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Deciphering Complex Connections: World Politics and Israel’s Nuclear Strategy

Opinion: Israel’s nuclear strategy must be derived from a fully systemic understanding of world politics. The long-term net benefits to Israel could be incalculable

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot (Photo Amos Ben GershomGPO)

By Louis René Beres

“The existence of ‘system’ in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature, no matter whom….”

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(Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man)

More than anything else, world politics represents a system. For Israel, concerned with the complex requirements of a national nuclear strategy, this means a continuous imperative to fashion existential security postures within an increasingly bewildering array of intersecting “parts.” Among other core obligations, this imperative implies that Israel must prepare to suitably modify and “fine-tune” its “ambiguous” nuclear strategy.

Inevitably, these meticulous preparations will have to extend significantly beyond the most plainly evident dangers from Iran.

The problems are always systemic. A still-nuclearizing Iran will likely encourage more-or-less latent nuclear ambitions in Saudi Arabia, and quite possibly Egypt. Such regional nuclear breakouts could intersect in various complex ways with both state and sub-state militarization, and also with certain corollary terrorist intentions. In similarly foreseeable circumstances, these destabilizing breakouts could measurably impact terrorist capabilities.

Confronted with such formidable analytic matters, Israel’s strategic planners will need to be exceedingly precise. “Synergies,” which might include the unique creation of state-sub-state or otherwise “hybrid” nuclear foes, could display various “cascading” effects, and, accordingly, present as unfathomably dense or complicated. Israel’s designated planners would then need to bear in mind a fundamental characteristic of all pertinent synergistic interactions. This immutable characteristic stipulates that the whole is effectively greater than the simple sum of its parts. Here, for security planning purposes, the “whole” would represent the tangibly cumulative enemy nuclear threat posed by state and sub-state adversaries.

In such a scenario, any countervailing Saudi (Sunni) nuclear capacity will likely have been made possible by Pakistan, a state that is largely unstable, and which last year embraced an expressly tactical or “nuclear-warfighting” concept of nuclear deterrence. For the most part, this openly enlarged emphasis upon theatre nuclear forces was intended to enhance Islamabad’s deterrence credibility vis-à-vis Delhi. Still, it displays major systemic policy ramifications extending beyond southwest Asia. In this connection, Islamabad’s changed nuclear emphasis is likely very different from those presumptive nuclear deterrence strategies now being fashioned in Israel.

There is more. Various threatening intersections of Saudi and Iranian interests could become most probable and problematic wherever they would also link ISIS, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda or other surrogate elements. To render such reasonably plausible geo-strategic intersections even more ominous, and perhaps more “opaque,” they could further be affected by an already emergent “Cold War II.” Oddly, and for at least several readily determinable reasons (e.g., Russia has generally been a strong supporter of Iran and Syria), Riyadh has been extending certain collaborative overtures to Moscow. In essence, for Saudi Arabia, this means taking some novel steps toward cementing a unique and unpredictable sort of alignment with the “other” superpower. Just as oddly, perhaps, there are various visibly idiosyncratic indications that a Trump presidency could informally seek to reverse Cold War II, a potentially naive stance that might first sound distinctly promising for Israel and the United States, but could quickly represent a net strategic loss for both countries.

Mirroring its myriad threats, Israeli counter-measures will need to be comparably complex, and should promptly include an optimal assortment of interpenetrating remedies. Among other measured responses, this doctrinally-based configuration of “force multipliers” should eventually include: (1) a calculated and controlled end to “deliberate nuclear ambiguity;” (2) recognizable enhancements of counter-value nuclear targeting doctrine; (3) incrementally-greater deployments of ballistic-missile defenses; and (4) a progressively greater reliance on selective sea-basing of national nuclear forces. It could also suggest taking appropriately new steps to challenge an inevitable barrage of substantially shrill “nonproliferation” demands, both from the United Nations organization, and also from the generally wider international community.

