Convergence and Chaos: Intersecting Security Threats to the United States Commentary
Convergence and Chaos: Intersecting Security Threats to the United States

“Everything is very simple in war, but even the simplest thing is difficult.” – Karl von Clausewitz, On War

There is palpable wisdom in Clausewitz’s classic observation about war. Where this wisdom is understood in terms of current United States national security challenges, one overarching extrapolation comes immediately to the fore:

It would be trouble enough for the United States to have to deal singly with its appropriate foci of strategic planning, but it would become even more daunting to deal with such refractory problems amid overlapping and intersecting military issues.

Presently, these converging issues include a steadily widening ambit of global chaos, and a largely unpredictable wave of  microbial (pandemic) assaults. In essence, all of these worst-calculable scenarios for Americans will involve assorted synergies and variously complex forms of friction. In the Prussian strategic thinker’s own famous definition, “…friction corresponds to the distinction between real war and war on paper.”

It’s a tough but indispensable distinction. Prima facie, such military issues are not fit for examination by the intellectually faint-hearted. Inter alia, they must be examined and assessed by strategists and legal scholars who already have some tangible acquaintance with history, scientific method, law and formal logic. These weighty issues are never subject to any explanations offered by a politician’s seat-of-the-pants appraisals, his sweeping banalities or blatantly empty witticisms. Furthermore, in certain conceivably “worst case” scenarios, the United States would drift irrecoverably beyond “mere” anarchy and toward genuine chaos.

What could then happen next would be without historical precedent; it must, therefore, remain ambiguous. Though anarchy (or lack of centralized global authority) has characterized world politics and world law since the seventeenth century and the Peace of Westphalia (1648), any true chaos would be without any modern referents. It follows that any coherent fashioning of US national security posture within its inherently bewildering interstices could quickly prove impossible.

To the extent that this posture would further highlight the belligerent zero-sum nationalism of Trump’s “America First,” it would also be contrary to all pertinent international law.

There is more. Pertinent synergies would necessarily involve variously intersecting issues in which (1) the “whole” of plausible harms would be greater than the calculable sum of corrosive “parts;” and (2) the entirety of issue outcome would likely lie beyond any reliable prediction. In the case of threat issues that are self-evidently unprecedented or sui generis (e.g., nuclear war), there would be literally no way to meaningfully calculate vital probabilities of outcome. This is because in science and mathematics, genuine probabilities must always be based upon the determinable frequency of relevant past events.

If all this complexity were not daunting enough, the problems of friction now being faced by the United States now include the grimly confused and visceral judgments of an altogether incapable president. In formal methodological terms, this dissembling “Trump Factor” represents a conspicuous example of the “idiosyncratic variable” in scientific inquiry. Going forward, this stubborn variable could produce expansively irremediable obfuscations, primarily because of certain expected intersections between Donald J. Trump’s far-reaching analytic debilities and the unmanageably virulent effects of COVID-19.

None of this will be suitable for the intellectually faint-hearted.

Without getting into operational details of every anticipated US national security issue, some critical commonalities can be usefully distilled. For example, whatever the particulars, any upcoming hacking by Russia, China and/or Iran will demand an integrity-based US system of national intelligence, a network that is based upon dedicated and capable professionals, not on the whims of openly obsequious political subordinates. For another related example, the Trump administration’s scheduled pull-out from Afghanistan will have to be continuously reassessed according to both (1) the levels of Taliban response;  and (2) the willingness of relevant US allies to stay “in the fight” against terrorism.

Once again, the synergistic and friction-related aspects of these indispensable reassessments – aspects almost certainly conditioned by unpredictable circumstances of worldwide epidemic or “plague” – will be difficult to manage.

There is still more to know here about the generic nature of certain military synergies and friction. For one thing, these qualities need not necessarily be negative for law-based foreign policies or US security. In some cases, the cumulative outcome of constituent enemy threats could actually have the effect of blunting some of the more serious component hazards. Although seemingly counter-intuitive and unreasonable, any such plausible “softening” would likely be the result of self-canceling impacts of one component peril upon another.

