Putin’s Crimes Against Peace in Ukraine: “Friction”-Based Risks of Nuclear Conflict

Abstract: Until the end of 2022, Vladimir Putin issued a series of explicit nuclear threats against the United States.[1] Such threats,  once easily dismissed as illogical and unpersuasive, have now become deeply serious. Among other things, this is because the Russian president could be considering an untested stance of pretended irrationality (launching a nuclear first strike against US military or civilian assets would almost certainly elicit an American nuclear reprisal) and because such brinkmanship could spawn an accidental or inadvertent nuclear war. In classical military terms, these potentially plausible scenarios illustrate Prussian strategist Karl von Clausewitz’s concept of “friction.” They could emerge suddenly or in variously unforeseen increments from Russia’s crimes against peace in Ukraine.

Karl von Clausewitz and Superpower Nuclear War

With nary a conscience-based interruption, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is inflicting crimes against peace[2] upon Ukraine.[3] Egregious and indefensible, these crimes carry within themselves an ineradicable memory of Nazi German aggression and genocide during World War II. Now there also exists a latent potential for similarly catastrophic forms of inter-state violence.

Prima facie, the most conceivably worrisome form of such violence would be a nuclear war.[4]

In principle, at least, such conflict could produce an even greater number of casualties and trigger assorted lingering effects that would last for decades or more.

And this sort of unprecedented conflict could impact the United States.

What are the pertinent particulars? What might reasonably be expected or predicted about any such recognizably grave risk? This is not a question that will need to be asked sotto voce, with delicacy, in whispers. As to meaningful answers, they would be discoverable by inference or by specific extrapolation from Karl von Clausewitz’s concept of “friction.”[5]

Though neither US President Joseph Biden nor Russian President Vladimir Putin likely seeks a nuclear conflict – after all, any such preference would be irrational on its face –  either leader, separately or in tandem with the other, could still precipitate such unprecedented conflict. This is the case, among other things, because each side’s search for “escalation dominance”[6] (an inevitable search during unpredictable crisis conditions) could lead to a nuclear war by accident or by inadvertence. The formidable risks of suffering such a “final epidemic”[7] by accident or inadvertence would stem from errors in information, leadership misjudgments and/or strategic miscalculations.

 There is more to consider. Applicable legal inhibitions of any such  intolerable outcomes would surface  amid the always-binding  jus in bello (“justice in war”) expectations of “military necessity.”[8] Such complex matters would include certain vital but hard-to-ascertain particulars. In virtually all potentially relevant narratives, a nuclear war could arise with apparent suddenness (i.e., as a “bolt from the blue”) or in difficult-to-recognize increments of variously grievous harms. There could be little reason to expect accurate predictions in such circumstances because all relevant developments would be more-or-less sui generis or unprecedented.

 This concerning conclusion is not drawn ex nihilo (out of nothing) or in consequence of casual analytic whimsy. Rather, it is mandated by certain axiomatic principles of logic and mathematics. In science, lest the informed reader should forget, convincing statements of probability must always be drawn from the determinable frequency of pertinent past events. When there are no such events, there can be no policy-useful judgments of probability.

There is more.

               “Friction” may mean different things in modern military calculations, some of them intersecting or overlapping. Accordingly, continuous further study will be needed. By definition, force-multiplying interactions or “synergies” would involve those intersecting issues in which the “whole” of any imaginable harms would be greater than the calculable sum of its identifiable “parts.”  If such expected complexity were not daunting enough, the many-sided problems of friction being faced by the United States in any future nuclear crisis with Russia over Ukraine would include deeply bewildering judgments of enemy rationality.[9]

Friction and Synergy     

               Regarding nuclear crisis stability in Ukraine, there is more to be known about the generic nature of military synergies and friction.[10] For one thing, these qualities need not be cumulatively negative for US national security. In some cases, the total outcome of constituent enemy threats could have the ironic effect of blunting some of the more serious component hazards. Although seemingly counter-intuitive and unreasonable, any such “softening” would likely be the result of certain self-canceling impacts of one component harm upon another.

On the “minus side” for the United States, however, some synergies could have the effect of further magnifying one or several of the constituent perils.

