Louis René Beres, Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue University, argues that whether by sudden adversarial action or by massive aggression delivered in increments, the world could soon find itself facing its first nuclear war…
“Defenseless under the night, our world in stupor lies….” — W H Auden
Background of the Current Nuclear War Threat
Since August 6, 1945, the “official” start of the Nuclear Age, humankind has been acquainting itself with new meanings of catastrophic conflict. Still, until now, until current Russian aggressions against Ukraine, tangible portents of any “final epidemic” — a term used by Ruth Abrams and Susan Cullen for the eponymous 1981 book on the dangers of nuclear war — have generally seemed manageable. But now, things are changing. Today, with steadily-growing strategic uncertainties surrounding Russian crimes against peace and related Nuremberg-category crimes, it’s time to review and re-examine all pertinent risks. As to identifying the systemic context for any such needed consideration, the current cycle of superpower cooperation and conflict could best be identified as “Cold War II.”
There will be many significant details. Both primary and subsidiary distinctions should be clarified at the outset. One such distinction concerns the vital differences between a deliberate or intentional nuclear war and a war that is unintentional or inadvertent. Without first considering these distinctions, little could be ascertained about the plausible likelihood of a Ukraine-triggered nuclear conflict. Presumptively, the greatest dangers of any unintentional nuclear war would stem from various hard-to-predict decision-making errors or miscalculations.
There is more. By definition, there exist serious structural impediments to meaningful determinations of nuclear war probability. Because there has never been an authentic nuclear war (Hiroshima and Nagasaki don’t “count,” as they represent singular atomic attacks during an otherwise conventional war), calculating future nuclear war probabilities remains a preeminently subjective task. Under international law, the question of whether or not a formal “state of war” exists between states is generally ambiguous. Always, in logic and mathematics, true probabilities must derive from the determinable frequency of pertinent past events. Ergo, when there are no such events – as is true prima facie of a nuclear war – nothing meaningfully precise about “odds” could ever be stated with any predictive reliability.
Pertinent Nuclear War Scenarios
The principal objectives here are not inherently controversial or bewildering. To wit, a “nuclear final epidemic” should be averted at all costs, and capable analysts should systematically calculate optimal strategies to meet this core objective.
Such indispensable calculations will vary (among other things) according to presumed enemy intentions and the expected plausibility of an accident, hacking intrusion, and/or decisional miscalculation. Taken together as cumulative categories of any potential nuclear threat, these three component risks of an unintentional nuclear war are most clearly described as “inadvertent.” Of necessity, any case of accidental nuclear war would be inadvertent. At the same time, not every inadvertent nuclear war would be the result of an accident.
Significantly, all of these examples represent variously complex elements of a single overall national security problem: nuclear war avoidance. This overriding problem should never be approached by American national security policy-makers as just a narrowly political or tactical issue. Instead, informed by serious historical understanding and by optimally-refined analytic capacities, US military planners should remain continuously prepared to deal with a large variety of sometimes-intersecting explanatory factors.
Under the best conditions of modern science, this broad variety will appear multi-dimensional and daunting. But it need not be perplexing.
There are additional particulars. The principal national security risks America now faces as a nation are both immediate and incremental. Either way, some of these risks are at least prospectively existential. They deserve America’s most sincere and concentrated examination. Serious answers ought never to be sought in election-year political rhetoric. Ipso facto, there can never be any coherent answers in the dissembling political voices of anti-reason.
There is far more to mitigating the Russian nuclear threat over Ukraine. Principal hazards could best be understood in light of plausible or even just conceivable intersections between them. All such critical intersections are more-or-less likely (a conclusion necessarily based on calculable expectations of logical deduction, not on actual history) and could sometimes be “synergistic.”
Accordingly, more closely focused American attention on determinable synergies should become one of this country’s most insistent analytic tasks. Relevant synergistic intersections could involve military operations in other parts of the world. These include North Korean missile tests over Japan; active Chinese designs on Taiwan; and Iranian military exercises held in tandem with China and/or Russia.
In dealing with the steadily growing risks of nuclear war, no clarifying concept could ultimately prove more important than synergy. By definition, synergistic interactions are those wherein the “whole” of any nuclear war risk effects must be greater than the sum of its “parts.” Unless such interactions are accurately assessed and evaluated “in time,” the United States could seriously underestimate the total nuclear impact of any anticipated superpower engagements.
