Published On: Wed, Dec 23rd, 2020

Nuclear Challenges from Pyongyang: Preparing Joe Biden for the Next Chapter

 Prof. Louis René Beres

“For by wise counsel thou shall make thy war….”-Proverbs, 24/6

Understanding the Present Moment

Incoming US President Joseph Biden faces both direct and indirect threats of North Korean nuclearization. During the rancorous and doctrinally-incoherent Trump presidency, these risks were allowed to expand uncontrollably. At this stage, they are already many-sided and grave. Ignored further, they could become more steeply unmanageable or even genuinely existential.

               In essence, for Biden, the basic nuclear crisis with North Korea is arguably “Job One.” What exactly shall be required of his new administration? Most important, the American president will need to understand that national security and war preparedness is always a theory-based matter of “mind over mind.” It is never merely a straightforward question of “mind over matter.” 

               To begin, any now eleventh-hour elevation of  US strategic thought would need to be based upon a far greater presidential appreciation of persistently-intersecting political and military complexities. These include multiple “synergies” that were so wittingly and irresponsibly overlooked by Donald J. Trump. Though the former president believed that he had somehow solved the North Korea nuclear problem by “falling in love” with Kim Jung Un (and, reciprocally, Kim with him), this purported “love” attachment was never more than a hideous parody. 

               How could it have been considered otherwise by serious thinkers and planners?

               In all synergistic intersections, by definition, the “whole” of any particular outcome must be greater than the sum of its “parts.” In such challenging analytic matters, US policy-making must be kept suitably distant from distracting considerations founded upon shallow wishful thinking or unsupportable extravagant hope. To recall the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ summary assessment of the Peloponnesian War: “Hope is by nature an expensive commodity, and those who are risking their all on one cast find out what it means only when they are already ruined…. 

How to Begin?

               What “wise counsel” should now be offered? How should the Biden administration best proceed on all relevant and overlapping fronts? The ancient Greeks regarded war and war-planning as a daunting challenge of “mind over mind.” Effectively anticipating the later writings of Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz (On War, 1832), they typically based tactical and operational policies upon a coherent body of dialectical “conversations.” Here, it was already understood, the primary and preeminent battlefield would have to be carefully conceptualized before the onset of  any actual troop movements or engagements.

                Correspondingly, any foreseeable victory in such engagements would have to follow a mind-based articulation of strategic doctrine. 

               In  all such matters, comprehensive theory is indispensable. Always, the world, like the myriad human bodies who comprise it, must be recognized as a system. Among the most serious specific implications of this explanatory metaphor, any more-or-less major conventional conflict in northeast Asia could heighten the prospect of destabilizing international conflicts elsewhere, whether immediately or incrementally.

               These portentous prospects could include a regional nuclear war.

               There is more. Such worrisome risks could sometime be enlarged by misguided American searches for a no-longer plausible or reasonable outcome. An example of such a mistaken search would be one that is directed toward some tangible form of  “victory.”

               There is good reason for such a warning. A non-traditional observation about “victory” is persuasive, at least in part, because the core meanings of victory and defeat have been changing incrementally and dramatically over time. These are no longer the same meanings as those once offered by Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz’ classic On War (1832).

               To clarify further, in most prospectively identifiable wars between nation-states, there no longer obtain any confirmable criteria of demarcation between victory and defeat. Even a so-called “victory” on some actual field of battle might not in any calculable way reduce palpable and significant security threats to the United States. More precisely, such grave threats, whether foreseen or unforeseen, could include various sub-state aggressions (terrorism) and/or certain widening attacks upon regional and/or non-regional US allies.

               Always, the arena of world politics is a system.

               In the matter at hand, once acknowledged as a distinct foreign-policy objective, any declared US search for “victory” over North Korea would exacerbate strategic risks without enhancing any commensurate or derivative gains. Such a declaration could create a corrosively lethal escalatory dynamic with Pyongyang, one from which Washington would no longer expect tangible military advantages. This expectedly injurious creation could take place in unanticipated increments, or instead, suddenly, as an unexpected “bolt-from-the-blue” enemy attack. 

               In the foreseeable worst case, this unwitting US forfeiture of “escalation dominance” would signify authentically irreversible American losses, including chaotic conditions that could create (a) tens or even hundreds of thousands of prompt fatalities; and (b) still larger numbers of latent cancer deaths.

