Prof. Louis Rene Beres
Prof. Louis Rene BeresProf. Louis René Beres

“It must not be forgotten that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.” Guillaume Apollinaire, “The New Spirit and the Poets" (1917)

World politics remain rooted in anarchy.[1] This means that almost every nation-state’s security is ultimately contingent on the uncertain dynamics of military threat. It also means variously expanding state dependencies on military alliance, counter-proliferation and nuclear deterrence.

What do major power leaders need to know about such complex deterrence?

Above all, America needs to ensure that any significant enemy’s considerations of striking first would assume high risks and low benefits.

It means a recognizable American willingness and capacity to dominate escalation during any conceivable nuclear crisis. Always, such willingness should be premised on achieving “escalation dominance” without incurring otherwise avoidable existential risks.

There are pertinent and intersecting details. This complex strategic imperative would be unique, without clarifying historical precedent, and could heighten the chances of unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. Even in an asymmetrical nuclear stand-off with a non-nuclear adversary (e.g., Iran so far), the United States could reach a point where it would threaten or actually use its nuclear weapons.

In the specific case of Iran, a primary struggle of competitive risk-tasking would most realistically be associated with Israel. In such a foreseeable crisis, the US ally’s only way to reliably prevent unacceptable Iranian military harms could sometime be by issuing measured nuclear threats. Here, Israel’s overall deterrence task could be complicated by any Iran-reinforcing aggressions undertaken by the Shiite militia Hezbollah. In one notably worrisome scenario, Iran and Hezbollah would operate together against Israel as a formidable “hybrid” adversary.

On occasion, to ensure credible deterrence postures in our “balance-of-power” world, the United States and Israel will need to display a conspicuous willingness to take exceptional security risks. Such a more-or-less coordinated display would be necessary to dominate certain prospective military escalations. Because this obligation[2] could result in an accidental or inadvertent nuclear war, capable American and Israeli strategists should determine the “correct” balance between any presumptively required nuclear risk-taking and nuclear war avoidance. Once an authentic nuclear crisis was actually underway, it could already be too late to make optimal strategic decisions in Washington and/or Jerusalem.

By definition, any such existential determination will be calculated without the manifest benefits of a relevant history.

It would be a grave mistake for analysts and politicians to assume that a nuclear war between states must always reflect deliberate and rational decision-making. Plausibly, the highest current risks of a nuclear war involving Russia, India, China, North Korea or Pakistan would be risks of accident or inadvertence.

How should an American president proceed? In protecting the United States and involved allies from a deliberate nuclear attack, American strategists would normally accept the core assumption of enemy rationality. Still, even if these assumptions were reasonable and well-founded, there would remain assorted dangers of an unintentional nuclear war. These potentially existential dangers could be produced by enemy hacking operations, computer malfunction (accidental nuclear war) or decision-making miscalculation - whether by the enemy, the US, or both/all parties.

In the especially indecipherable third scenario, damaging synergies could arise that would be difficult or impossible to halt. Moreover, as these synergies would develop within a global context that is simultaneously nuclearizing and without historical precedent, critical decisions might need to be of ad hoc.

Since 1945, the historic balance of power has been transformed, in part, to a “balance of terror.” To a largely unforeseeable extent, the geo-strategic search for “escalation dominance” by all sides to a potentially nuclear conflict would enlarge the tangible risks of an inadvertent nuclear war. These often-underestimated risks include various prospects of nuclear war by accident or by decisional miscalculation.

The solution here would not be to wish-away the common search for “escalation dominance” but to manage all prospectively nuclear crises at their lowest possible levels of destructiveness. Wherever feasible, it would be best to avoid such crises altogether and to maintain reliable “circuit breakers” against strategic hacking and technical malfunction. Nonetheless, for secure modes of nuclear war avoidance, a more reliable strategy than wishful thinking would be required.

There is more to consider. Existential conflict risks to the United States will be related to this country’s formal and informal alliance arrangements. Accordingly, US defense policy planners should bring to more explicit consideration certain recently-changing ties between Israel and selected Sunni Arab states and certain corresponding threats to Israel and the United States (explicit and implicit) from Shiite Iran.

In strategic matters, complex problems require complex remedies. Even a non-nuclear Iran could create existential hazards for Israel by expanding the frequency and intensity of surrogate terrorist operations. If such enemy creation succeeded in bringing Israel “to the brink,” Jerusalem could suddenly find itself using pre-calibrated portions of its presumed nuclear arsenal. Though this scenario reveals a last resort or residual narrative, it is by no means inconceivable.

What about Israel-US interdependencies? Israel’s nuclear security could have serious consequences for US security, and vice-versa. Israel has no current nuclear adversaries in the region, but the steady approach of a nuclear Iran could encourage sudden and rapid nuclearization among such Sunni Arab states as Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Following turnover of Afghanistan to Taliban and other Islamist forces a few years ago, non-Arab Pakistan will likely become a more direct adversary of both the United States and Israel.

Pakistan is an already-nuclear Islamic state with growing ties to China. Pakistan, like Israel, is not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or NPT. Pakistan, unlike Israel, has openly opted for a nuclear counterforce or nuclear war fighting strategy. “Everything is very simple in war,” says Carl von Clausewitz in On War, “but the simplest thing is very difficult.”

