Louis Rene Beres, professor emeritus of international law at Purdue, writes on the moral and legal challenge of nuclear war avoidance, and gives recommendations defined both, conceptually and geographically...
Abstract: In principle, especially during a rare historical moment of extra-terrestrial exploration and immunological control, our species ought to render itself capable of managing nuclear threats. Prima facie, after all, the difficulties of transporting complex instrumentation to Mars and simultaneously fashioning effective vaccines against deadly pathogens should exceed even the most complex challenges of international peace. Nonetheless, until now, and for a conspicuously wide variety of more-or-less compelling reasons, humankind’s intellectual capacities have been trumped by our species’ most persistently primordial impediments; that is, by the unceasing distractions of stubborn hatred and blind unreason. With such facts in mind, this essay will look very precisely at the most-overriding moral and legal challenge of planetary civilization – nuclear war avoidance. The policy views recommended here will be defined conceptually as well as geographically. In essence, these views will reference certain specific foreign and defense policy challenges facing U.S. President Joseph Biden. The “point of origin” for this inquiry will be America’s too-long disregard for critical national security obligations of intellect.
To most Americans, the plausible threat of an impending nuclear war is reassuringly small. For older citizens, those born in the 1940s and 1950s and schooled during the Cold War, the dark terrors of “duck and cover” are long gone and conveniently forgotten. As for younger people, there are simply too many competing fears to confront these days, variegated hazards ranging from still-looming threats of terror attack and pandemic to insufferable results of climate change.
So, we may ask: “Why worry especially about a nuclear war”?
It’s a reasonable query. To begin, significant global challenges ought never be minimized. Should they present in synergy with certain other threats, nuclear risks in particular could sometime prove existential.
Even if they are taken only by themselves, the determinable risks of a nuclear war would remain decidedly real and prospectively catastrophic. Regrettably, we can’t speak with impressive scientific reliability about any measurable probabilities of a nuclear war (this is because any such event would be unique and unprecedented), but there still do exist verifiably good reasons to treat nuclear war risks as enduringly urgent.
During the rancorous Trump years, a corrosive era of cascading intellectual incoherence, serious suggestions of scientific strategic assessment were routinely brushed aside at the White House. Usually, these dismissals, uttered by ill-suited and wittingly servile political appointees, were accompanied by demeaning gestures of casual unconcern and by abundantly empty witticisms. During those law-dissembling years, US national security positions were generally cast by Trump in narrowly ad hominem terms (that is, in the unhelpful accents of personal insult) and were founded upon grievously law-violating appeals to intimidation, coercion or brute force.
Examples abound. On North Korea, President Trump had urged Americans not to worry. After all, he and Kim Jong Un had “fallen in love” at their June 2018 Singapore Summit. The most difficult aspect to explain about this absurdist presidential response was not an ill-founded Trumpian reassurance (that was to be expected) but the execrable fact that most Americans did not really object to such evident nonsense.
What ought to have been expected from a civilized American democracy struggling through such dissembling circumstances? Most assuredly, the answer was not some viscerally deferential approval of presidential fiat, but rather more conspicuous howls of citizen horror and incredulity. “How,” Americans should then have queried, “can we reasonably be expected to accept pure gibberish as authentic truth?”
The proper question really ought to have been: “What sort of US response was a president’s allegation of ‘requited love’“? We all ought already to have known, such many-sided problems as nuclear war avoidance are never remediable by improving personal leadership relationships. Indeed, could anyone even minimally conversant with modern history have ventured such patently silly reassurance?
In any event, with greater attention to applicable analytic and intellectual factors, we must now look forward. What happens next, now that the United States has a new and plainly more capable president, one who is able to replace injurious bravado and stultifying banalities with serious and law-supporting thought? For the moment, what matters most are not the variously identifiable and tangible answers given to this question, but only that the key questions are finally being asked.
Still, an initial and partial answer can be offered. Accordingly, 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 bewildering analytic problems. They will not submit to any particular president’s preferred dictum or political doggerel. “Everything is very simple in war,” warned Prussian strategist Karl von Clausewitz, “but even the simplest thing is difficult.”
