Thinking About the Unthinkable, Again

In 1962, Herman Kahn riveted the US defense community with a book titled Thinking About the Unthinkable. Far ahead of its time, the American physicist’s seminal work displayed a rare combination of conceptual imagination, intellectual capacity and professional courage. Most importantly, it spoke candidly about the plausibility and  effects of a nuclear war.[1]

               Kahn’s book was not reassuring, but it was necessary.

Now it’s again time for such consequential candor.

               To begin, scholars and policy-makers ought to recall Clemenceau’s timeless insight: “War is too important to be left to the generals.” Today, it’s also urgent to understand that war is too important to be left to the politicians. This is especially true about a nuclear war. Lest it be too easily forgotten, America’s nuclear decision–making processes became dangerously incoherent during the Trump years.[2] In  2024, in one way or another, this deterioration could surface again.

Whoever is in charge, more refined theory will be indispensable.[3] A specific reason to “think about the unthinkable” again concerns Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine, and its potential superpower struggle for “escalation dominance.”[4] Frustrated by his tangible lack of military progress in subjugating this weaker state, Vladimir Putin now speaks more openly about a new nuclear arms race with the United States.

 In unexpectedly short order, such belligerent rhetoric could prove self-fulfilling. The most significant perils would lie in an unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war between the two principal adversaries. And this is to say nothing about possible impacts of China as an “intervening variable.” Already, China fields the largest navy in the world, and seems determined to fully incorporate Taiwan.

The Philosophical Background

 World Politics and Power over Death

Where does the United States stand with regard to existential nuclear threats? Where shouldit stand with regard to such incomparable threats? Once upon a time, beginning in the late 1950s, nuclear war avoidance became humankind’s main survival imperative. This sensible rank-ordering was plain, visible in the newspapers, on evening news programs and in the movies.[5] It was a conspicuous, pressing and infinitely perplexing focus. Among other things, it reflected the characteristic preference orderings of rich nations.  Still, one fact remained central:

If the world should fail to prevent a nuclear war,[6] all other essential human values would be degraded and imperiled.[7]

  In the “old days,” scholars could speak reasonably about “nuclear disarmament” or “denuclearization.”[8] But we still don’t live in a reasonable or reasoning world, and purposeful peace strategies will inevitably need to include worrisome compromises or “tradeoffs.” Do Russia and the United States have the leadership to capably understand such arcane calculations? What if a “Trump restoration” were to coincide with an even more recalcitrant Vladimir Putin?[9] And what if such Russia-US relationships were to coincide with variously aggressive Chinese moves in the Pacific?

 On specific matters of nuclear war avoidance, this would mean inter alia continuously refining threat-based strategies of“escalation dominance” and nuclear deterrence.At a more rudimentary level, citizens of both nuclear and near-nuclear states, long accustomed to crude postures of belligerent nationalism, would need to change orientations. By “thinking about the unthinkable” again, they could achieve certain basic transformations of consciousness. Though rarely understood, these individuals would need to detach their diverse and accumulated hopes for personal immortality (power over death) from the particular nation’s geopolitical success.[10]

What can all this mean cumulatively? It is hardly a call for mass-based understanding. It is also unlikely to make any sense to intellectually-limited political leaderships nurtured by delusion, by epiphenomena, by what Plato would have called (here we should remember Plato’s cave parable) “shadows of images.”[11]

But who actually thinks about “immortality” and politics in the same breath? What sort of bewildering juxtaposition is this? The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas cuts to the core: “An immortal person is a contradiction in terms.”[12] Could anything be more obvious?

Ultimately, the answer depends on science, but science is easily trumped by what Sigmund Freud called considerations of “wish fulfilment.” Are we humans fully prepared to abandon the palpable promises of Faith in the less satisfying interests of Reason? One needn’t be a disciplined analytic thinker to answer this underlying query without hesitation.

There can never be any more compelling human wish than the primal will not to die.[13]

 Always, students of world politics have been instructed that their subject centers on a vague quality called “power?” These instructions have not been wrong ex hypothesi, but they have (at least until now) failed to identify the greatest conceivable form of power. This form is power over death; this is the incomparable promise of immortality.

Nowadays we see the attraction of this kind of power most plainly in Jihadist terrorism, but it can also animate the perpetrators of war and genocide. Still, these allegations are “only” intellectual arguments. What could they convincingly signify to citizens of an American nation that has always prided itself on being “practical?” The most credible short answer is endless belligerent nationalism and (in these more selective situations) nuclear deterrence.

The Unique “Game” of Nuclear Deterrence

 Like it or not, nuclear deterrence is a “game” that certain world leaders will sometime have toplay. These leaders could choose to learn the game purposefully and skillfully or instead deal with it inattentively and inexpertly. In any such game, calculably gainful plays would be theoretically possible, but these moves would necessarily be based upon variously enhanced capacities for strategic threat assessment and strategic decision-making.

