advanced military hardware. These tests reveal that Kim Jong Un has no intention to “denuclearize.” A reciprocal question now arises for the United States: What should Washington do in response?

To begin, there should be no resumption of incoherent and needlessly belligerent escalatory threats by an American president. There should be, instead, a conscious refinement of conceptual understandings. Before the United States can limit Pyongyang’s determined capacity to expand ever-more aggressively with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, Washington will need to embrace much more deeply thoughtful ideas about military power and national security.[1]

What should this required “embrace” actually look like? First, President Joseph Biden will need to understand that even a tangible US superiority in delivery vehicles and nuclear firepower need not signify American safety or potential “victory.” Though not readily apparent, this presumed US advantage could encourage a false sense of national influence and a visceral pattern of strategic risk-taking.

Overall, there could be no “minor” nuclear crises. In essence, a nuclear confrontation with North Korea – any nuclear confrontation – could quickly spin out of control, leaving even the militarily “superior” nation with grievous losses or impairments.[2]  What then?

The Intellectual Imperative

For the United States, the core policy obligations are plain. Going forward, proper reactions to North Korean nuclear expansion must be based exclusively upon Science and Reason. Rejecting the previous American president’s announced preference for “attitude” over “preparation,” Mr. Biden should restore this country to intellectually defensible foreign policies.

During the rancorous Trump Era, all proposed presidential solutions to North Korean nuclearization became crudely ad hominem (“We fell in love,” said Donald Trump about Kim Jong Un). At this point, to restore basic coherence to US-North Korean diplomacy, pertinent strategic policies will need to be based upon a more significant American appreciation of decision -making complexities. Inter alia, this appreciation should include an awareness of various multiple “synergies.” 

What intersections should be included? In all synergistic intersections, the “whole” of any particular outcome must be greater than the sum of its “parts.” Additionally, among military planners, the term “force multiplier” is often used to communicate the same or similar principles.

                There is more. For American planners, specificity and generality[3] will both be required. Comprehensive theories are necessary.[4] Always, the prevailing world order,[5] like the myriad individual human bodies who comprise it, will need to be recognized as a system. No discernible effects could be entirely isolated or singular.

Among the clarifying implications of this central metaphor, any more-or-less major conventional conflict in northeast Asia could heighten prospects of international conflicts elsewhere. This is the case whether such prospects would be immediate or incremental.  These prospects could include a regional nuclear war. Significant risks of such a worst case scenario would be enlarged by American searches for no-longer plausible outcomes. An important example of such a mistaken search would be one that is directed toward “victory.”

Perils of Seeking “Victory”

               There is good reason for identifying this example. Here, a cautionary observation about “victory” is persuasive, at least in part, because all core meanings of victory and defeat have changed dramatically.[6] Inter alia, these are no longer the meanings offered by Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz’ classic On War (1832). At a little-examined metaphysical level, the ultimate victory for any human being or institutionalized collection of human beings must be victory over death.[7]

               In most prospectively identifiable wars between nation-states, there are no longer any confirmable criteria of demarcation between victory and defeat. Even a “victory” on some actual field of battle might not in any calculable way reduce serious security threats to the American homeland or US allies. Such grave threats, whether foreseen or unforeseen, could include various sub-state aggressions (terrorism) and/or widening attacks upon regional or non-regional US allies.

               Once it was acknowledged as a distinct foreign-policy objective, any declared US search for “victory” over North Korea could create a corrosively lethal escalatory dynamic with Pyongyang, one from which Washington could no longer expect any derivative military advantages. Such predictably injurious creations could take place in variously unanticipated increments or as an unexpected (“bolt-from-the-blue”) enemy aggression.[8] In the foreseeable worst case, an unwitting US forfeiture of “escalation dominance” would signify starkly irreversible American losses. These losses could include chaotic conditions that create tens or hundreds of thousands of prompt fatalities and much larger numbers of latent cancer deaths.