               There will be reciprocal issues or calculations to consider. To wit, similar expectations could pertain to those synergies facing America’s crisis-relevant foes. Here, the consequence of various synergistic interactions would either be net positive or net negative, for the impacted enemy states directly[11] and for the rival United States.

               Further questions should promptly arise. To begin, for the United States, what are the precise geopolitical hazards that would comprise any prominent synergy? Although the adversarial “whole” now facing the American nation is visibly diverse and multifaceted, there are also several significant foes and axes of expected conflict.

               To the extent that any or all of these hazards could put the United States in extremis atomicum, they would constitute a “whole” that should be scrupulously avoided.[12]

               For the purpose of ascertaining possible synergies, there would be no need for strategic thinkers to arrange selected harms or perils according to any tangibly hierarchic scale of urgency. It should also be borne in mind that the meaningful synergistic “weight” of any one peril could vary from day to day or even from hour to hour.[13]

               For US strategic planners, all  possible synergies should be treated with appropriate intellectual regard.[14] These synergies will not be easily measured or figured. Nonetheless, because a particular nation’s geopolitical or strategic calculations are never analogous to expectations of orthodox geometry, certain relevant synergies can be ignored only at America’s grave peril.

Refinements of Strategic Theory             

               In the end, protecting national security from “friction” is about enhancing theoretical understanding; it is not just about the formal compilation of facts and figures. Moreover, as a convenient metaphor for operational strategists and policy-makers, theory is best envisioned here as a “net.” Only those who “cast,” can expect to “catch.”[15]

               Because of expectedly corrosive interactive effects involving Ukraine-related threats from Russia, the US will need to continuously update and refine its established theories of nuclear deterrence.[16] Ultimately, this process will prove to be a fundamentally intellectual or reasoning task, not just another narrowly partisan or political exercise. To prevent the “final epidemic,” there must first take place a renaissance of capable American strategic thought.

                There will be multiple particulars. American leaders will have to accept that certain       identifiable leaders of prospectively overlapping enemy hazards might not always satisfy the key criteria of rational behavior in world politics.[17] In such apparently improbable but still conceivable circumstances, all promising military strategies would need to be fashioned to account for variously unpredictable adversarial actions. Included in this complicated but necessary task will be special attentiveness to any and all plausible synergies arising between America’s separate arenas of geopolitical concern.

               There is more.

               Prospectively irrational enemies could confound normal US military calculations, especially those concerning the presumed benefits of any threatened US reprisals.

                In matters of critical national security strategy, operational truth may emerge through paradox. Soon, US planners may have to acknowledge that the efficacy and credibility of their country’s nuclear deterrence posture could sometime vary inversely with actual enemy perceptions of US nuclear destructiveness. However ironic or counter-intuitive, adversarial views of a too-large or too-destructive American nuclear deterrent force and/or a US force not sufficiently invulnerable to first-strike attacks couldunderminethis country’s deterrence posture.

               To counter such views and their correspondingly-heightened prospects of negative strategic synergies, American military planners and policy makers will need to better ensure adversarial perceptions of a “flexible” US nuclear deterrent force. This flexibility would signify a force that had remained visibly secure from enemy first strike attacks and was presumptively capable of penetrating an enemy’s ballistic missile defenses. Apropos of this second requirement, the United States would likely need to revisit certain earlier assessments of a “limited nuclear war.”

               In part, at least, this obligation owes to a continuing US-Russian split concerning nuclear firebreak theory. From the start of “Cold War I,”[18] the United States defined any crossing of the nuclear threshold as prospectively apocalyptic while the USSR (accepting the possible reasonableness of a limited nuclear war)  focused instead on tangible movements from tactical to strategic nuclear weapons.[19] Today, as this original asymmetry of views seemingly still obtains, the prospects of an irremediable nuclear miscalculation by one or both sides are already ”unacceptable.”

What happens next? To reduce corresponding risks with Moscow, Washington should take immediate and explicit steps to remind the Russian president of this ongoing and destabilizing asymmetry. Vladimir Putin must fully understand that the United States could never accept Russian use of even “small” tactical nuclear weapons, and would inevitably regard any such use as the beginnings of an uncontrollable nuclear escalation.

On these matters, there can be no more urgent understanding.

