Politics, Law and the Triumph of Chaos Commentary
Chaos by George Frederic Watts (circa 1875)
Politics, Law and the Triumph of Chaos

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….”

-William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

Plus, ca’ change. “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”  In world politics, anarchy is an old and continuing story. Chaos is not.

But what are the precise differences?

And why do they matter?

In part, at least, a helpfully correct answer must be law-focused or jurisprudential. Under modern international law, system wide anarchy was formally instituted and acknowledged at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Back at the end of the Thirty Years’ War (the last major religious war sparked by the Reformation), a decentralized and sovereignty-centered system of world politics was “officially” codified. In consequence, a global threat-system of war and deterrence became the dominant and fixed template of nation-state foreign policies. Concurrently, a “balance-of-power” supplied clarifying “rules of the game” for all “players.” These were more-or-less conspicuous contestants in the bewildering game of nations.

Essentially, this “balance” system was a simplifying fiction; intangible, non-measurable and incrementally unmanageable. It offered and still continues to offer intellectually-unambitious statesmen and politicians a convenient slight-of-hand metaphor. Correspondingly, this structure provides an always-ready pretext for every manner of manipulative foreign policy intervention. Over time, such behavior has triggered repeated systemic breakdowns and  fostered a seemingly permanent condition of global imbalance.

The ironies are altogether evident.

Still, jurisprudence must continuously be emphasized and re-interpreted, More precisely, under international treaty law, language is always of signal importance. Terms of the Westphalian Treaty call, inter alia, for “a just equilibrium of power.” Significantly, war avoidance is never even mentioned in the defining document. In world law, aggressive war was not criminalized until the Pact of Paris (aka Kellogg-Briand Pact) of 1928.

Another staggering irony.

What are the relevant law-based residuals? What do we actually have left of this 17th century treaty-based Realpolitik regime? Basically, we now preserve only the crumbling architecture of what Irish poet William Butler Yeats in The Second Coming termed “mere anarchy.” For the most part, representative forms of chaotic disintegration are visibly underway in the Middle East, and also in Africa, Asia and assorted other places in Europe and South America.

In these multiplying and dissembling areas, various traditional threat mechanisms of Westphalian anarchy are either decreasingly viable or entirely absent. In more places than we might ever care to admit, many already-muted expressions of reason and rationality have given way to unbridled passions or genuine madness. Such transformations warrant serious intellectual study. They ought never be given over to thinly educated politicians or public mountebanks.

Significantly, madness can never be consistent with the primary rules of a deterrence and balance-of-power world legal order.

There is more. War and genocide are sometimes mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive. Looking ahead to a world that seems unlikely to reign in either source of horror, plausible intersections between war and genocide are prospectively synergistic. This means, by definition that any coinciding instances of war and genocide could produce cumulative harms that exceed the tangible sum of intersecting “parts”.

Nowadays, there no longer remains any credible pretext of system-wide national searches for “balance.” To some extent, more traditionally “normal” calculations of equilibrium have already been rendered infeasible or inconceivable because of nuclear weapons proliferation. In these ominous cases, individual states have generally become unable to decipher or delineate any usable measures of balance with other pertinent states.

Though the concept may still be pleasing or reassuring, there is no ascertainable “balance of power” in world politics.

None at all.

This should bring us back to jurisprudence. By itself, international law will not save the United States or any other state or alliance of states. Following former US President Donald Trump’s multiple failures vis-à-vis Russia, North Korea, China and Iran, further nuclear proliferation is virtually assured. In quick succession, especially if accompanied by expectedly deficient plans for national command and control among the new or expanding nuclear powers, once “unthinkable” weapons could become “thinkable”.


What then?

There is more. In all cases, not merely those involving war and genocide, there are various foreseeable interactions between individual catastrophic harms, synergies that could make the overriding risks of any looming global nuclear chaos substantially more pressing. These more-or-less visible interactions must be taken into suitable analytic account. Under no circumstances should an American president be allowed once again to disregard such complex interactions because they are too daunting, confusing or bewildering. As a glaringly relevant example, former US President Donald J. Trump effectively accelerated North Korean nuclearization because he emphasized not “preparation,” but “attitude”.

The best way to deal with expanding global chaos is first to draw proper intellectual lessons of anarchy, and then refine, modify and adapt these lessons to chaos. By definition, the overriding distinction here will center on disintegrating or disappearing “rules of the game” from balance-of-power anarchy, an evolving circumstance wherein traditional assumptions of Reason and Rationality might no longer obtain. An obvious and immediate casualty of such dissembling transformation would be a decreasingly stable logic of deterrence, a Westphalian logic which, despite its manifold failures, has still proven generally indispensable to war avoidance and global stability.

There are pressing particulars. For Israel, a country smaller than Lake Michigan, the dangers of chaotic disintegration are most plausibly linked to various war-terrorism intersections. Facing not only a still-expanding nuclear threat from Iran (largely because of grievous decisional errors by former US President Donald J. Trump), Israel could soon find itself with variably existential adversaries on multiple and simultaneous fronts. These adversaries could include assorted sub-state Jihadist enemies (Sunni and Shiite) and also certain state-sub state “hybrids.” In this regard, the Trump-brokered Abraham Accords will count for little. Inter alia, these agreements made “peace” between only non-belligerents and exacerbated Israel-Palestinian relations.

