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A Summit of Consequence? Great Power Diplomacy and Inadvertent Nuclear War

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a U.S.-Russia Summit June 16, 2021, at the Villa La Grange in Geneva./ Official White House / Photo by Adam Schultz

Prof. Louis René Beres

In a surrealist year…. some cool clown pressed an inedible mushroom button, and an inaudible Sunday bomb fell down, catching the president at his prayers on the 19th green.”-Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)

While serious questions continue to emerge from the recently-completed Geneva summit, one concern should remain front and center. This is the more-or-less calculable prospect of inadvertent nuclear war, an existential hazard that is integral to America’s deterrence-based framework of national security. This prospect is still expanding.

A Process of Continuous Reassessment

What can be done? For clarifying analyses, periodic re-assessments will be needed. To begin, though an accidental nuclear war would always be inadvertent, not every inadvertent nuclear war need be the result of an accident. Other forms of unintentional nuclear conflict would be the outcome of human misjudgment and/or technical miscalculation. This is the case whether a bellum atomicum were spawned by singular nation-state error or both sides to an ongoing two-party nuclear crisis escalation.

               Also significant here could be various “synergies” (whether foreseen or unanticipated) arising between particular misjudgments or miscalculations.

               Conceptual understanding will always be key. In synergistic intersections, the cumulative “whole” of any specific combination must be greater than the sum of all pertinent “parts.” The quantifiable outcome of two discrete national decisions would be more consequential than a result suggested only by arithmetic summations. Moreover, this heightened importance could be tangible, intangible or somewhere in-between.

Needed Analytic Clarifications

               Above all, these are complex intellectual or analytic issues. They are not mundane or trivial matters amenable to narrow political resolution. The abundant risks of deliberate nuclear war and inadvertent nuclear war could be assessed independently of one another. Accordingly, US President Joe Biden should prepare to deal systematically with variously plausible manifestations of cyber-attack and cyber-war. And these high-technology threats ought to be considered in conjunction with simultaneously expanding activities of “digital mercenaries.”

               In science, language matters. Dangerous false warnings could be generated by different types of technical malfunction or by third-party hacking interference, but should not be included under the causes of an inadvertent nuclear war. Rather, these false warnings would present as cautionary narratives of an accidental nuclear war. Always, both narratives warrant intellect-based elucidations. While now sounding obvious prima facie, national security decision-making during the Trump era was often incoherent and generally disjointed.

               There are also issues of geometry. Recognizing the territorial loci of prospective nuclear threats to the United States, these corresponding issues should focus especially on Russia, China and North Korea. Concessions offered to Mr. Biden by Russian President Putin might not be meaningfully reassuring vis-à-vis variably unpredictable perils originating from China and/or North Korea. Reciprocally, Mr. Putin could have good reason to be concerned about US concessions offered on behalf of South Korea, Japan and/or specific NATO member states.

               In strategic terms, there is more. Metaphorically, for the United States, there are additional “flies in the ointment.” In coming years, partially because Trump-era “toughness” was wholly contrived and effectively accelerated Iran’s determined efforts at nuclearization, that country, now led by a more conspicuously hardline president, will more likely and more expeditiously join the “nuclear club.” For both President Biden and President Putin, such membership will substantially complicate certain critical elements of national security decision-making.

               Miscalculation and Escalation Dominance

                For Joe Biden’s senior policy planners, conceptual clarity should become a more evident sine qua non for resolving national security problems. In this regard, most worrisome among credible causes of an inadvertent nuclear war would be various errors in calculation committed by one or both sides. The most evident example here would likely involve those assorted misjudgments of adversarial intent or capacity that emerge in determinable conformance with crisis escalation. Such consequential misjudgments could stem from an amplified desire by one or several crisis-contending parties to achieve “escalation dominance.”