For Israel, any significant compliance with allegedly legal demands for denuclearization could prove massively injurious, or even catastrophic. Indeed, even if all the involved enemy states were to remain entirely non-nuclear themselves, these long-standing adversaries, and also their terrorist proxies, could still find themselves in a palpably improved position to militarily overwhelm Israel. Already, Hezbollah, the Shiite militia run from Tehran, and in league with both Moscow and Damascus, may control more offensive rockets than all of the European NATO countries combined.

It is easy to understand Israel’s Arab and Iranian enemies’ recalcitrant insistence upon creating a non-nuclear Israel. Of course, should these Sunni and Shiite adversaries all be verifiably willing to remain non-nuclear after the P5+1 2015 agreement – a tall order indeed – their cumulative conventional, chemical, and biological capabilities could still bring intolerable harms to Israel. In other words, without maintaining what Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had originally conceived as a “great equalizer,” the Jewish State could then need to face an utterly refractory principle of warfare. This is that, ultimately, “mass counts.”

Israel, one needn’t be reminded, has virtually no mass, the key argument for Jerusalem’s presumptive submarine-basing of some nuclear weapons.

In law, as well as in strategy, war and genocide need not be mutually exclusive. Even today, Palestinian and Iranian maps expose unhidden plans for a faith-driven genocide against “the Jews.” Religiously, these contemplated crimes against humanity – or “incitements to genocide,” in the more derivative language of the 1948 Genocide Convention – stem from the clearly animating eschatologies of “sacred” violence.

With its own presumptive nuclear weapons, even if maintained as “deliberately ambiguous,” Israel could reasonably expect to deter a rational enemy’s unconventional attacks, and also most large conventional ones. Further, while securely holding such fearful weapons, Israel could still launch certain cost-effective non-nuclear preemptive strikes against an enemy state’s hard (military) targets. Without nuclear weapons, any such purely conventional expressions of anticipatory self-defense would likely presage only the onset of a much wider and more obviously corrosive war.

The strategic rationale for any such under-explored nuclear argument is easy to explain. In essence, without a recognizable nuclear backup in its deterrence posture, there might no longer exist sufficiently compelling threats of an Israeli counter-retaliation. It follows that Israel’s nuclear arsenal actually represents a critically valuable impediment to regional nuclear war, a key point that should continue to be made plain to America’s president, and to the United Nations.

There is more. Israel’s nuclear posture, especially if it is enhanced by assorted steps toward diminished ambiguity or partial disclosure, could prove vital to dealing with the country’s large conventional threats, and possibly also with prospective acts of mega-terrorism. To be sure, the plausibility/credibility of any appropriate Israeli threat of nuclear retaliation would be greatest where the particular aggression posed was also nuclear. Still, there are some foreseeable circumstances wherein a determined enemy or coalition of enemies might contemplate “only” a devastating conventional first-strike against Israel, and decide that such a strike would be cost-effective because it would not likely elicit any Israeli nuclear retaliation. In such fully conceivable circumstances, the pertinent enemy state or coalition of enemy states will have concluded that any non-nuclear first-strike against a nuclear Israel, however massive, would be rational. This is because the Jewish State’s anticipated retaliation would expectedly stop short of crossing the nuclear threshold.

If, however, the would-be aggressor had previously been made aware that Israel was in actual possession of a meaningfully wide array of capable nuclear forces – in terms of their range, yield and ultimate penetration-capability – these enemies would more likely be successfully deterred. Here, as a distinctly welcome consequence of certain incremental and previously nuanced “disclosures,” Jerusalem-Tel Aviv will have signaled its relevant foes that it can and would cross the nuclear retaliatory threshold to punish any potentially existential national destruction. Expressed in more narrowly technical military parlance, Israel’s actions here would be correctly intended to ensure “escalation dominance.” In this particular scenario, moreover, the specific nuclear deterrence benefits to Israel of implementing certain moves way from “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” would lie in the more-or-less compelling signal that it sends. This signal should indicate that Israel would not need to retaliate using only massive and plainly disproportionate nuclear force.

