Nuclear Command Authority and the U.S. Presidential Election

Until the eleventh hour of his incoherent presidency, Donald J. Trump held effectively unchecked nuclear command authority.

“The terrible ifs accumulate.” Winston Churchill

An Overlooked “If”

Until the eleventh hour of his incoherent presidency, Donald J. Trump held effectively unchecked nuclear command authority. Even after choreographing an insurrection against the United States government on January 6, 2021, this president enjoyed the tangible support of millions. Now, despite several criminal indictments that involve national security-related charges, such support does more than merely persist. It displays palpable enthusiasm.

 Donald J. Trump could be elected again.

Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient political philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.” But absurd does not mean improbable. Historically, it represents a conspicuously “normal” force in shaping national and international politics. It is never remediable by wisdom, sincerity or logical argument.

On existential matters of US national security policy, details count. There could be no more serious or perplexing issue before the American voter than a president’s nuclear command authority. Significantly, never before Donald J. Trump did this “nation of laws” wittingly suffer a leader who embraced “high crimes” of “seditious conspiracy”[1] with unbridled enthusiasm. Rising above previously repressed candor, “We the people” ought finally to inquire: “What does this kind of criminal embrace mean for an imperiled American republic,  especially in such fragile and unprecedented“ nuclear times”?[2]

This sobering question has multiple parts.[3] Several of these components are not just intersecting, they are also synergistic. This means that the “whole” of pertinent intersectional consequences will actually be greater than the sum of its constituent “parts.”[4]

Such meaning is not in any way contestable. It is axiomatic. It is true by definition.

Subsidiary questions will also accumulate. “In what specific nuclear policy directions should America propel itself?” More precisely, looking ahead to certain more-or-less inevitable US nuclear crises with North Korea, China, Russia and/or Iran,[5] the grievous Trump-era derelictions could still bring irremediable harms to the United States. For the moment, American policy-makers remain most understandably absorbed with Russia’s barbarous aggression against Ukraine, but this evident “crime against peace” could be worsened by parallel crises involving North Korea, China and/or Iran.

It will take an exceptionally capable American president to deal with ongoing crises.On April 24, 2024, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution requiring states to prevent the placement of nuclear weapons in space. If Vladimir Putin goes on to deploy nuclear weapons in space, such action would constitute violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Earlier, in March 2023, Moscow had halted all information exchanges with Washington that were part of the New START treaty. Russia suspended this last-remaining nuclear arms treaty because the US and its NATO allies had declared their support for Ukraine against Russian military aggression. At that time, Putin also declared a plan to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. Ominously, this more open reliance upon theatre nuclear forces stems from Russia’s different doctrinal view of operational nuclear war thresholds or “firebreaks.”[6]

Whatever happens in these potential theatres of wider conflict – and this could include reciprocal American/NATO deployments of tactical nuclear weapons in Poland or elsewhere – the world of geopolitics will remain mired in a dissembling “state of nature.”[7] Inter alia, to merely survive in this unpredictable state,  the United States will require a president who can meet the inherently steep expectations of nuclear command authority. Together with appropriate advisors, this president should be capable of very intricate kinds of dialectical reasoning,[8] and, if necessary, to display such capacities during nuclear crises (in extremis atomicum).

\Regarding nuclear war command authority, the “terrible ifs will accumulate.”

The Intellectual Imperative

               If America’s  battered citizens have learned anything from the history of modern world politics – from the “balance of power”[9] that was originally put into place after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 – it is that any continuously unregulated system of “escalation dominance” could lead directly to catastrophic  war and civilizational breakdown.[10] Though Donald Trump proudly lauded “attitude” over “preparation,”[11] serious analytic thought continues to deserve an absolute pride of place in the United States. To wit, the persistently unwinding “state of nature,” a global condition built upon intermittent aggression,[12] rancor and belligerent nationalism,[13] has never succeeded. And this authentically Hobbesian “state of war” displays no signs of any enhanced durability.[14]

Understanding Decisional Hazards

               Significant questions will continue to mount. What specific nuclear hazards present themselves to the United States? To begin, it should finally be recognized that an inappropriate or irrational nuclear command decision by an American president is neither science fiction nor apocalyptic delusion. Rather, it is integral to the most credible “texts” of history, logic, science and mathematics.