There is more. The estimable flesh-and-blood consequences of such underestimations could defy both investigative imagination and post-war justification. Very quickly, these consequences could come to resemble a “final epidemic.” At that late stage, there would be no further advantages to “vaccination.” At that “metastatic” point, a nuclear war would resemble any other terminal disease. For such an end-state pathology, the only residual hopes could lie in palliative measures.
What Has Already Been Learned?
There is an informed private aspect to these commentaries concerning nuclear war as an “epidemic pathology.” I have been publishing about related strategic issues for more than fifty years. After four years of doctoral study at Princeton in the late 1960s, long an intellectual center of American nuclear strategic thought (recall especially Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer), I began to add a modest personal contribution to already-evolving nuclear literature. By the late 1970s, I was cautiously preparing a new manuscript on US nuclear strategy, and (by consciously disciplined processes of correct inference) variously corresponding risks of a nuclear war.
At that early stage of a still-emerging discipline, I was especially interested in the US presidential authority to order the use of American nuclear weapons. Though currently expanding hazards over Ukraine stem directly from Vladimir Putin’s crimes of aggression and crimes against humanity, an oft-overlooked hazard would be any synergistic interaction with US presidential error. To be sure, America’s accelerating nuclear war hazards ought to center on the manifold uncertainties of Russian escalations (in the context of Cold War II, each side would necessarily seek “escalation dominance”), but there are still coinciding and potentially synergistic perils of US presidential miscalculation.
In the United States, presumptively reliable safeguards have been incorporated into all operational nuclear command/control decisions from “day one,” but these same safeguards could not be applied at the presidential level. Many years ago, to gather suitable policy clarifications, I reached out to retired General Maxwell D. Taylor, a former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. In reassuringly rapid response, General Taylor sent a comprehensive handwritten reply. Dated 14 March 1976, the distinguished General’s detailed letter concluded ominously: “As to those dangers arising from an irrational American president, the only protection is not to elect one.”
Until recently, I had never given any extended thought to this authoritative reply. Recently, during the enormously problematic presidency of Donald J. Trump, General Taylor’s 1976 warning took on substantially greater and more urgent meanings. Based on both ascertainable facts and logical derivations (technically called “entailments” in the philosophy of science terminology) rather than wishful thinking, we should now reasonably assume that if an American President were ever to exhibit signs of emotional instability, irrationality or delusional behavior, he could still order the use of American nuclear weapons.
He could do so officially, “legally” and without any expectations of nuclear chain-of-command “disobedience.” More worrisome, an American president – much like Russian president Vladimir Putin – could become emotionally unstable, irrational, or delusional, but still not exhibit such worrisome liabilities conspicuously. What happens then? And what if these transformations are “bilateral” (US and Russia simultaneously) and synergistic?
Law and National Survival
A corollary question should come promptly to mind: What precise stance should be assumed by the National Command Authority (Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several possible others) if it should ever decide to oppose an “inappropriate” presidential order to launch American nuclear weapons? Could the National Command Authority (NCA) “save the day” informally by acting in an impromptu or creatively ad hoc fashion? Or should indispensable preparatory steps already have been taken preemptively?
Should there already be in place certain credible and effective statutory measures to assess the ordering president’s reason and judgment, and, if needed, to countermand the inappropriate or presumptively wrongful presidential order?
Under US law, Article 1 (Congressional) war-declaring expectations of the Constitution aside, any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, whether issued by an irrational president or by an incapacitated one, would have to be obeyed. To do otherwise in such incomparably dire circumstances would be illegal on its face. Here, any chain-of-command disobedience would be impermissible.
There is more. In principle, at least, a US President could order the first use of American nuclear weapons even if this country were not under any specific nuclear attack. In this connection, some further strategic and legal distinctions would need to be clarified between a nuclear “first use” and a nuclear “first strike.” These terms would not express merely minor distinctions.
