Israel's struggle to overcome primal disorder, irrationality and chaos
Israel's struggle to overcome primal disorder, irrationality and chaos

"I tell you, ye have still chaos in you." -Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

For the most part, scholars and policy-makers who examine Israel's strategic options devote too little direct attention to context. This means that rather than consider regional anarchy and chaos as important variables in their own right, these analysts look immediately to more "classical" considerations of  armaments, alignments, power balances, and substantially precise "orders of battle." To be sure, this sort of traditional military orientation is largely correct and even indispensable. Ultimately, however, it can only make operational sense when it is self-consciously understood within the ever-changing background of "Westphalian" international relations.

While teaching at Princeton and Purdue for almost fifty years, I always instructed my students about anarchy and Westphalia. Anarchy, I had routinely indicated, has been the central feature of all global politics since the seventeenth century.  This particular context of structurally decentralized authority, they also quickly learned, was formally codified at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

Still, the particular kind of anarchy faced by Israel in the years ahead may be stunningly different, even sui generis, and could actually become more unabashedly primal than at any time since the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years' War. Significantly, this protracted European conflict represented the last of the major religious wars sparked by the Reformation. Over the coming years, global anarchy could decline even further, deteriorating from the more-or-less manageable disorder of the past several hundred years, to the ubiquitously murderous "state of nature" envisioned in dark fiction, by English novelist William Golding, in his The Lord of the Flies.

In this conspicuously fearful state, anarchy will have taken on altogether new forms. It will have been supplanted by a genuine chaos.

Struggling amid chaos, Israel will never find any meaningful succor in international law.
In this distressingly fractionating context - and here we may recall especially Dostoyevsky, Freud, and Nietzsche - anarchy will more accurately reflect the most crudely libidinal wishes and expectations of individual human beings.

For anything productive ever to be born from such a world, an industrious gravedigger would have to wield the forceps.

It follows that before Israeli strategists continue to fashion their impressively data-based plans and policies to best secure the Jewish State, they will first have to forge their fundamentally core conceptualizations against the shifting background of a more decentralized or "survival of the fittest" world.

Going forward, it will no longer make sense for such planners to proceed with routine defense and deterrence planning on the plainly incorrect assumption that the basic structures of regional and world politics will somehow remain the same, or otherwise "on course."

For example, Israeli strategic thinkers already understand that the most critical threats ahead may originate less with national enemy armies than with assorted sub-state militias. In this regard, the Shiite militia Hezbollah is observably more threatening than such longtime and orthodox state enemies as Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. But to identify optimal strategies for dealing with such a formidable state-surrogate adversary - one that already has more than 100,000 rockets in its arsenals  - Israeli strategists will first have to delineate, as appropriate, the transforming and cumulatively disintegrating structures of regional authority.

The overall threat from Iran-backed Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon today will be very different from what it had been in earlier conflicts; and not only because of the vast increase in pertinent enemy arms and firepower. Further, newly imaginative considerations of context will have to be augmented by similarly up-to-date considerations of changing superpower relations (we are already in the midst of "Cold War II"), and, accordingly, of changes in U.S. foreign policy.

On August 15, 2016, U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed a new American commitment to defeat ISIS at all costs, including even operational cooperation with Russia, Syria's al-Assad regime, and Iran.

Upon even superficial examination, this proposal, however unwitting, could be starkly injurious to Israel.

Whatever the American election outcome in November, Israeli strategists must take careful heed. Any future attempts to actualize simplistic priorities by the United States, they must soon acknowledge, could simultaneously strengthen Israel's principal current foes, especially Hezbollah.

There is more. In a region that is becoming loomingly primal, the unique role of nuclear weapons will need to be more closely addressed. This is the case whether Israel decides to end its longstanding posture of "deliberate ambiguity" - selectively, and most plausibly, sotto voce, in increments - or whether it chooses to keep its bomb "in the basement." Above all, Israeli strategists will want to ensure that there is no further spread of nuclear weapons among Israel's enemies, whether Arab or Iranian, and that attempting to counter one particular enemy will not automatically assist another.

Understood in terms of philosopher Thomas Hobbes famous argument about the state of nature in Leviathan, Israel must prepare to do whatever it can to avoid that "dreadful equality" that exists among individual persons in nature. In that most irremediably unregulated setting,  we may learn from Hobbes, "...the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest." No matter how "powerful" Israel may appear vis-à-vis its many adversaries, therefore, a relatively weak Hezbollah could still potentially "kill" that "strongest" country, or at least weaken Israel for a corollary or subsequent "killing" by a newly-nuclear Iran.

Also worth noting, in this connection, is that any presumed failure of the July 14, 2015 Vienna Pact on controlling Iranian nuclearization,[1] could lead Egypt and/or Saudi Arabia to hasten their own nuclearization efforts. In time, even if their authentic motives would have more to do with Shiite-Sunni or Persian/Arab animosities than with the Jewish State, their new nuclear weapons could still present an evolving existential threat to Israel. After all, even though Cairo and Riyadh are willing to make certain backchannel accommodation with Jerusalem on common Jihadist enemies, this does not mean that they have suddenly become true friends of Israel.

There is more. Looking further ahead, it is not too much to expect that assorted terror groups could soon gain access to certain usable forms of profoundly dangerous weapons, including biological ordnance. Any residual civilizational capacity to deal with global chaos will inevitably obligate Israel to combat certain Islamist enemies who are armed with thoroughly modern implements of mass annihilation. Sometimes these enemies will be Sunni; at other times, they will be Shiite. Sometimes, by seeking to weaken one set of adversaries, Israel may unintentionally strengthen another set.

Soon, a conspicuously stark juxtaposition of pre-modern ideologies with futuristic weapons will define an unprecedented challenge for dealing with primal chaos in the Middle East.This Israeli challenge, moreover, will be further exacerbated by a variety of recent area developments, including an expectedly further reduction of allied military support from Turkey. Any such continuing diminution is a foreseeable outcome of the recently- failed Turkish coup, and also of the resultant government purges of the army, and certain other national institutions.

In the most uncontroversial narratives of counter-terrorist obligation, even Israel's most industrially backward enemies could have ready recourse to advanced strategies of cyber-defense and cyber-warfare. For Israel, a country much smaller than America's Lake Michigan, the implications are unambiguously of a higher-order. Under some circumstances, they could become authentically existential.

Struggling amid chaos, Israel will never find any meaningful succor in international law. Assorted agreement expectations notwithstanding, including the  plainly flawed pact with Iran, certain of Israel's Islamic enemies will seek to "go nuclear." Should this happen, there will be both anticipated and unanticipated interactions between pertinent catastrophic threats.These complex interactions, better known in science as synergies, will render the risks of an already-widening primal chaos even more pressing, and even more opaque.

For Israel, the expected perils of primal chaos are both particular and unique. Facing not only an unprecedented nuclear threat from Iran, but also the prospectively corrosive appearance of “Palestine,” the Jewish State could quickly find itself engulfed in mass-casualty terrorism, and/or  in an unconventional war. As to any long-promised security help from the United States, neither President Barack Obama nor his White House successor could plausibly offer anything more tangible than some post-catastrophe assistance with disaster recovery.

There is more. The calculable probability of genuine Middle East chaos could be further enlarged by certain conceivable instances of enemy irrationality.  If, for example, Israelshould have to face a Jihadist adversary that would value certain presumed religious expectations  more highly than its own physical survival, Israel’s deterrent could then be effectively immobilized.

Arguably, the worst case scenario would involve an irrational nuclear Iran; that is, a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm. It goes without saying that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been especially concerned about precisely this "unthinkable" expression of regional chaos. After all, once it had been determined in Jerusalem that Iran's supreme leaders were meaningfully susceptible to non-rational judgments vis-à-vis Israel, the Jewish State's incentive to strike first defensively could then become overwhelming.

Alternatively, Israel could still discard the preemption option - which would likely be described as "anticipatory self defense" in legal terms - but would then still need to identify certain other usable and multi-vector strategies of deterrence. Any such identification would require, inter alia, diminished ambiguity about particular elements of Israel's nuclear forces; an enhanced and at least partial disclosure of strategic targeting options; more substantial and simultaneously less ambiguous ballistic missile defense postures; and increasingly recognizable steps to ensure the perceived survivability of its nuclear retaliatory forces. These last steps could need to include more-or-less explicit references to portions of Israeli Dolphin submarine deployments, and also to progressively more refined national preparations for cyber-defense and cyber-war.

Such alternative Israeli strategies should be carefully worked out generically; that is, in advance of identifying any specific or particular crisis or crises. In all such calculations, moreover, chaos itself would need to be included as a salient explanatory factor. Chaos therefore would still have its analytic pride of place, however ominous or retrograde.

More particularly, how would such a transforming region present itself to strategists and policy-makers?                        

At that point, there would remain no expectations of safety in arms, no rescues from any higher political authority, and no comforting reassurances from science. As with any true chaos, new wars could rage until every flower of culture were trampled, and until all things human were leveled in a vast and more or less barbarous disorder. Here, even the best-laid plans for collective defense or alliance guarantees could quickly become little more than iconic cultural artifacts of a once still-functional world order.

At this point, Carl von Clausewitz's idea of "friction" ("the effects of reality on ideas and intentions in war") could resoundingly trump all antecedent hopes for both belligerent predictability and conflict resolution.

Although counterintuitive, chaos and anarchy actually represent opposite end points of the same global or regional continuum. Mere anarchy, or the absence of central world authority, is “normal.” Chaos, however, is sui generis. It is, therefore, markedly “abnormal.”

Since the seventeenth century,  our anarchic world can be best described as a system. What happens in any one part of this world, necessarily affects what will happen in some or even all of the other parts. When a particular deterioration is marked, and begins to spread from one nation to another, the disintegrative effects could undermine regional and/or international stability. 

When  deterioration is rapid and catastrophic, as it would be following the start of any unconventional war and/or act of unconventional terrorism, the corollary effects would be correspondingly immediate and overwhelming. These critical effects would be chaotic.

Aware that even an incremental collapse of  remaining world authority structures would impact its few friends as well as its many enemies, leaders of the Jewish State, in order to chart more durable paths to survival, will soon need to advance certain plausible premonitions of collapse. Such indispensable considerations will be distasteful, of course, and are most likely not yet underway. Still, even without charting any precise Spenglerian theory of decline, Israeli strategists ought not to avoid this indispensable obligation.

Historically, Israel’s leaders have already invested too-much time and thought upon narrowly ritualistic considerations of  American "road maps" and “peace plans.” Soon, and in at least partial consequence of such persistently misspent opportunities, they will need to consider just how best to respond to international strategic life in a global or regional state of nature. The specific triggering mechanisms of Israel's disassembling "neighborhood's"  incremental descent into chaos could originate from a variety of mass-casualty attacks launched against Israel, or even from certain similar attacks against other western democracies.

Jerusalem must take careful note. Any progressively chaotic disintegration of the world system would fundamentally transform the smaller Israeli system. Such a transformation of microcosm by macrocosm could sometime involve total or near-total societal destruction. In any aptly prudent anticipation, Israel will soon have to orient much of its strategic planning to an assortment of worst-case prospects, then focusing more deliberately on an expansively wide range of "self-help" security options.

Correspondingly, for Israel, certain once-prominent diplomatic processes of peacemaking that are conveniently but erroneously premised on “scientific” assumptions of reason and rationality will have to be reduced or renounced.  Israel's one-sided surrender of territories, its recognizably mistaken reluctance to accept appropriate preemption options while still timely, and its periodic terrorist releases may never bring about any direct national defeat. Taken together, however, these portentously  synergistic policy errors would have a cumulatively weakening effect on Israel.

Whether the principal outcome here would be one that “merely” impairs the Jewish State's core commitment to endure, or one that also opens it up to a devastating missile attack, and/or to major acts of terror, is necessarily still unclear. In any event, whatever the degree of primal regional disorder, deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post, must always remain Israel's overriding goal. If, for any reason, especially amid an expanding chaos, Jerusalem should sometime lose sight of this incontestable objective, Israel could be reminded of ominously apt phrasing from the French poet/diplomat, Saint-John Perse: "Where there were once great military actions," the prescient Nobel laureate had observed, "there lies whitening now only the jawbone of an ass."


LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on terrorism and nuclear security matters.  Born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II, and Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, 2003), he is the author of many books on international relations and international law, including Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980), and some of the earliest major works on Israel’s nuclear strategy, including Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (D.C. Heath/Lexington Books, 1986). Professor Beres' twelfth book,  Surviving amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy,  was published earlier this year by Rowman and Littlefield. Some of his most recent articles have appeared in the Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; International Security (Harvard University); The Atlantic; The Hill; The Washington Times; The Jerusalem Post; Arutz Sheva; The Brown Journal of World Affairs; U.S. News & World Report; andParameters: Journal of the US Army War College. On strategic military matters concerning Israel, his frequent co-authors include General (ret.) John T. Chain, former Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command; Admiral (ret.) Leon "Bud" Edney, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic; and General (ret.), Barry R. McCaffrey, a former SOUTHCOM commander.

[1] Formally described as the JCPOA, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.