On the “minus side,” certain synergies could have the unwelcome effect of magnifying or enlarging any one or several of relevant constituent threats.

Not for the intellectually faint-hearted.

There are reciprocal issues or calculations. To wit, similar expectations could pertain to those synergies facing America’s relevant foes. Here, the consequence of various synergistic interactions would either be net positive or net negative, both for the impacted enemy states directly, and (indirectly and inversely) for the rival United States.

Now, assorted vital and law-related questions should arise. To begin, for the United States, what are the precise geopolitical hazards that would comprise any prominent synergy? Although the adversarial “whole” now facing this nation is visibly diverse and multifaceted – there are many significant foes and also myriad axes of expected conflict – four more-or-less discernible “parts” trump all others. These are the seemingly discrete but actually still-linked dangers of (1) US-Russia “Cold War II”; (2) Chinese geopolitical adventurism; (3) North Korean nuclear weapons; and (4) still ongoing or accelerating Iranian nuclearization.

By definition, to the extent that any or all of these hazards could put the United States in extremis atomicum, they constitute a “whole” that must be avoided.

For the purpose of ascertaining possible synergies – prima facie, a valuable purpose –  there would be no need for strategic thinkers to arrange these selected perils according to any hierarchic scale of urgency. It should also be borne in mind that the meaningful synergistic “weight” of even any one peril could vary from day to day, sometimes according to viscerally changing foreign policies of an incapable American  President.

There is, of course, no identifiable “Trump Doctrine” from which calculating analysts could reasonably extrapolate any future or still-impending US military policy outcomes.

For the express purpose of ascertaining possible synergies, there would be no need to diminish the plausibility of # 4 (Iranian nuclearization) on the presumption that it is seemingly less satisfactorily documented than numbers 1 – 3. This is because Tehran’s capitulation on this refractory issue (especially in the wake of US President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Vienna JCPOA) would probably be irrational. Simultaneously, a variety of law-based issues must be involved here.

For US planners, all such synergies should now be treated with appropriate intellectual regard. By definition, they are not easily figured out or measured. Nonetheless, because a nation’s geopolitical or strategic calculations are never analogous to orthodox geometry, certain synergies can only be ignored at America’s security and legal peril. In this regard, the Trump administration’s enthusiastic expectations for Middle East peace after recent UAE and Bahrain agreements effectively ignore (1) agreement intersections with adversarial Palestinian intentions; (2) undiminished risks of Iranian nuclearization; and (3) expanded risks to Israel from advanced military jets being sold to Arab regimes.

Though it might first have appeared that F-35 fighters in the hands of UAE pilots would offer some incrementally credible deterrence benefits vis-à-vis Iran, any such appearance would clearly fail all rigorously serious tests of military analysis.

Regarding America’s Israel ally, such ill-conceived US military sales can only undermine Israel’s security while simultaneously doing nothing to deter Iran from proceeding on its military nuclear course. What could Tehran reasonably fear in a better-armed UAE? With F-35s, could UAE more rationally calculate tangible advantages to engaging military conflict with Iran?

It’s a silly question, one that could expectedly be asked only by politically compliant strategists in Washington.

Jared Kushner is not a reliable or capable font of serious strategic or legal thinking for the United States or Israel. This observation is not subject to intelligent assessment. It is also a very charitable judgment.

In the end, security is all about enhancing theoretical understanding, not just the formal compilation of disjointed facts and figures. As a convenient metaphor for strategists and policy-makers, theory is a “net.” Only those who cast, can catch.

Because of the expectedly corrosive interactive effects involving threats from Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, the US will need to continuously update and refine its core theories of nuclear strategy and deterrence.

Ultimately, this will prove to be a fundamentally intellectual or analytic task, and not just another narrowly partisan or political exercise. At the same time, it will overlap with various jurisprudential considerations and imperatives.