Such a command decision is certainly conceivable. Though nothing conclusive can ever be said about the precise mathematical probability of such a fearful scenario,[15] there still remain ample reasons for major concern. After Trump, and potentially before Trump II, these reasons are evident and unambiguous.

               There is more. In world politics, nothing really ever happens ex nihilo, out of nothing. Americans should promptly inquire, therefore: “Might another unsteady, lawless or deluded US president become subject to lethal forms of personal dissemblance and/or psychological debility?” Leaving aside Donald J. Trump’s  breathtaking venality,[16] there can be no reassurances of being able to avoid another such incapable leadership. “Individuum est ineffable,” declares the poet Goethe, “The individual cannot be grasped.”

               Our worrisome declension has identifiable beginnings. From 2016 to 2020, a flawed American president served with inefficient and insufficient nuclear command constraints. This bold assertion is by no means mysterious or controversial. In presumptive law, any US presidential order to use nuclear weapons would carry an inherent expectation of visceral compliance. While certain key figures along the operational chain of command could sometime choose to disobey such an extraordinary order, any disobedience could be deemed unlawful on its face. On September 16, 2021, in authoritative testimony by the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Miley, the general indicated just how substantially law-violating Trump’s final days had quickly become.[17]

.              Derivatively generic questions ought also to arise: “Shouldany US president ever be granted extraordinary decisional authority over uncountable lives, a nuclear war-related grant that could never have been foreseen by America’s Founding Fathers?”[18] “Could such a lopsided allocation of nuclear decision authority faithfully represent what was originally intended by the U.S. Constitution’s”separation of powers?” “Can anyone reasonably believe that such unhindered existential power could have been favored by the “Fathers”? “What about the more general constraints of our wider global civilization?”[19]

               At a minimum, citizens and analysts can extrapolate from Articles I and II of the Constitution that the Founders displayed primary apprehensions about expanding Presidential power long before nuclear weapons. Such codified concerns predate any science-based imaginationsof apocalyptic possibility.[20] Today, in order to progress prudentially and sequentially on these existential issues, Americans should sincerely inquire: “What next?”

A Nuclear Scholar’s Intellectual Odyssey

It’s a question long pondered by the present writer (Louis René Beres). For me, it has long represented a personal but analytic question. As an academic scholar and policy-centered nuclear strategist, I have remained involved with these core security issues (Israeli and American) for over fifty years. Some highlights of this half-century involvement may help to clarify relevant elements of US nuclear military policy.

Let’s begin at the beginning. On 14 March 1976, in direct response to my query concerning United States nuclear weapons launching authority, I received a letter from General (USA/ret.) Maxwell Taylor, a former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. The principal focus of this hand-written letter (attached hereto) concerned ascertainable nuclear risks of presidential irrationality.[21] Most noteworthy, in this communication, was the straightforward warning contained in General Taylor’s closing paragraph.

               Ideally, Taylor cautioned wisely, presidential irrationality – an inherently grave problem – should be dealt with during an election process and not in the already bewildering throes of an actual decisional crisis. At that point, the general understood, it could already be too late. Hence, he concluded: “…. the best protection (against an irrational president) is not to elect one…”

               By extrapolation, regarding America’s most recent and ongoing presidential nuclear security problems, our most compelling lesson should be “Don’t elect a re-aspiring Donald Trump.” Simultaneously, we should also inquire: “What are the actual governing safeguards on US nuclear security?” To some extent, we could be reassured (more or less) that there are redundant structural protections built into any presidential order to launch nuclear weapons.

               But virtually all sensible and reinforcing structural safeguards could stop working “at the water’s edge.” In essence, they would become operative only at the lower or sub-presidential nuclear command levels. Expressly and unambiguously, these safeguards do not apply to the American Commander-in-Chief, even one who could learn that he is not automatically immune from office-related criminal prosecutions.

So what should be done about the always prospective problem of impaired presidential nuclear command authority?