               For US policy planners, a great deal of subject-matter specificity must soon be taken into close account. In a promisingly coherent post-Trump policy world where history and science regain proper pride of place,[9] a capable American president can finally acknowledge something too long disregarded. It is that because nation-states no longer declare wars or enter into binding war-termination agreements, the application of traditional criteria of “war winning” to interstate conflicts no longer make any legal sense.[10]

Even more important, the empty political rhetoric of “victory” carries no correspondingly objective assessment or evaluation. No one can ever really “know” whether a particular war has been won or lost. And if this ambiguity were not the case, the “winning” side might still remain substantially vulnerable to assorted enemy aggressions, whether state, sub-state or “hybrid” inflicted.

The Limits of Military Acumen, Rationality and Prediction

 There is more. In the very complicated matters at hand, ascertainable benefits might not lie in any traditional forms of military expertise. A core question arises: Exactly how much applicable experience could American generals have garnered in starting, managing or ending a nuclear war? To what extent might the president and his senior commanders see only what they would want to see, including perhaps a seemingly gainful prospect of US military preemption?[11]

               In these opaque nuclear times, selective perceptions could sometimes prove to be mistaken. In principle, even after sober consideration of retaliatory consequences, an American president might still discover tangible benefit in launching specific preemptive strikes against an already nuclear North Korea. This prospect arises at least in exceptionally residual circumstances.[12] Accordingly, there could exist certain definable crises where refraining from striking first would appear more costly than gainful (irrational). These would be crises that allow North Korea to implement certain severely-complicating protective measures.[13]

               What’s the “bottom line” on US defensive first strikes against an already nuclear North Korea? It is that even such an American preemption could sometimes be rational, but only in utterly last resort strategic calculations.

               How can America tap pertinent military expertise on such critical existential judgments? All things considered, it is reasonable to expect that the generals could have no adequate expectation of pertinent “dialectics;”[14] that is, about Pyongyang’s selected response. Still, by no means does this candid expectation represent any ad hominem or gratuitous criticism of professional military planners. It is merely a dispassionate analytic reflection on the historical uniqueness of nuclear conflict.

There have been no nuclear wars; hence, there can be no experts on nuclear warfare.

               This incontestable conclusion is most urgently compelling in regard to the myriad complexities of any two-power nuclear competition: (1) one where there would exist substantial asymmetries in relative military power position; and (2) one where the “weaker” (North Korean) side could maintain a verifiable potential to inflict unacceptably damaging first-strikes or reprisals upon the “stronger” American side.

               Again, no truly reliable probability estimations can ever be undertaken in reference to unprecedented or sui generis situations. In science, authentic probability judgments must always be based upon a carefully calculated frequency of relevant past events.

               There are other problems in seeking an ultimate “victory” over North Korea. Recalling the “good old days,” which extend into the twentieth-century, nation-states have generally had to defeat enemy armies before being able to wreak any wished-for destruction upon the adversary’s cities and infrastructures. In those earlier times of more traditional doctrinal arrangements concerning war and peace, an individual country’s demonstrated capacity to “win” was necessarily prior to a sought-after capacity to destroy. An appropriate and well-known example to US military thinkers would be the case of Persia and Greece at the 480 BCE Battle of Thermopylae. Today, unlike what was purportedly the case at Thermopylae, a state needn’t be able to defeat enemy armies in order to inflict calculably gainful harms. Even if the US were to “win” against North Korea in a war, that “defeated” adversary could still inflict vast harms upon American citizens, institutions and infrastructures.

At a minimum, such an enemy could enlist destructive proxy forces, such as bio-terrorist surrogates.

The Capacity to Deter is Distinct from the Capacity to Win

               For President Biden and his counselors, there does remain some “good news.” The United States needn’t be able to win a particular conflict in order to credibly threaten a significant foe like North Korea (deterrence) or to inflict retaliatory harms upon this enemy. What this “good news” means today is that the capacity to deter is no longer necessarily identical to the capacity to win. For the United States, the principal war-planning or war-deterring lesson of any such ongoing transformations now warrants serious study.