From the start, regarding complex strategic matters concerning North Korea, former US President Donald J. Trump made no discernible intellectual sense. Very openly, unambiguously, he sought that adversarial country’s “denuclearization,” a glaringly unrealistic objective that made no policy sense at the time and could make even less policy sense today. It follows, among many other things, that Joe Biden will need to identify more credible and achievable goals in this and other prospectively volatile theatres of conflict.
More generally, he will need to safeguard our anarchic and fragile world legal system from a still-emerging chaos and against still-growing nuclear perils nuclear perils.
Regarding indispensable responsibilities of world peace and global stabilization, American strategic thinkers will need to remind the current president of two pertinent and interrelated dimensions of danger: probability and disutility. The first dimension concerns presumed likelihood of tangible harms. The second deals with presumed degree of tangible harms. By definition, dealing with the first dimension must inevitably prove sorely problematic. In science and mathematics, true probabilities must always be based upon the discernible frequency of relevant past events. Yet, on the overriding issue of a nuclear war, as is manifest without argument, there have been no relevant past events.
There is more. From the standpoint of Pyongyang, denuclearization would necessarily represent an irrational option. For Kim Jong Un, getting rid of his extant atomic arms and infrastructures must remain contrary to North Korea’s most basic security requirements. 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.”
North Korea is not Joe Biden’s only adversarial nuclear problem. For the United States, Iran also represents a compellingly pertinent hazard. This portentous assessment obtains, though Iran is not yet nuclear.
Iran remains capable of fighting a massive conventional conflict against Israel, America’s principal Middle Eastern ally. Conceivably, Tehran could sometime prod the United States to consider using its nuclear forces on presumed behalf of Israel. At the same time, certain Sunni Arab states increasingly worried about an impending “Persian bomb” could sometime seek to obtain a suitably countervailing nuclear capacity for themselves. Egypt and Saudi Arabia should most immediately come to mind.
What happens 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 the plausible conflict scenarios might be configured, all of these foreseeable prospects are unprecedented and all portend unprecedented outcomes.
Fully continuous US policy attention should also be directed toward ongoing nuclear developments in Russia and China. As we are arguably in the midst of a second Cold War, a condition of tacit belligerence that was exacerbated by Trump Administration withdrawals from several core nuclear arms control agreements, ongoing and escalating Russian and Chinese developments define a strategic background for encouraging other nuclear developments in Pyongyang and Tehran.
“Cold War II” represents a comprehensive systemic structure within which virtually all contemporary world politics and world law could be meaningfully categorized and assessed. Current “Great Power” dispositions to war, however they might most usefully be ascertained, offer auspicious analytic background for still-wider nuclear interactions.
What next? 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 conceptual clarity and adequate specificity, a “correct” answer – any correct answer – will depend upon a more considered awareness of intersections and overlaps. Accordingly, some of these intersections and overlaps will be synergistic. By definition therefore, the consequential “whole” of any one particular interaction will be greater than the simple sum of its constituent “parts.”
Going forward, the new 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 consideration, the judgments they make about this 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?
For scholars and policy-makers, further basic questions must 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 should still warrant serious US policy consideration. This is because both “ordinary” irrationality and full-scale madness could exert more-or-less comparable effects upon any examined country’s national security decision-making processes.
There is nothing here for the intellectually faint-hearted. This is not about “attitude” (the term Trump used to describe what he had regarded as most important to any 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 prospective considerations, words could 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 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 considered 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 that the particular adversary “in play” might not be suitably deterred from launching a military attack by any American threats of retaliatory destruction, even where such threats would be fully credible and presumptively massive. Moreover, 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 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 sovereign state or organized terror group) more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. Always, this early judgment must be based upon defensibly sound analytic or intellectual principles.
In principle, at least, it 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, but reciprocally, 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 inadvertent nuclear war. Conceptually, they would fit under the more clarifying narratives of accidental nuclear war.
Most worrisome, in such concerns, would be avoiding 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, though neither side had actually wanted such a war.
Summing up such scenarios, in facing off against each other, even under optimal assumptions of mutual rationality, both 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 assorted 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 might 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 other parts of the globe, especially southwest Asia (e.g., Pakistan and India) and 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 risks of a regional nuclear war. To the contrary, the intended effect of these agreements to weaken Shiite Iran is apt to backfire in many palpable ways. At the same time, Israel never really did need to worry about suffering major war with Bahrain, Morocco or the United Arab Emirates. In essence, for Israel, the Abraham Agreements “put an end” only to nonexistent hazards.
