Prof. Louis René Beres
Abstract: Though current US defense policy centers on matters of conventional war and terrorism, other problems remain more existentially worrisome. Most conspicuous in this regard are variously intersecting issues of nuclear war avoidance. The following article examines these always-complex issues with systematic references to pertinent risks and to the core global obligation to confront them as intellectual challenge.
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“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”-Archilochus, Fragments
In the Beginning
First things first. On existential national security matters, candor is indispensable. In essence, we inhabit a world that generally prefers the study of “many things” to “one big thing.”
This usual preference is easy to understand. After all, thinking about things organically or holistically is more complex and potentially bewildering. Still, in the inherently vital matters of military strategic assessment, a theoretical perspectiveis indispensable.
There is more. In the final analysis, learning about “one big thing” is a demanding matter of theory-building. Without a comprehensive theory of nuclear war avoidance, the “worst” will happen.
By definition, there can be no proper theory without a prior and underlying focus on discernible commonalities. Indeed, the systematic discovery of commonalities or regularities constitutes the beginnings of any science, and science represents the only reasonable way to approach the many-sided issues of nuclear war avoidance. There are, to be sure, alternative patterns of inquiry, but these distracting patterns must be based on faith, “common sense” or overt anti-reason.
They ought never be relied upon.
Correspondingly core questions should now arise. Where, exactly, does the United States stand with regard to existential nuclear threats? Once upon a time, beginning in the 1950s, nuclear war avoidance became humankind’s main survival imperative. This entirely sensible rank-ordering was plain, visible in the newspapers, on evening news programs and in the movies. It was a conspicuous, urgent and infinitely perplexing focus. Among other things, this focus reflected the more characteristic preference orderings of rich nations than poor ones, but one central fact remained clear:
If the world failed to prevent a nuclear war, all other essential human values would thereby be imperiled.
There is more. In the “old days,” scholars could speak more-or-less reasonably about “nuclear disarmament” or “denuclearization.” But we still don’t live in a reasonable or reasoning world, and purposeful peace strategies will need to include various compromises or “tradeoffs.”
On specific matters of nuclear war avoidance, this means, inter alia, continuously refining the threat-based strategies of“escalation dominance” and nuclear deterrence. At an even more rudimentary or “molecular” level, citizens of nuclear and near-nuclear states, long accustomed to coarsely competitive postures of belligerent nationalism, will finally need to change. More precisely, they will need to achieve certain basic transformations of consciousness.
Though rarely understood, this means that they will need to detach their diverse and accumulated hopes for immortality from the nation’s presumed geopolitical success.
What can this possibly mean? This is hardly a statement for mass-based understanding. It is also very unlikely to make sense to political leaderships nurtured by epiphenomena, or what Plato would have called “mere shadows of images.”
Who actually thinks about “immortality” and politics in the same context? The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas cuts to the core: “An immortal person is a contradiction in terms.” Could anything be more obvious?
Ultimately, the answer depends on science. Are we humans fully prepared to abandon the incomparable promises of Faith in the abstract interests of Reason? One needn’t be a disciplined analytic thinker to answer this query honestly. Faith, we learned earlier from Sigmund Freud, is largely a matter of “wish fulfillment.” And there can never be any more compelling human wish than the express “will” not to die.
Students of world politics have always been instructed that their subject centers on some vague quality typically called “power?” These instructions have not been wrong ex hypothesi, but they have until now failed to identify the greatest conceivable form of power. This is power over death or the apparent promise of immortality.
Nowadays we see the attraction of this particular kind of power most plainly in matters of Jihadist terrorism, but it can also animate the all-too-many perpetrators of both war and genocide.
These allegations are “only” intellectual arguments. What then could they signify to citizens of any nation that has traditionally prided itself on being “practical?” The most plausible short answer here is endless belligerent nationalism and in more selective situations, nuclear deterrence.
There is more. Inevitably, nuclear deterrence is a “game” that certain world leaders may have toplay. Accordingly, these leaders can choose to learn the game purposefully and skillfully or simply deal with it inattentively or inexpertly. In any such game, calculably gainful plays would still be theoretically possible, but these would necessarily be based upon variously enhanced capacities for threat assessment and strategic decision-making.
In the final analysis, as all ought to have learned from history – including the still-ongoing unraveling history of American power in Afghanistan – “winning” will not mean what it meant originally. Victory will not be about acquiring geopolitical supremacy and hegemony, but enabling broadly systemic cooperation and a more reassuringly continuous dynamic of serious crisis de-escalation.