Such benefits could extend beyond the enhancement of credible threats of Israeli nuclear retaliation to enhancing credible threats of Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation. If, for example, Israel should initiate a non-nuclear defensive first strike against Iran before that adversarial state becomes nuclear capable (an act of “anticipatory self-defense” under international law), the plausibility of any massive Iranian conventional retaliation could better be reduced if there had first been more openly disclosed and prior Israeli threats of a measured nuclear counter-retaliation. In essence, by following an incremental path away from “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” (sometimes also described as the “bomb in the basement”), Israel would be less apt to replicate America’s earlier nuclear stance vis-à-vis the Soviet Union – that is, a doctrinal posture of “massive retaliation.”

In themselves, nuclear weapons are neither good nor evil. In some circumstances, especially in a world of international anarchy, they could serve as needed implements of stable military deterrence. Moreover, there does exist, under the long-settled international law, a “peremptory” national right to employ or even fire nuclear weapons in order to survive. This expressly last-resort right is even codified in the 1996 Advisory Opinion on Nuclear Weapons, an authoritative Opinion handed down by the UN’s International Court of Justice.

One policy message remains unambiguous. Diplomacy has very substantial limits in assuring or safeguarding Israel’s national survival. Even following the July 2015 prohibitions of Iranian nuclearization, Israel has much to fear from Tehran. In this connection, if Iran’s religious leadership should ever choose to abandon the usual basic premises of rational behavior in world politics – that is, to forfeit the ordinary primacy of national survival in its established order of personal preferences – Jerusalem’s exclusively defensive nuclear deterrence posture could quite literally fail.

Nonetheless, even if Iran should sometime become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm, Israel’s only rational strategy, moving forward, should remain focused upon a suitably reciprocal enhancement of its own core nuclear deterrent.

There is more. Even if Israel’s nuclear planners could reasonably assume that all enemy leaderships, including Iran, were expectedly rational, this would say nothing about the accuracy of the information actually used in their calculations. In matters of military strategy, as strategists must steadfastly recall, rationality refers only to the intention of maximizing certain expressed values or preferences – most importantly, national survival. It does not suggest anything at all about whether the information being used by an enemy is either correct or incorrect.

Fully rational enemy leaderships could commit assorted errors in calculation leading them toward a conventional war, or, in the future, toward a nuclear war with Israel. There are also several associated command and control issues that could sometime impel a perfectly rational adversary or alliance of adversaries to undertake intolerably risky nuclear behaviors. These issues include: (1) uncontrollable consequences of certain pre-delegations of launch authority; (2) presumptive deterrence-enhancing measures called “launch-on-warning” (alternatively, called “launch-upon-confirmed-attack”); and/or (3) ongoing Pakistani instability and a consequent coup d’état.

“Everything is very simple in war,” says Carl von Clausewitz, On War, “but the simplest thing is still difficult.” For Israel, deciphering the strikingly complex connections between world politics and national nuclear strategy will present a unique intellectual challenge. In assessing this computational challenge, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (prime minister and the IDF) will need to conceptualize both prospective threats and prospective remedies in broadly systemic terms. For an obvious example, what develops in other parts of the world, such as northeast and southwest Asia, could inevitably impact the Middle East. And where nuclear weapons or nuclear war were involved, this impact could become utterly profound and historically unprecedented.

Just days after Donald Trump took office as president of the United States, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset its “Doomsday Clock” to 2.5 minutes to midnight. One year later, in January 2018, the Bulletin clock was again moved forward by 30 seconds. While plainly symbolic, such representations of grave systemic danger should raise the red flag of world security interdependence for decision makers in Israel.

To be sure, North Korea’s still-developing nuclear program will reverberate globally, as will the conspicuous expansion of “Cold War II” between Russia and the United States; still-growing tensions over the South China Sea; and steadily expanding nuclear arsenals in both Pakistan and India. A related concern is the seemingly unstoppable worldwide expansion of cyber threats, an expansion aimed not only at particular strategic and military assets directly, but also against certain vulnerable national infrastructures. These possibly more indirect targets could include national power grids, vulnerable water supplies, and absolutely all forms of communication and transportation.