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 here, 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?
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. And 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 expected or already-ongoing competition for “escalation dominance.” Naturally, any such calculated pretense could also fail, perhaps 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, especially in purely intellectual terms, this would represent an uncommonly “tall order.”
In this critical context, the term “dialectically” (drawn originally from ancient Greek thought, especially Plato’s dialogues) must 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 will 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 law-based agreements.
Here, 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 traditional 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 the opaque effects of any consequent chaos.
Conceptual clarifications are again in order. In both law and practice, chaos is not the same as anarchy. Chaos is “more than” anarchy. Indeed, we have lived with anarchy or the absence of centralized legal order since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but we have yet to descend into any worldwide legal chaos.
There is more. Even in the midst of anarchy, there is law. Since the 17th century, international law has functioned according to an often indecipherable “balance of power.” Furthermore, for an 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.
How should President Biden proceed with managing nuclear risks? At some point, at least in principle, the best option could even seem to be some sort of preemption; that is, a defensive non-nuclear first-strike directed against situationally appropriate North Korean or Iranian hard targets. In actuality, of course, 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 pertinent 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.
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 certain 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 perhaps difficult to imagine ex nihilo, might nonetheless still be conceivable. This theory-based “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 significant use of certain biological warfare capabilities.
Nowadays, in literally any matter of prospective biological warfare, it will be worth noting that our planet is currently in the midst of a naturally-occurring biological “assault,” and that even in the complete absence of any specific adversarial animus or intent, the injurious consequences of 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 implicit 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 may have a nuclear “button,” but that his is “bigger,” the former president displayed his 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 be based on narrowly corrosive notions of revenge, even if only as a residual or default option, would be glaringly irrational.
These are all complex intellectual issues, of course, 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 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 core nuclear deterrence posture.
More precisely, among other elements of permissible self-defense, this suggests continuously expanding emphases on various laser-based weapon systems.
While it may at first sound annoyingly obvious, it must still be remembered that in the bewildering nuclear age, even seemingly defensive strategies could sometime be viewed by uneasy adversaries as offensive. This is because the secure foundation of any system of nuclear deterrence must always 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.”
To progress in its most vital national security obligations in a complicating time of pandemic, President Biden’s military planners must 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, this enemy would first need to believe that Washington had capably maintained both the capacity to launch appropriate nuclear reprisals for relevant forms of aggression (nuclear and biological/non-nuclear) and the will to undertake such uniquely consequential firings.
About the first belief criterion, it would almost certainly lie far beyond any “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 and overlapping American adversaries.
In more perplexing matters involving an expectedly irrational nuclear 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 related to pandemic factors. In the most extreme cases, disease could 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 will 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 not a significantly 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 focus would be on strengthening Israeli nuclear deterrence, which – in one way or another – would be to the simultaneous strategic benefit of the United States. Israel’s own nuclear deterrence could be affected by assorted pandemic-related variables, including some with very 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, whether or not impacted by pandemic factors, this country will need to compose a continuously-updating strategic “playbook.” Here, it could become necessary for Biden to consider, at least on extraordinary occasion, policies of feigned irrationality. In such analytically-challenging cases, it would be important for the American president not to react in an 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 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 “in the wings.”
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 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.
Again, this will not be task for narrowly political or intellectually averse US strategic decision-makers. Among other things, it will require a capable assessment of pertinent synergies, some of them distressingly subjective and biological. For the most notably unpredictable third track, special plans will also be needed for undertaking potentially indispensable preemptions, and, simultaneously, for certain corresponding/overlapping efforts at ballistic missile defense.
There is more. There could be no reliable assurances that any one “track” would consistently present exclusively of the others. This means, portentously, that American decision-makers could sometimes have to face deeply intersecting or interpenetrating tracks, and that these always-complicated simultaneities could 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 information used by these foes in making their own particular calculations. Always, it must never be forgotten, rationality refers only to the intention of maximizing certain designated preference or values. It says nothing about whether the information being used is actually correct or incorrect.
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 President Joe Biden and America’s national security decision-makers. For these officials, this should be a moment in history to disavow absolutely any wayward inclinations to hubris, that is, to excessive or overweening pride, and to accept, instead, a conspicuous abundance of prudential caution. Among other pertinent settings, one especially perilous place for such caution concerns all matters of a defensive first strike or preemption.