               For the United States, the only prospective “victory” of immediate consequence is an intellectual victory. Conceptually, what matters most will be an American capacity to win bewilderingly complex struggles of “mind over mind.” Going forward, American planner must diligently work through variously dialectic forms of struggle with Pyongyang, not just enter into ad hoc or visceral contests of “mind over matter.”

               There are also various relevant points of law to be considered.[15] This is because jurisprudencehas its own proper place in such bewildering strategic calculations. More specifically, in terms of applicable law, winning and losing may no longer mean much for successful strategic planning. This tangible devaluation of victory and defeat should also become more obvious with regard to America’s wars on terror. Now, after Afghanistan, pressing conflict issues will need to be examined within continuously transforming US military plans and objectives regarding not just North Korea but also Syria, Iraq, Yemen and assorted other places.

               Regarding “victory,” he U.S. can never meaningfully “win” any upcoming wars with Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS-K, Taliban, etc. In part, this is the case because national leaders could never know for certain whether a presumptively zero-sum conflict with virulent sub-state or “hybrid” adversaries was actually “over.” On pertinent definitional matters, a “hybrid” enemy would refer to any adversary that combined state and sub-state elements in changing ratios of composition.

  Operationally, winning and losing are now fully extraneous to America’s collective interests, or, in those foreseeable cases where “victory” might still be expressed as a high-priority national objective, fully harmful. Ironically, a narrowly static American orientation to “winning” against North Korea could sometime lead the United States toward huge and irreversible losses. Such loses would likely ensue from various critical American misjudgments on “escalation dominance.”

               There is more. United States military planners could look usefully to “The East.” Long ago, famed Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu had reasoned simply: “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” To meet current US national security objectives vis-à-vis North Korea and other potential nuclear adversaries, this ancient Chinese military wisdom suggests that Washington now openly seek deterrence rather than victory. Any such necessary discontinuance should remain connected to the stringent requirements of maintaining optimal control over all necessary military escalations.

               If, in the future, these requirements were somehow minimized or disregarded, a resultant regional conflict could have “spillover” implications for other nation-states and for other parts of the world. Different elements of chaos notwithstanding, world politics and world military processes are always expressive of an underlying system. This elucidating characterization must lie continuously at the core of any coherent US strategic doctrine. 

Final Strategic Calculations

               Before these systemic connections can be understood and assessed, however, US planners must realize that the complicated logic of strategic nuclear calculations demands a discrete and capably nuanced genre of decision-making. This would be a genre that calls for considerable intellectual refinement in extremis atomicum. As an example, casually expecting an American president to convincingly leverage Chinese and Russian sanctions on behalf of the United States would miss at least two vital and intersecting points: (1) the regime in Pyongyang will likely never back down on its overall plan for nuclearization, however severe sanctions might seemingly become; and (2) counting upon meaningful sanctions from Beijing or Moscow would become inherently problematic for the United States.

 Both China and Russia remain substantially more worried about their traditional national enemy in Washington than about future dangers arising from Pyongyang.

               Truth will out. In world politics, as in law,[16] truth is exculpatory.  Like it or not, a nuclear North Korea is a fait accompli. Soon, President Biden will have to focus upon creating stable nuclear deterrence with North Korea (a) for the benefit of the United States; (b) for the benefit of America’s directly vulnerable allies in South Korea and Japan; and (c) for the benefit of its indirectly vulnerable allies elsewhere, including Israel in the still-dissembling Middle East.

               However inconspicuous, these important allies remain integral components of the same organic world system; they can never be helpfully separated from the palpable consequences of American geopolitical posture.

               “The existence of `system’ in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature,” observed 20th century French Jesuit scholar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “no matter whom….” Nowhere is this interrelatedness more obvious or more potentially consequential than in the continuing matter of a nuclear North Korea and US foreign policy decision-making. This urgent threat from Pyongyang will not subside or disappear on its own. Immediately, it must be America’s sober responsibility to better understand all relevant American security obligations as well as their derivative complications.