In the final analysis, “winning” would not mean what it has meant traditionally. No longer will victory be narrowly about acquiring geopolitical supremacy or hegemony. It will be about enabling broadly systemic forms of cooperation and a more reassuringly continuous dynamic of crisis management/de-escalation.

A viable global civilization represents a sine qua non for every nation’s physical survival.[14] Ultimately, however, any such civilization[15] will have to be constructed upon more than a presumptively favorable “balance” of military power. It will have to be founded upon suitably  fashioned visions of “cosmopolitanism”[16] or human “oneness.”[17]

The Intellectual Core

               Though our national foreign policy makers may insist that an emphasis on theoretic refinement has always been the case, sending capable flag officers to exemplary graduate programs could never be enough. To wit, nuclear strategic inquiries must become more expressly grounded in logic and scientific–method and less in political clichés or the tortured syntax of an American  leader who “loves the poorly educated.”[18] How should we now think again about the unthinkable?

Controlling nuclear proliferation will become an increasingly important and potentially overriding national imperatives. Under no circumstances should any sane and capable scholar or policy-maker ever recommend the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Earlier, this fallacy of strategic reasoning had its own name. It was called the “porcupine theory.”[19]

On its face, any such endorsement must represent the reductio ad absurdum of all possible intellectual misjudgments. Among relevant hazards of strategic judgment, it would be problematic to assume that nuclear deterrence credibility needs to be positively correlated with threat destructiveness. Indeed, from the standpoint of creating stable nuclear deterrence, the likelihood of an actual nuclear conflict between states could be inversely related to the expected magnitude of catastrophic harms.[20]

This is only an “informal” (not science-based) presumption because we are presently considering a unique or unprecedented event. Because true mathematical probabilities must always be based upon the discernible frequency of relevant past events, events that are sui generis (such as a nuclear war) can be “predicted” only with less than scientific methods. Any such “prediction,” therefore, could have limited policy-making value.

Concerning the ascertainable probability of a nuclear war, one derivative understanding is primary and axiomatic.  This understanding stipulates that differences in probability must depend on whether the particular conflict in question would be intentional or inadvertent.  A further division must then be made between an inadvertent nuclear war caused by errors in calculation (nuclear war by miscalculation) and one occasioned by accident, computer hacking or computer malfunction.

No meaningful scientific estimations of nuclear war likelihood could ever be made apart from such antecedent conceptual divisions.


History will need to be consulted. How did we get here? Back in August 2021, four expansive US   military exercises were undertaken across the world. These operations included an exercise staged by the US Navy 5th and 2nd fleets (close to Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea respectively) and Large Scale Global Exercise 21, led by the US and allied forces with a focus on the Indo-Pacific Ocean area. All exercises were conducted with China and Russia openly identified as “hypothetical” adversaries.

In response, China conducted a large-scale military exercise in the South China Sea during the same period, and another joint exercise with Russia in China’s Northwest Region. The American exercises were conducted far from the US homeland, but the China/Russia exercises were launched close to home. Cumulatively, such exercised maritime and troop movements expressed various determinable elements of “Cold War II.”[21]

Looking ahead in Washington, air space and outer space are apt to become further militarized and amenable to expanding nuclear war preparations. Most expectedly worrisome would be the correspondingly greater risks of nuclear crisis and actual nuclear war, especially a conflict caused by accident or miscalculation.

 Nuclear proliferation has been dealt with by competent nuclear strategists for decades, sometimes by gifted thinkers who understood that any alleged benefits of nuclear spread would necessarily be outweighed by staggering costs.[22] Most obvious here are proliferation-associated risks of inadvertent nuclear war, accidental nuclear war, nuclear war by irrationality/coup d’état and nuclear war by miscalculation.[23]

               To date, this has been an unassailable presumption. Foreseeably, it will not change. the “Westphalian”[24] system of international relations and international law first bequeathed by treaty in 1648. This system of belligerent nationalism remains rooted  in persistent anarchy and is already being worsened by chaos.[25]

The Changing Balance of World Power

Historically, the idea of a balance of power – an idea of which the nuclear-age balance of terror is a specific variant[26] – has never been more than a facile metaphor. In fact, it has never had anything to do with ascertaining any true equilibrium. And as any such “balance” is always a matter of individual and subjective perceptions, adversary states can never be sufficiently confident that strategic circumstances are tangibly oriented in their favor. In consequence, each side in a Still-Westphalian world order must perpetually fear that it will come out “second best” or be left behind. Among nation-states, the continual search for balance, though traditionally reassuring, can only produce ever-widening patterns of insecurity, inequality and disequilibrium.