Incontestably, a viable global civilization represents a sine qua non for absolutely every nation’s physical survival. Ultimately, however, any such civilization will have to be constructed upon more than some presumptively favorable “balance” of military power. Inter alia, it will have to be founded upon suitably fashioned visions of “cosmopolitanism” or human “oneness.”
The Intellectual Core
We nay return to our opening metaphor. Such re-fashioning will require “many things” seen by “the fox,” especially high-quality scholarship. Though our national foreign policy makers will insist that this emphasis on theoretic refinement has always been the case, sending capable flag officers to exemplary graduate programs is not enough. To wit, nuclear strategic inquiries must become more expressly grounded in logic and scientific–method and less in political clichés or the tortured syntax of an American leader who “loves the poorly educated.”
Foreseeably, controlling nuclear proliferation will become an increasingly important and potentially overriding national imperatives. Under no circumstances should any sane and capable scholar or policy-maker ever recommend the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Earlier, this fallacy of strategic reasoning had been called the “porcupine theory.”
On its face, any such endorsement must represent the reductio ad absurdum of all possible intellectual misjudgments. Among relevant hazards of strategic judgment, it would be problematic to assume that nuclear deterrence credibility needs to be positively correlated with threat destructiveness. Indeed, from the standpoint of creating stable nuclear deterrence, the likelihood of any actual nuclear conflict between states could sometime be inversely related to the plausibly expected magnitude of catastrophic harms.
This is only an “informal” presumption, however, because we are presently considering a unique or unprecedented event, one of inherently limited predictive capacity. Because any true mathematical probabilities must always be based upon the discernible frequency of relevant past events, events that are sui generis (such as a nuclear war) can be “predicted” only with less than scientific methods. Any such “prediction,” therefore, could have no proper policy-making value.
Concerning the ascertainable probability of a nuclear war, one derivative understanding is primary and axiomatic. This understanding stipulates that differences in probability must depend on whether the particular conflict in question would be intentional or inadvertent. A further division must then be made between an inadvertent nuclear war caused by errors in calculation (nuclear war by miscalculation) and one occasioned by accident, computer hacking or computer malfunction.
Absolutely no meaningful scientific estimations of nuclear war likelihood could ever be made apart from such antecedent conceptual divisions.
Relevant Military Exercises
During August 2021, four expansive military exercises were undertaken across the world. These US operations included an exercise staged by the US Navy 5th and 2nd fleets (close to Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea respectively) and Large Scale Global Exercise 21, led by the US and allied forces with a focus on the Indo-Pacific Ocean area. All exercises were conducted with China and Russia openly identified as “hypothetical” adversaries.
In response, China conducted a large-scale military exercise in the South China Sea during the same period, and another joint exercise with Russia in China’s Northwest Region. The American exercises were conducted far from the US homeland, but the China/Russia exercises were launched close to home. Cumulatively, such exercised maritime and troop movements expressed various determinable elements of “Cold War II.”
Looking ahead in Washington, air space and outer space are both apt to become further militarized, thereby rendered subject to steadily expanding nuclear war preparations. Most expectedly worrisome, in this regard, would be correspondingly greater risks of nuclear crisis and actual nuclear war, especially a nuclear war by accident or miscalculation.
There is more. Nuclear proliferation has been dealt with by competent nuclear strategists for decades, sometimes by gifted thinkers who understood that any alleged benefits of nuclear spread would necessarily be outweighed by staggering costs. Most obvious here are proliferation-associated risks of inadvertent nuclear war, accidental nuclear war, nuclear war by irrationality/coup d’état and nuclear war by miscalculation.
To date, this has been an unassailable presumption. Foreseeably, it will not change. the “Westphalian” system of international relations and international law first bequeathed by treaty law in 1648. This system of belligerent nationalism remains rooted in persistent anarchy and is already being steadily worsened by chaos.
The Changing Balance of World Power
Historically, the idea of a balance of power – an idea of which the nuclear-age balance of terror is a variant – has never been more than facile metaphor. In fact, it has never had anything to do with ascertaining any true equilibrium. And as any such “balance” is always a matter of individual and subjective perceptions, adversary states can never be sufficiently confident that strategic circumstances are tangibly oriented in their favor. In consequence, each side in a still-Westphalian world order must perpetually fear that it will come out “second best” or even be left behind. Among nation-states, the continual search for balance, though traditionally reassuring, can only produce ever-widening patterns of insecurity, inequality and disequilibrium.