Nuclear Warfighting Scenarios

 Should nuclear weapons ever be introduced into any future conflict between the United States and North Korea, actual instances of nuclear war-fighting could occur. This would be the case as long as: (a) US conventional first-strikes against North Korea would not destroy Pyongyang’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) US conventional retaliations for a North Korean conventional first-strike would not destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) US preemptive nuclear strikes would  not destroy Pyongyang’s second-strike nuclear capability; and (d) US conventional retaliations for North Korean conventional first strikes would not destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability.

Any US nuclear preemption would be potentially catastrophic and hence implausible. Reciprocally, assuming rationality, any North Korean nuclear preemption against the United States or its allies would be unlikely or altogether inconceivable. Can we reasonably and continuously assume North Korean rationality? Kim Jong Un has been steadily accelerating his testing of advanced nuclear missiles and supporting infrastructures. There is no persuasive basis to doubt that his vast commitment to nuclear weapons is in any manner reversible.

In January 2021, after describing the United States as “our biggest enemy,” Kim Jong Un called openly for more advanced nuclear weapons and infrastructures. At that time, during fully nine hours of blistering remarks at a party conference in Pyongyang, Kim summarized his country’s basic strategic posture: “Our foreign political activities should be focused and redirected on subduing the United States, our biggest enemy…No matter who is in power in the US, the true nature of the US and its fundamental policies towards North Korea never change.”

               Now, capable strategic analysts guiding American president Joseph Bien should enhance their nuclear investigations by carefully identifying basic distinctions between intentional or deliberate nuclear war and unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. The risks are apt to vary considerably, especially if rationality is also factored into the manty-sided calculation. Those American analysts who would remain too singularly focused upon a deliberate nuclear war scenario could all-too-casually underestimate a far more serious nuclear threat to the United States.

               This means the increasingly credible threat of an unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war.

                An additional conceptual distinction must be inserted into any US analytic scenario “mix.” This is the subtle but still important difference between an inadvertent nuclear war and an accidental nuclear war. Any accidental nuclear war would have to be inadvertent; conversely, however, there could be forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not be accidental. Most critical, in this connection, would be significant errors in calculation committed by one or both sides – that is, more-or-less reciprocal mistakes that lead directly and/or inexorably to nuclear conflict.

The most blatant example of such a mistake would concern assorted misjudgments of enemy intent or capacity that emerge during the course of any ongoing crisis escalation.

Wider Implications of Chaos

               What about “chaos?” How would this indecipherable condition impact pertinent models of rational decision-making? Whether described in the Old Testament or in other evident sources of Western philosophy, chaos could become as much a source of human improvement as decline.[17] It is this prospectively positive side of chaos that is intended by Friedrich Nietzsche’s dense remark  in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883): “I tell you, ye have still chaos in you.”

               When expressed in aptly neutral tones, chaos represents that condition which prepares the world for all things, whether sacred or profane. It reveals that yawning gulf of “emptiness” where nothing is as yet, but where variously remaining civilizational opportunity can still originate. The 18th century German poet Friedrich Hölderlin observed: “There is a desert sacred and chaotic, which stands at the roots of the things, and which prepares all things.”

               Insightfully, in the ancient pagan world, Greek philosophers thought of this “desert” as logos, a primal designation which indicates that chaos is anything but starkly random or without merit.

One core conclusion is beyond reasonable question. It is that the only rational use for American nuclear weapons in any forthcoming US-North Korea negotiation must be as diplomatic bargaining elements of interstate dissuasion/persuasion. Barring any sudden crisis initiated by North Korean nuclear strike – a crisis that would immediately place the American president in extremis atomicum –  there could be absolutely no gainful use for such weapons as actual implements of war. If there could sometime arise a strategically rational justification for nuclear war-waging, one in which the expected benefits of nuclear weapons use would seemingly exceed expected costs, the planet as a whole could be imperiled, perhaps even irremediably.