Seemingly, there exist no permissible legal grounds to disobey a presidential order regarding actual use of nuclear weapons. In principle, of course, certain senior individuals in the designated military chain of command could sometime choose to invoke authoritative “Nuremberg Obligations,”[22] but any such last-minute invocation would plausibly yield to more recognizable and easily manipulated considerations of U.S. domestic law.[23]

Looking for Secure Nuclear Policy Directions

               After the unprecedented Trump policy derangements, credible and reasonable scenarios of nuclear war should be systematically postulated and expertly examined. For the moment, if an incumbent American president operating within any chaos of his own making should issue an irrational or seemingly irrational nuclear command, the only way for the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Adviser and several possible others to obstruct this manifestly wrongful order would be “illegal” ipso facto. Under the best of circumstances, informal correctives might manage to work for a short time, but any too blithe acceptance of a “best case scenario” could still make little realistic sense.

Such acceptance could never represent a sensible or durable path to US nuclear security.

               At a minimum, strategic analyst ought to inquire promptly about instituting more promising safeguards against an irrational US president. “The worst,” says Friedrich Durrenmatt instructively, “does sometimes happen.” The Swiss playwright’s assertion is unassailable.

               There is more. The US is already navigating in “uncharted waters.” While President John F. Kennedy did engage in personal nuclear brinkmanship with the Soviet Union back in October 1962, he had calculated the odds of consequent nuclear war as “between one out of three and even.” This crazily precise calculation, corroborated by JFK biographer Theodore Sorensen and by my own private conversations with former JCS Chair Admiral Arleigh Burke (my lecture colleague and roommate at the US Naval Academy’s Foreign Affairs Conference of 1977) suggests that President Kennedy was either (1) technically irrational in imposing his Cuban “quarantine;”or (2) wittingly acting out variously untested principles of “pretended irrationality.”

               In quintessentially stark contrast to America’s “Trump Moment,” JFK was operating together with serious and intellectually capable advisors. He did not choose Adlai Stevenson to represent the United States at the United Nations because he was “glamorous” (a standard of selection for UN ambassadorship openly favored by former President Donald J. Trump). Adlai Stevenson was chosen by President Kennedy because he was intellectually gifted, educationally prepared and diplomatically skilled.

               There is more. The most urgent threat of a mistaken or irrational U.S. presidential order to use nuclear weapons would flow not from any “bolt-from-the-blue” nuclear attack[24] –  whether Russian, North Korean, Chinese or American (the last scenario assuredly expressed as a permissible preemption[25]) – but from sequentially uncontrollable processes of escalation. In 1962, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev “blinked” early on in the “game,” thereby preventing any irrecoverable nuclear harms. Going forward, Americans ought never minimize or discount potentially unstable nuclear decision-making consequences.

“Escalation Dominance” and Nuclear War

                An American president should always be made to understand the grave risks of being locked into any stubborn or refractory escalatory dynamic with an adversarial state. In such cases, the only available decisional options would be abject American capitulation or some presently-unpredictable form of nuclear warfighting. Though any US president could sometime be well-advised to seek “escalation dominance”[26] in selected crisis circumstances/negotiations, he/she would still need to avoid any significant miscalculations. This overriding need would not even factor in potentially intersecting problems of hacking intrusion, nuclear accident or intellectual limitation/impairment.[27] Moreover, intersecting problems could also be synergistic problems, a circumstances where the “whole” of individual negative outcomes would be even greater than the presumptive sum of its “parts.”

               For the immediate future, and leaving aside the prospects of any direct US-Russia nuclear crisis, the problems of miscalculation avoidance and strategic one-upmanship could apply most plausibly to North Korea’s Kim Jung Un.[28] In such narratives, a great deal would depend upon more-or-less foreseeable “synergies” between Washington and Pyongyang and on the difficult-to-control penetrations of cyber-conflict or cyber-war. Americans will even have to acknowledge the bewildering interference of cyber-mercenaries. These are unprincipled/non-ideological third parties who work only for personal or corporate compensations.