At the start of the Cold War (what the present author now calls (Cold War I), the United States first began to codify rudimentary orientations to nuclear deterrence and nuclear war. At that simpler time, the world was tightly bipolar and the overwhelmingly clear enemy was the Soviet Union. Tempered by a shared knowledge of the horror that had ceased (temporarily) in 1945, each superpower understood a conspicuously core need to expand global cooperation (especially the United Nations) as a necessary adjunct to national conflict preparedness.
With the start of the nuclear age, American national security was premised on grimly primal threats of “massive retaliation.” Over time, especially during the Kennedy years, this bitterly corrosive policy was softened by subtler and more nuanced threats of “flexible response.” Along the way, a coherent and generalized American strategic doctrine was crafted, in increments, to more systematically accommodate almost every conceivable kind of adversarial military encounter.
Scientific and historically grounded, this doctrine was developed self-consciously and with deliberate prudence. In its actual execution, however, much was left to visceral or “seat-of-the-pants” calculations. In this particular regard, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis speaks for itself.
Strategic doctrine, as earlier generation “defense intellectuals” had already understood, is a “net.” Reasonably, only those who “cast” can expect to “catch.” Nonetheless, even the benefits of “casting” must ultimately remain subject to specific considerations of individual human personality. In the terms of professional strategic thinkers, there must always remain an “idiosyncratic factor.”
Individuum est ineffable. At some point, an individual decision-maker could lie beyond predictive and understanding. Then, looking ahead to potential nuclear war threats and crises, the ungraspable individual could interact in unforeseen ways with other complex factors, possibly creating variously unseen synergies. What then?
In strategic planning and thinking, there will always be certain irremediable uncertainties. In the face of such uncertainties, the point will be not to prevent them altogether (that would be impossible), but to prepare for all known and foreseeable contingencies intellectually and analytically.
Cold War II
For a time, following collapse of the Soviet Union, the world became increasingly multipolar. But now we seem to be witnessing the evolution of a second cold war. This time around, there will likely be more conspicuous points of convergent interest and cooperation between Washington and Moscow. In principle at least (e.g. current mutual concerns about controlling Jihadist terrorism) “Cold War II” could offer an improved context for identifying overlapping strategic interests. But now there are also apt to be other primary “players,” most plausibly China.
Details matter. Even after the extension in force of New START agreement between the U.S. and Russia, Moscow continues to reinvigorate its production of intercontinental ballistic missiles and ICBM supporting infrastructures. In part, this represents a predictable Russian response to ongoing fears that America may be expanding its plans for expanded ballistic missile defense in Europe and (as corollary) for enlarging NATO blueprints to advance aggressive strategies of “encirclement.”
At this fragile moment. foci are easy to identify. Strategic planners are now thinking especially about already-nuclear North Korea and Pakistan and a prospectively nuclear Iran. Among other key issues,Tehran’s repeated calls for “removing” Israel as a state have been exterminatory; in law, they therefore represent a documented “incitement to genocide.” Furthermore, military nuclear developments in North Korea, Pakistan and Iran could quickly prove synergistic, circumstances that are largely unpredictable and potentially even overwhelming.
There must also be apt legal considerations of justice. Nullum crimen sine poena; “No crime without a punishment,” was a key principle of justice reaffirmed at Nuremberg, in 1946. This peremptory principle originated in the Hebrew Bible and its Lex Talionis, or law of exact retaliation.
Popular viewpoints notwithstanding, the Trump-brokered Abraham Accords will have no discernible effects on preventing nuclear war in the Middle East. If anything, Iran was made more belligerent by the Accords’ explicit intent to diminish Iranian power. Soon, certain major Sunni Arab states (plausibly Egypt and/or Saudi Araba) may feel compelling new incentives to nuclearize themselves. And with the Taliban in control of Afghanistan, an already-nuclear Pakistan will likely become more tangibly influential in the region.
How will this expanded influence affect China, India, Russia and Israel?
In all these ambiguous cases, there could emerge more-or-less credible issues of enemy irrationality. Regarding such “special” situations, ones where leadership elites in Beijing, Islamabad, Delhi, Tehran or elsewhere might sometime value presumed national or religious obligations more highly even than national survival itself, the precarious logic of deterrence could fail. Such failure need not be incremental and manageable. Instead, it could be sudden and catastrophic.