               At the start of “Cold War I”, the United States first began to codify its rudimentary orientations to nuclear deterrence and nuclear war. At that simpler time, the world was tightly bipolar and the clear enemy was the Soviet Union. Tempered by a shared knowledge of the horror that had ceased (temporarily) in 1945, each superpower understood a conspicuously core need to expand global cooperation (especially in the United Nations) as a necessary adjunct to national conflict preparedness.

With the start of the nuclear age, American national security was premised on grimly primal threats of “massive retaliation.” Over time, notably during the Kennedy years, this corrosive policy was softened by subtler and more nuanced threats of “flexible response.” Along the way, a coherent and generalized American strategic doctrine was crafted, in sensible increments, to more systematically accommodate almost every conceivable kind of adversarial military encounter.

Scientific and historically grounded, this doctrine was developed self-consciously and with very deliberate prudence. In its actual execution, however, much was left to visceral or “seat-of-the-pants” calculations. In this regard, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis speaks for itself.

Strategic doctrine, as earlier generation “defense intellectuals” had already understood,[27] is a “net.” Reasonably, only those who “cast” can expect to “catch.”[28] Nonetheless, even the benefits of “casting” must ultimately remain subject to specific considerations of individual human personality. In the terms of professional strategic thinkers, there must always remain an “idiosyncratic factor.”

Individuum est ineffable. At some point, an individual decision-maker could lie beyond predictive and understanding. Then, looking ahead to potential nuclear war threats and crises, the ungraspable individual could interact in unforeseen ways with other complex factors, possibly creating variously unseen synergies. What then?

In strategic planning and thinking, there will always be certain irremediable uncertainties. In the face of such uncertainties, the point will be not to prevent them altogether (that would be impossible), but to prepare for all known and foreseeable contingencies intellectually and analytically.

Cold War II: Precursor to Nuclear War I?

Following collapse of the Soviet Union, the world initially became increasingly multipolar. But we now seem to be witnessing the evolution of a second cold war and potentially a first nuclear war. Shall we be suitably prepared for such a bewildering evolution?

               The analytic foci will be easy to identify. Strategic planners are now thinking about an already-nuclear North Korea and Pakistan and a prospectively nuclear Iran. Among other key  “hot spots,”Tehran’s ritualistic calls for “removing” Israel as a state have been exterminatory;[29] in law, they have represented a verifiable “incitement to genocide.” Furthermore, military nuclear developments in North Korea, Pakistan and Iran could quickly prove synergistic,  circumstances that would be largely unpredictable or even overwhelming.[30]

               There is more. There must also be legal considerations of justice. Nullum crimen sine poena; “No crime without a punishment,” was a key principle of justice reaffirmed at Nuremberg, in 1946. This principle likely originated in the Hebrew Bible and its Lex Talionis or law of exact retaliation.

               Popular viewpoints notwithstanding, the Trump-brokered Abraham Accords have had no discernible effects on preventing a nuclear war in the Middle East.[31] This insignificant impact was entirely predictable. If anything, Iran was made more belligerent by the Accords’ obvious intent to diminish Iranian power. And certain major Sunni Arab states (probably Egypt and/or Saudi Araba) may soon feel compelling new incentives to nuclearize themselves. With Jihadists in control of Afghanistan, an already-nuclear Pakistan will likely become more routinely influential in the region.

How will this development affect China, India, Russia and Israel, not just singly, but also in their possible and plausible intersections (synergies)?

In all these increasingly ambiguous cases, there will emerge more-or-less plausible issues of enemy irrationality.[32] Regarding such “special” situations, ones where leadership elites in Beijing, Islamabad, Delhi, Tehran or elsewhere might sometime value presumed national or religious obligations more highly even than national physical survival, the precarious logic of deterrence could fail. Such failure need not be incremental and manageable. It could be sudden and catastrophic.

                Any such fearful scenario is “probably improbable,” but it is by no means inconceivable. This hesitancy-conditioned probability calculation is effectively mandated by variously fixed limitations of science. One can never speak reliably about the probability of unique events (all probability judgments must be based upon the determinable frequency of past events). Fortunately, there has never been an authentic nuclear war.

Further Importance of Synergies[33] and Nuclear Doctrine

               Especially important for world leaders to understand will be various possible interactions or synergies between changing adversaries and their particular ties to China, North Korea and Russia. In managing such strategic threats, a new question should arise: Will “Cold War II” help our imperiled planet or hurt it even more?

               Such queries must always represent intellectualquestions, not political ones. Above all, they will need to be addressed at analytic levels.

Strategic policies will have to deal with a variegated assortment of sub-national threats of WMD terrorism. Until now, insurgent enemies were sometimes able to confront sovereign states with serious perils and in assorted theatres of conflict, but they were never really capable of posing any catastrophic hazard to a nation’s homeland. Now, however, with the steadily expanding prospect of WMD-equipped terrorist enemies – possibly, in the future, even well-armed nuclear terrorists[34] – humankind could have to face new strategic situations that are prospectively dire.