On September 1, 2021, Israel officially moved into the U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM) area of responsibility. Taking over from European Command (EUCOM), Jerusalem views its still-emerging role as simultaneously defending U.S. and Israeli national security interests. This power is being directed at Iran-backed anti-Israel insurgents, especially Hezbollah and Houthi. For Israel, this role could have existential consequences.

Regarding the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons, Israel should consider whether there would be an optimally gainful role for nuclear threats against its still non-nuclear adversary. In part, at least, the “answers” would depend upon Jerusalem’s prior transformations of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” (the “bomb in the basement”) into visible postures of “selective nuclear disclosure.” Israel has no logical alternative to launching appropriately deductive analytic investigations. In the many-front war between Israel and Iran, the core “battlefield” for the Jewish State should always be intellectual.[3]

What is the probabilistic difference between a deliberate or intentional nuclear war and one that would be unintentional or inadvertent? Though rarely discussed among informed general publics, without carefully considering this core distinction, little of operational use could ever be predicted about the likelihood of nuclear conflict.

Because there has never been an authentic nuclear war (Hiroshima and Nagasaki don't "count"),[4] determining relevant probabilities is a sorely problematic task. In logic and mathematics, true probabilities must always derive from the determinable frequency of pertinent past events. Because there have been no such events, both Israel and the United States will need to make their most delicate strategic decisions without a traditionally indispensable capacity. This is the capacity to assign clarifying odds to multiple and often intersecting threat scenarios.

In essence, capable Israeli and American analysts will have to devise cost-effective strategies for calculating (and thus best averting) a nuclear war. Whatever the particularities, vital calculations will vary, among other things, according to (1) presumed enemy intentions; (2) presumed plausibility of accident or hacking intrusion; and/or (3) presumed plausibility of decisional miscalculation. When taken together, these three component risks of unintentional nuclear war should be described as “inadvertent.”

There is need for further clarifications. Any specific instance of an accidental nuclear war would be inadvertent. However, not every case of an inadvertent nuclear war would be the result of accident.

Additional warnings are required. The problem of accidental and inadvertent nuclear war should never be approached by Israeli or American security policy-makers as a narrowly political or tactical issue. Military planners in Washington and Tel Aviv should now prepare themselves to deal with a large variety of overlapping explanatory factors. At times, these could be synergistic or “force-multiplying.”

There is still more. For the United States, the North Korean nuclear threat should be kept in plain sight. In dealing with growing nuclear war risks involving North Korea, no single concept could prove more vitally important than synergy. Unless synergistic interactions are reliably and correctly evaluated, the American president could sometime underestimate the total impact of a considered nuclear engagement. The flesh and blood consequences of any such underestimations could defy both analytic imaginations and post-war justifications.

In any strategic risk assessments regarding North Korean military nuclear intentions and Kim Jung Un's available nuclear forces, the concept of synergy would warrant analytic pride of place.[5] The only conceivable argument for an American president choosing to ignore the ascertainable effects of synergy would be that US defense policy considerations were "too complex.” When fundamental US national security issues are at stake, of course, any such dismissive argument would be unacceptable.

For both the United States and Israel, the competitive dynamics of nuclear deterrence will not simply fade away. In our relentlessly anarchic world order, the US president and Israeli prime minister should prepare to prevail in all complex struggles for “escalation dominance.” In the best of all possible worlds, there would be no need for such corrosive preparations, but we obviously do not yet live in such a world.[6]

For the foreseeable future, nuclear war avoidance will require the United States and Israel to continuously refine and sometimes coordinate their national nuclear deterrence postures. In all imaginable scenarios, the common crisis task in Washington and Jerusalem will be to achieve “escalation dominance” against pertinent adversaries without recklessly enlarging the risks of a nuclear war. For both Israel and the United States, significant adversaries would be states, sub-states or “hybrid” foes that could be rational or non-rational in nuclear decision-making processes. In the final analysis, looking less to “common sense” than to science,[7] planners in Israel and the United States will need to envision all considered strategic policy refinements as a fundamentally intellectual challenge.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books, monographs, and scholarly articles dealing with various aspects of military nuclear strategy. In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon, 2003). In recent years, he has published on nuclear warfare issues in the Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The Atlantic; Israel Defense; The New York Times; The Jerusalem Post; International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); The War Room (US Army War College); Air-Space Power Journal (USAF); Modern Diplomacy; Small Wars Journal); Modern War Institute (West Point); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare (Pentagon) and Oxford University Press. His twelfth book, published in 2016 (2nd ed., 2018) by Rowman & Littlefield, is titled: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy.’s-Nuclear-Strategy.


[1] The origins of this unstable structure lie in the Peace of Westphalia (1648).

[2] The perceived capacity to dominate escalation during potentially nuclear crises is a sine qua non for credible American and Israeli nuclear deterrence.

[3] In this connection, see, by this author, Louis René Beres,; and by the same author, Pentagon:

[4] The atomic attacks on Japan in August 1945 represented nuclear weapons use in a conventional war.

[5] See earlier, by this author, at Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School): Louis René Beres,

[6] In Candide, Voltaire satirizes the philosopher Leibniz, using him as model for the foolishly-optimistic “Dr. Pangloss.”

[7] Observes philosopher Jose Ortega y' Gasset about science (Man and Crisis, 1958): "Science, by which I mean the entire body of knowledge about things, whether corporeal or spiritual, is as much a work of imagination as it is of observation. The latter is not possible without the former." This observation is now especially relevant to the common American/Israeli struggle against jihadist foes.