               Plausibly, in such foreseeable crisis conditions, all rational contenders would strive for escalation dominance without risking high odds of total or near-total destruction. Expectedly, of course, wherever one or several contending adversaries would not appear suitably rational, all usual deterrence “bets” would be off. Most immediately worrisome for the United States should be North Korea. Former US President Donald Trump’s statement that he and Kim Jung Un had “fallen in love” at the Singapore Summit provides no reasonable comfort for still-thinking Americans.

               None at all.

               Nonetheless, false comfort remains a plausible American objective. Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               There exist other potential causes of an inadvertent nuclear war. These causes include flawed interpretations of computer-generated nuclear attack warnings;  an unequal willingness among adversaries to risk catastrophic war; overconfidence in deterrence and/or defense capabilities on one side or the other (or both); adversarial regime changes; outright revolution or coup d’état among contending adversaries; and poorly-conceived pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority among pertinent presumptive foes.

               There is more. Markedly serious problems of overconfidence could be aggravated by successful tests of a nation’s missile defense operations, whether by the United States itself or by any of its relevant adversaries. Recalling Carl von Clausewitz On War, even the “simplest” problems could sometime prove “very difficult.”

Rationality and Irrationality

               Strategic thinking would never be “simple.” A potential source of inadvertent nuclear war involving the United States could be “backfire” effect from variously untested strategies of “pretended irrationality.” In principle, at least, a rational enemy that had managed to convince Washington of its decisional irrationality could sometime spark an American military preemption. Conversely, an adversarial leadership that had begun to take seriously any hints of decisional irrationality in Washington might be frightened into striking first itself.

               “Everything is very simple in war,” says von Clausewitz, “but even the simplest thing is very difficult.”

               Once again, metaphor may be instructive. Joe Biden must be wary of “nightmare.” According to the etymologists, the root is niht mare or niht maere, the demon of the night. Dr. Johnson’s dictionary says this corresponds to Nordic mythology, which regarded nightmares as the product of demons. This would make it a play on, or a translation of, the Greek ephialtes or the Latin incubus. In all such interpretations of nightmare, the inherently non-rational idea of demonic origin is central.

               Today, for the United States, the demons of nuclear strategy and nuclear war take a markedly different form. For the most part, their mien is neither confused nor frightful, but rational and ordinary. If these demons are ever thought to be sinister, it is not because America’s adversaries necessarily crave war or wanton bloodshed, but because they may be seeking maximum safety amid a rapidly growing global chaos.

               That primal search could be rational.

               While the state of nations has always been in the “state of nature” – at least since the seventeenth century and the historic Peace of Westphalia (1648) – current conditions of nuclear capacity and worldwide anarchy portend an expanding cauldron of possible aggressions. Among other things, the correct explanation for such dire portents lies in the indispensability of rational decision-making to viable nuclear deterrence, and in the interpenetrating fact that rational decision-making may suddenly become subject to massively corrosive deteriorations.

The Importance of Synergy

 Now, even after surviving a persistently dissembling Trump strategic policy, America faces formidable national security risks that remain immediate and existential. Such risks can be fully understood only in light of believable or at least conceivable intersections arising between them. Such critical intersections are more-or-less likely (a conclusion based on formal logic, and not on any actual history); on occasion, some of these reinforcing intersections could prove synergistic. Contradicting what we first learned in primary school, this means that the “whole” of  intersectional risk effects could be greater than the discernible sum of all component “parts.”

 Presumptively, under US Constitutional law (Article l), holding Congressional war-declaring expectations aside, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an apparently irrational president or by an otherwise incapacitated one, would warrant obedience. To conclude otherwise in such incomparably dire circumstances would be law-violating. In essence, any chain-of-command disobedience in these circumstances would be impermissible on its face.

Ordering an American “First Use”

 There is more. Any American president could order the first use of American nuclear weapons if this country were not under actual nuclear attack. In principle at least, some further strategic and legal distinctions need to be made between a nuclear “first use” and a nuclear “first strike.” While there does exist an elementary but still-substantive difference between these two options, it is a distinction that former President Donald Trump failed to understand. The nation survived this experience with a profoundly unsuitable president, but previous episodes of luck need not be meaningfully predictive.