               To face any such unprecedented security situation, national leaders will need to “arm” themselves with previously-fashioned nuclear doctrine and policies. By definition, such doctrine and policies ought never represent “seat of the pants” reactions to ad hoc threats. Rather, because generality expresses a trait of all serious meaning in science, such doctrine and policies will have to be shaped according to variously broad categories of strategic threat. In the absence of such previously worked-out conceptual categories, human leadership responses are almost certain to be inadequate.

               A concluding thought about synergies. Such portentous intersections could occur between certain military and non-military threats. Prospectively most ominous would be synergies between nuclear proliferation and disease pandemic. In the conceivably worst case, a man-made “plague” of nuclear war would coincide with a natural plague of pathogens.[35] To the  extent possible, any such “force multiplication” should be avoided at all costs.

The Question of Rationality

                From the start, all strategic policies have been founded upon some underlying assumption of rationality.[36] Americans have always presumed that enemies, states and terrorists, will inevitably value their own continued survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. But this core assumption can no longer be taken for granted.

Expressions of decisional irrationality could take various different and overlapping forms. These forms include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

Confronted with Jihadist enemies,[37] states and terrorists, world leaders must quickly understand that our primary threats to retaliate for first-strike aggressions[38] could sometime fall on deaf ears. This holds true whether we would threaten massive retaliation (MAD), or instead, the more graduated and measured forms of reprisal termed nuclear utilization theory (NUT).[39] In the months and years ahead, threatening anti-American terror groups that we “will hunt down and destroy you” is apt to fall upon deaf ears. A similar conclusion applies to Israel, an American ally.

               There is more.Ultimately, sensible. nuclear doctrine must recognize critical connections between law and strategy. From the formal standpoint of international law,[40] certain expressions of preemption or defensive first strikes are known as anticipatory self-defense. Expecting possible enemy irrationality, when would such protective military actions be required to safeguard the human homeland from diverse forms of WMD attack?  

This is now an all-important question.

The Legal Standpoint and Nuclear Targeting

               There are germane jurisprudential issues for decision-makers and commanders. Recalling that international law is part of the law of the United States,[41] most notably at Article 6 of the US Constitution (the “Supremacy Clause”) and at a 1900 Supreme Court case (the Pacquete Habana), how could anticipatory military defense actions be rendered compatible with conventional and customary obligations? This critical question must be raised and an answer ventured.

               From the standpoint of international law, it is always necessary to distinguish preemptive attacks from “preventive ones.” Preemption is a military strategy of striking first in the expectation that the only foreseeable alternative would be to be struck first oneself.  A preemptive attack is launched by a state that believes enemy forces are about to attack.  A preventive attack, on the other hand, is not launched out of any genuine concern about “imminent” hostilities, but rather for fear of some longer-term deterioration in a prevailing military balance.

                In a preemptive attack, the length of time by which the enemy’s action is anticipated is presumptively very short; in a preventive strike, the anticipated interval is considerably longer. A related problem here is not only the practical difficulty of accurately determining “imminence,” but also the problems of postponement. To the point, delaying a defensive strike until an imminent threat would be tangibly ascertainable could invite existential harms. Any state’s resort to “anticipatory self-defense” could be nuclear or non-nuclear, and be directed at either a nuclear or non-nuclear adversary.

               Any such resort involving nuclear weapons on one or several sides could prove catastrophic. World leaders must understand that any proposed national strategic doctrine will need to consider and reconsider key issues of nuclear targeting.[42] Relevant operational concerns here would concern vital differences between the targeting of enemy civilians and cities (so-called “counter value” targeting) and targeting of enemy military assets/infrastructures (so-called “counterforce” targeting).

               Most national leaders still don’t realize that the essence of “massive retaliation” and MAD was always an unhidden plan for counter value targeting.

There is ample room for confusion. Any such partially-resurrected doctrine could sound barbarous or inhumane, but if the alternative were less credible systems of nuclear deterrence, certain explicit codifications of counter value posture might still represent the best way to prevent millions of civilian deaths – i.e., deaths from nuclear war and/or nuclear terrorism. Neither preemption nor counter value targeting could ever guarantee absolute security for Planet Earth or its constituent “tribes,” but it is nonetheless imperative that we put serious strategic thinkers[43] back to work on critical nuclear warfare issues.[44]

Nuclear war avoidance is never a planning activity for ordinary military strategists. Like Herman Kahn himself, the strategists we require must be broadly educated and intellectually brave. A background in mathematics and physics would be helpful, but potentially less so than a genuine familiarity with literature, art and poetry. In any event, no persons who would call politics’ their primary vocation could conceivably be up to the challenging task at hand.