Prima facie, there can be no credible guarantees that US-North Korean relations will not sometime descend into tangible nuclear conflict. “The worst,” warns Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “does sometimes happen.” For the United States, the best way to avoid any such irreversible folly with North Korea would be to reluctantly accept that belligerent country into the “nuclear club,” but still take intellect-based steps to ensure that it remains subject to American nuclear deterrence.

[1] “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another,” asks Samuel Beckett philosophically in Endgame, “of seeking justification always on the same plane?” Thought the celebrated Irish playwright was certainly not thinking specifically about world politics or national security, his generalized query remains well-suited to this strategic inquiry. As competitive power-politics has never worked, why keep insisting upon it as a presumptively viable doctrine?

[2] For informed assessments of plausible consequences of nuclear war fighting, see, by this author: Louis René Beres, SURVIVING AMID CHAOS: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016/2018); Louis René Beres,  APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres,  MIMICKING SISYPHUS: AMERICA’S COUNTERVAILING NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1983);  Louis René Beres, REASON AND REALPOLITIK: U S FOREIGN POLICY AND WORLD ORDER (Lexington MA;  Lexington Books, 1984);  and Louis René Beres, ed.,  SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1986).

[3] The need for generality notwithstanding, strategic thinkers should never lose sight of the human consequences of their abstractions. By definition, theory is a simplification, one purposely excluding from consideration those factors deemed unessential to analytic explanation. This indispensable exclusion comes at a cost, however, because it involves the palpable sacrifice of espirit de finesse or the individual human element of any catastrophe. Recalling the poet Goethe’s observation in Urfaust, the original Faust fragment: “All theory, dear friend, is gray, and the golden tree of life is green.” (Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, Und grűn des Lebens goldner Baum.”)

[4] “Theory is a net,” observes German poet Novalis,” and “only those who cast, can catch.” This apt metaphor was embraced by philosopher of science Karl Popper as the epigraph to his classic work on philosophy of science:  The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934).

[5] The term “world order” has its contemporary origins in a scholarly movement begun at the Yale Law School in the mid- and late 1960s and later “adopted” by the Politics Department at Princeton University in 1967-68. The present author was an early member of the Princeton-based World Order Models Project, and wrote several of the early books and articles in this once still-emergent academic genre.

[6]See by this writer, at The Hill: Louis René Beres:

[7]Throughout history, notions of ultimate “victory” have been associated with personal immortality. To wit, in his posthumously published Lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined, in his Philosophy of Right (1820), that the state represents “the march of God in the world.” The “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation from mere principle of action to a sacred end in itself, drew its originating strength from the doctrine of sovereignty advanced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initially conceived as a principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent a specific metamorphosis, whence it became the formal or justifying rationale for international anarchy –  that is, for the global “state of nature.” First established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty came to be regarded as a power absolute and above the law. Understood in terms of modern international relations, this doctrine encouraged the notion that states lie above and beyond any form of legal regulation in their interactions with each other.

[8] See especially: RESOLUTION ON THE DEFINITION OF AGGRESSION, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31) 142, U.N. Doc. A/9631, 1975, reprinted in 13 I.L.M. 710, 1974; and CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS, Art. 51… Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, Bevans 1153, 1976, Y.B.U.N. 1043.

[9] “Intellect rots the brain” shrieked Joseph Goebbels at a Nuremberg Germany rally in 1935. “I love the poorly educated” echoed American presidential candidate Donald Trump at a 2016 rally in the United States. Perhaps to authenticate his anti-intellectualism, Trump went on to propose household bleach as a Covid19 treatment, urge the use of nuclear weapons against hurricanes and praise American revolutionary armies in the 18th century for “gaining control of all national airports.”

