Louis Rene Beres, professor emeritus of international law at Purdue, discusses the potential ramifications on international law of a Trump electoral defeat and a nuclear crisis occurring simultaneously...
“The masses have followed the magicians again and again…Socrates and Plato were the first to take up the struggle against them in clear awareness of what was at stake.” – Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952)
On absolutely all matters of existential survival, individual or collective, candor is indispensable. In connection with current news, it is increasingly possible that a grave nuclear crisis would emerge just prior to or at the very same time as a Trump electoral defeat. Though it is mathematically impossible to make any more precisely predictive statements of probability regarding such an ominous simultaneity, it would be prudent to carefully think through such a worst-case scenario and to do so with meticulous dialectical reasoning.
Indeed, nothing could now be more prudent.
“The worst,” reminds Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt,
“does sometimes happen.”
What precisely must be anticipated? Variously complex and intersecting questions should come immediately to mind. To begin, we will immediately need to inquire: What particular interactions or synergies might arise involving US foreign relations, international law, and American domestic politics? The relevant possibilities are several and deeply concerning.
The following argument will focus not on the domestic political aspects or scenarios per se, but rather on the assorted strategic and international legal complexities that a declining or already-defeated US President Trump could plausibly encounter.
By definition, therefore, this is not a task suitable for the habitually obsequious or intellectually faint-hearted.
There is more. In essence, the following argument will be fashioned dialectically and will look behind the prospective news. The overriding objective will be to best anticipate what might still be done in certain expectedly unstable strategic circumstances to avert irremediable global catastrophe. The core “message” here is being directed not toward scholars and policy-makers who are already making necessary plans for a post-Trump America, but instead to those capable international law and international security scholars who must first concern themselves with getting through any eleventh-hour Trump-engineered or Trump-exploited nuclear crisis.
By definition, these “last resort” scholars would remain focused on what is inevitably most important; that is, ensuring America’s national survival. The underlying danger in their many-sided calculus would be an insistently dissembling American president who values presumed personal advantage (i.e., re-election) over the existential safety of his country. This starkly humiliating hierarchy of preferences could be made manifest by a coincidental nuclear crisis that is judged “appropriately” manipulable by Donald Trump, or by a nuclear crisis deliberately contrived or engineered by this nation’s “magician” president.
Either way, the tangible dangers posed to US populations could be uniquely harmful, perhaps even sui generis.
Looking ahead, pertinent nuclear threats are not just about North Korea. US policy attention will also need to be directed toward various ongoing nuclear developments in Russia and China. As we are very clearly in the midst of a second Cold War, or “Cold War II,” these worrisome Russian and Chinese developments could provide a useful background for elucidating other nuclear developments underway in Pyongyang and Tehran. “Cold War II,” recently underscored by the growing scandal of illegal Russian bounties paid to the Taliban for killing US forces in Afghanistan, represents the geostrategic context within which virtually all contemporary world politics should now be categorized, assessed and interpreted.
In essence, the current Great Powers’ disposition to war, however it might be ascertained, offers an optimally relevant analytic/legal background for understanding still-wider nuclear interactions.
Among other things, a primary “order of business” for American strategic analysts and planners focused on this urgent set of security problems will involve reaching informed judgments about each determinable adversary’s ordering of preferences. Only those particular adversaries who would value national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences would be acting rationally. Accordingly, it will be important to understand in advance of experiencing any specific crisis where each potential enemy stands on the core question of rationality.
For senior scholars and policy-makers, some further basic questions must soon be considered. First, what are the operational meanings of relevant terminologies and/or vocabularies? In the formal study of international relations, international law, and military strategy, decisional irrationality never means quite the same thing as madness. Still, certain residual warnings about madness warrant very serious US policy consideration.
This is because “ordinary” irrationality and full-scale madness could both exert more-or-less comparable effects upon any examined country’s national security decision-making processes.
There is nothing here for consideration by the intellectually faint-hearted.