In The End

The first time[45] that a world leader would have to face an authentic nuclear crisis, his/her response should flow seamlessly from broad and previously calibrated strategic doctrine. National leaders should already be thinking carefully about how this complex doctrine ought to be shaped and codified. Whatever the particulars, these leaders will need to acknowledge at the outset the systemic[46] nature of our “world order  problem.”[47]

 Any planetary system of law and power management that seeks to avoid nuclear war must recognize this underlying axiom: War and genocide, as egregious crimes under international law,[48] need not be mutually exclusive.On the contrary, as one may learn from history, war could sometimes be undertaken as an “efficient” form of national, ethnical, racial or religious annihilation.[49] When the war in question is also a nuclear one, this argument becomes unassailable.

Global rescue must always go beyond narrowly physical forms of survival. At stake is not “just” the palpable survival of Homo sapiens as a distinct animal life form, but also the species’ essential humanitas, that is, its sum total of its individual souls[50] seeking “redemption.”[51] For now, however, too-few species members have displayed any meaningful understanding of this less tangible but still vital variant of human survival.[52] In this unphilosophical age, could anything be more obvious?

It’s time to start thinking about the unthinkable, again. But this time, the thinking will have to be more specific and more urgent. The only reasonable use for nuclear weapons on this imperiled planet could ever be as controlled elements of dissuasion. Whether strategic or tactical, they ought never to be regarded as actual weapons of war.

The underlying principles of such a rational diplomatic posture go back long before the advent of nuclear weapons. In his oft-studied classic On War (see especially his Chapter 3, “Planning Offensives”), ancient Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu reminds succinctly: “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” There can be no more compelling strategic dictum.

What next? Such distilled wisdom represents the “one big thing” for US strategists, commanders and policy-makers “to know.” It would be best not to have any national enemies in the first place, but such residually high hopes would be without intellectual foundation. By definition they would remain unsupportable.

The continuous Russian aggression against Ukraine does not portend nuclear warfare per se, but it does suggest inter alia a potential diminution of American national security. Among other things, this diminution could spawn various regional or global crises that bring the United States into a much larger ambit of WMD scenarios, ones involving both war and terror. Even if the US is not itself involved in any such crises directly, other states or even the world as a whole could quickly become entangled in extremis atomicum.

Immediately, to the extent possible, national leaders should make all appropriate intellectual and analytic preparations. In carrying out this responsibility, careful attention should be given to intersecting scenarios of inadvertent nuclear war, narratives pertaining both to accidental nuclear conflict and to nuclear war as the result of miscalculation. Though prospects for a deliberate nuclear war ought never to be downplayed – preparations for credible nuclear deterrence must be continuously maintained at highest possible levels – it is a nuclear war by inadvertence that now warrants exceptional intellectual attention.

To meet this requirement, leaders of both nuclear and near-nuclear states must first acknowledge the overriding seriousness of the global atomic threat. Instead of ad hoc or seat-of-the-pants strategizing – a characteristic policy failing of America’s “Trump Era” calculations – these leaders should be reminded that there can be nothing more practical than good theory. A nuclear war would be far too important to leave to the generals or to the politicians. More precisely, as we can learn from philosopher/physicist Herman Kahn, it’s time to think about the unthinkable “without flinching” and also to do so with unprecedented analytic clarity.

Vladimir Putin’s carefully orchestrated bellicosity suggests expanding nuclear peril for the United States. But now, because the Russian leader might feel himself safe without supporting a stable bilateral arms control regime, his nuclear threats could become more tangibly visceral. Such threats could be exacerbated if Putin were seemingly irrational and/or if there were identifiable links between Russia’s growing nuclear bravado and an inadvertent nuclear war.

What next? It follows for the United States and other western powers that they ought to remind the Russian president as follows: Neither superpower could conceivably benefit from a nuclear war. Seeking escalation dominance without simultaneously meeting international legal obligations would heighten existential risks without securing any commensurate benefits.[53]

It’s high time to think about the unthinkable again. At the outset, nuclear war avoidance should be approached as a preeminently intellectual challenge. The complex and intersecting elements posed by this challenge should never be entrusted to career politicians or to other self-inflating dilettantes.  Clownish efforts at cleverness by presidential candidates may sound charming or even promising to prospective voters, but they could never advance America’s most thoroughly overriding obligation: nuclear war avoidance.

[1] See, by this author, at Oxford University Press, Oxford Yearbook on International Law and Jurisprudence, 2020; “From Pandemic to Apocalypse: Nuclear War as Terminal Disease,”   See also by Louis René Beres (with special post script by General USA/ret. Barry McCaffrey)  Earlier, by Professor Beres, see: Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980). Also, by Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Heath/Lexington, 1983) and Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (Heath/Lexington, 1984).

[2] See, by this writer: Louis René Beres,

[3] “Theory is a net,” says philosopher of science Karl Popper, “only those who cast can catch.” Popper borrowed this clarifying metaphor from the German poet Novalis.