What next? Where should the American polity and government go from here on such urgent national security decision-making issues? To begin, a coherent and comprehensive answer will need to be prepared for the following basic question:
If faced with any presidential order to use nuclear weapons, and not offered sufficiently appropriate corroborative evidence of any impending existential threat, would the National Command Authority (1) be willing to disobey, and (2) be capable of meaningfully enforcing such glaring disobedience?
In any such unprecedented crisis-driven circumstances, authoritative decisions could have to be made in a compressively time-urgent matter of minutes, not hours or days. As far as any useful policy guidance from the past might be concerned, there could be no scientifically valid way to assess the true probabilities of possible outcomes. This is because all scientific judgments of probability – whatever the salient issue or subject – must be based on recognizably pertinent past events.
In matters concerning nuclear war, there are no pertinent past events. This is a fortunate absence, but one that would still stand in the way of rendering reliable decision-making predictions. The irony here is obvious and problematic. In any event, whatever the science-based obstacles, the optimal time to prepare for such incomparably vital US national security difficulties is now.
Possible Synergies and “Escalation Dominance”
Regarding the immediately specific matter of Ukraine, President Biden should take special care to avoid strategic postures that neglect potentially relevant synergies with corresponding Russian postures. As for any mutual search for “escalation dominance,” the single most important factor in US policy judgments would be the expected rationality of Vladimir Putin. If the Russian president could ever be expected to strike the US or a US ally with nuclear forces irrespective of anticipated American counterstrikes, nuclear deterrence would cease to work. This means that enemy strikes could be expected even if Putin had understood that the US and/or its ally had “successfully” deployed nuclear weapons in survivable modes, that its nuclear weapons were believed capable of penetrating Russia’s active defenses and that American leaders were willing to retaliate.
The only predictable element of this strategic assessment is nuclear warfare’s boundless unpredictability. Even under the most favorable assumptions of enemy rationality, all leading decision-makers would have to concern themselves with variously dense or confused communications, miscalculations, errors in information, unauthorized uses of strategic weapons, mechanical, electrical, or computer malfunctions, and even poorly-recognized applications of cyber-defense/cyber-war.
In the paroxysmal aftermath of a nuclear conflict, any nuclear conflict, now-stunned officials might envy the dead. This is the case whether the catastrophe had been intentional or unintentional, whether it had been occasioned by base motives, miscalculation, computer error, hacking intrusion, or “simply” weapon-system/weapon infrastructure accident. Whatever else may be determinable by America’s national security decision-makers, these individuals should understand that nuclear strategy is ultimately a high-stakes struggle against anti-reason. Though sui generis in most of its emerging permutations, this struggle represents a lethal challenge that must be met at all costs.
We have come full circle. The poet Auden’s warning about “lying in stupor” ought never to be minimized. Now, more than ever, American decision-makers must ask certain core questions about Vladimir Putin’s willingness to cross the nuclear threshold and about any plausible intersections/synergies between such willingness and US presidential miscalculation. Even now, even as Ukraine presents itself in metaphor as a potential “final epidemic,” the existential hazards of a US-Russian nuclear war could be reduced or controlled by certain disciplined intellectual activity. Just as with biological disease epidemics, the “pathogens” of nuclear warfare should be blunted by logic and science, not by any visceral spasms of geopolitical virulence or gratuitous rancor.
For the moment, however, “Our world in stupor lies.”
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of twelve major books and several hundred journal articles dealing with international relations and international law. Some of his publications have appeared in The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); The Atlantic; US News & World Report; The National Interest; e-Global (University of California, Santa Barbara); Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); The Brown Journal of World Affairs; The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; JURIST; The New York Times; The Hudson Review; American Political Science Review; American Journal of International Law; Daily Princetonian; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The American Journal of International Law; The Atlantic; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College (Pentagon); Modern Diplomacy; Air and Space Operations Review (USAF); Special Warfare (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (West Point); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); INSS (Tel Aviv); Horasis (Zurich); and Oxford University Press. He is a regular contributor to the Oxford University Press Annual Yearbook of International Law and Jurisprudence. Professor Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland at the end of World War II.
Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, Ukraine as a ‘Final Epidemic’ Amid Increasingly Plausible Risks of a Nuclear War, JURIST – Academic Commentary, October 14, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/10/ukraine-as-a-final-epidemic-amid-increasingly-plausible-risks-of-a-nuclear-war.
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