Among other things, American leaders will have to accept that certain more-or-less identifiable leaders of prospectively overlapping enemy hazards might not always satisfy the criteria of rational behavior in world politics. In such apparently improbable but still conceivable circumstances, all promising military strategies will need to be fashioned in order to best account for variously unpredictable adversarial actions. Included in this necessary task will be a special attentiveness to any and all plausible synergies arising between America’s four listed arenas of geopolitical security concern.

There is more.

Prospectively irrational enemies could quickly confound normal US military calculations, especially those concerning the presumed benefits of any threatened US reprisals.

Sooner, rather than later, facing new and largely incalculable synergies, Washington will need to take appropriate steps to assure that: (1) America does not become the object of any non-conventional attacks from its assorted enemies; and (2) America can successfully deter all possible forms of non-conventional conflict. To meet such an ambitious goal, Washington should consciously retain its recognizably far-reaching conventional superiority in major weapons, capable manpower and advanced cyber-warfare. On this last expectation, it also merits pointing out that various major states in world politics may now have enlisted certain “cyber-mercenary” surrogates.

These proxies could sometime prove both fearsome and determinative.

In principle, at least, such retentions of presumed superiority could reduce the overall likelihood of this country ever having to enter into any actual chemical, biological or nuclear exchange with variously dangerous adversaries. Ipso facto, these retentions would display various legal implications.

In matters of critical national strategy, operational truth may emerge through apparent paradox. US planners, it follows, may soon have to acknowledge that the efficacy and credibility of their country’s nuclear deterrence posture could sometime vary inversely with enemy perceptions of US nuclear destructiveness. However ironic or counter-intuitive, enemy views of a too-large or too-destructive American nuclear deterrent force or of a US force that is not sufficiently invulnerable to first-strike attacks could sometime undermine this deterrence posture.

To counter such views, and also their correspondingly heightened prospect of negative US strategic synergies, American military planners and policymakers will need to much better ensure adversarial perceptions of a “flexible” or variegated US nuclear deterrent force. This would be a force that remains visibly (1) secure from any enemy first-strike attacks and (2) capable of penetrating any enemy’s ballistic missile defenses. Apropos of this second requirement, the United States would soon likely need a greater emphasis on deploying certain kinds of hypersonic missile systems.

There is still more to be done. As an obvious corollary, Washington should continue to strengthen its own active defenses, but must also do everything possible to improve each critical and interpenetrating component of its overall deterrence posture. In this bewilderingly complex and dialectical process of strategic dissuasion, the American task may also require certain more incrementally explicit disclosures of nuclear targeting doctrine, and, accordingly, a steadily expanding role for cyber-defense and cyber-war. Long before undertaking such delicately important refinements, however, Washington will need to more systematically differentiate between adversaries that are presumably rational, irrational, or “mad”.

Going forward, the plausible types of synergistic outcome will depend quite considerably upon first acknowledging and then applying this useful tripartite distinction.

Overall, the success of American national deterrence strategies will be contingent upon an informed prior awareness of all relevant enemy preferences and also of specific hierarchies of preferences. In this connection, altogether new and more open-minded attention will need to be focused upon the seeming expansion of “Cold War II” between Russia and the United States, an emergence that is apt to shape the other three component hazards of still-fearful synergies –  Chinese political adventurism; North Korean nuclear weapons; and expected Iranian nuclearization.

Soon, American national leaders should learn to understand the strategic limits of normal geometry – wherein, quite mundanely, the whole is always exactly equal to the sum of its parts – and to augment this enhanced conceptual understanding with new “geometric” orthodoxies. These decision-makers will then need to explore and acknowledge what amounts, paradoxically, to a geometry of chaos.

There is more. Even this long-hidden “geometry” could reveal a discernible sense of symmetry and form, including the precise shape of critically interwoven enemy threats. Where the belligerent “whole” might sometime add up to more than the sum of its constituent “parts,” US leaders could discover the prospectively lethal hazards of adversarial synergies to its overall national security.