[4]On “escalation dominance,” see article by Professor Louis René Beres at The War Room, US Army War College, Pentagon:  See also, by this author, Louis René Beres:      

[5] One may recall here popular films On the Beach; Fail Safe; and Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb).

[6] The atomic bombings of Japan in August 1945 did not constitute authentic nuclear war, but “only” the use of nuclear weapons in an otherwise conventional conflict. Following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no other atomic bombs existed anywhere on earth. Prima facie, in contrast to the present, those were very different times from the standpoint of nuclear deterrence.

[7]These other values meant population stabilization, ecological stability and justice/human rights.  On the broader civilizational issues involved, see:  Louis René Beres, “Steps Toward a New Planetary Identity,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1980 Rabinowitch Award Essay winner, Vol. 37., No. 2., February 1981, pp. 43-47. Also in the Bulletin, by Professor Beres, on US nuclear war decision-making, see:  Louis René Beres,

[8] From the standpoint of North Korea, denuclearization would represent an irrational option.  For Kim Jong Un, getting rid of his extant atomic arms and infrastructures will remain contrary to Pyongyang’s most basic security requirements. In June 2020, two years after the Singapore Summit, Kim’s Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon announced that any earlier expressed hopes for accommodation with then President Trump had “shifted into despair.”

[9] See by this writer, in The Jerusalem Post, Louis René Beres:

[10] Throughout history, geopolitics or Realpolitik have been associated withpersonal immortality. 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.

[11] See by this writer, Louis René Beres, at Horasis (Zurich):

[12] 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 promise of eternal life.

[13] Modern philosophic origins of “will” are discoverable 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, Friedrich Nietzsche drew just as freely and perhaps more importantly upon Schopenhauer. Goethe was also a core intellectual source for Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’Gasset, author of the singularly prophetic twentieth-century 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 centenary of Goethe’s death (Goethe died in 1832), It is reprinted in Ortega’s illuminating anthology, The Dehumanization of Art (1948) and is available from Princeton University Press (1968).

[14] As we may learn from ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus, “”You are a citizen of the universe.” A broader idea of   universality or “oneness” followed the death of Alexander in 322 BCE, and with it came a coinciding doctrine of “universality.” By the Middle Ages, this political and social doctrine had fused with the notion of a Respublica Christiana, a worldwide Christian commonwealth, and Thomas, John of Salisbury and Dante were looking at Europe as a single and unified Christian community. Below the level of God and his heavenly host, all the realm of humanity was to be considered as One. This is because all the world had been created for the same single and incontestable purpose; that is, to provide background for the necessary drama of human salvation. Only in its relationship to the universe itself was the world considered as a part rather than whole. Observes Dante in De Monarchia: “The whole human race is a whole with reference to certain parts, and, with reference to another whole, it is a part. For it is a whole with reference to particular kingdoms and nations, as we have shown; and it is a part with reference to the whole universe, which is evident without argument.” Today, the idea of human oneness can be justified and explained in more purely secular terms of understanding. An indisputable example is the biological interdependence of all peoples during a viral pandemic.

[15] Carl G. Jung’s definition of civilization in The Undiscovered Self (1957) can be instructive here; It is “the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption.”

[16] The history of western philosophy and jurisprudence contains many illustrious advocates of cosmopolitanism or “oneness.” Most notable among these names are Voltaire and Goethe. We need only recall Voltaire’s biting satire in the early chapters of Candide, and Goethe’s comment (oft-repeated) linking the contrived hatreds of belligerent nationalism to declining stages of human civilization. We may also note Samuel Johnson’s famously expressed conviction that patriotism “is the last refuge of a scoundrel;” William Lloyd Garrison’s observation that “We cannot acknowledge allegiance to any human government…Our country is the world, our countryman is all mankind;” and Thorsten Veblen (“The patriotic spirit is at cross-purposes with modern life.”) Of course, there are similar sentiments discoverable in Nietzsche’s Human, all too Human and in Fichte’s Die Grundzűge des gegenwartigen Zeitalters.” Finally, let us recall Santayana’s coalescing remark in Reason and Society: “A man’s feet must be planted in his country, but his eyes should survey the world.” The ultimate point of all these cosmopolitan remarks is that narrow-minded patriotism is inevitably “unpatriotic,” at least in the sense that it is not in the genuine long-term interests of citizens or subjects.

[17] “Civilization,” adds Lewis Mumford, “is the never-ending process of creating one world and one humanity.” Still the best syntheses of contemporary creative outlines for a world civilization are W. Warren Wagar, The City of Man (1967) and W. Warren Wagar, Building the City of Man (1971). On human “oneness,” by the present writer, see Louis René Beres at JURIST:

[18] The curious mantra “I love the poorly educated” was repeated several times during the 2016 presidential election campaign by then candidate Donald J. Trump.” Consciously, perhaps, it echoed Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels at a Nuremberg rally in 1934: “Intellect rots the brain.”

