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Managing Nuclear Threats: President Biden’s Primary Policy Imperative

IRAN NUCLEAR Arak heavy water plant

By Louis René Beres, Emeritus Professor of International Law, Purdue University

“It must not be forgotten that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.”

Guillaume Apollinaire, The New Spirit and the Poets (1917)

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In the final analysisnuclear war avoidance is always an intellectual problem. It is also a problem that needs to be confronted together with certain other major global challenges, especially terrorism, inequality, pandemic, and climate change. These “other” challenges ought never to be minimized or dismissed out of hand. Significantly, they may sometimes engage synergistically with nuclear security threats, circumstances in which the calculable “whole” of deleterious effects would become substantially greater than the presumptive sum of its disparate “parts.” 

During the rancorous Trump years, a corrosive era of cascading intellectual incoherence, serious suggestions of scientific strategic assessment were routinely brushed aside at the White House. These dismissals, generally uttered by variously ill-suited and obsequious political appointees, were accompanied by demeaning gestures of casual unconcern. During these  years, US national security positions and problems were cast by Trump in narrowly ad hominem terms; always, they were founded upon plainly senseless appeals to passion, coercion or brute force.

From the standpoint of disciplined logic, such crude appeals exhibited, inter alia, a number of formal fallacies. Most conspicuous was the core error in correct reasoning known for centuries as the argumentum ad bacculum. From the very start of his dissembling presidency, Trump willfully compounded this egregious and potentially irremediable logical error.

Relevant examples abound. America’s extant nuclear adversary in North Korea? “No problem,” Americans were reassured by trump’s June 12, 2018 summit meeting with Kim Jung Un. All salient issues had already been settled conveniently and conclusively in just a few hours of “togetherness.”

“We fell in love” had been Trump’s succinct explanation at the Singapore hotel.

The most difficult element to explain about this absurdist presidential response was not the starkly contrived Trumpian reassurance, but the fact that Americans in general did not object to such evident nonsense. What ought to have been expected from a civilized American democracy in such troubling circumstances was not some viscerally deferential approval of presidential fiat, but rather more immediate howls of public incredulity. “How,” Americans should have then queried, “can we reasonably be expected to accept political gibberish as truth?”

What sort response was an American president’s allegation of requited love? We really all ought to have known, right away, that such a bewildering problem as nuclear war avoidance can never be remediable  by improving personal leadership relationships. Where were the plausible American howls of disbelief?

Today, with greater attention to applicable analytic and intellectual factors, we must all look determinedly forward. What happens next, now that the United States has a new and more capable president, one who is apt to replace injurious bravado and stultifying banalities with serious intellectual thought? For the moment, what matters  most are not the variously identifiable and tangible answers given to this question, but rather the simple fact that key questions are at last being raised.

Still, an initial and partial answer can be offered. It is time for Americans to be reminded that the core problems of decisional  uncertainty in world politics are deeply structural and correspondingly psychological. Ipso facto, these are analyticor intellectual problems. They will not submit to a particular president’s preferred political doggerel about “attitude” being better than “preparation.”

From the start, regarding strategic matters concerning North Korea, formerUS President Donald J. Trump made no discernible intellectual sense. Openly, unambiguously, he sought that worrisome country’s “denuclearization,” an unrealistic objective that made no policy sense at the time and makes even less policy sense today. It follows, among many other things, that Joe Biden will need to identify more credible and achievable goals in this and other prospectively volatile theatres of conflict. More generally, he will need to safeguard our anarchic and already fragile world political system from a rapidly emerging chaos and against ever-growing nuclear perils.

Corollary Obligations of Science and Mathematics

Regarding various indispensable responsibilities of world peace and global stabilization, strategic thinkers will need to remind the current American president of two pertinent and always-interrelated dimensions of danger: probability and disutility. The first mentioned dimension concerns issues of presumed likelihood. The second deals with presumed degree of physical suffering and lingering harms. Dealing with the first dimension must inevitably be sorely problematic by definition. In science and mathematics, true probabilities must always be based upon the discernible frequency of relevant past events. Yet, on the overriding issue of a nuclear war, as already noted above, there have beenno relevant past events.