Sometime, for the United States, understanding and anticipating these ascertainable effects could display fully existential importance. In all such prospective considerations, words would matter. In normal strategic parlance, “irrationality” identifies a decisional foundation wherein national self-preservation is not summa, where it is not the very highest or ultimate preference.
There is more. A prospectively irrational decision-maker in Pyongyang or elsewhere need not be determinably “mad” in order to become a troubling “variable” for skilled US policy analysis. Such an adversary would need “only” to be more evidently concerned about certain discernible preferences or values than about its own national self-preservation. One example would be those preferences expressed for outcomes other than national survival. Normally, any such behavior would be both unexpected and counter-intuitive, but it would not be unprecedented or inconceivable. Moreover, identifying the specific criteria or correlates of any such considered survival imperatives could prove irremediably subjective and/or simply indecipherable.
Whether an examined American adversary was sometimes deemed irrational or “mad,” US military planners would have to input a generally similar decisional calculation. A credible analytic premise here would be that the particular adversary “in play” might not be suitably deterred from launching a military attack by American threats of retaliatory destruction, even where such threats would be believable 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 must include a mechanism to determine whether the designated adversary (e.g., North Korea) will more likely be rational or irrational. Operationally, this means ascertaining whether this identifiably relevant foe will value its collective survival (whether as a sovereign state, or an organized terror group) more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. Always, this early judgment would need to be based upon defensibly sound analytic principles.
In principle, at least, such a judgment ought never be affected in any way by what particular analysts might themselves “want to believe.” Any failure to recognize and understand this very basic precept of logic and scientific method would represent, ipso facto, a lethal retreat from Reason.
One 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 enhance America’s nuclear deterrence posture. On several occasions, it should be recalled here, US President Donald Trump openly praised at least the underlying premises of such an eccentric strategic posture. Was this presidential praise intellectually warranted and/or properly justified?
Was it ever justified?
The answer? It depends. US enemies include both state and sub-state foes, whether considered singly or in various assorted forms of collaboration. Such forms could be “hybridized” in different ways between state and sub-state adversaries. In dealing with Washington, each recognizable class of enemies could sometime choose to feign irrationality.
In principle, this selection could represent a potentially clever strategy to “get a jump” on the United States in any expected or already-ongoing competition for “escalation dominance.” Naturally, any such calculated pretense could also fail, perhaps even calamitously. Cautionary strategic behavior based on serious conceptual thinking should always be the presidential “order of the day.”
There is something else. On occasion, these same enemies could “decide,” whether consciously or unwittingly, to actually be irrational. In any such innately bewildering circumstances, it would then become incumbent upon American strategic planners to capably assess which basic form of irrationality – pretended or authentic – is actually underway. Thereafter, these planners would need to respond with a dialectically orchestrated and optimally counterpoised set of all possible reactions.
Once again, at least in purely intellectual terms, this would represent an uncommonly “tall order.”
In this context, the term “dialectically” (drawn originally from ancient Greek thought, especially Plato’s dialogues) is used with manifestly precise meanings. This is done in order to signify a continuous or ongoing question-and-answer format of relevant strategic reasoning. Also well-known, of course, is the role of dialectic in expressly legal reasoning.
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, 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 by way of formal treaties or expressly law-based agreements.
In part, it’s really an old story. Here, it would be well worth remembering seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ classic warning in Leviathan: “Covenants, without the sword, are but words…” And if this traditional problem of global anarchy were not daunting enough for Trump-era American strategists and decision-makers, it is further complicated by the largely unforeseeable effects of worldwide pandemic and, correspondingly, the effects of any consequent chaos.
There is more. Chaos is not the same as anarchy. Chaos is much “more than” anarchy. We have lived with anarchy or absence of central government in modern world law since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but we have yet to descend into any genuine and tangible worldwide chaos.