[10] Under authoritative international law, which is generally a part of US law, the question of whether or not a “state of war” exists between states is ordinarily ambiguous. Traditionally, it was held that a formal declaration of war was necessary before any true state of war could be said to exist. Hugo Grotius divided wars into declared wars, which were legal, and undeclared wars, which were not. (See Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace, Bk. III, Chas. III, IV, and XI.) By the start of the twentieth century, the position that war can obtain only after a conclusive declaration of war by one of the parties was codified by Hague Convention III. This treaty stipulated, inter alia, that hostilities must never commence without a “previous and explicit warning” in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum. (See Hague Convention III Relative to the Opening of Hostilities, 1907, 3 NRGT, 3 series, 437, article 1.) Currently, formal declarations of war could be tantamount to admissions of international criminality because of the express criminalization of aggression by authoritative international law. It could, therefore, represent a clear jurisprudential absurdity to tie any true state of war to prior declarations of belligerency. It follows, further, that a state of war may exist without any formal declarations, but only if there should exist an actual armed conflict between two or more states, and/or at least one of these affected states considers itself “at war.”

[11] As a legally permissible form of such a preemption, “anticipatory self-defense” is rooted in customary international law (see note immediately below), Customary international law is identified as an authoritative source of world legal norms at Art. 38 of the UN’s Statute of the International Court of Justice. International law, an integral part of the legal system of all states in world politics, assumes a general obligation of states to supply benefits to one another and to avoid war wherever possible. This core assumption of jurisprudential solidarity is known formally as a “peremptory” or jus cogens expectation, that is, one that is not subject to any reasonable question. It can be found, inter alia, in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis, Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625) and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations or Principles of Natural Law (1758).

[12] In law, any such defensive first-strikes, if permissible, could be considered “anticipatory self-defense.” The normative origins of such defense liein customary international law, more precisely, in The Caroline, a case that concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally justified certain militarily defensive actions. In an exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for self-defense that did not require an antecedent attack. Here, the jurisprudential framework permitted a military response to a threat so long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” See: Beth M. Polebaum, “National Self-defense in International Law: An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age,” 59 N.Y.U.L. Rev. 187, 190-91 (1984) (noting that the Caroline case had transformed the right of self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a legal doctrine). Still earlier, see: Hugo Grotius, Of the Causes of War, and First of Self-Defense, and Defense of Our Property, reprinted in 2 Classics of International Law, 168-75 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1925) (1625); and Emmerich de 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). Also, Samuel Pufendorf, The Two Books on the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law, 32 (Frank Gardner Moore., tr., 1927 (1682).

[13]Designed to guard against any US preemption, these measures could involve the attachment of “hair trigger” launch mechanisms to nuclear weapon systems and/or the adoption of “launch on warning” policies, possibly coupled with pre-delegations of launch authority. This means, incrementally, that the US could find itself endangered by certain steps taken by Pyongyang to prevent a belligerent preemption. Optimally, the United States would do everything possible to prevent such steps, especially because of expanded risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks launched against its own or allied armaments/ populations. But if such steps were to become a fait accompli, Washington could still calculate correctly that a preemptive strike would be legal and cost-effective. This is because the expected enemy retaliation, however damaging, could still appear more tolerable than the expected consequences of enemy first-strikes –  strikes likely occasioned by the antecedent failure of “anti-preemption” protocols.

[14] “Dialectic” is Plato’s term for what science and philosophy “do.” It is rooted in the Greek word for conversation, and stipulates that only through conversation can one genuinely discover “what each thing is” (Republic 533b).

[15] Under international law, every use of forcemust be judged twice: once with regard to the underlying right to wage war (jus ad bellum) and once to the means used in conducting a war (jus in bello). Following the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the United Nations Charter, there can be absolutely no right to aggressive war. However, the long-standing customary right of post-attack self-defense remains 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. 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” (aka “distinction”), “proportionality” and “military necessity” into belligerent calculations.

[16] International law is always part of the law of the United States. For early decisions on the US “incorporation” of authoritative international law by Chief Justice John Marshall, see: The Antelope, 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 66, 120 (1825); The Nereide, 13 U.S. (9 Cranch) 388, 423 (1815); Rose v. Himely, 8 U.S. (4 Cranch) 241, 277 (1808) and Murray v. The Schooner Charming Betsy, 6 U.S. (2 Cranch) 64, 118 (1804).