There is more. From the standpoint of Pyongyang, denuclearization would necessarily represent an irrational option.  For Kim Jung Un,  getting rid of his extant atomic arms and infrastructures must remain contrary to North Korea’s most basic security requirements. In June 2020, exactly 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” and that any plausible prior reasons for optimism had “faded away into a dark nightmare.”

North Korea is not Joe Biden’s only adversarial nuclear problem. For the United States, Iran also represents a compellingly pertinent hazard. This assessment obtains, though Iran is not yet nuclear. 


Iran remains capable of fighting a massive conventional conflict against Israel, America’s principal Middle Eastern ally. Conceivably, Tehran could sometime prod the United States to consider using its nuclear forces on presumed behalf of Israel. At the same time, certain Sunni Arab states increasingly worried about an impending “Persian bomb” could sometime seek to obtain a suitably countervailing nuclear capacity for themselves.  Egypt and Saudi Arabia should most immediately come to mind.

What happens next? What complex intersections or synergies might actually arise involving Iran and Israel? And what might be the concurrent effects of “plague” (Covid19 pandemic) upon some or all of the pertinent “players?” In  essence, however the plausible conflict scenarios might be configured, all of these foreseeable prospects are unprecedented and all portend unprecedented outcomes.

Fully continuous US policy attention should also be directed toward ongoing nuclear developments in Russia and China. As we are arguably in the midst of a second Cold War, a condition of tacit belligerence that was exacerbated by Trump Administration withdrawals from several core nuclear arms control agreements, ongoing and escalating Russian and Chinese developments define a strategic background for encouraging other nuclear  developments in Pyongyang and Tehran.

“Cold War II” represents a comprehensive systemic structure within which virtually all contemporary world politics could be meaningfully categorized and properly assessed. Current “Great Power” dispositions to war, however they might most usefully be ascertained, offerauspicious analytic background for still-wider nuclear interactions.

What next? Planning ahead, what explanatory theories and scenarios could best guide the Biden administration in its multiple and foreseeable interactions with North Korea, Iran, China and Russia? Before answering this many-sided question with conceptual clarity and adequate specificity, a “correct” answer – any correct answer – will depend upon a more considered awareness of intersections and overlaps. Accordingly, some of these intersections and overlaps will be synergistic. By definition therefore, the consequential “whole” of any one particular interaction will be greater than the simple sum of its constituent “parts.”

Going forward, the new American president’s advisors will have to consider one overarching assumption. This is the inherently problematic expectation of adversarial rationality. Depending upon the outcome of such consideration, the judgments they make about this will be decidedly different and more-or-less urgent.

It now follows further that a primary “order of business” for American strategic analysts and planners will be reaching informed judgments about each specified adversary’s determinable ordering of preferences. Unequivocally, only those adversaries who would value national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences would be acting rationally.

But what about the others?

Further Questions and Answers

For scholars and policy-makers, further basic questions must now be considered. First, what are the operational meanings of relevant terminologies and/or vocabularies? In the formal study of international relations and military strategy, decisional irrationality never means quite the same as madness. Nonetheless, certain residual warnings about madness should still warrant serious US policy consideration. This is because both “ordinary” irrationality and full-scale madness could exert more-or-less comparable effects upon any examined country’s national security decision-making processes.

There is nothing here for the intellectually faint-hearted. This is not about “attitude” (the term Trump used to describe what he had regarded as most important to any negotiation ), but about fully science-based “preparation.”

Sometimes, for the United States, understanding and anticipating these ascertainable effects could display existential importance. In all such prospective considerations, words could matter a great deal. In normal strategic parlance, “irrationality” identifies a decisional foundation wherein national self-preservation is not summa, not the very highest and ultimate preference. This preference ordering would have decidedly significant policy implications.