Although a Jesuit Father and distinguished paleontologist – and not a narrowly military or strategic planner – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s overarching vision of “system” applies usefully to Israel’s physical survival. In one sense, such an application must appear more than a little ironic, chiefly because Chardin’s ultimate vision for human evolution and human future is for the resounding triumph of species “oneness” and generalized cooperation. Such triumph Chardin had originally dubbed “planetization.”

Nonetheless, any hoped-for or even expected victory of species convergence over divergence remains starkly improbable, at least from the sobering standpoint of a small state surrounded by assorted and unrelenting foes, and the concept of “system” will need to remain an integral element of Israel’s strategic planning. To best optimize this indispensable element, Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv should never make the mistake of conceptualizing the country’s vital strategic weapons and doctrine from a narrowly regional or enemy-state perspective. Instead, its strategic planners must fully and continuously acknowledge the burdensome complexity of all pertinent inter-relationships and intersections, and also recognize the increasingly chaotic context of our multi-dimensional world system.

The chaos Israel faces today is much more daunting than the more usual conditions of structural anarchy that were originally bequeathed at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In essence, this newest chaos is more evidently primal, more primordial, even more self-propelled, “lascivious,” or viscerally destructive. Accordingly, what Israel’s planner must soon understand, inter alia, is that the more traditional and recurrent breakdowns of “equilibrium” in world politics are altogether benign in comparison to the near-total “state of nature” expected in any post-nuclear war world. In this regard, perhaps the best literary analog to what ought to be studied in Jerusalem/Tel Aviv is William Golding’s conceivably prophetic parable, Lord of the Flies.

Long before Golding, the seventeenth-century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, had already warned insightfully about any state of nature. Then, cautioned Hobbes, in such daunting circumstances of extreme human disarray or disorder, there must always exist “continual fear, and the danger of violent death.” Famously, he continued, the “life of man” in nature must inevitably become “solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short.” To some analytic extent, of course, relevant issues of chaos and nature must intersect with core issues of enemy rationality.

In Leviathan, Hobbes explicitly indicates that all world politics exists in a genuine state of nature, but that the particular condition of nations in nature is more tolerable than the condition of individuals in anarchy. This is because, he argues, in the case of individual human beings, “…the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.” With nuclear weapons, however, there is no longer any good reason to maintain that the “state of nations” is more tolerable. Rather, the proliferation of nuclear weapons will bring the much wider state of nations closer to a true Hobbesian state of nature.

Back to questions of rationality. Going forward, and for several seemingly pragmatic reasons, Israeli defense planners are apt to project their own particular visions of rational decision-making upon their adversaries. Acknowledging that western philosophy has routinely oscillated between Plato and Nietzsche – between rationalism and irrationalism – they would then expectedly cast their strategic predictions with the early Greek thinkers and their corresponding intellectual heirs. Still, Israel could soon be up against a fundamentally transforming ordering of its geostrategic universe, a development whereby the country’s analysts would be better advised to consult Dostoyevsky or Kafka or Kierkegaard than to dwell too fixedly on Platonic rationalism, or even upon its most readily recognizable Hebrew counterparts.

Still, in such entirely plausible circumstances, the concept of “system” should give principal direction to analysts’ calculations, but not without certain nuanced policy adjustments that are based upon human beings sometimes irremediable attraction to unreason. Here, in an apparent paradox, the reasonableness of Israel’s nuclear strategy would be at least partially contingent upon carefully calculated anticipations of enemy irrationality. Understandably, such anticipations ought never to be swept under the rug, or in any other way be consciously disregarded.

In the end, assuming a still broadly systemic orientation to principal security threats, these decipherable anticipations could prove a vital component of Israel’s strategic nuclear posture.


Louis René Beres is professor emeritus of political science at  Purdue University. Beres is the author of twelve books including, “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” which was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield. He is lectures and research focus on international relations, terrorism, and international law.

 Professor Bares published several hundred articles dealing with social thought, philosophy, international relations, and international law. Beres’ has written for many publications including The New York Times; The Atlantic; Yale Global Online; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Jurist; US News & World Report; The Hill; The Daily Princetonian; and Harvard National Security Journal.


This article was first published in the Israel Defense




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