Any such fearful scenario is “probably improbable,” but it is by no means inconceivable. This hesitancy-conditioned probability calculation is effectively mandated by variously fixed limitations of science. As indicated earlier, one can never speak reliably about the probability of unique events (all probability judgments must be based upon the determinable frequency of past events). Fortunately, of course, there has never been a nuclear war, but this absence also means a scientific incapacity for certain meaningful predictions.
Further Importance of Synergies and Nuclear Doctrine
Always important for leaders to understand will be possible interactions or synergies between changing adversaries and their particular ties to China, Syria and Russia. In managing such strategic threats, a new question should arise: Will “Cold War II” help our steeply imperiled planet, or hurt it even more?
Such queries should always represent intellectual questions, not narrowly political ones. Above all, they will need to be addressed at suitably analytic levels.
There is more. Strategic policies will have to deal with a variegated assortment of sub-national threats of WMD terrorism. Until now, insurgent enemies were sometimes able to confront states with serious perils and in widely assorted theatres of conflict, but they were never capable of posing any catastrophic hazards to a nation’s homeland. Now, however, with the steadily expanding prospect of WMD-equipped terrorist enemies – possibly, in the future, even well-armed nuclear terrorists – humankind could have to face strategic situations that are prospectively more dire.
For the United States in particular, the unraveled situation in Afghanistan portends heightened chances of WMD terrorism, against the homeland and certain allies, especially Israel. The adversarial particulars remain unclear, but ISIS-K resurgence/reconstitution and the strengthening of other Islamist groups may also bode ill for rational enemy decision-making. What then?
To face any such unprecedented security situation, national leaders will need to “arm” themselves with previously-fashioned nuclear doctrines and policies. By definition, any such doctrines and policies ought never represent “seat of the pants” reactions to ad hoc threats. Rather, because generality expresses a trait of all serious meaning in science – “one big thing” – such doctrines and policies will have to be shaped according to variously broad categories of strategic threat. In the absence of such previously worked-out conceptual categories, human leadership responses are almost certain to be inadequate, or worse.
A concluding thought about synergies: Such portentous intersections could occur between military and non-military threats. For example, and prospectively most ominous, would be synergies that arise between nuclear proliferation and disease pandemic. In the conceivably worst case, a man-made “plague” of nuclear war would coincide with a natural plague of pathogens. Prima facie, any such “force multiplication” should be avoided at all costs.
The Question of Rationality
From the start, all strategic policies have been founded upon some underlying assumption of rationality. Americans have always presumed that their enemies, both states and terrorists, will inevitably value their own continued survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. But this core assumption ought no longer be taken for granted.
Expressions of decisional irrationality could take various different and overlapping forms. These forms include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).
Confronted with Jihadist enemies, states and terrorists, world leaders must quickly understand that our primary threats to retaliate for first-strike aggressions could sometime fall on deaf ears. This holds true whether America would threaten massive retaliation (MAD), or the more graduated and measured forms of reprisal termed nuclear utilization theory (NUT).In the months and years ahead, threateni8ng anti-American terror groups (e.g., Taliban, ISIS-K, etc.) that “we will hunt down and destroy you” is apt to fall upon deaf ears.
There is more.Ultimately, any sensible. nuclear doctrine should recognize critical connections between law and strategy. From the formal standpoint of international law, certain expressions of preemption or defensive first strikes are known as anticipatory self-defense. Expecting possible enemy irrationality, when would such protective military actions be required to safeguard the human homeland from diverse forms of WMD attack?
This now becomes an all-important question.
The Legal Standpoint and Nuclear Targeting
Though often subordinated to strategy, there are also pertinent jurisprudential issues for decision-makers and commanders. Recalling that international law is part of the law of the United States, most notably at Article 6 of the US Constitution (the “Supremacy Clause”) and at a 1900 Supreme Court case (the Pacquete Habana), how could anticipatory military defense actions be rendered compatible with conventional and customary obligations? This critical question must be raised and plausibly answered.
From the standpoint of international law, inter alia, it is always necessary to distinguish preemptive attacks from “preventive ones.” Preemption is a military strategy of striking first in the expectation that the only foreseeable alternative would be 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 rather for fear of some longer-term deterioration in a prevailing 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, however, the anticipated interval is considerably longer. A related problem here is not only the practical difficulty of accurately determining “imminence,” but also the implicit problems of postponement. Delaying a defensive strike until an imminent threat would be more tangibly ascertainable could invite existential harms. In any event, any state’s resort to “anticipatory self-defense” could be nuclear or non-nuclear, and be directed at either a nuclear or non-nuclear adversary.
Ipso facto, any such resort involving nuclear weapons on one or several sides could prove catastrophic.