               At one time or another, nuclear strategy is a “game” that an American President will absolutely have to “play.” This will not be a contest for intellectual “amateurs” or for US leaders who lack in requisite “will.”[29] To best ensure that a too-easily-distracted president’s strategic moves would remain determinedly rational, thoughtful and cumulatively cost-effective, it would first be necessary to enhance the formal decisional authority of his/her most senior military-defense subordinates. By definition, as a welcome corollary, any such enhancement would be at the calculable expense of pertinent US presidential authority.

               There are additional salient particulars. At a minimum, the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor and one or two others in appropriate nuclear command positions would need to prepare comprehensively and competently in advance for all considered scenarios. These decision-makers will need to prepare to assume far more broadly collaborative and secure judgments in extremis atomicum.[30]

Responsibilities of “The People”

               Any such proposed widening of nuclear authority could never be “guaranteed.” In the end, following General Maxwell Taylor’s letter to me of 14 March 1976 (attached), the best protection is still “not to elect” a president who is discernibly unfit for national leadership responsibility. Beyond any reasonable doubt (an evidentiary judicial standard that also fits well in this partially jurisprudential context), we are discussing an incomparable national leadership responsibility. “The safety of the people,” intoned Cicero long before the nuclear age, “is the highest law.”[31]

 From the standpoint of correctly defining all relevant dangers, it is important to bear in mind that “irrational” does not necessarily mean “crazy” or “mad.”  More specifically, prospectively fateful expressions of US presidential irrationality could take different and variously subtle forms.[32] These forms, which could remain indecipherable or latent for periods of time, would include (a) a disorderly or inconsistent value system; (b) computational errors in calculation; (c) an incapacity to communicate correctly or efficiently; (d) random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of strategic decisions; and (e) internal dissonance generated by some structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of authoritative individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a unitary national decision maker).

               From the singularly critical standpoint of US nuclear weapon control issues (problematic issues[33] likely to be worsened by any continuous American strategic postures of  “First Use” and/or “Launch on Warning,”), legitimate reasons to worry about future American presidencies do not hinge on any expectations of “craziness.” Rather, looking over the above list of five representative decisional traits, there is already good reason not for worry per se (by itself, worry could never represent a rational or purposeful US reaction), but for suitably non-partisan objectivity and more consistently calculable prudence. It won’t be easy to make tangible progress along this front, and it won’t necessarily succeed longer-term by avoiding “Trump II,”[34] but for the United States there are no recognizably sensible alternatives.

               Nuclear war is a terminal disease. The only “cure” lies in prevention.

For the indefinite future, US national security and US survival will likely require the prompt and law-based restraint of any American president. It follows further that the security benefits of any such indispensable restraints would confer security benefits on the world as a whole. In principle, at least, the full importance of any such corollary or “spillover” benefit could prove substantial.

 If Americans choose to support a Trump-return to the White House in 2024, they would be risking nothing less than national survival.  Ipso facto, there could be no more time-urgent task than to clarify and refine America’s nuclear command authority.[35] To fail in this peremptory task[36] could never represent a tolerable U.S. policy forfeiture.

 No matter how many “ifs” are allowed to accumulate, the American voter could still decide to favor Reason over Anti-Reason in the upcoming presidential election. After all, no single individual, especially one with already-verified and increasingly evident inclinations to irrational decision-making, should ever be granted unchallengeable nuclear decision-making authority.

The core problem of allocating existential nuclear authority is not narrowly “Trump-specific,” but broadly generic. Any search for promising remedies should always stay focused on the underlying structural and statutory vulnerabilities of American democracy. Unequivocally, Donald J. Trump represents a grave security threat to the United States, but he is simultaneously just a symptom of much deeper pathologies. The late General Maxwell Taylor, an early Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, summed it all up succinctly in his 14 March 1976 letter to this writer (attached): “As to dangers arising from an irrational American president, the best protection is not to elect one.”

[1] Concerning such egregious crimes, “seditious conspiracy” is codified at 18 US Code, Section 2384, and discussed by Harvard Law Professor (Emeritus) Laurence Tribe at The Harvard Gazette, October 7, 2021.