We are concerned here with a possible simultaneity of Trump electoral defeat and an international nuclear crisis. How should the United States proceed to strategize and bargain in such unique circumstances? At some point, at least in principle, the best option could appear to be some sort of preemption. This would signify a defensive non-nuclear first-strike directed against certain situationally appropriate North Korean or Iranian hard targets.
In actuality, however, it is already too late for launching any operationally cost-effective preemption against North Korea. Even if such a strike could be authoritatively defended in law as “anticipatory self-defense,” any such action would likely come at a too-substantial human and political cost. Best, then, for analysts and scholars to look elsewhere.
In specific regard to any current and potentially protracted US-Iran enmity, the American side must consider how its nuclear weapons could be leveraged gainfully against that adversarial state in virtually any imaginable nuclear war scenario. A rational answer here could never include the actual operational use of such weapons. The only pertinent questions for US planners, therefore, should concern the calculable extent to which an asymmetrical US threat of nuclear escalation could sometime be made sufficiently credible.
By definition, as long as Iran should remain non-nuclear, any US nuclear threat would be asymmetrical. Though seemingly advantageous to the United States, prima facie, such asymmetry would not necessarily favor the stronger party. And again, these are not issues to be solved by the politically obsequious or intellectually faint-hearted.
By applying all available standards of ordinary reason and logic (there are, after all, no usable historical points of reference in such unprecedented situations), Washington could most suitably determine that nuclear threats against Iran would serve American security interests only when Iranian military capacities, though non-nuclear, were still convincingly overwhelming. Any such daunting scenario, though difficult to imagine ex nihilo, might nonetheless be entirely conceivable. This “strategic dialectic” holds most convincingly if Tehran were willing to escalate (a) to massive direct conventional attacks upon American territories or populations, and/or (b) to the significant use of biological warfare capabilities.
In these times, in any particular matter of prospective biological warfare, it is worth noting that we remain in the midst of a naturally-occurring but staggering biological “assault,” and that even in the presumed absence of any specific adversarial animus or intent, the injurious consequences have already reached the outer limits of sustainability.
All this should now imply a primary obligation for the United States (c) to focus continuously on incremental enhancements to its implicit nuclear deterrence posture, and (d) to develop a wide and nuanced range of plausible nuclear retaliatory options. The specific rationale of (d) (above), is the counter-intuitive understanding that credibility of nuclear threats could sometime vary inversely with perceived levels of destructiveness. In certain foreseeable circumstances, this means that the successful nuclear deterrence of Iran could depend upon nuclear weapons that are deemed sufficiently low-yield or small.
Irony does not diminish truth value or legal meaning. Sometimes, in fashioning a national nuclear deterrence posture, counter-intuitive strategic insight is correctly “on the mark,” and therefore indispensable. This is likely one of these analytically and jurisprudentially “multi-layered” times.
During any nuclear crisis, whatever its origins, Washington should continuously bear in mind that any US nuclear posture remain focused on prevention, not punishment. In any and all identifiable circumstances, using a portion of its available nuclear forces for vengeance rather than deterrence would miss the proverbial point; that is, to fully optimize US national security, irrespective of contrary domestic political pressures. Any American nuclear weapons use that was based on narrowly corrosive notions of revenge, even if only as a markedly residual or default option, would be irrational. Prima facie, too, it would be illegal under international law.
These are all complex intellectual and legal issues, 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 irrational nuclear adversary. Although it is already well-known that no system of active defense can be entirely “leak-proof,” there is still good reason to suppose that certain BMD deployments could help safeguard both US civilian populations (soft targets) and American nuclear retaliatory forces (hard targets). This means that technologically advanced anti-missile systems must remain indefinitely as a steadily-modernizing component of this country’s nuclear deterrence posture. Among certain other elements of permissible self-defense, this suggests continuously expanding US emphases on laser-based weapon systems.
While it may at first sound annoyingly obvious, it must still be borne in mind that in the bewildering nuclear age, seemingly defensive strategies could be viewed by warily 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 the simplest thing is still difficult.”