Perhaps more than any other “negative force multiplier,” this coming together of impending threats now warrants manifestly resolute and rapt attention in military-planning Washington.

Always, going forward, understanding synergies will be a key. To be sure, any such complicated understanding will be difficult and elusive – hence, enthusiastically overlooked by military analysts and planners. Still, there is no reasonable alternative, because the subject matter is inherently complex and will not submit to anything short of a correspondingly complex investigation.

Understanding convergence will be key. Counting, somehow, on “divine intervention” to untangle complex analytic intersections is not a viable plan. Ultimately, in the art and science of war, the highest achievements must be sought in the resolute triumph of mind over mind,  a task that is always fact-based and always pre-eminently intellectual.

Left insufficiently managed, converging security threats o the United States could lead us from anarchy to chaos, and – once already “in chaos” – could prove uncontrollable. Though US President Donald J. Trump and his advisors might reason that everything is simple in war, they might too easily forget that “even the simplest thing is difficult.” Whether in dealings with North Korea or Iran, or with India, Pakistan, and China on certain “triangular” nuclear matters, America’s strategic challenges will remain pre-eminently intellectual. To best meet these challenges, continuous attention will need to be directed toward complex policy intersections and synergies, and to distinguish between policies that are genuinely gainful and those that are merely contrived.

All of this analysis will be exceedingly difficult, but the alternatives would be intolerable. There does remain one potential source of far-reaching optimism, however; this is the prospect of a beneficent or peace-guided chaos. Whether described in the Old Testament, or in certain other evident sources of Western philosophy, chaos can be as much a source of large-scale human improvement as a source of decline. Interestingly, it is this prospectively positive side of chaos that is intended by Friedrich Nietzsche’s curious remark in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883): “I tell you, ye have still chaos in you.”

When expressed in neutral tones, chaos is that condition which prepares the world for all things, whether sacred or profane. It represents that yawning gulf of “emptiness” where nothing is as yet, but where still-remaining civilizational opportunity can still originate. The 18th century German poet Friedrich Hölderlin observes: “There is a desert sacred and chaotic, which stands at the roots of the things, and which prepares all things.”

Insightfully, in the ancient pagan world, Greek philosophers thought of this particular “desert” as logos, a primal concept which indicates that chaos is anything but starkly random or inherently without merit.

As convergent security threats to the United States tilt this country beyond anarchy and toward chaos, one overarching “lesson” could emerge. Conceivably, this potentially helpful lesson, one now nurtured by global pandemic, could remind us that everyone on this imperiled planet – irrespective of nationality, race, religion, or gender – is immutably a creature of biology. Accordingly, all human beings share a conspicuously common mortality, and could benefit from a common science-based effort against microbial disease.

This is a difficult idea, of course, but if grasped comprehensively and in time, an oft-overlooked species commonality could help transform international chaos, from existential threat to existential gift. In this particular matter, at least one thing is certain. For an endangered earth, there could be no more gainful or law-supporting transformation.

None at all.


Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Law at Purdue. He is the author of twelve major books and several hundred journal articles in the field. Professor Beres’ writings appear in many leading newspapers and magazines, including The Atlantic, The Hill, U.S. News & World Report, The National Interest, The Jerusalem Post, The New York Times and Oxford University Press. In Israel, where his latest writings were published by the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, the Institute for Policy and Strategy and the Institute for National Security Studies, he was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon, 2003). Dr. Beres’ strategy-centered publications have been published in such places as The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; JURIST; Special Warfare (Pentagon); Infinity Journal (Israel); The Strategy Bridge; The War Room (USA War College); Modern War Institute (West Point); The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Modern Diplomacy; Yale Global Online; The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); World Politics (Princeton); International Security (Harvard) and the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. Professor Louis René Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II.


Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, Convergence and Chaos: Intersecting Security Threats to the United States, JURIST – Student Commentary, September 30, 2020,

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