               It follows, inter alia, that a great deal of specificity must be examined and taken into account by incoming US President Joe Biden’s pertinent senior counselors. In a world where history and science could conceivably regain their proper pride of place, an American president could very usefully acknowledge that because nation-states no longer declare wars formally or generally enter into legally binding war-termination agreements, the application of traditional criteria of “war-winning” to interstate conflicts would no longer make legal sense. Plausibly, too, in the vastly complicated matters already at hand for America’s new president, ascertainable benefits might not lie in variously traditional forms of military expertise.

               Not at all.

Preemption and Anticipatory Self-Defense

                Exactly how much applicable military experience could American generals have garnered in starting, managing or ending a nuclear war? How much might the new president and his senior commanders see only what they would want to see, including perhaps a gainful prospect of military preemption. Here they should have to recall the ancient but still relevant observation of Julius Caesar at Chapter 18 of Caesar’s Gallic War: “…men as a rule willingly believe what they want to believe….”

               In these transitional nuclear times, any such selective perceptions could prove markedly injurious and irremediably mistaken. Though at least in principle, an American president could still benefit from a preemption against an already nuclear North Korea in certain residual and extraordinary circumstances, it is incontestable that any US defensive first strike would have catastrophic outcomes. Regarding the myriad complexities of any still-impending two-power nuclear competition where (a) there would exist substantial asymmetries in relative military power position; but (b) the “weaker” (North Korean) side would still maintain a verifiable potential to inflict unacceptably damaging first-strikes or reprisals upon the “stronger” (American) side, abundant policy-making caution is more important than ever.

               Ironically, at a time of rampant pandemic, a nuclear war – any nuclear war – would be a more conclusively terminal “disease.” The only reasonable “cure,” therefore, must lie in prevention.

               Under Joseph Biden, the United States will need a refined posture that can account for the rationality and intentionality of enemy decision-makers in Pyongyang. The new president should approach the still-growing North Korean nuclear threat from a more conspicuously disciplined and conceptual perspective. This means, inter alia, factoring into any coherent US nuclear threat assessment (a) the expected rationality or irrationality of all principal decision-makers in Pyongyang; and (b) the foreseeable intentional or unintentional intra-crisis behaviors of these adversarial decision-makers.

               “Theory is a net,” quotes philosopher of science Karl Popper from the German poet Novalis in The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959); “….only those who cast, can catch.” In such bewilderingly complex strategic matters, nothing can ever prove to be more practical than good theory. Always, in science, a broadly elucidating generality is the key to uncovering specific meanings. It follows that having at hand such comprehensive policy clarifications could help guide US President Joe Biden beyond any otherwise vague or uselessly impromptu appraisals. 

               Under no circumstances, this new president should be reminded, should such multi-sided crisis possibilities be assessed (whether implicitly or explicitly) as singular or ad hoc phenomena.

Intentional versus Unintentional Nuclear War

               There is more. Going forward, capable American strategic analysts guiding the new president should enhance their pertinent nuclear investigations by carefully identifying the basic distinctions between (a) intentional or deliberate nuclear war, and (b) unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. The derivative risks resulting from these at least four different types of possible nuclear conflict are apt to vary considerably. Accordingly, those American analysts who might remain too completely focused upon a deliberate nuclear war scenario could too-casually underestimate a more serious nuclear threat to the United States.

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

               An additional conceptual distinction must now be inserted into any US analytic scenario “mix.” This is the subtle but still important difference between an inadvertent nuclear war and an accidental nuclear war. To wit, any accidental nuclear war would have to be inadvertent; conversely, however, there could be identifiable forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not be accidental. Most critical in this connection are various more-or-less significant errors in calculation committed by one or both sides – that is, reciprocal mistakes that could lead directly and inexorably to a nuclear conflict. Te most blatant example would concern assorted misjudgments of enemy intent or capacity that might somehow emerge during the course of any one particular crisis escalation.

               Such dire misjudgments would likely stem from an expectedly mutual search for strategic advantage occurring during any particular competition in nuclear risk-takingIn expressly strategic parlance, this would suggest a substantially traditional military search for “escalation dominance” in extremis atomicum. 

Rationality versus Irrationality

                There would also need to be various related judgments concerning expectations of rationality and irrationality within each affected country’s decision-making structure. One potential source of an unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war could be a failed strategy of “pretended irrationality.” A foolishly-posturing American president who had too “successfully” convinced enemy counterparts of his own irrationality could spark an otherwise-avoidable enemy preemption.

