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Avoiding Nuclear War in the “State of Nature”

Avoiding Nuclear War in the “State of Nature”: America’s
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651

By Prof. Louis Rene Beres

“So the nature of war consists not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary.”- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651

The “time” to which the seventeenth century English philosopher refersis that calculable interval spent in the “State of Nature.” This anarchic “State,” emphasizes Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, is correctly described as a “State of War.” In such an unpredictable context – a context which corresponds to tangibly long periods in world political history – “…every man is enemy to every man….” Significantly, whenever such a pervasive and recalcitrant enmity prevails among nations, the “life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Hobbes offers further analytic clarifications. Though he supposes that such a fearful anarchy does not actually obtain among individuals living in a State of Nature, it is accurately descriptive of international relations. More specifically, we may learn from a philosopher whose ideas were central to making the United States Constitution: “. …in all times, states, “because of their independency, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators.”

Today we are in a time of reckoning. Struggling in the midst of worldwide biological “plague” and a simultaneously expanding nuclear arms race. humankind should finally acknowledge anarchy’s insecure “posture” as the critically defining background of world politics. Even during a patently serious disease pandemic, preventing nuclear war among so many state “gladiators” should remain an overriding species obligation. For the United States and other nuclear weapon states, the only meaningful way to meet this intellectual obligation is by way of continuously refined frameworks, theories and methodologies.

Throughout this process, any narrowly political orientations would be ill-suited and even destined to fail.

There is considerably more complex content to these epistemological issues. Even while forced to confront worldwide viral onslaught, the risks of catastrophic nuclear war are continuously expanding for planet earth. At the most conspicuous levels of pertinent risk arenas are intersecting and overlapping strategic developments now underway in China, North Korea, Iran, India and Pakistan. At their core, these inauspicious developments are integrally related to a still-ubiquitous belligerent nationalism and to certain corollary risks of strategic brinkmanship and/or decisional-miscalculation. Of equally primary concern are rapidly deteriorating U.S. relations with Russia regarding intermediate nuclear force deployments in Europe.

In these most clearly prominent arenas of prospective nuclear confrontation, pertinent hazards could be further exacerbated by variously complex interactions taking place between assorted states.

Any or all such interactions, whether foreseen or unforeseen, could become synergistic. These would represent “force-multiplying” situations wherein the tangible “whole” of any deleterious conflict effect would be greater than the presumptive sum of its constituent “parts.”

Primacy of “Mind Over Mind”

Always, in such more-or-less matters, nuclear war avoidance should be approached as an intellectual problem. It is a problem, therefore, that will also need to be confronted in tandem with certain other major global challenges, notably terrorism, inequality, climate change and (whether directly or indirectly) pandemic disease. During the relentlessly anti-intellectual Trump years, a corrosive American era of cascading decision-making incoherence, serious suggestions of scientific strategic assessment were routinely brushed aside at the White House. All too often, these dismissals were accompanied by unseemly gestures of indifferent or casual concern. In essence, during those bitter years of gratuitously rancorous policy-making, US national security problems were continuously framed by an ill-prepared American president in uselessly ad hominem terms. More often than not, these frameworks were founded upon strategically senseless appeals to acrimonious passions or coercion, and not on any meaningful requirements of “escalation dominance.”

Among other things, and understood from the useful standpoint of disciplined analytic logic, such crudely illogical appeals exhibited assorted errors in correct reasoning, or fallacies. Most obvious of these errors was the self-evidently erroneous argument known formally as the argumentum ad bacculum. From the start of his dissembling presidency, Donald J. Trump willfully compounded this egregious and potentially irremediable misrepresentation.

Among other things, and understood from the useful standpoint of disciplined analytic logic, such crudely illogical appeals exhibited assorted errors in correct reasoning, or fallacies. Most obvious of these errors was the self-evidently erroneous argument known formally as the argumentum ad bacculum. From the start of his dissembling presidency, Donald J. Trump willfully compounded this egregious and potentially irremediable misrepresentation. When viewed vis-a-vis the North Korean nuclear threat, America is “just plain lucky” that Trump’s strategic derelictions did not immediately spawn a major war. At the time, Americans had been falsely reassured by the former president’s June 12, 2018 summit meeting with Kim Jung Un. Then, all salient issues were allegedly settled in just a few hours of “togetherness.”

Trump had an “explanation” “We fell in love” was that president’s succinct explanation in Singapore. The most difficult element to explain about this absurdist response was not the starkly contrived personal reassurance, but the fact that Americans in general did not object strenuously to such evident nonsense. What really ought to have been expected from any civilized American democracy in such intellectually troubling circumstances was not some vacantly deferential approval of presidential fiat, but rather incessant public howls of incredulity.