My late friend and frequent co-author, General John T. Chain, a former USAF SAC Commander-in-Chief (CINCSAC) and Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff director (JSTPS) understood that pertinent world leaders would need to consider and reconsider key issues of nuclear targeting. Relevant operational concerns here concern vital differences between the targeting of enemy civilians and cities (so-called “counter value” targeting) and targeting of enemy military assets/infrastructures (so-called “counterforce” targeting). Oddly enough, most national leaders likely still don’t realize that the essence of 1950s/1960s “massive retaliation” and “mutual assured destruction” (MAD) was always an unhidden plan for counter-value targeting.
Any such partially-resurrected military doctrine could sound barbarous or inhumane, but if the alternative was to settle for less credible systems of nuclear deterrence, explicit codifications of counter value targeting posture could still represent the best way to prevent millions of civilian deaths (i.e., deaths from nuclear war and/or nuclear terrorism). Neither preemption nor counter-value targeting could ever guarantee absolute security for Planet Earth. Nonetheless, it remains imperative that the United States and other nuclear weapons states put capable strategic thinkers to work on these and all other nuclear warfare issues.
In The End
The first time that a world leader has to face an authentic nuclear crisis, his/her response should not be ad hoc. Rather, this response should flow seamlessly from broad and previously calibrated strategic doctrine. It follows that national leaders should already be thinking carefully about how this complex doctrine ought best to be shaped and codified. Whatever the particulars, these leaders must acknowledge at the outset the systemic nature of our “world order problem.”
Any planetary system of law and power management that seeks to avoid a nuclear war must first recognize a significant underlying axiom:As egregious crimes under international law, war and genocide need not be mutually exclusive.On the contrary, as one may learn from history, war could sometimes be undertaken as an “efficient” manner of national, ethnical, racial or religious annihilation.
When the war in question is a nuclear one, the argument becomes unassailable.
Global rescue must always go beyond narrowly physical forms of survival. At stake is not “just” the palpable survival of Homo sapiens as a distinct animal life form, but also the species’ essential humanitas, that is, its sum total of individual soulsseeking “redemption.” For now, however, too-few species members have displayed any meaningful understanding of this less tangible but still vital variant of human survival.
It’s time to start worrying again about nuclear war avoidance, but this time worrying won’t be enough. The only reasonable use for nuclear weapons on this imperiled planet will still be as controlled elements of dissuasion, and not as actual weapons of war. The underlying principles of such a rational diplomatic posture go back long before the advent of nuclear weapons. In his oft-studied classic On War (see especially Chapter 3, “Planning Offensives”), ancient Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu reminds succinctly: “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”
There can be no more compelling strategic dictum. Indeed, this distilled wisdom represents the “one big thing” for US strategists, commanders and policy-makers “to know.” It would be best not to have any enemies in the first place, of course, but such residually high hopes would be without any intellectual foundation. Hence, they would always remain unsupportable.
For the United States, unwelcome outcomes in Afghanistan do not portend actual nuclear warfare prospects per se, but they do suggest a general widening diminution of American power. Among other things, this diminution could spawn various regional or global crises that bring the United States into a much larger ambit of WMD scenarios, ones involving both war and terror. Even if the US were not itself involved in any such crises directly, other states or the world as a whole could quickly become entangled in extremis atomicum.
Immediately, to the extent possible, national leaders should make all appropriate intellectual and analytic preparations. In carrying out this responsibility, careful attention should be given to scenarios of inadvertent nuclear war, narratives pertaining both to accidental nuclear conflict and to nuclear war as the result of a miscalculation. Though prospects for a deliberate nuclear war ought never to be downplayed, preparations for credible nuclear deterrence must be continuously maintained at the highest possible levels.
Now, it is nuclear war by inadvertence that warrants exceptional intellectual attention.
To meet these interrelated security requirement, leaders of both nuclear and near-nuclear states must first acknowledge the overriding seriousness of our global atomic threat. Instead of ad hoc or seat-of-the-pants strategizing – a characteristic policy failing of America’s “Trump Era” geopolitical calculations – these leaders should be reminded that there can be nothing more plausibly practical than good theory. Specifically, they can learn from philosopher of science Karl Popper’s classic The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959): “Theory is a net. Only those who cast, can catch.”
To prevent a nuclear war, humankind will need the best possible “nets.”
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.
You may find here his latest law review article Israeli Nuclear Deterrence And International Law: Calculating Effects Of Power Politics And Pandemics.
This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy