Trump, chaos, and Israel's national security

Opinion: A cautionary message for Israel from an expert on nuclear conflict who has reservations on Trump and says: Prepare for the worst.

Prof. Louis René Beres,

Dimona nuclear plant
Dimona nuclear plant
Flash 90

"I tell you, ye have still chaos in you, " words written by Friedrich Nietzsche in his work, Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Plausibly, U.S. foreign policy during the presidency of Donald J. Trump may be forged in an atmosphere of determined unreason and anti-thought.. More precisely, by consciously disavowing any serious interest in pertinent history, law, or diplomacy, this new American administration seems to intend to operate ad hoc, without any sturdy analytic mooring, navigating without grounding in theory, ideology, or rudimentary forms of science. As a result, it is reasonable to expect that President Trump's foreign involvements and corresponding forfeitures (both intellectual and strategic) may turn out to correlate closely with an expanding chaos.

For Israel, in particular, a cautionary message is in order.

For Jerusalem, the cumulative security consequences of any Trump-induced disorder could be especially far-reaching, substantial, and even irremediable.

History has its pride of place. Since the seventeenth-century, the core structure of world politics has been consistently anarchic. But literal anarchy means only the absence of central government. Now, looking ahead to the external effects of a Trump presidency, Israel (and parts of the rest of the world) could soon need to prepare very systematically for recognizably more centrifugal and incoherent circumstances. This geo-strategic condition of disorder can be identifiable as chaos.

For Israel, chaos will threaten much more than mere anarchy. In virtually any expressible "form," chaos can play havoc with the best laid plans of nations. By definition, and particularly from the critical standpoint of national military operations, it is a constantly unpredictable and ever-changing condition, one that can easily impair “normal” and possibly indispensable security preparations. This impairment could arrive suddenly, as a markedly dissembling "bolt-from-the-blue," or less discernibly and dramatically, in tangible but unforeseeable increments.

Significantly, especially for the informed students of Carl von Clausewitz, this now impending condition is meaningfully different from the chaos associated with the nineteenth-century Prussian military strategist's "fog of war" metaphor. Traditionally, chaos describes a genuinely deep and wholly systemic level of unraveling, one that can rapidly create unprecedented and even residually primal forms of international conflict. It follows that even in an otherwise improved world system, chaos could quickly and conclusively smother any still-simmering hopes for national survival.

Today, of course, many states, including Israel, must reluctantly acknowledge certain increasing prospects for a nuclear conflict. In this connection, the new American president's inexperience in managing inevitable nuclear crises, and also in controlling certain more-or-less related military escalations, is difficult to dispute. Moreover, should President Trump ever fail to prevent even a single uncontrollable escalation to full-blown nuclear warfare, the corollary effects would palpably impact other parts of the world, either directly, in the form of immediate or latent physical casualties, or indirectly, as the unfortunate inheritors of utterly unique global misfortunes.

In world politics, which is not geometry, the whole can sometimes be greater than the simple sum of its parts. For Israel, going forward, the most obvious chaos-based perils concern steady violence in Iraq and Syria, and near-simultaneous developments in still-ongoing Iranian nuclearization and Palestinian Arab insurgency. Facing these variously intersecting or perhaps even synergistic perils, Jerusalem is already well aware that the Hashemite monarchy in neighboring Jordan is increasingly vulnerable to assorted new forms of Islamic radicalism, and also that the authoritarian el-Sisi military regime in Cairo will not be able to control the re-aspiring Muslim Brotherhood indefinitely.

How will U.S. President Trump respond to all these complex threats in the Middle East? Will it be with thoughtful intellection and geo-strategic planning, or with bravado? Will this president continue to function with only a skeletal national security establishment - one still lacking altogether any serious gravitas or will he fill the yawning gaps with people of real accomplishment? The answer should affect Israel's overall security posture and position in potentially unprecedented ways.

Pakistan is another critical source of wider area transformation, one that could transform a volatile region from mere anarchy to genuine chaos. In this regard, if the already nuclear regime in Islamabad should sometime fall to Jihadists, all other regional sources of chaotic disintegration could promptly pale into comparative insignificance.

For Jerusalem, therefore, it is high time to inquire:

What would U.S. President Trump do in this grave matter of Pakistan falling to Jihadists, and how would this expected action impact Israel?

This will not be an easy question to answer, but it must be considered carefully nonetheless.

In a presumptively worse case scenario for Israel, Jihadists would take singular or "hybrid" control in several of the more conspicuously unstable Arab and North African governments. Ultimately, these “martyrdom-driven” leaders might get their hands on certain game-changing weapons of mass destruction. This altogether imaginable prospect, even if the acquired weapons were all to remain completely non-nuclear, could still bring to mind the particularly fearful scenario of a suicide-bomber in macrocosm.

Also worth noting here, is that a Jihadist hybrid could be an entirely terror-group amalgam, or an asymmetrical alignment between a terror-group and a kindred state.

With the advance of chaos in the Middle East, Israel might have to face certain nuclear and ideologically Islamist enemies on both Iranian and Arab fronts. Even in the absence of old enemies with new atomic arms, nuclear and biological materials could still find their way to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and/or to Hamas, which is already doing battle with ISIS forces in Gaza. Along the way, Jerusalem - following Washington's possibly uncertain and disjointed policies - could find itself in the position of having to take sides with one or another set of usually mortal enemies.

Back in the seventeenth-century, the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, already recognized that although international relations must indefinitely exist in a “state of nature,” a condition of anarchy (not of chaos), these decentralized relations are nonetheless more tolerable than the condition of individual human beings living in anarchy. This is so, argued Hobbes, because nations lack the capacity of individuals to utterly destroy one another.

But this is no longer the case. Thomas Hobbes, of course, was not able to conceptualize a world with nuclear weapons. Now, proliferation of these weapons, especially in the Middle East, could quickly reduce the orthodox and relatively tolerable anarchy of international relations to the authentically Hobbesian chaos of “nature” that would ordinarily exist between individuals. Here, as more and more nations came to share what Hobbes had called a “dreadful equality,” a more-or-less symmetrical capacity to inflict mortal destruction, the dreadful portent of regional nuclear calamity could become correspondingly more likely.

William Butler Yeats wrote prophetically of a time in which “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The great Irish poet revealed what still eludes historians, diplomats, statesmen, and scholars: In the not-too-distant future, there could come a moment wherein there will be no safety in numbers, treaties, or armaments; no help from “civilizations;" no counsel from public authority; and no last-minute rescues from science.

This apocalyptic “moment” may rage for a long while, perhaps even until every flower of human culture has been trampled, and until entire human communities have been ground insidiously into dust. From this seemingly resurrected medieval darkness, from this possible chaos, there would be neither escape nor sanctuary. Rather, it could envelop whole nations and regions in a single and suffocating pall.

For Israel, the prime inheritor of Genesis, chaos portends very unusual, and even paradoxical, kinds of national fragility. As a relentlessly beleaguered microstate, Israel could become - depending upon the precise extent to which it would allow itself to be manipulated - the principal victim of a rampant international disorder. Indeed, in view of the exceptionally far-reaching interrelatedness of all world politics, this could become the case even if the actual precipitating events of war and terror would occur elsewhere, that is, in some other distant region of our imperiled planet.

Oddly, perhaps, a triumphant global chaos may still reveal both sense and form. Generated by explosions of mega-war and mega-terror, further disintegrations of world authority could still assume a revealingly discernible shape. How, precisely, should this unique shape, this sobering "geometry" of chaos, then be deciphered and understood by Israel? As a corollary and similarly vital question, Israel’s leaders would then also need to inquire: “How, exactly, should we deal with potentially irrational nuclear adversaries, foes operating within both state and terrorist groups?”

What if U.S. President Trump should himself make irrational decisions? What would this likely mean for Israel?

Scientifically, there is no reliably analytic way to make any such predictions (after all, probabilities must always be calculated according to the determinable frequency of pertinent past events), but this particularly distressing prospect is by no means inconceivable.

The whole world, like the individual nation-states that comprise it, is best understood as a system. By definition, therefore, what happens in any one part of this world, always affects what happens in some or all of the other parts. When, for example, global deterioration is marked, and begins to spread from one country to another, the effects could undermine international stability in general. When deterioration is sudden and catastrophic, as it would be following the onset of an unconventional war, and/or unconventional terrorism, the unraveling effects could be starkly immediate and overwhelming.

The State of Israel, a system of interdependent and interpenetrating parts like every other state, exists precariously in a much larger world system. Aware that any US-caused collapse of world authority structures (most plausibly, in increments) will, in one way or another, impact its friends as well as its enemies, leaders of the Jewish State must now advance informed expectations or scenarios of collapse in order to prepare suitable forms of response. Ultimately, recognizing that any rapid and far-reaching global collapse could spawn a more or less complete return to "everyone for himself" in world politics, or what philosopher Thomas Hobbes had called a "war of all against all,” Israel’s leaders must now prudently consider how they should respond to any future national life in a global "state of nature."

Such eleventh-hour considerations will be all the more critical to the extent that the triggering mechanism of collapse would originate within the Middle East itself, from massive chemical, biological and, in the future, even nuclear attacks, against Israel.

Chaotic disintegration of the world system, whether slow and incremental, or sudden and catastrophic, will dramatically impact the Israeli system. During the Trump Era, in the clearest manifestation of this impact, Israel will have to orient its military planning and doctrine toward a broad variety of worst-case possibilities, focusing much more expressly on the whole range of self-help security options than on any traditional forms of cooperative diplomacy and alliance guarantees. Within the small country, any diplomatic processes still premised on certain outdated assumptions of reason and rationality will likely have to be curtailed in recognition of now more plausibly expected regional "insults."

There is also an important “feedback loop” here. Israel's particular reactions, as a system within a system, to any discernible expressions of possible US-created chaos, will themselves impact these destabilizing expressions. Should Israel's leaders react to a now seemingly unstoppable regional disorder by hardening their commitment to certain relevant forms of self-reliance, including appropriate and lawful resorts to preemptive military force, Israel's enemies could then surely respond, individually or collectively, in similarly "self-reliant" ways.

What are these ways? How, exactly, should Israel counter-respond to such responses? What would be the expected "Trump factor" in any or all of these complex calculations?

These are primary and dialectical questions that should now be raised unambiguously by Israel's strategic planners. In other words, it is now time for these planners to consider, inter alia, the prospectively most crucial feedback implications of the coming Trump Era.

Chaos is not anarchy. It is much more than anarchy, much more impactful and destabilizing. For Israel, chaos should now present as a possible outcome of Trump foreign policy decision-making, one that correspondingly needs to be factored into the country's core national security planning. Although no one can ever know for certain the true extent to which changed policies will spill over from domestic affairs to world politics, it would be a safe bet for Jerusalem to hope for the best, but conscientiously prepare for the worst.

Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law. In Israel, where he was Chair of Project Daniel in 2003, he has been involved with national security, military and intelligence matters for more than forty years. Professor Beres' most recent writings have been published in the Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Parameters: The Journal of the U.S. Army War College; The Brown Journal of World Affairs; Oxford University Press; US News & World Report; The Jerusalem Post; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The Atlantic; and Israel Defense. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2016.




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