Soon, to progress in its most vital national security obligations, American military planners should more expressly identify the prioritized goals of this country’s nuclear deterrence posture. Before any rational adversary could be suitably deterred by an American nuclear deterrent, that enemy would first need to believe that Washington had capably maintained the capacity to launch appropriate nuclear reprisals for relevant forms of aggression (nuclear and perhaps biological/non-nuclear), and also the will to undertake such uniquely consequential firings.
About the first belief criterion, it would almost certainly lie beyond any juristic standard of “reasonable doubt.”
The second expectation, however, could sometime prove problematic and thus more-or-less “fatally” undermine US nuclear deterrence. In assorted ways that are not yet clearly understood, the necessary national will could be impacted by pandemic-related or even pandemic-created factors. Significantly, too, there would be certain hard-to-foresee interactions or synergies taking place between US policy decisions and those of pertinent American adversaries.
In those more perplexing matters involving an expectedly irrational nuclear enemy, successful US deterrence would need to be based upon distinctly credible threats to enemy values other than national survival. Here, too, the actual prospect of enemy irrationality could be related to pandemic factors. In the most extreme cases, disease could actually play a tangible and determinative role in producing an enemy’s decisional irrationality.
More typically, America will also need to demonstrate the continuously substantial invulnerability of its nuclear retaliatory forces to enemy first strike aggressions. More precisely, it will remain in America’s long-term survival interests to emphasize its variegated submarine-basing nuclear options. Otherwise, as is plainly reasonable to contemplate, America’s land-based strategic nuclear forces could potentially present to a strongly-determined existential enemy (e.g., North Korea) as “too-vulnerable.”
For the moment, this is not a significantly serious concern, though Washington will want to stay focused on any still-planned deployment of submarines by its Israeli ally in the Middle East. The general point of such a secondary focus would be on strengthening Israeli nuclear deterrence, which – in one way or another – would simultaneously be to the overall strategic benefit of the United States. Israel’s own nuclear deterrence could be affected by assorted pandemic-related variables, including some with serious reciprocal consequences for the United States.
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, and whether or not impacted by pandemic factors, this country will need to compose a continuously-updating strategic “playbook.” Here, it could become necessary for Washington to consider, at least on occasion, policies of feigned irrationality. In such analytically-challenging cases, it would be 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-fashioned and comprehensive strategic nuclear doctrine.
Without such a thoughtful doctrine as a guide, pretended irrationality could quickly become a “double-edged sword,” effectively bringing more rather than less security harms to the United States.
There is one penultimate but still critical observation. It is improbable, but not inconceivable, that certain of America’s principal enemies would be neither rational nor irrational, but mad. While irrational decision-makers would already pose special problems for US nuclear deterrence – 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 as US planners could need to confront a potentially fearsome “simultaneity.”
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 far 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 matter. 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 the narrowly political or intellectually averse US decision-maker.
For the most notably unpredictable third track, special plans will be needed for undertaking certain potentially indispensable preemptions, and, simultaneously, for overlapping efforts at ballistic missile defense.
There could be no assurances that any one “track” would always present exclusively of the others. This means, portentously, that American decision-makers could have to face deeply intersecting or interpenetrating tracks, and also that these complicated simultaneities could sometime be synergistic.
There is one final observation to be noted. Even if America’s military planners could reassuringly assume that enemy leaderships were fully rational, this would say nothing about the accuracy of the actual information used by these foes in making their pertinent calculations. Always, it must never be forgotten, rationality refers only to the intention of maximizing designated preference or values. It says nothing about whether or not the information being used is actually correct.
There is more. In this extraordinary time of global “plague,” any such intention – American or adversarial – could have pandemic-related determinants. At a minimum, this fact should be regarded as sobering to America’s still-reliable national security decision-makers. For these officials, this will be a moment in history to disavow any inclinations to hubris, to excessive pride, and to accept, instead, an abundance of prudential caution.