A further distinction is called for here. From the standpoint of international law, it is 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 genuine concern about “imminent” hostilities, but for fear of some longer-term deterioration in a pertinent 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 ever accurately determining “imminence,” but also that delaying a defensive strike until imminence were appropriately ascertained could prove existential. Of course, at least in principle, 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.
America is not automatically made safer by having only rational adversaries. To wit, 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 various 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 (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 deliberate posture of 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? Among other things, this 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 clichéd presidential thinking. For the Biden 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 ever 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 complex struggle of “mind over mind.”
To remind, these remain fundamentally intellectual problems, challenges requiring meticulous analytic preparation rather than just 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 presumptively superior “order of battle.” Unless this rudimentary point is more completely understood by senior US strategic policymakers and by the new 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.
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 with an appropriately avant-garde orientation, American strategists must 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. But – at least for the moments of their present strategic deliberations – they should remain focused upon our collective survival in a persistently Hobbesian “state of nature.”
With the further spread of nuclear weapons to additional states (and also, perhaps, to 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….” Here, inevitably, the “life of Man” must be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
To best plan for America’s long-term strategic future, 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 necessarily an intra-personal condition before it becomes an inter-national one. This means that the core problem of chaos must 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, President Biden faces not only a daunting challenge but also a rare opportunity.
There is more. US foreign policy initiatives concerning nuclear war avoidance must ultimately shift from traditional notions of “realism” to the more law-enforcing ideas of “planetization.” Though seemingly utopian, these ideas are actually more realistic than any global continuance of Thomas Hobbes’ 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 should 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 rapidly evolving future. In candor, this will never be a task for the jurisprudentially indifferent or the intellectually faint-hearted.
In the end, as illustrated by the more-or-less predictable effects of a nuclear war and also by long-established effects of “plague,” we humans are all creatures of biology and must finally recognize ourselves “in the other,” that is, in a comprehensive and reciprocal commonality. Moreover, this means a genuinely primal commonality, a determinative “oneness” that is worth adapting to all of America’s basic national security policies. Such structural and law-enforcing interdependence underscores both our existential vulnerabilities as individual human beings and our leaders’ corollary obligation to place polity visibly above any personal interests.
In the still-clarifying imagery of ancient Greek drama, US President Joe Biden should become more conspicuously averse to any “monarchical-style” hubris than was his 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 can only be based upon principled rejection of “America First” and of any other policy posture derived from comparably false intellectual premises. Recalling French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Peace waits for us only at that point where we are able to witness a totalization of the world upon itself, in the unanimous construction of a spirit of the earth.”
Though perhaps not immediately recognizable, such a “totalization” has deep and significant legal qualities.
For the moment, President Joe Biden’s most immediate imperative should be vastly more modest, but still clear and tangible. The task should be to manage nuclear threats expeditiously from wherever they might arise, and according to continuously well-established criteria of empirical-scientific investigation. Firmly rejecting his rancorous predecessor’s seat-of-the-pants approach to even the most genuine threats of nuclear confrontation, Joe Biden’s orientation to national security must be based on rigorous calculation and durable law-backed substance.
In the end, even before focusing on nuclear weapons management per se, the US president must undertake variously refined steps to ensure that Americans can compete successfully in the always-overriding contest of “mind over mind.” During the past several years, Americans have indeed made previously unimaginable progress along multiple scientific fronts, most obviously in space exploration and pandemic disease management. But we have still fallen far short in other pertinent matters. More precisely, this country’s commendable scientific steps forward have not yet been replicated in the incomparably vital domains of nuclear war avoidance.
For President Joe Biden, there could be no more significant and law-enforcing accomplishment than achieving such an utterly indispensable replication.
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. (2nd ed. 2018)
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 concerning nuclear strategy have been published at Special Warfare (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (West Point); Israel Defense; BESA Perspectives (Israel); 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); JURIST; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The Atlantic; Oxford University Press; 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, Controlling Nuclear Risks: A Basic Obligation of U.S, Law and Policy, JURIST – Academic Commentary, March 9, 2021, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/03/louis-rene-us-nuclear-policy-biden/.
This article was prepared for publication by Khushali Mahajan, JURIST’s Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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