               “Played” in the other direction, an American president who had begun to take seriously Kim Jung Un’s own presumed unpredictability could sometime be frightened into striking first. In this alternate case, the United States would become the preempting party that might then claim legality for its allegedly defensive first-strike. In  such inherently “dicey” circumstances, those US strategists charged with fashioning an optimal strategic posture would do well to recall Carl von Clausewitz’s oft-quoted warning in On War concerning “friction.” In essence, this “Clausewitzian” property represents the difference between “war on paper” and “war as it actually is.”

               Always, it represents an unerringly vital difference, one never determinable by what former US President Trump had naively called “attitude.”

                America’s incoming president, unlike his unreasoning predecessor, ought to be sufficiently well-grounded in science and logic. Though rarely acknowledged, however, no truly scientific or reliable probability estimations can ever be undertaken in regard to unprecedented situations. In science, authentic probability judgments must always be based upon the carefully calculated frequency of relevant past events.

               Incontrovertibly, on matters regarding a nuclear war, there have been no such past events. By definition, such events would be unique or sui generis. The American bombings of Japan in August 1945 did not constitute a nuclear war. They were “only” examples of atomic weapons being used during a conventional war.

               President Biden’s strategic advisors must take heed. This sort of “behind-the-news” analytic assessment is not reasonably controversial. Not only there has there never been a nuclear war, there have also never been the sorts of asymmetrical nuclear standoffs most apt to arise between Washington and Pyongyang.  

               Because there can never be any informed scientific assessments of probable war outcomes in this volatile Asian “theatre,” US President Joe Biden should approach any pertinent war scenarios very soberly, with recognizable humility (the ancient Greek philosophers would be warning here against “hubris”) and with considerable war-reluctance.

                Recalling the “good old days, “which extend well into the twentieth-century, nation-states have generally had to defeat enemy armies before being able to wreak wished-for destruction upon an adversary’s cities and infrastructures. In those earlier days of more traditional doctrinal arrangements concerning war and peace, any individual country’s demonstrated capacity to “win” was necessarily and understandably prior to achieving any needed capacity to destroy. An appropriate and well-known example to US military thinkers at such venerable institutions as the US Army War College or West Point would be the case of Persia and Greece at the long-studied 480 BCE Battle of Thermopylae.

               Today, unlike what seemingly took place at Thermopylae, a state enemy needn’t first be able to defeat American armies in order to inflict grievous harms on the United States. As an example, such an enemy could enlist selectively destructive proxy forces on its behalf, such as various bio-terrorist surrogates. What happens then to the prevailing “balance of power?”

               For President Biden and his counselors, there is still some prospectively “good news.” Accordingly, the United States needn’t be able to win a particular conflict in order to credibly threaten a significant foe (deterrence) or to inflict upon such an enemy considerable retaliatory harms (punishment). What this “good news” means today is that the capacity to deter is not necessarily identical to the capacity to win. Reciprocally, for the new American president’s defense counselors, the principal war-planning or war-deterring lesson of any such ongoing transformations warrants further study.

               What will matter here is not “personal attitude” (previous President Donald Trump’s self-described “ace in the hole”),  but intellectual preparation. What matters most, going forward, will be a capacity to win bewilderingly complex struggles of “mind over mind,” not just ad hoc or visceral contests of “mind over matter.”  In time, moreover, critical strategy lessons could apply beyond the specifically North Korean nuclear issue.

Points of Law

               There are various relevant points of law to consider. Jurisprudence has its own proper place in strategic calculations. Specifically, in terms of applicable law, winning and losing may no longer mean very much for successful strategic planning. The consequential evaluation of victory and defeat as operational goals should be increasingly obvious with regard to America’s now seemingly-latent wars on terror. More precisely, pertinent conflict issues will need to be examined within continuously transforming US military plans and objectives regarding Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, China, Russia, Yemen and assorted other places.

                Prima facie, the U.S. can never meaningfully “win” any wars with Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, etc. This is because its leaders could never know for certain when a tangible victory had actually been achieved or loss incurred.