               Trump is gone.  Still, with even a more reasonably thinking president at the helm, structural decisional risks obtain. Quo Vadis? Where should President Joe Biden go from here on managing such plainly urgent security issues? A coherent and comprehensive answer will need to be prepared in response to the following basic question:

               If faced with a presidential order to use nuclear weapons, and not offered sufficiently appropriate corroborative evidence of any actually impending existential threat, would the National Command Authority be: (1) be willing to disobey, and (2) be capable of enforcing such variable expressions of disobedience?

               In such unprecedented crisis-decision circumstances, all authoritative decisions could have to be made in a compressively time-urgent matter of minutes, not hours or days. As far as any useful policy guidance from the past might be concerned, there could be no scientifically valid way to assess the true probabilities of principal possible outcomes. This is because all scientific judgments of probability – whatever the salient issue or subject – must be based upon the discernible frequency of pertinent past events. Any other bases could provide only a more-or-less intelligent guess.

               In any prospectively relevant matters of nuclear war, there could be nopertinent past events. Though this is a fortunate absence, of course, it remains one that would stand in the way of rendering reliable decision-making predictions. Whatever the scientific obstacles, the optimal time to prepare for any such incomparably vital US national security difficulties is the present.

Facing Already-Nuclear North Korea

               In the specifically urgently matter of North Korea, President Biden must take special care to avoid any seat-of-the-pants Trump-style calculations. Faced with dramatic uncertainties about counterpart Kim Jung Un’s own willingness to push the nuclear envelope, America’s current president could sometime find himself faced with an intolerably stark choice. This would be deciding between outright capitulation and nuclear war.

How to choose?

               To avoid being placed in any such portentously limited option environment, Mr. Biden should understand from the start that having a larger national nuclear force (a “bigger button,” to use his predecessor’s unfortunate metaphor) might not bestow any bargaining advantage. To the contrary, it could generate or reinforce unwarranted US presidential overconfidence and certain resultant forms of strategic miscalculation. In any such unfamiliar, many-sided and basically unprecedented matters, size might truly “matter,”but inversely.

Although counter-intuitive and ironic, a nuclear force of exclusively high-yield destructiveness could appear militarily less credible and/or diplomatically less persuasive.

               Within the broad parameters of Realpolitik or geopolitics, the field of nuclear policy decision-making is largely without tangible precedent. While the search for “escalation dominance” may be common to all imaginable sorts of military deal-making, the plausible costs of nuclear bargaining losses would likely be incomparable. After all, no other losses could reasonably be compared to losses in a nuclear war, whether intentionalinadvertent or accidental.

               Never.

               In such a war, whether occasioned by miscalculation, human error or hacking-type interference, there could be no identifiable “winner,” Even after the United States was able to survive the egregious moral and intellectual debilities of Donald Trump’s presidency, a number of significant and generic risks continue to obtain. Looking ahead, the very best way for America to forestall being placed in extremis atomicum is for President Joe Biden to stay focused on intellectual[16] and analytic explanatory factors. On all such complex matters, narrowly political judgments should always be deemed unworthy and extraneous.

Turning to the Poets

               Sometimes the poet sees more clearly than the policy-maker. Remembering Lawrence Ferlinghetti, America should never allow itself to be caught unaware on the “nineteenth green.” In playing such high-stakes “games” as nuclear strategy and escalation dominance, there could be no comforting “do overs.” Instead, at any late stage of bargaining and brinksmanship, even a single and seemingly minor “loss” could prove grievously lethal and irreversible. If the recent June 2021 Swiss summit between Presidents Biden and Putin is ever to be regarded as successful, there will first have to be determinably calculable progress on several intersecting fronts.

Most important of all, perhaps, will be the prevention of inadvertent nuclear war.

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 Modern Diplomacy

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