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

[3] From its origins, the Trump presidency expressed “criminal intent” or mens rea as a generalized behavior. Here, there are certain meaningful comparisons with earlier violations of basic law in the Third Reich. Said Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in 1934: “”Whoever can conquer the street will one day conquer the state.” In 2019, before his January 2021 incitement to insurrection, Donald Trump echoed this law-impairing sentiment: “I have the support of the street, of the police, of the military, the support of Bikers for Trump. I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough – until they go to a certain point and then it would be very bad, very bad.” Earlier, during a 2016 rally in Las Vegas, Trump informed a wildly cheering crowd that he’d “like to punch the protestors in the face.” “I love the old days, you know what they used to do to guys like that when they’re in a place like this, they’d be carried out on a stretcher,” Then, identifying a specific target person in the audience, Trump added: “I’d like to punch him in the face.”

[4] See by this author, at Harvard National Security Journal: Louis René Beres,

[5] For an analysis of deterring not-yet-nuclear adversaries of Israel, see article co-authored by Professor Louis René Beres and (former Israeli Ambassador) Zalman Shoval at the Modern War Institute, West Point (Pentagon): Though not apt to represent a US nuclear crisis per se, any future hostilities between India and Pakistan could suddenly or incrementally draw in the United States. This would be especially plausible if China and/or Russia were involved.

[6] See, by this writer, at The War Room (Pentagon): Louis René Beres,

[7] Thomas Hobbes, the 17th- century English philosopher, argues that the “state of nations” is the only true “state of nature,” that is, the only such “state” that actually exists in the world. In Chapter XIII of Leviathan (“Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery”),  Hobbes says famously: “But though there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of war, one against the other, yet in all times, kings and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independence, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is their forts, garrisons, and guns upon the frontiers of their kingdoms, and continual spies upon their neighbors, which is a posture of war.”

[8] Dialectical thinking originated in Fifth Century BCE Athens, as Zeno, author of the Paradoxes, had been acknowledged by Aristotle as its inventor. 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 necessary refinements in US nuclear command authority, this knowledge ought never to be taken for granted.

[9] Since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, the idea of a law-based balance of power – an idea of which the nuclear-age balance of terror represents a current variant – has never been more than a facile metaphor. Treaty language notwithstanding, this idea has never had anything to do with ascertaining or maintaining any “true and just equilibrium.” As any such balance must be a matter of individual subjective perceptions, adversarial states can never be sufficiently confident that strategic circumstances of the moment are legally “balanced” in their favor. As each side must fear perpetually that it will be “left behind,” the corresponding search for balance can only produce ever-widening patterns of disequilibrium. History confirms such dissembling logic.

[10] On expected consequences of a nuclear war 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); Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986); and Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed., 2018).

[11] This intellectually barren sentiment was first made explicit by Mr. Trump immediately prior to his June 12, 2018 Singapore Summit with Kim Jung Un.

[12] On aggression as a specific crime under international law, see 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.

[13] United States law, as it was founded upon the learned jurisprudence of Sir William Blackstone, acknowledges a ubiquitous obligation (for all states) to help one another. More precisely, according to Blackstone, each state is expected “to aid and enforce the law of nations, as part of the common law, by inflicting an adequate punishment upon offenses against that universal law….” See: 2 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 4, “Of Public Wrongs.” Lest anyone ask about the significance of Blackstone for current US national security decision-making, one need only remind that the Commentaries were an original and core foundation of the laws of American law. This plain fact remained unknown to former US President Donald Trump and his unlearned counselors. Trump’s force-based policies of “America First” (illustrative of the fallacy known as argumentum ad bacculum) represented the diametric opposite of what Blackstone would have expected.

[14] We may consider here the timeless insight of French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man (1959): “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone-for-himself’ is false and against nature.” Originally published in French as Le Phénomene Humain (1955), Paris.

[15] This is because (1) any statement of authentic probability must be based upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events and in this present case (2) there are no pertinent past events.

[16] Comparing two US presidents from the standpoint of total personal corruption, Watergate figure John Dean succinctly concluded:   “Trump is like Richard Nixon on stilts and steroids.” Similarly, Carl Bernstein, in evident understatement, called Trump a “pathological liar.” See:

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

[18] The Founding Fathers of the United States were generally 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.