 Active Defenses and Targeting Doctrine

               There remains much to be done by the United States to prevent further Russian aggression/genocide against Ukraine, but this effort should proceed without incurring unacceptable risks of a superpower nuclear war. As corollary, Washington should continue to strengthen America’s active defenses, but ought also to do everything possible to improve each critical and interpenetrating component of its comprehensive deterrence posture. In this daunting and dialectical[20] process of strategic dissuasion, the American task could also require more incrementally explicit disclosures of nuclear targeting doctrine and steadily expanding roles for cyber-defense and cyber-war.

Long before undertaking such delicately important refinements, Washington will need to more systematically differentiate between adversaries that are presumably rational,[21] irrational, or “mad.”[22] These differences are not merely linguistic. They are substantively meaningful.

               This will not be a job for publicity-seeking politicos or thinly-educated pundits. Going forward, all plausible types of synergistic outcome will depend to a considerable extent upon acknowledging and applying this tripartite distinction. Among other points of potential consideration would be certain US defensive first strikes or preemptions.[23]

               Overall, the success of American national deterrence strategies will be contingent upon an informed prior awareness of all relevant enemy preferences and of specific hierarchies of preferences. In this connection, new and more openly-intellectual attention will need to be focused upon the expansion of “Cold War II” between Russia and the United States, an emergence that is apt to shape assorted other component hazards of still-compelling synergies.

               Soon, American national leaders should learn to understand (1) the strategic limits of normal geometry, mundane calculations wherein the whole is always exactly equal to the sum of its parts; and (2) variously new “geometric” orthodoxies. These decision-makers will then need to explore and acknowledge what amounts (paradoxically) to a more-or-less fathomable geometry of chaos.

 Even this long-hidden “geometry” could reveal a usable sense of symmetry and form, including the shape of certain critically interwoven enemy threats. Where the belligerent “whole” might sometime add up to more than the sum of its constituent “parts,” US leaders could discover the potentially lethal hazards of adversarial synergies to its overall national security.

                More than any other “negative force multiplier,” this coming-together of impending threats now warrants resolute and rapt attention in Washington military-planning circles. Always, going forward, understanding dense synergies will be a key to policy progress. Any such complicated understanding will be difficult and elusive; hence, eagerly overlooked by military analysts and planners. But there exists no reasonable alternative. The subject matter is inherently complex and will not submit to anything short of correspondingly complex investigations.

 Understanding convergence will be vital. Counting on “divine intervention” to untangle complex  analytic intersections could never represent a viable plan.[24] Ultimately, in the art and science of war, the highest achievements must be sought in resolute triumphs of mind over mind.[25]  This overriding task  must always be fact-based and preeminently intellectual.[26]

               Left insufficiently managed, converging Cold War II security threats to the United States could lead us from structural anarchy (“Westphalian” international law) to genuine chaos. Whatever the context, America’s strategic challenges should remain an effort of “mind over mind.” To most suitably meet these daunting challenges, continuous attention will need to be directed toward inherently complex policy overlaps and intersections. American and allied strategists will have to distinguish between policies that are authentically gainful and those that are loss-oriented and/or contrived.[27]

From Anarchy to Chaos

                Such mindful analysis will be exceedingly difficult, but the alternatives could be intolerable. There does remain one potential source of far-reaching optimism. This is the prospect of a beneficent or peace-guided chaos. Whether described in the Old Testament or in certain other evident sources of Western philosophy, chaos can be as much a wellspring of large-scale human improvement as a source of decline.[28] It is this prospectively positive side of chaos that is intended by Friedrich Nietzsche’s telling remark  in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883):

               “I tell you, ye have still chaos in you.”

               When expressed in neutral tones, chaos is that condition which prepares the world for all things, whether sacred or profane. It represents that yawning gulf of “emptiness” where nothing is as yet, but where still-remaining civilizational opportunity can still originate. The 18th century German poet Friedrich Hölderlin observes: “There is a desert sacred and chaotic, which stands at the roots of the things, and which prepares all things.” Insightfully, in the ancient pagan world, Greek philosophers thought of this particular “desert” as logos, a primal concept which indicates that chaos is anything but starkly random or without any intrinsic merit.