America is not automatically made safer by having only rational adversaries. Even fully rational enemy leaderships could commit serious errors in calculation that lead them toward a nuclear confrontation 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 authentically catastrophic outcomes.
For the United States, understanding that no scientifically accurate judgments of probability can ever be made about unique events (by definition, any nuclear exchange would be sui generis, or precisely just such a unique event), the best lessons for America’s president should favor a determined decisional prudence and a deliberate posture of personal 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 future bargaining or diplomatic success. When Donald Trump said on several occasions that he and Kim Jong Un both have a “nuclear button,” but that his button “is bigger,” the American president misunderstood and overestimated the US advantages of any such presumptive asymmetry.
Why? Because the tangible amount of deliverable nuclear firepower required for deterrence is necessarily much less than what could ever be required for “victory.” This is now a time for displaying more nuanced and purposeful counter-intuitive wisdom in Washington, and not for more clichéd presidential thinking or more stunningly rancorous fusillades of empty presidential witticisms.
For Washington, especially for this debilitated and debilitating president, operating in the largely-unpracticed nuclear age, ancient Greek tragedy warnings about excessive leadership pride are not only still relevant. They are more important than ever before.
For the United States, these classical commentaries concerning hubris, left unheeded, could bring forth once unimaginable spasms of “retribution.” The Greek tragedians, after all, were not yet called upon to reason about nuclear decision-making. None of this culminating suggestion 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 remain a bewilderingly complex struggle of “mind over mind.”
Always, this sort of struggle remains fundamentally intellectual a challenge requiring meticulous analytic preparations; rather than just a self-congratulatory “attitude.” Above all, competent planning ought never become just another superficially calculable contest of “mind over matter;” that is, never merely a reassuring inventory of comparative weaponization or some presumptively superior “order of battle.” Unless this rudimentary point is more completely understood by senior US strategic policymakers and by the president of the United States – and until these same policymakers can begin to see the utterly overriding wisdom of expanded global cooperation and human “oneness” – America can never render itself sufficiently secure from nuclear or biological war.
The nuclear and coronavirus threats now pose a lethal convergence for the United States. To make this perilous simultaneity more manageable and tolerable will require an American leadership with suitably intellectual moorings and inclinations. Failing to meet this indispensable requirement could compel a once-promising nation to accept a terrible and explosive collapse. Recalling twentieth-century German philosopher Karl Jaspers, this would represent the irremediable triumph of murderous “magicians” in the United States.
In analytic-historical-legal terms, any such “triumph” would be inexcusable.
Before the end of this year, the United States could find itself in a nuclear crisis that coincides with an impending or still-likely Trump defeat at the polls. At that point it would become singularly urgent not only to ensure capable and competent US crisis negotiations (the core message of this above argument) but also to ensure that the incumbent president is willing to abide by the election results. Though such a warning could never have been reasonable before the present historical moment, this is not an ordinarily reasonable American presidency.
Today, left to his own demonstrably a-historical and anti-intellectual inclinations, US President Donald J. Trump could quickly bring this nation to literally unprecedented levels of harm and lamentation.
Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D.,1971), he is the author of twelve books and several hundred published articles dealing with both US and Israeli security matters. In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel (2003) for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Dr. Beres’ latest book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield. In December 2016, Dr. Beres co-authored a special monograph (Tel Aviv University) with General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey titled Israel’s Nuclear Strategy and America’s National Security Some of his related writings have been published at Modern Diplomacy; Special Warfare (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (West Point); Israel Defense; BESA Perspectives (Israel); Jurist; Herzliya Conference Papers; The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) Strategic Assessment (Israel); Yale Global Online; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The Atlantic; Oxford University Press Blog; The Strategy Bridge; Infinity Journal; The New York Times and Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon).
Professor Louis René Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II.
Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, What If Trump’s Electoral Defeat Coincides with a Nuclear Crisis?, JURIST – Academic Commentary, July 28, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/07/louis-beres-simultaneous-nuclear-election/.
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