               There is still more for the incoming American president to consider.  Operationally, winning and losing are now fully extraneous to America’s indispensable collective interests, or, in those foreseeable cases where “victory” might still be expressed as a high-priority national objective, overwhelmingly harmful. In principle, and not without substantial irony, a narrowly static orientation to “winning” could sometimes lead the United States toward huge and irreversible losses via critical American misjudgments regarding “escalation dominance.”Above all, under President Joe Biden, U.S. military posture should cease being shaped according to the starkly barren expectations of clamorous clichés,  inexpert advice or irrelevant analogies.  

               This is not about “rallies.”

               It must be about “wise counsel.”

               Always.

               Calculated US posture ought always be based upon the most expressly disciplined theses and antitheses of dialectical strategic thought, a proven pattern of analysis that goes back to Plato and his perpetually illustrative dialogues.

               Finally, America’s new president and his military planners could look more usefully to the East. Long ago, famed Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu had reasoned simply and succinctly: “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” To meet current U.S. national security objectives vis-à-vis North Korea and other potential nuclear adversaries, this ancient Chinese military wisdom suggests that Washington now openly emphasize deterrence rather than victory. This is not a time to continue any buffoon-like presidential threats about the size of national “buttons.” President Trump, we may recall, once said of Kim Jung Un, “He also has a button, but my button is bigger than his button.”

               This childlike assertion was hardly an enviable example of sophisticated strategic thought.

               At the same time, any necessary discontinuance of strategic competition should remain connected to the most stringent requirements of conducting or maintaining control over plausible military escalations. If, going forward, these requirements were somehow minimized or disregarded, a resultant regional conflict could have decisive “spillover” implications for other nation-states and for other parts of the world. Once again, assorted elements of chaos notwithstanding, world politics and world military processes are always expressive of an underlying system.

               This characterization is clarifying and elucidating. It must lie continuously at the core of absolutely any coherent US strategic doctrine. 

Forging US Strategic Doctrine

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

               This is because both China and Russia remain more worried about their traditional national enemy in Washington than about any possible future dangers arising from Pyongyang.

Remembering that North Korea is Already Nuclear

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

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

               “The existence of `system’ in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature,” says the 20th century French Jesuit scholar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “no matter whom….” Nowhere is this core interrelatedness more obvious or potentially consequential than in the continuing matter of a nuclear North Korea and US foreign policy decision-making. This consistently urgent threat will never subside or disappear on its own. It will be the new US president’s continuing role to understand all relevant American security obligations and their ensuing complications.

               In accepting this grave responsibility, it would prove especially wise for the new US president to bear in mind the ancient Funeral Speech warning of Pericles. As recalled most famously by Thucydides: “What I fear more than the strategies of our enemies,” said the wise Athenian leader, “are our own mistakes.” Of course, in the best of all possible worlds, an American president could finally prepare to go beyond Realpoliitk and its endlessly belligerent nationalism– a perpetually futile dynamic that has never succeeded and is destined for continued failure – but the world is not yet ready for any such transformation.

               If, however, that auspicious time should arrive sometime in the future, President Biden’s key task will be to focus upon the essential interrelatedness or “oneness” of all world politics. Just as each individual human being, the microcosm, is comprised of interlocking biological systems, world politics, the macrocosm, is made up of variously constituent national and sub-national systems. In both examples, microcosm, and macrocosm, survival will require more reliable and generalized patterns of cooperation between systems.

               “Just wars,” wrote Hugo Grotius, the acknowledged founder of modern international law,  “arise from our love of the innocent.” Now, however, it is plain, and again by definition, that a nuclear war could never be “just,” and that certain earlier legal distinctions (e.g., just war vs. unjust war) must be continuously conformed to the ever-changing technologies of military destruction. The only sensible adaptation in this regard must be to acknowledge persisting connections between international law and natural law and then to oppose any retrograde movements to undermine such vital acknowledgments.

               In the final analysis, to successfully prevent a nuclear war in Asia or anywhere else, it will be necessary to resist mightily any world system declensions toward further belligerent nationalism.

               Plainly and incontestably, the best use for American nuclear weapons in any ongoing US-North Korea negotiation must be as elements of dissuasion or persuasion, and not as actual weapons of war. In this regard, the key underlying principle goes back even before the advent of nuclear weapons. Remembering the ancient Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu in his On War (Chapter 3, “Planning Offensives”): “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”

               A nuclear war with North Korea would resemble any other terminal pathology. The only reasonable hopes lie in disease prevention.


Louis René Beres
 
was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.

His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear terrorism.

This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy

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