“How,” Americans should have queried, “could we reasonably be persuaded to accept manifest political gibberish as truth?”

Today, armed with greater attention to applicable intellectual factors, Americans should look determinedly forward. What happens next, now that the United States has a different and more capable president, one who has been inclined to replace injurious bravado and stultifying banalities with more genuinely serious intellectual thought? For the moment, what matters most are not the variously identifiable answers given to this key question, but only the fact that important questions are finally being raised.

American Obligations of True Learning

There is more. 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 all analyticor intellectual problems.

From the start of his strategic decision-making on North Korea, formerPresident Trump made no discernible intellectual sense. Instead, openly, unambiguously, he sought that unpredictable country’s “denuclearization,” an unrealistic objective that made absolutely no policy sense at the time and makes even less policy sense today. It follows, among many other things, that Trump’s current White House successor will need to identify more credible and achievable goals in this and other volatile theatres of potential nuclear conflict. In intellectually-supportable fashion, Joseph Biden will need to safeguard humankind’s still-anarchic and deeply-fragile world political system from a rapidly emerging global chaos and from ever-growing nuclear perils.

The Place for Science and Mathematics

Regarding variously indispensable responsibilities of world peace and global stabilization, capable thinkers will need to remind the current American president of two pertinent and always-interrelated criteria of strategic danger: probability and disutility. The first mentioned dimension concerns an issue of presumed likelihood. The second criterion deals with relevant matters of presumed physical suffering.

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Dealing with the first dimension must inevitably become worrisome and problematic. To wit, in science and mathematics, true probabilities must always be based upon the discernible frequency of pertinent past events. But on the overriding issue of a nuclear war, there have been no such past events.

Analyses suitably based on “mind” could help to clarify ongoing threats. From the standpoint of Pyongyang, accepting denuclearization (urged by both Trump and Biden), would represent an irrational option. For Kim Jung Un, getting rid of his extant atomic arms and infrastructures must inevitably remain contrary to North Korea’s basic national security requirements. Hence, expecting any such removal is foolish US policy by definition.

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.” Not surprisingly, Trump’s idea that US nuclear security had somehow been enhanced when he and Kim “fell in love” descended into caricature.

There is more. North Korea is not America’s only adversarial nuclear problem. For the United States, Iran also represents a compellingly relevant hazard. This compelling assessment obtains, even though Iran is not yet nuclear.

The reasons should now be plainly identified and elucidated.

The Nuclear Danger from Iran

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

What could happen 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 plausible conflict scenarios might be configured, all of these prospects are unprecedented and could portend authentically unprecedented outcomes.

American Obligations of True Learning

There is more. 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 all analyticor intellectual problems.

From the start of his strategic decision-making on North Korea, formerPresident Trump made no discernible intellectual sense. Instead, openly, unambiguously, he sought that unpredictable country’s “denuclearization,” an unrealistic objective that made absolutely no policy sense at the time and makes even less policy sense today. It follows, among many other things, that Trump’s current White House successor will need to identify more credible and achievable goals in this and other volatile theatres of potential nuclear conflict. In intellectually-supportable fashion, Joseph Biden will need to safeguard humankind’s still-anarchic and deeply-fragile world political system from a rapidly emerging global chaos and from ever-growing nuclear perils.

The Place for Science and Mathematics

Regarding variously indispensable responsibilities of world peace and global stabilization, capable thinkers will need to remind the current American president of two pertinent and always-interrelated criteria of strategic danger: probability and disutility. The first mentioned dimension concerns an issue of presumed likelihood. The second criterion deals with relevant matters of presumed physical suffering.

Dealing with the first dimension must inevitably become worrisome and problematic. To wit, in science and mathematics, true probabilities must always be based upon the discernible frequency of pertinent past events. But on the overriding issue of a nuclear war, there have been no such past events.

Analyses suitably based on “mind” could help to clarify ongoing threats. From the standpoint of Pyongyang, accepting denuclearization (urged by both Trump and Biden), would represent an irrational option. For Kim Jung Un, getting rid of his extant atomic arms and infrastructures must inevitably remain contrary to North Korea’s basic national security requirements. Hence, expecting any such removal is foolish US policy by definition.

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.” Not surprisingly, Trump’s idea that US nuclear security had somehow been enhanced when he and Kim “fell in love” descended into caricature.

There is more. North Korea is not America’s only adversarial nuclear problem. For the United States, Iran also represents a compellingly relevant hazard. This compelling assessment obtains, even though Iran is not yet nuclear.

The reasons should now be plainly identified and elucidated.

The Nuclear Danger from Iran

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

What could happen 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 plausible conflict scenarios might be configured, all of these prospects are unprecedented and could portend authentically unprecedented outcomes.