[17] “Is it an end that draws near,” inquires Karl Jaspers in Man in the Modern Age (1951) “or a beginning.”

Continue Reading


Eastern seas after Afghanistan: UK and Australia come to the rescue of the U.S. in a clumsy way



In March 2021 the People’s Republic of China emerged as the world’s largest naval fleet, surpassing the US Navy. An advantage of around 60 ships, which will increase in 2024, when China will count on a fleet of at least 400 units. A goal already announced in 2018 by President Xi Jinping.

After the unsuccessful withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States announced the establishment of a new security cooperation alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia, whose first task is to assist Australia in building nuclear-powered submarines.

Considering its allies, the White House has shared only nuclear propulsion technology with the UK and Australia will be the next. Although the officials from the three countries denied that the new alliance was targeted to any country, European and US media believe that the move is intended to counter Chinese power and strength.

In addition to nuclear-powered submarines, the three countries will also strengthen cooperation in the areas of network technology, artificial intelligence and quantum technology. White House officials revealed that Britain played a strategic leadership role in reaching the alliance.

In Global Britain in a Competitive Age. The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy of March 2021 – which sets out the government’s geopolitical strategy after Brexit and outlines the UK role in the world over the next 10 years – the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, proposed to reposition UK’s global strategy after Brexit. He announced the foreign and defence policy, stressing that the country would be deeply involved in the Indo-Pacific region in the future.

According to a statement released by the White House on September 15, the US-UK-Australia security alliance is named AUKUS, and is designed to strengthen the three countries’ diplomatic, security and defence cooperation in the said region.

Under the new regional arrangement, the three countries will further strengthen information and technology sharing, as well as integrate science and supply chains and security and defence-related industrial bases.

The first key basis of the arrangement is the United States of America and the United Kingdom, with the aim of assisting Australia in building nuclear-powered submarines. The three countries will spend 18 months discussing how to implement the plan.

As said above, before Australia the United Kingdom was the only country with which the United States shared nuclear propulsion technology. It should be recalled that during the Cold War, after the Soviet Union had launched the first artificial satellite (the Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957), the United States and Britain signed a joint defence agreement on July 3, 1958 (the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement) to share key military nuclear technology. Britain obviously ignored the rest of Europe, about which, even before Napoleon, it had cared very little except as a rampart from the South and the East. However, let us revert to the present day.

Compared to conventional submarines, nuclear-powered ones are faster; they have greater endurance and attack capabilities and are more difficult to detect. Currently, only six countries in the world have this type of weapon: the United States, the People’s Republic of China, Russia, France, India and the United Kingdom.

According to the AUKUS plan, these submarines will be built in Adelaide, the capital of the State of South Australia, but the Commonwealth of Australia has no nuclear industry nor the necessary fissile materials. US officials have revealed that nuclear materials can be shipped from other countries to that federal State. The USA and Australia already signed an agreement in 2010, which stipulates that Australia will not retract or increase the amount of nuclear materials sent to the country from the United States, and it should also be recalled that Australia is also a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, however, has already put his hands on, declaring that the construction of nuclear-powered submarines does not necessarily mean the production of nuclear weapons. He emphasised that Australia did not seek to acquire nuclear weapons, nor did it seek a chance in civilian nuclear power.

Nevertheless, some experts believe that Australia’s construction of nuclear-powered submarines is off to a bad start. In an interview with The Washington Post, James Acton – Director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace – pointed out that the move severely undermined the nuclear non-proliferation system and could also trigger an arms race.

He sharply predicted that, after Australia’s precedent, Iran might also announce the construction of nuclear-powered submarines: after all, Iran is a subject of international law and a co-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as is Australia.

In the past, while such a possible Iranian request might have been opposed by the international community, with AUKUS it will be lent credence, unless the aforementioned international law also formally establishes the existence of first-ranking and second-ranking States.