[19] See Louis René Beres, at Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College, Lest anyone think this sort of recommendation is absurd or inconceivable, there is actually a long history of nuclear “porcupines,” strategists and observers who correlate expanding nuclear proliferation with expanding global security.

[20] As part of an always-escalating bravado detached from intellectual moorings, former US President Donald J. Trump favored such vaporous threats as “complete annihilation” or “total destruction” over well-reasoned preferences. Significantly, what might once have sounded reasonable or “tough” to an anti-intellectual and law-violating American president could only have reduced US nuclear deterrent persuasiveness.

[21] See, by this writer, at JURIST: Louis René Beres:

[22] Seventeenth-century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, instructs that although international relations are in a “state of nature,” it is nonetheless a more benign condition than the condition of individual man in nature. With individual human beings, Hobbes reflects, “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.” Now, however, with the advent and probable spread of nuclear weapons, there is no longer any reason to believe the state of nature to be more tolerable.

[23] Also worrisome here are prospects for irrational decision-making by national leaders, including the president of the United States. See, in this connection:  Louis René Beres,

[24] See Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct 1648, 1, Consol. T.S. 119.   This “Westphalian” anarchy stands in stark contrast to the legal 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); and Emmerich De Vattel, 1 Le Droit des Gens, Ch. 19 (1758).

[25]Although composed in the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan may still offer us a vision of this condition in modern world politics. During chaos, which is a “time of War,” says the English philosopher in Chapter XIII (“Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery.”):  “… every man is Enemy to every man… and where the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Still, at the actual time of writing Leviathan, Hobbes believed that the condition of “nature” in world politics was less chaotic than that same condition extant among individual human beings. This was because of what he had called the “dreadful equality” of individual men in nature concerning the ability to kill others. Significantly, this once-relevant differentiation has effectively disappeared with the continuing manufacture and spread of nuclear weapons, a spread soon apt to be exacerbated by an already-nuclear North Korea and by a not-yet-nuclear Iran.

[26] See especially Albert Wohlstetter, “The Delicate Balance of Terror,” 1958.

[27] One thinks here especially of Thomas Schelling, Bernard Brodie, Albert Wohlstetter and Herman Kahn.

[28] The first step in such “casting” is the creation of pertinent hypotheses. A hypothesis is said to be “scientific” only where it is expected to yield deductive consequences that 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.

[29] Israel’s anti-missile defense shield has four overlapping layers: The Iron Dome system for intercepting short-range rockets; David’s Sling for medium-range rockets; Arrow-2 against intermediate-range ballistic missiles; and Arrow-3 for deployment against ICBM’s and (potentially) satellites.

[30]North Korean nuclear-knowhow could impact other regions of the world. In this connection, Pyongyang has had significant nuclear dealings with Syria. Earlier, North Korea helped Syria build a nuclear reactor, the same facility that was later destroyed by Israel in its Operation Orchard, on September 6, 2007. Although, unlike earlier Operation Opera (June 7, 1981) this preemptive attack, in the Deir ez-Zor region, was presumptively a second expression of the so-called “Begin Doctrine,” it also illustrated, because of the North Korea-Syria connection, a wider globalthreat to US ally, Israel. See also:

[31] See Also to be considered as complementary in this connection is the Israel-Sudan Normalization Agreement (October 23, 2020) and Israel-Morocco Normalization Agreement (December 10, 2020).

[32] Expressions of decisional irrationality could take different or overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[33] Pertinent synergies could clarify or elucidate the world political system’s current state of hyper-disorder (a view that would reflect what the physicists prefer to call “entropic” conditions), and could be conceptually dependent upon each national decision-maker’s subjective metaphysics of time.

[34] Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and Palestinian terror-group Hamas fired rockets at Dimona. Though unsuccessful, Israel must remain wary of the consequences of any future attack that might prove more capable. For early and informed consideration of reactor attack effects in general, see: Bennett Ramberg, DESTRUCTION OF NUCLEAR ENERGY FACILITIES IN WAR (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1980); Bennett Ramberg, “Attacks on Nuclear Reactors: The Implications of Israel’s Strike on Osiraq,” POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY, Winter 1982-83; pp. 653 – 669; and Bennett Ramberg, “Should Israel Close Dimona? The Radiological Consequences of a Military Strike on Israel’s Plutonium-Production Reactor,”Arms Control Today,May 2008, pp. 6-13.

[35] Says Albert Camus in The Plague: “It is in the thick of calamity that one gets hardened to the truth – in other words, to silence.”