Russia and China

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

There is more. “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 ascertained, offer variouslyauspicious analytic backgrounds for still-wider nuclear interactions. How can this portentous context be tempered or modified?

Quo Vadis?

Questions can lead to answers. 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 both conceptual clarity and necessary specificity, a “correct” answer – any correct answer – will depend upon a more closely considered awareness of intersections and overlaps. Accordingly, some of these intersections and overlaps will be synergistic. Here, by definition, the consequential “whole” of any one particular interaction will be greater than the simple sum of its constituent “parts.”

Going forward, the current 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 bewildering consideration, the judgments these advisers make about this expectation 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, additional basic questions should 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 ought still to warrant serious US policy consideration. This is because both “ordinary” irrationality and full-scale madness could exert comparable effects upon any examined country’s national security decision-making processes.

There is nothing suitable here for the intellectually faint-hearted. This is not an issue about “attitude” (the term Trump had used to describe what he regarded as most important to any diplomatic 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 considerations, words could come to 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 planning 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 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 advanced that the particular adversary “in play” might not be deterred from launching a military attack by American threats of retaliatory destruction, even where such threats would be fully credible and presumptively massive. 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 will have to 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 a sovereign state or organized terror group) more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. Always, this early judgment will need to be based upon defensibly sound analytic or intellectual principles.

In principle, at least, this judgment 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. Reciprocally, however, 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 an inadvertent nuclear war. Rather, they would fit under the more clarifying conceptual narratives of an accidental nuclear war.

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Most worrisome, in such concerns, would be avoiding a 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, even though neither side had wanted such a war.

Summing up such scenarios, in facing off against each other, even under optimal assumptions of mutual rationality, 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 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 could 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 certain other parts of the globe, especially southwest Asia (e.g., Pakistan and India) and/or 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 any risks of a regional nuclear war. To the contrary, the intended effect of these agreements to weaken Shiite Iran is apt to backfire in several palpable ways.

At the same time, Israel never really did need to worry about suffering a major war with Bahrain, Morocco or the United Arab Emirates. For Israel, the Abraham Agreements “put an end” 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, 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?

Ever?

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. Moreover, 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 still-expected or already-ongoing competition for “escalation dominance.” Naturally, any such calculated pretense could also fail, perhaps calamitously. Accordingly, cautionary strategic behavior based on serious conceptual thinking should always be the US 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 become incumbent upon American strategic planners to capably assess which basic form of irrationality – pretended or authentic – is actually underway. Thereafter, of course, 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.” It would not be a task for the intellectually faint-hearted.

In this critical context, the term “dialectically” (drawn originally from ancient Greek thought, especially Plato’s dialogues) should 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 disciplined could 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 traditional law-based agreements.

Here, however, 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 enduring 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.

Careful conceptual clarifications are once 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 can be law. Since the 17th century, international law has functioned according to an often indecipherable “balance of power.” Furthermore, for any 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, national and international.

Preemption, Asymmetry and Strategic Dialectic

How should the American president proceed with managing nuclear risks? At some point, at least in principle, the best option could seem to be some sort of preemption; that is, a non-nuclear defensive first-strike directed against situationally appropriate North Korean or Iranian hard targets. In actuality, 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 strategic planners should concern the calculable extent to which an asymmetrical US threat of nuclear escalation could be rendered sufficiently credible.

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

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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 specific 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 difficult to imagine ex nihilo, might nonetheless still be conceivable. This theory-based “strategic dialectic” would hold 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, and in literally any matter of prospective biological warfare, it will be worth noting that our planet is in the midst of a naturally-occurring biological “assault,” and that even in the complete absence of any specific adversarial animus or intent in Covid19, the injurious consequences of such a “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 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 have a nuclear “button,” and his was “bigger,” the former president displayed a 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 actually be based on narrowly corrosive notions of revenge, even if only as a residual or default option, would be glaringly irrational.

These are complex intellectual issues, of course, and 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 ever arise any determinable reason to fear an irrationalnuclear adversary. Although it is already well-known that no system of active defense can be reassuringly “leak-proof,” there is still good reason to suppose that certain BMD deployments could help safeguard US civilian populations (soft targets) and American nuclear retaliatory forces (hard targets). This means, inter alia, that technologically advanced anti-missile systems should remain indefinitely as a steadily-modernizing component of America’s core nuclear deterrence posture.

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

Deterrence, Defense and Mutual Vulnerability

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

To progress in its most vital national security obligations during a complicating time of pandemic, President Biden’s military planners should more expressly identify the prioritized goals of their 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 the capacity to launch appropriate nuclear reprisals for relevant forms of aggression (nuclear or biological/non-nuclear) and also the will to undertake such consequential firings.