Whatever the emergent configuration of meaningful foes, Israel could then find itself face-to-face with a unique and unprecedented species of chaos.

Plainly, the portent of any Middle East chaos – here we may also point convincingly to Syria, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and perhaps even Pakistan – would be enlarged by enemy irrationality.  To wit, if Israel should sometime have to face a Jihadist adversary that values certain presumed religious expectations more highly than physical survival, the beleaguered country’s core deterrent posture could be undermined or even immobilized. Among other things, any such paralysis of Israeli military power could signify a heightened threat of nuclear war.

Some further clarifications are necessary. In world politics, irrationality is never the same as madness. An irrational adversary is one that could sometime value particular goals more highly than its own national self-preservation. A mad adversary, however, would display literally no preferred ordering of goals or values. It follows plausibly, at least from the standpoint of maintaining successful Israeli deterrence, that having to face enemy irrationality would be “better” than facing enemy madness.

Realistically, however, no such analytic choice would be available. Whether Israel, the United States or any other state can capably confront irrationality, madness, neither, or both is never up to pertinent national decision-makers. Rather, these possible outcomes are quite simply indeterminable.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” prophesied the poet Yeats, “and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”  Now, assembled in almost two hundred tribal armed camps known formally as states, all peoples coexist insecurely on a mercilessly fractionated planet. Ultimately, to reveal a more palpable understanding of where all are heading, we may conjure up the famously nightmarish circumstances of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. On any such fearfully sorrowful landscape, the traditionally anarchic playbook of nations would likely shift perilously from Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz to De Sade, Dostoyevsky and Freud.

Prima facie, our historic world system anarchy has become more unstable than ever before. While this declension of global order owes largely to a growing fusion of chaos with potential leadership irrationality and apocalyptic weaponry, it is also the result of America’s recently incoherent foreign policy. Then led by a president who proudly proclaimed historical illiteracy as an asset, as a conspicuous badge of insight (“I love the poorly educated,” declared Trump during the 2016 election campaign) the United States may no longer represent a stabilizing force in world politics.

What should humankind now expect? No longer operating with any Westphalian pretext of a “just equilibrium of power,” there might be no safety in arms, no rescue by political authority, no reassuring answers from science or technology. Even though we humans have seemingly become more “civilized” over time, new wars could rage until every once-sturdy flower of culture had been trampled. Then, civilization, unless rescued by presently still-unforeseen remedies, could perish in relentlessly paroxysmal quakes of some primordial disintegration.

What shall we humans do to avoid any such unspeakable chaos? How shall such unbearable circumstances best be averted or reverse? Before answering, all must first acknowledge something markedly counter-intuitive: It is that chaos and anarchy actually represent opposite points of a single global continuum. Though contrary to “common sense,” they define essentially opposite conditions of world politics.

Since Westphalia, “mere” anarchy or the absence of central world authority has been “normal.” A coming chaos, however, is anything but normal. To correctly fathom its “rules of the game” will be a decidedly intellectual or analytic task, not one best dealt with by publicity-seeking presidents, kings or prime ministers.

There is more. Since the seventeenth century, our anarchic world can be described as a system. What happens in any one part of this ungoverned and effectively ungovernable world can impact what happens in some or all of the other parts.  When deterioration is marked, and begins to spread from one nation-state to another, the corollary effects could undermine all previously existing infrastructures or rules of “balance.”

Should this deterioration be rapid and catastrophic, as would likely be the case following the start of any unconventional war or act of unconventional terrorism, the effects could be immediate and overwhelming. These effects would be chaotic per se, or perhaps represent the slide toward a more generalized system of global chaos. To suitably decipher the decisional dynamics of such world system chaos must become the absolutely overriding obligation of world leaders and thinkers from this day forward.

Understood in the context of classical political philosophy, world system chaos would resemble the “state of nature” described in the seventeenth-century by Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, a condition wherein the life of every person would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” We already stand at the sobering brink of this chaotic condition. Accordingly, it won’t help us to reassuringly maintain that the species “successfully” endured structural anarchy for hundreds of years. Such “success,” after all, could be argued only in the sense that Planet Earth has managed not to disappear altogether.

This is hardly the sort of standard scholars ought ever apply to any jurisprudence-based system of world law and world order.


Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with terrorism and international law. Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue, Dr. Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945. He is a frequent contributor to Modern Diplomacy; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); JURIST; Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law; Yale Global Online (Yale); World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Horasis (Switzerland); The War Room (US Army War College); The Strategy Bridge; Israel Defense (IDF); Modern War Institute (West Point); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); International Security (Harvard); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times; and Oxford University Press. His latest and twelfth book is Surviving amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed., 2018). In December 2016, Professor Beres co-authored a widely-circulated monograph with General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey, Israel’s Nuclear Strategy and America’s National Security (Tel Aviv University, Israel). 


Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, Politics, Law and the Triumph of Chaos, JURIST – Academic Commentary, June 9, 2021, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/06/louis-rené-beres-politics-law-chaos/.

This article was prepared for publication by Khushali Mahajan, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org

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