[19] Dostoyevsky asks the most pertinent question: “What is it in us that is mellowed by civilization? All it does, I’d say, is to develop in man a capacity to feel a greater variety of sensations. And nothing, absolutely nothing else. And through this development, man will yet learn how to enjoy bloodshed. Why, it has already happened…Civilization has made man, if not always more bloodthirsty, at least more viciously, more horribly bloodthirsty.” See: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground 108 (Andrew R. MacAndrew, trans., New American Library, 1961) (1862).

[20] One of this author’s earliest books was (Louis René Beres) Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980).

[21] Recalling philosopher Karl Jaspers: “The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it.” (See Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time, 1952).

[22] See Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunal; 2 August 1950.

[23] As the Constitution represents the properly conspicuous bedrock of US domestic law, and because that document stipulates that only Congress can declare war, designated military chain of command decision-makers could argue credibly that their considered interference with Presidential nuclear commands would actually be domestic law-enforcing rather than law-violating. In a controversy involving General Mark Miley (a controversy centering on the general’s alleged circumvention of presidential war-making authority), the Joint Chiefs Chair ought to have made this critical point about correct behavior more explicit.

[24] Nuclear strategic theorist Herman Kahn once introduced a subtle distinction between a surprise attack that is more-or-less unexpected and one that arrives “out of the blue.” The former, he counseled, “…is likely to take place during a period of tension that is not so intense that the offender is essentially prepared for nuclear war….” A total surprise attack, however, would be one without any immediately recognizable tension or warning signal. This particular subset of a surprise attack scenario could be difficult to operationalize for tangible national security policy benefit. See: Herman Kahn, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s (Simon & Schuster, 1984).

[25] In law, this is known as “anticipatory self-defense.” The potentially lawful option is found not in conventional international law (art. 51 of the UN Charter supports only post-attack expressions of individual or collective self-defense), but in customary international law. The most precise origins of anticipatory self-defense in such customary law lie 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).

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

[27] Anticipating 20th century Spanish thinker Jose Ortega y’Gasset (cited above), the seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarks prophetically in Pensées: “All our dignity consists in thought…It is upon this that we must depend…Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Similar reasoning characterizes the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Pascal’s 17th-century contemporary. In Book II of his Ethics Spinoza considers the human mind, or the intellectual attributes, and – drawing further upon René Descartes – strives to define an essential theory of learning and knowledge.

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

[29] The 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).

[30] This assumes, of course, that these “chain-of-command” presidential subordinates will prove equal to their extraordinary responsibilities.

[31] On America’s “Higher Law,” see, by this writer, Louis René Beres:

[32] In authoritative studies of world politics, rationality and irrationality have now taken on very precise meanings. In this regard, a state is presumed to be rational to the extent that its leadership always values national survival more highly than any other conceivable preference or combination of preferences. Conversely, an irrational state is one that would not always display such a markedly specific preference ordering. On expressly pragmatic or operational grounds, ascertaining whether a particular state adversary such as Iran would be rational or irrational could become a problematic and daunting task.

[33] The overarching issue here is inadvertent or accidental nuclear war. While an accidental nuclear war would also be inadvertent, there are forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not necessarily be caused by mechanical, electrical or computer accident. These forms of unintentional nuclear conflict would be the unexpected result of misjudgment or miscalculation, whether created as a singular error by one or both sides to a particular (two-party) nuclear crisis escalation or by certain unforeseen “synergies” arising between any such singular miscalculations.

[34] Observes Sigmund Freud, in his analytic work on Woodrow Wilson: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind, and not merely when the accident of birth had bequeathed them sovereignty. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.”

[35] At the same time, to act in proper conformance with pertinent international law (which is a part of US domestic or municipal law), any US president must continuously bear in mind the following: States are obliged to judge every use of force twice; once with regard to the underlying right to wage war (jus ad bellum) and once with regard to the means used in actually conducting a war (jus in bello). Following the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the United Nations Charter (1945) there can be no plausible right to wage an 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, proportionality and military necessity into belligerent calculations.

[36] “The devil must lie in the details” in any such task, and the most plausible details must concern a cautiously thoughtful expansion of authoritative US nuclear decision-makers.

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.