On the political level, Hugh White, a former Australian defence official, stated in an interview with The New York Times that Australia’s move was not just to build nuclear-powered submarines, but also a strategic adjustment to significantly deepen anti-Chinese cooperation with the United States.

When the new Indo-Pacific security alliance was announced on September 15, US President Joseph Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison were careful not to mention the People’s Republic of China.

President Biden said that the establishment of the new alliance was used for ensuring long-term peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. US officials stressed that the trilateral cooperation was not directed against any other country, but was designed to safeguard the strategic interests of the three countries.

But whether it is the Australian media, the British media such as The Guardian or the US media such as CNN, they all agree that the alliance is directly targeting China.

Over the next few days, President Biden will also meet at the White House with the leaders of the “four-country group”: the United States, Japan, India and Australia.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, on the other hand, said at a press conference on September 16 that mutual respect and trust are the prerequisites for dialogue and cooperation between the countries.

He stressed that the current difficult situation in China-Australia relations stemmed solely from Australia. The most urgent task for Australia is to address the setback in relations between the two countries, as well as seriously assess whether it views the People’s Republic of China as a partner or a threat, and hence sincerely uphold mutual respect and treat each other as equals.

Let the principles and spirit of a comprehensive strategic partnership – not a sectoral one targeted against someone – govern the relations between the two countries.

In an interview with The Guardian, a senior White House official revealed that, when the new understanding was established, the UK played the role of mediator on all key issues and was “a very strong strategic leader”.

It should be noted that, on the issue of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Britain and the USA had severe divergences. The British Secretary of State for Defence, Robert Ben Lobban Wallace, repeatedly criticised the United States. Therefore, in theory, the USA can also bypass Britain and directly reach an agreement with Australia on nuclear-powered submarines.

The senior White House official – who disclosed the above mentioned issue – believes that this time the UK is so active in the three-nation military alliance because it had to “pay a deposit” for the policy described in Global Britain.

Global Britain, in itself, is a grandiose and vague concept. According to the UK government’s official website, the core of Global Britain is to invest again in UK’s relations with other countries, so as to promote an international order based on well-defined rules, and to demonstrate that the UK is a well-advised and trusted country in the international arena.

Some analysts believe that Boris Johnson’s Global Britain is trying to emulate Churchill’s three-circle diplomacy, e.g. the three areas of influence in British foreign policy: the Empire and the Commonwealth, the Anglo-Saxon world – in particular, the special relationship with the United States, i.e. the 51st star – and Europe.

The UK uses its close relationship with the second circle to act as a link between the other two circles to safeguard Britain’s interests and status as a (former) great power.

Meanwhile, let us see what France thinks about it. The French Ambassador to Australia, Jean-Pierre Thebault, was recalled to Paris on September 18. Before leaving, he criticised Australia for having made a “huge mistake” on the issue of submarine construction. Ambassador Thebault arrived at Sydney airport on the evening of September 18th, from where he took a flight to leave Australia and return to France.

On September 17, the French Foreign Ministry issued a communiqué announcing the immediate recall of the Ambassador to the United States, Philippe Étienne, and of the Ambassador to Australia, the aforementioned Thebault.

The communiqué stated that Australia had abandoned the submarine-building agreement reached with France and had instead established a “new partnership” with the United States on the development of nuclear submarines – an “unacceptable behaviour” between allies.

Before returning to France, Ambassador Thebault said that Australia’s cancellation of the submarine contract with France was a “big mistake” and that Australia’s handling of the partnership was “very bad”. He revealed that this was not just a contractual issue, but an issue of partnership based on trust and mutual understanding.

Ambassador Thebault reiterated that at no time did Australia give France any clear signal to suspend the relevant contract. He said that France was kept completely in the dark about the steps taken and during that period many Australian officials not only continued to discuss the project with France, but also expressed their willingness to make the project a success.

No comments have come so far from Australia.

Continue Reading


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.

Continue Reading