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

The second expectation, however, could sometime prove problematic and thus “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 pandemic-created factors. Significantly, too, there would be certain hard-to-foresee interactions or synergies taking place between US policy decisions and those of involved and overlapping American adversaries.

In those 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 more-or-less related to pandemic factors. In the most extreme cases, disease could even 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 must 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 likely not a 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 sea-basing focus would be on strengthening Israeli nuclear deterrence, which – in one way or another – would also be to the strategic benefit of the United States. Reciprocally, Israel’s nuclear deterrence could be affected by assorted pandemic-related variables, including some with serious plausible 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, the United States will need to compose a continuously-updating strategic “playbook.” Here, it could become necessary for the president to consider, at least on some extraordinary occasion, various policies of feigned irrationality. In such analytically-challenging cases, it would become important for the American president not to react in any 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 impending, “in the wings.”

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There remains one penultimate but still critical observation. It is improbable, but not inconceivable, that certain of America’s principal enemies would sometime 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.

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

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

One final observation should now 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 actually used by these foes in making their own calculations. Always, it should never be forgotten, rationality refers only to the intention of maximizing certain designated preference or values. It says nothing whatever about whether the information being used is correct or incorrect.

In this extraordinary moment 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 to America’s designated national security decision-makers. For these officials, this should represent an historical moment to disavow any wayward inclinations to hubris, that is, to excessive or overweening pride, and to accept, instead, a conspicuous abundance of decisional caution. Among other pertinent settings, one especially perilous place for such caution concerns all matters of a defensive first strike or preemption.

One further distinction is called for. From the standpoint of international law, 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 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 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, the anticipated interval is considerably longer. A related problem here for the United States is not only the practical difficulty of accurately determining “imminence,” but also that delaying a defensive strike until imminence were appropriately ascertainable could prove existential. In principle, at least, 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. 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 risky nuclear behaviors.

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

For the United States, understanding that no scientifically accurate judgments of probability could 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 posture of very deliberate 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 erroneous? Among other things, it 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 any clichéd presidential thinking. For the current US 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 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 vastly complex struggle of “mind over mind.”

These remain fundamentally intellectual problems, challenges requiring meticulous analytic preparation rather than 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 a presumptively superior “order of battle.” Unless this rudimentary point is more completely understood by senior US strategic policymakers and by the current 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 could never render itself sufficiently secure from nuclear or biological war.

Never.

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 perhaps with an appropriately avant-garde orientation, American strategists should 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.

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Nonetheless, at least for the moments of their present strategic deliberations, these planners should remain focused upon America’s collective survival in a persistently Hobbesian “state of nature.”

With the further spread of nuclear weapons to additional states (and also, perhaps, to certain 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….”

To best plan for America’s long-term strategic future, President 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 an intra-personal condition before it becomes an inter-national one. This means that the core problem of chaos must actually 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, the US president faces not only a daunting challenge, but also a rare opportunity.

Planetization

There is more. US foreign policy initiatives concerning nuclear war avoidance should ultimately shift from traditional notions of “realism” to the more enduring ideas of “planetization.” Though seemingly utopian, these ideas are 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 ought 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 pandemic-related – and that can plan competently for the evolving future. In candor, this will never become a task for narrowly political “thinkers.”

In the end, as illustrated by the more-or-less predictable effects of a nuclear war and by long-established effects of “plague,” we humans are creatures of biology and mustfinally recognize themselves “in the other,” that is, in a ubiquitous and wholly reciprocal commonality. This also 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 the polity in toto above any and all separate personal interests.

In the still-clarifying imagery of ancient Greek drama, the American president should become more conspicuously averse to any “monarchical-style” hubris than was his grievously 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 should only be based upon a 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 more than fifty years ago): “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.”

To be reasonable, America’s most immediate imperatives should be more modest, but nonetheless clear and ambitious. The core task should be to manage nuclear threats expeditiously and scientifically from wherever they might arise. A president’s orientation to national security should be based upon rigorous calculations and durable substance. In essence, this orientation must be based upon continuously refined intellectual foundations. For the moment, these foundations must be examined and worked-through in the context of a still- unmodified “State of Nature” – a condition of fundamentally unchanged Westphalian anarchy – but this perilous geostrategic context cam never be sustained indefinitely.

Though Thomas Hobbes believed back in the seventeenth century that the “State of Nature” in world politics must always be “less intolerable” than the “State of Nature” among individual persons, this belief is no longer supportable. More precisely, with the ongoing spread and increasing destructiveness of nuclear weapons, a nuclear war could effectively represent humankind’s “final epidemic.” Significantly, this epidemic could arise concurrently with a disease pandemic, or even represent a direct or indirect outcome of one such pathological assault.

For now, the global State of Nature represents a uniquely precarious State of War.

Louis Rene 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 review was first published on BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 249, May 28, 2014

This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy

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