An irrational decision-maker in Pyongyang, Tehran or elsewhere need not be determinably “mad” to become  troubling for policy analysts in Washington. Such an adversary would need “only” to be more conspicuously concerned about certain discernible preferences or values than about its own collective self-preservation. An example would be those preferences expressed for  feasible outcomes other than national survival.  Normally, any such national behavior would be unexpected and counter-intuitive, but it would still not be unprecedented or inconceivable. Identifying the specific criteria or correlates of any such considered survival imperatives could prove irremediably subjective and/or simply indecipherable.

Whether a particular American adversary were sometime deemed irrational or “mad,” US military planners would still have to input a generally similar calculation. Here, an analytic premise would be that the particular adversary “in play” might not be suitably deterred from launching a military attack by any American threats of retaliatory destruction, even where such threats would be fully credible and presumptively massive. Moreover, any such failure of US military deterrence could include both conventional and nuclear retaliatory threats.

In fashioning America’s nuclear strategy vis-à-vis nuclear and not-yet-nuclear adversaries, US military planners must include a mechanism to determine whether a designated adversary (e.g., North Korea or Iran) will more likely be rational or irrational. Operationally, this means ascertaining whether the identifiably relevant foe will value its collective survival (whether as sovereign state or organized terror group) more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. Always, this early judgment must be based upon defensibly sound analytic or intellectual principles.

In principle, at least, it should never be affected in any tangible way by what particular analysts might themselves simply “want to believe.”

A further analytic distinction is needed here between inadvertent nuclear war and accidental nuclear war. By definition, an accidental nuclear war would be inadvertent, but reciprocally, an inadvertent nuclear war need not always be accidental. False warnings, for example, which could be spawned by mechanical, electrical or computer malfunction (or by hacking) would not signify the origins of inadvertent nuclear war. Conceptually, they would fit under the more clarifying narratives of accidental nuclear war.

Most worrisome, in such concerns, would be avoiding nuclear war caused by miscalculation. In striving for “escalation dominance,” competitive nuclear powers caught up with multiple bewildering complexities in extremis atomicum could sometime find themselves embroiled in an inadvertent nuclear exchange. Ominously, any such unendurable outcome could arise suddenly and irremediably, though neither side had actually wanted such a war.

Summing up such scenarios, in facing off against each other, even under optimal assumptions of  mutual rationality, both President Biden and President Kim Jung Un would have to concern themselves with all possible miscalculations, errors in information, unauthorized uses of strategic weapons, mechanical or computer malfunctions, and myriad assorted nuances of cyber-defense/cyber-war. In other words, even if both Biden and Kim were abundantly capable, humane and focused – a generous assumption, to be sure – northeast Asia might still descend rapidly toward some form or other of uncontrollable nuclear conflagration. If this dire prospect were not sobering enough, it is also reasonable to expect that the corresponding erasure of a once-universal nuclear taboo would heighten the likelihood of nuclear risk-taking and conflict in other parts of the globe, especially southwest Asia (e.g., Pakistan and India) and the Middle East (e.g., Israel and Iran).

Regarding the Middle East, there is nothing about the Trump-brokered “Abraham Agreements” that could significantly reduce risks of a regional nuclear war. To the contrary, the intended effect of these agreements to weaken Shiite Iran is apt to backfire in many palpable ways. At the same time, Israel never really did need to worry about suffering major war with Bahrain, Morocco or the United Arab Emirates. In essence, for Israel, the Abraham Agreements “put an end” only to nonexistent hazards.

Authentic Rationality and Pretended Irrationality

There is more. A corollary US obligation, depending in large part upon this prior judgment concerning enemy rationality, will expect strategic planners to assess whether a properly nuanced posture of  “pretended irrationality” could effectively enhance America’s nuclear deterrence posture. On several occasions, it should be recalled here, former President Donald Trump had openly praised at least the underlying premises of such an eccentric posture.

Was such presidential praise intellectually warranted and/or properly justified?


It depends. US enemies continue to include both state and sub-state foes, whether considered singly or in variously assorted forms of collaboration. Such forms could be “hybridized” in different ways between state and sub-state adversaries. And in dealing with Washington, each recognizable class of enemies could sometime choose to feign irrationality.

In principle, this could represent a potentially clever strategy to “get a jump” on the United States in any expected or already-ongoing competition for “escalation dominance.”  Naturally, any such calculated pretense could also fail, perhaps calamitously. Cautionary strategic behavior based on serious conceptual thinking should always be the presidential “order of the day.”

There is something else. On occasion, these same enemies could “decide,” whether consciously or unwittingly, to actually be irrational.  In any such innately bewildering circumstances, it would then become incumbent upon American strategic planners to capably assess which basic form of irrationality – pretended or authentic – is actually underway. Thereafter, these planners would need to respond with a dialectically orchestrated and optimally counterpoised set of all possible reactions.

Once again, especially in purely intellectual terms, this would represent an uncommonly “tall order.”

In this critical context, the term “dialectically” (drawn originally from ancient Greek thought, especially Plato’s dialogues) must be used with very precise analytic meanings. This is suggested in order to signify a continuous or ongoing question-and-answer format of strategic reasoning. For President Biden and his counselors, nothing less will suffice.

By definition, any instance of enemy irrationality would value certain specific preferences (e.g., presumed religious obligations or personal and/or regime safety) more highly than collective survival. For America, as we have just seen, the grievously threatening prospect of facing some genuinely irrational nuclear adversary is prospectively most worrisome with regard to North Korea and (at least possibly, in a now rapidly closing future) Iran. Apropos of all such more-or-less credible apprehensions, it is unlikely that they could ever be meaningfully reduced solely by way of formal treaties or other law-based agreements.

Here, it would be well worth remembering seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ classic warning in Leviathan:  “Covenants, without the sword, are but words….” If this  traditional problem of global anarchy were not daunting enough for American strategists and decision-makers, it is further complicated by the largely unforeseeable effects of worldwide pandemic and, perhaps correspondingly, the opaque effects of any consequent chaos.

Conceptual clarifications are again in order. Chaos is not the same as anarchy. Chaos is “more than” anarchy. Indeed, we have lived with anarchy or the absence of central government in modern world politics since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but we have yet to descend into any worldwide chaos.

There is more. Even in the midst of anarchy, there is law. Since the 17th century, international law has functioned according to an often indecipherable  “balance of power.” Furthermore, for an American president conversant with the Constitution, international law is integrally a part of United States law. When former President Trump actively sought to undermine the International Criminal Court, he was acting contrary to both overlapping and intersecting systems of law.

Preemption, Asymmetry and Strategic Dialectic

How should President Biden proceed with managing nuclear risks? At some point, at least in principle, the best option could even seem to be some sort of preemption; that is, a defensive non-nuclear first-strike directed against situationally appropriate North Korean or Iranian hard targets. In actuality, of course, it is already very late for launching any operationally cost-effective preemption against North Korea, and – even if it could somehow be properly defended in law as “anticipatory self-defense” – any such action would come at much-too-substantial human and political costs.

In more specific regard to current and potentially protracted US-Iran enmity, the American side must consider how its nuclear weapons could best be leveraged in any plausible war scenario. A rational answer here could never likely include any actual operational use of such weapons. The only pertinent questions for President Biden’s pertinent planners, therefore, should concern the calculable extent to which an asymmetrical US threat of nuclear escalation could sometime be made sufficiently credible.

By definition, as long as Iran should remain non-nuclear, any US nuclear threat would be asymmetrical.

By applying all available standards of reason and logic (there are, after all, no usable historical points of reference in such unprecedented situations), Biden could most suitably determine that certain nuclear threats against Iran would serve American security interests only when Iranian military capacities, though still non-nuclear, were convincingly overwhelming. Any such daunting scenario, though perhaps difficult to imagine ex nihilo, might nonetheless still be conceivable. This theory-based “strategic dialectic” holds most convincingly if Tehran were willing to escalate (a) to massive direct conventional attacks upon American territories or populations, and/or (b) to significant use of certain biological warfare capabilities.

Nowadays, in literally any matter of prospective biological warfare, it will  be worth noting that our planet is currently in the midst of a naturally-occurring biological “assault,” and that even in the complete absence of any specific adversarial animus or intent, the injurious consequences of plague are already at the outer limits of human tolerance.

  All this should now imply a primary obligation for the United States (c) to focus continuously on various incremental enhancements to its implicit nuclear deterrence posture; and (d) to develop a wide and nuanced range of credible nuclear retaliatory options. The specific rationale of (d) (above), is the counter-intuitive understanding that the credibility of nuclear threats could sometime vary inversely with perceived levels of destructiveness. In certain  foreseeable circumstances, this means that successful nuclear deterrence of Iran or even North Korea could depend upon nuclear weapons that are deemed sufficiently low-yield or “small.”

Sometimes, in fashioning a national nuclear deterrence posture, counter-intuitive strategic insight is duly “on the mark,” and therefore indispensable. This is likely one of these “multi-layered” times. When Donald Trump liked to remind his North Korean counterpart that though both may have a nuclear “button,” but that his is “bigger,” the former president displayed his wholesale unawareness of nuanced nuclear deterrent strategy.

  There is more. President Biden should continue to bear in mind that any US nuclear posture must remain focused on prevention rather than punishment. In any and all identifiable circumstances, using any portion of its available nuclear forces for vengeance rather than deterrence would miss the essential point; that is, to most fully optimize US national security. Any American nuclear weapons use that would be  based on narrowly corrosive notions of revenge, even if only as a residual or default option, would be glaringly irrational.

These are all complex intellectual issues, of course, not simply political ones. America’s many-sided nuclear deterrent must be backed up by recognizably robust systems of active defense (BMD), especially if there should arise any determinable reason to fear an irrationalnuclear adversary. Although it is already well-known that no system of active defense can be entirely “leak-proof,” there is still good reason to suppose that certain BMD deployments could help safeguard both US civilian populations (soft targets) and American nuclear retaliatory forces (hard targets). This means that technologically advanced anti-missile systems must remain indefinitely as a steadily-modernizing component of this country’s core nuclear deterrence posture.

More precisely, among other elements of permissible self-defense, this suggests continuously expanding emphases on various laser-based weapon systems.

Deterrence, Defense and Mutual Vulnerability

While it may at  first sound annoyingly obvious, it must still be remembered that in the bewildering nuclear age, even seemingly defensive strategies could sometime be viewed by uneasy adversaries as offensive. This is because the secure foundation of any system of nuclear deterrence must always be some reasonable presumption of mutual vulnerability. “Everything is very simple in war,” says Clausewitz in On War, “but the simplest thing is still difficult.”

To progress in its most vital national security obligations in a complicating time of pandemic, President Biden’s military planners must more expressly identify the prioritized goals of this country’s nuclear deterrence posture. Before any rationaladversary could be suitably deterred by an American nuclear deterrent, this enemy would first need to believe that Washington had capably maintained both the capacity to launch appropriate nuclear reprisals for relevant forms of aggression (nuclear and biological/non-nuclear) and the will to undertake such uniquely consequential firings.

About the first belief criterion, it would almost certainly lie far beyond any “reasonable doubt.”

The second expectation, however, could sometime prove problematic and thus more-or-less “fatally” undermine US nuclear deterrence. In assorted ways that are not yet clearly understood, the necessary national will could be impacted by pandemic-related or even pandemic-created factors. Significantly, too, there would be certain hard-to-foresee interactions or synergies taking place between US policy decisions and those of pertinent and overlapping American adversaries.

In more perplexing matters involving an expectedly irrationalnuclear enemy, successful US deterrence would need to be based upon distinctly credible threats to certain enemy values other than national survival. Here, too, the actual prospect of enemy irrationality could be related to pandemic factors. In the most extreme cases, disease could play a tangible and determinative role in producing a particular enemy’s decisional irrationality.

These would be “uncharted waters.”

More typically, America will need  to demonstrate the continuously substantial invulnerability of its nuclear retaliatory forces to enemy first strike aggressions. It will remain in America’s long-term survival interests to continue to emphasize its variegated submarine-basing nuclear options. Otherwise, as is plainly reasonable to contemplate, America’s land-based strategic nuclear forces could potentially present to a strongly-determined existential enemy (e.g., North Korea) as “too-vulnerable.”

For the moment, this is not a significantly serious concern, though President Biden will want to stay focused on any still-planned deployment of submarines by America’s Israeli ally in the Middle East. The general point of any such secondary focus would be on strengthening Israeli nuclear deterrence, which – in one way or another – would be to the simultaneous strategic benefit of the United States. Israel’s own nuclear deterrence could be affected by assorted pandemic-related variables, including some with very serious reciprocal consequences for the United States.

Deterrence, Rationality and Diminished US Strategic Ambiguity

There is more. Increasingly, America will have to rely on a broadly multi-faceted doctrine of nuclear deterrence. In turn, like its already-nuclear Israeli ally, specific elements of this “simple but difficult” doctrine could sometime need to be rendered less “ambiguous.” This complex and finely nuanced modification will require an even more determined focus on prospectively rational and irrational enemies, including both national and sub-national foes.

To deal most successfully with its presumptively irrational or non-rational enemies, whether or not impacted by pandemic factors, this country will need to compose a continuously-updating strategic “playbook.” Here, it could become necessary for Biden to consider, at least on extraordinary occasion, policies of feigned irrationality. In such analytically-challenging cases, it would be important for the American president not to react in an ad hoc or “seat-of-the-pants” fashion to each and every new strategic development or eruption, but instead to derive or extrapolate all specific policy reactions from a suitably pre-fashionedand comprehensive strategic nuclear doctrine.

Without such a thoughtful doctrine as guide, pretended irrationality could quickly become a “double-edged sword,” effectively bringing more rather than less security harms to the United States. During the patently-unsteady Trump years, this dire prospect was always “in the wings.”

There is one penultimate but still critical observation.  It is improbable, but not inconceivable, that certain of America’s principal enemies would be neither rational nor irrational, but mad. While irrational decision-makers would already pose very special problems for US nuclear deterrence  – by definition, because these decision-makers would not value collective survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences – they might still be rendered susceptible to various alternate forms of deterrence.

Here, resembling  rational decision-makers, they could still maintain a fixed, determinable and “transitive” hierarchy of preferences. This means, at least in principle, that “merely” irrational enemies could still sometimes be successfully deterred.  This is an observation well worth further analytic study, especially at a time when sweeping disease effects remain both palpable and unexamined.

Mad or “crazy” adversaries, on the other hand, would have no such calculable hierarchy of preferences, and would not be subject to any strategy of American  nuclear deterrence. Although it would likely be worse for the United States to have to face a mad nuclear enemy than a “merely” irrational one, Washington would have no foreseeable choice in this sort of emergency. This country, like it or not, will need to maintain, perhaps indefinitely, a “three track” system of nuclear deterrence and defense, one track for each of its still-identifiable adversaries that are presumptively (1) rational (2) irrational  or (3) mad.

Again, this will not be task for narrowly political or intellectually averse US strategic decision-makers. Among other things, it will require a capable assessment of pertinent synergies, some of them distressingly subjective and biological. For the most notably unpredictable third track, special plans will also be needed for undertaking potentially indispensable preemptions, and, simultaneously, for certain corresponding/overlapping efforts atballistic missile defense.

There is more. There could be no reliable assurances that any one “track” would consistently present exclusively of the others. This means, portentously, that American decision-makers could sometimes have to face deeply intersecting or interpenetrating tracks, and that these always-complicated simultaneities could be synergistic.

There is one final observation to be noted. Even if America’s military planners could reassuringly assume that enemy leaderships were fully rational, this would say nothing about the accuracy of the information used by these foes in making their own particular calculations. Always, it must never be forgotten, rationality refers only to the intention of maximizing certain designated preference or values. It says nothing about whether the information being used is actually correct or incorrect.

In this extraordinary time of global “plague,” any such intention – American or adversarial – could have pandemic-related determinants. At a minimum, this fact should be regarded as sobering to President Joe Biden and America’s national security decision-makers. For these officials, this should be a moment in history to disavow absolutely any wayward inclinations to hubris, that is, to excessive or overweening pride, and to accept, instead, a conspicuous abundance of prudential caution. Among other pertinent settings, one especially perilous place for such caution concerns all matters of a defensive first strike or preemption.

A further distinction is called for here. From the standpoint of international law, it is necessary to distinguish preemptive attacks from “preventive ones.” Preemption is a military strategy of striking first in the expectation that the only foreseeable alternative is 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 for fear of some longer-term deterioration in a pertinent 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 for the United States is not only the practical difficulty of ever accurately determining “imminence,” but also that delaying a defensive strike until imminence were appropriately ascertained could prove existential. Of course, at least in principle, a United States resort to “anticipatory self-defense” could be nuclear or non-nuclear, and could be directed at either a nuclear or non-nuclear adversary.

Prima facie, any such resort involving nuclear weapons on one or several sides could prove catastrophic.

Disutility, Probability and Miscalculation

America is not automatically made safer by having only rational adversaries. To wit, even fully rational enemy leaderships could sometimes commit serious errors in calculation that would lead them toward a nuclear confrontation and/or to nuclear/biological war. There are also certain related command and control issues that could impel a perfectly rational adversary or combination of rational adversaries (both state and sub-state) to embark upon various risky nuclear behaviors.

It follows that even the most pleasingly “optimistic” assessments of enemy leadership decision-making could never reliably preclude authentically catastrophic outcomes.

For the United States, understanding that no scientifically accurate judgments of probability can ever be made about unique events (again, by definition, any nuclear exchange would be sui generis, or precisely such a unique event), the very best lessons for America’s current president should favor a determined decisional prudence and a deliberate posture of humility. Of special interest, in this connection, is the always erroneous presumption that having greater nuclear military power than an adversary is automatically an assurance of some future bargaining or diplomatic success.

Why? Among other things, this is because the tangible amount of deliverable nuclear firepower required for deterrence is necessarily much less than what could ever be required for “victory.” For President Joe Biden, this is a time for displaying nuanced and purposeful counter-intuitive wisdom in Washington, and not for clichéd presidential thinking.For the Biden administration, operating in the largely-unpracticed nuclear age, ancient Greek tragedy warnings about excessive leadership pride are not only still relevant, they are also palpably and irrefutably more important than ever before.

For the United States, classical Greek commentaries concerning hubris, left unheeded, could bring forth once unimaginable spasms of “retribution.” The ancient tragedians, after all, were not yet called upon to reason about nuclear decision-making. None of this is meant to build gratuitously upon America’s most manifestly reasonable fears or apprehensions, but only to remind everyone involved that competent national security planning must always remain a complex struggle of “mind over mind.”

To remind, these remain fundamentally intellectual problems, challenges requiring meticulous analytic preparation rather than just a particular presidential “attitude.” Above all, such planning ought never become just another calculable contest of “mind over matter;” that is, never just a vainly reassuring inventory of comparative weaponization or presumptively superior “order of battle.” Unless this rudimentary point is more completely understood by senior US strategic policymakers and by the new president of the United States – and until these same policymakers can begin to see the utterly overriding wisdom of expanded global cooperation and human “oneness” – America can never render itself sufficiently secure from nuclear or biological war.


Poetry, Policy and Public Chaos

In his 1927 preface to Oxford Poetry, W.H. Auden wrote: “All genuine poetry is in a sense the formation of private spheres out of public chaos….” Looking ahead and with an appropriately avant-garde orientation, American strategists must seek to carve out livable national “spheres” from a steadily expanding global chaos. Ultimately, following Nietzsche,  they must also understand that such chaos lies originally within each individual human being. But – at least for the moments of their present strategic deliberations – they should remain focused upon our collective survival in a persistently Hobbesian “state of nature.”

With the further spread of nuclear weapons to additional states (and also, perhaps, to sub-national terror groups), the historical conditions of nature bequeathed at the Peace of Westphalia (1648) could come to resemble the primordial barbarism of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Long before Golding, Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century English philosopher, warned insightfully in Leviathan (Chapter XIII)  that in any such circumstances of human disorder there must exist “continual fear, and danger of violent death….” Here, inevitably, the “life of Man” must be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

To best plan for America’s long-term strategic future, Joe Biden will first need to understand the inexorable need for appropriate world system transformation; and to accommodate this transformation with more authentically imaginative policy thinking. In such crucial matters, recalling Italian film director Federico Fellini,

“The visionary is the only realist.”

Unlike anarchy, chaos is necessarily an intra-personal condition before it becomes an inter-national one. This means that the core problem of chaos must be “solved” at the behavioral level before it can be remediated in any larger arenas of US nuclear strategy, international relations or international law. On achieving this central understanding, one made substantially more urgent by global pandemic, President Biden faces not only a daunting challenge but also a rare opportunity.


There is more. US foreign policy initiatives concerning nuclear war avoidance must ultimately shift from traditional notions of “realism” to the more enduring ideas of “planetization.” Though seemingly utopian, these ideas are actually more realistic than any global continuance of Thomas Hobbes’ endlessly corrosive “state of nature.”

For the time being, of course, pertinent American policies will still have to be founded upon intellectually supportable principles of nuclear deterrence and variously corresponding elements of “preparation,” but such many-sided foundations should never be expected to last indefinitely.

It follows, unassailably, that keeping the United States safely distant from nuclear conflagration will require an American leadership that can suitably navigate all current and foreseeable risks – including some hazards that are plausibly pandemic-related – and that can plan competently for the evolving future. In candor, this will never be a task for the intellectually faint-hearted.

In the end, as illustrated by the more-or-less predictable effects of a nuclear war and also by long-established effects of “plague,” we humans are all creatures of biology and mustfinally recognize themselves in the “other,” that is, in a ubiquitous and wholly reciprocal commonality. Moreover, this means a genuinely primal commonality, a determinative “oneness” worth adapting to absolutely all of America’s national security policies. Such structural interdependence underscores both our interpenetrating existential vulnerabilities as individual human beings and our leaders’ corollary obligation to place polity above any and all personal interests.

In the still-clarifying imagery of ancient Greek drama, US President Joe Biden should become more conspicuously averse to any “monarchical-style” hubris than was his dissembling predecessor. To assume that the continuously failing system of belligerent nationalism first bestowed at Westphalia in 1648 can reliably prevent a nuclear war in the long-term represents human arrogance and self-delusion at its imaginable worst. For the United States, reducing the still-growing threat of a catastrophic nuclear war can only be based upon principled rejection of “America First” and of any other policy posture derived from comparably false presidential promises. Recalling French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin with the precise sentence I used to conclude my Ph.D. thesis back at Princeton exactly fifty years ago (1971): “Peace waits for us only at that point where we are able to witness a totalisation of the world upon itself, in the unanimous construction of a spirit of the earth.”

For the moment, President Joe  Biden’s most immediate imperative should be more modest, but still clear and tangible. The core task should be to  manage nuclear threats expeditiously and scientifically from wherever they might arise. Rejecting his rancorous predecessor’s seat-of-the-pants approach to even the most genuine threats of nuclear confrontation, Joe Biden’s orientation to national security must consistently be based upon rigorous calculations and durable substance. In essence, this orientation must be based upon refined intellectual foundations.

Increasingly, the management of nuclear threats represents an American president’s most urgent policy imperative.  Inconspicuously, perhaps, but with a fearful momentum never to be minimized or disregarded, the “atomic clock” is not just another quaint artifact of post-World War II history. It is, rather, continuously real. 

Now, even more quickly than before, it ticks relentlessly.

  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

This article was first published in Horasis 



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