[36] Rationality and irrationality have now taken on very specific meanings. More precisely, an actor (state or sub-state) is presumed determinedly rational to the extent that its leadership always values national survival more highly than any other conceivable preference or combination of conceivable preferences. Conversely, an irrational actor might not always display such a determinable preference ordering.

[37] This brings to mind the issue of Palestinian statehood and nuclear risk, For Israel, the main problem with a Palestinian state would not be that state’s prospective nuclearization, but rather its generally weakening effect on the Jewish state.  Along somewhat similar lines of reasoning, the loss of Afghanistan did not create any specifically nuclear war risks for the United States per se, but it did contribute to an incremental diminution of US military influence. (especially in the region). Moreover, Islamic Pakistan, which is already nuclear, was strengthened by the American loss and could, among other reactions, become more expressly risk-tolerant on future strategic challenges from India.

[38] For the specific crime of aggression under international law, see: Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, 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).

[39] Conspicuous preparations for nuclear war fighting could be conceived not as distinct alternatives to nuclear deterrence, but as essential and even integral components of nuclear deterrence.  Some years ago, Colin Gray, reasoning about U.S.-Soviet nuclear relations, argued that a vital connection exists between “likely net prowess in war and the quality of pre-war deterrent effect.”  (See:  Colin Gray, National Style in Strategy: The American Example,” INTERNATIONAL SECURITY, 6, No. 2, fall 1981, p. 35.)  Elsewhere, in a published debate with this writer, Gray said essentially the same thing:  “Fortunately, there is every reason to believe that probable high proficiency in war-waging yields optimum deterrent effect.”  (See Gray, “Presidential Directive 59: Flawed but Useful,” PARAMETERS, 11, No. 1, March 1981, p. 34.  Gray was responding directly to Louis René Beres, “Presidential Directive 59: A Critical Assessment,” PARAMETERS, March 1981, pp. 19 – 28.).

[40] For the authoritative sources of international law, see art. 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice; done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force, Oct. 24, 1945; for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945.  59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, 3 Bevans 1153, 1976 Y.B.U.N., 1052.

[41] In the words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).Moreover, the specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”

[42] General Chain was this author’s longtime personal friend and frequent co-author on nuclear strategy issues.

[43] Prescribed thinking should generally be dialectical. Dialectical thinking originated in Fifth Century BCE Athens, as Zeno, author of the Paradoxes, had been acknowledged by Aristotle as its inventor. Further, in the middle dialogues of Plato, dialectic emerges as the supreme form of philosophic/analytic method. The dialectician, says Plato, is the special one who knows how to ask and then answer vital questions. From the standpoint of a necessary refinement in Israeli strategic planning, this knowledge should never be taken for granted.

[44]“It must not be forgotten,” writes French poet Guillaume Apollinaire in “The New Spirit and the Poets” (1917), “that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.”

[45] Reference here is to “first time” after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

[46] “The existence of system in the world,” says French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man, “is at once obvious to every observer of nature, no matter whom….” (1955).

[47] “World order” has its contemporary intellectual origins in the work of Harold Lasswell and Myres McDougal at the Yale Law School, Grenville Clark and Louis Sohn’s WORLD PEACE THROUGH WORLD LAW (1966) and the large body of writings by Richard A. Falk and Saul H. Mendlovitz during the 1960s and 1970s.

[48] See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, opened for signature, December 9, 1948, entered into force, January 12, 1951, 78 U.N.T.S. 277.

[49] This was almost certainly the case with Germany’s World War II aggressions, crimes oriented very deliberately to Adolph Hitler’s always primary “war against the Jews.” See especially, Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews: 1933 – 1945 (1975).

[50] Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung both thought of “soul” (in German, Seele) as the intangible essence of a human being, its humanitas. Neither Freud nor Jung ever provided any precise definition of the term, but it was never intended by either in some ordinarily familiar religious sense. For both psychologists, it represented a recognizable and critical seat of mind and passions in this life. Interesting, too, in the present analytic context, Freud explained his predicted decline of American civilization by invoking various express references to “soul.” Freud was disgusted by any civilization so apparently unmoved by considerations of true “consciousness” (e.g., awareness of intellect, literature and history); he even thought that the crude American commitment to perpetually shallow optimism and material accomplishment would inevitably occasion sweeping emotional misery.

[51]This definition of civilization is borrowed from C.G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self (1957).

[52] Whether it is described in the Old Testament or other major sources of ancient Western thought, chaos can also be viewed as a source of human betterment. Here, in essence, 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 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, a designation which indicates to us that it was presumed to be anything but starkly random or inherently without conceivable merit.


[53] From a philosophy of science standpoint, nothing precise could be said about relevant probabilities. This is because, in science, all formal probability statements must be drawn from the discernible frequency of pertinent past events (here, there are no past events, as these extraordinary issues are unique or sui generis).

Prof. Louis René Beres
Prof. Louis René Beres
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.