               There remains one last critical point. While the United States has been compelled to incur various nuclear risks of “friction” in the Ukraine crisis,[29] Russian forces have been committing war crimes[30] and crimes against humanity[31] against civilian populations. Day by day, hour by hour, these Russians crimes have risen to the level of Nuremberg-category violations.  In already-foreseeable worst cases, Russian crimes of genocide[32] would coincide with Russian crimes of aggression. In law,[33] as in actual practice,  these categories of egregious criminality are never mutually exclusive. During World War II, aggression was  a needed precursor or sine qua non for German policies of genocide.[34]

               How shall the United States and other “civilized nations” proceed?[35] Russian crimes against Ukraine cannot reasonably or decently be minimized, whatever the attendant dangers of strategic war planning and friction. Gabriella Mistral, the Chilean poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, declared concisely: “Crimes against humanity carry within themselves a moral judgment over an evil in which every feeling man and woman concurs.” Nonetheless, tangibly supporting any such indispensable moral judgment on Russia’s Nuremberg-category crimes could bring certain powerful states in world politics into a full-blown nuclear war.

Quo Vadis?

What is to be done about this existential linkage? These are basically uncharted waters, and nothing truly scientific can yet be said about nuclear conflict probability. Though US and allied plans for such an unprecedented war could be created with exquisite precision and care, even the most meticulously-crafted war plans could succumb to Clausewitzian friction. The core task for states that would stand firm on behalf of peremptory legal obligations is not to avoid friction altogether (that would be an implausible option prima facie), but to reduce or minimize this asymmetry (i.e., “…the difference between war on paper and war as it actually is”).

In the final analysis, Karl Von Clausewitz’ concept of friction should become more openly central to US strategic decision-making on Ukraine, but Washington ought still to remain ready to take certain major security risks vis-à-vis Moscow. To best ensure that such needed risk-taking remain rational and purposeful, the US and other selected allied states should immediately refine their interrelated strategic deterrence postures along aptly clarifying lines.[36] To prevent a “final epidemic” from ever emerging over Russia’s incessantly barbarous war against Ukraine, the American and NATO task should not be to “prevent friction.” Their task, rather, must be to make certain that friction’s pertinent consequences stay tolerable and manageable, a core obligation that could bring American and Russian decision-makers back to resolving their historic differences on nuclear “firebreak” theory and limited unclear war.

What would likely be the consequences of a US-Russia “limited nuclear war”? To answer with any degree of analytic reliability, both Washington and Moscow would first need to introduce the following three investigative subdivisions: (1) exclusively counterforce attacks against enemy hard targets; (2) exclusively counter-value attacks against enemy civilian populations; and (3) combined counterforce/counter-value nuclear attacks. in order to most reliably compare these three broad scenarios, it would first be necessary to differentiate between US-Russian objectives and capabilities and for the US to prepare a comprehensive “strategic dialectic.” This is a dialectic in which Washington could anticipate Moscow’s military reactions to America’s recognizable nuclear strategies and doctrines. As part of any such US preparation, assessments would also need to account as much as possible for the anticipated behaviors of certain other major world powers, most notably China.

The US-Russia strategic dyad does not exist in a geopolitical vacuum. Any Chinese aggressions against Taiwan (perhaps resembling Russian aggressions against Ukraine) could give immediate or eventual rise to largely unpredictable instances of nuclear warfighting. It follows that even friction-based risks of a nuclear war in Ukraine could represent “only” the tip of a much larger geopolitical “iceberg.”

Foreseeable attempts at war avoidance and at minimization of crimes against peace should always be treated systemically. In world politics, as in life generally, everything reveals system. Accordingly, whatever their particular nuances, all things are interrelated. Though seemingly obvious, this core point is generally minimized or overlooked.

[1] See: https://cis.mit.edu/publications/analysis-opinion/2022/what-putin%E2%80%99s-nuclear-threats-mean-us

[2] Under contemporary international criminal law, crimes against peace are correctly identified as “aggression.” See: RESOLUTION ON THE DEFINITION OF AGGRESSION, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31) 142, U.N. Doc. A/9631, 1975, reprinted in 13 I.L.M. 710, 1974; and CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS, Art. 51. Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, Bevans 1153, 1976, Y.B.U.N. 1043.

[3] Also underway are crimes of war and crimes against humanity. Taken together, these three categories of criminality formed the indictments at the post-World War II Nuremberg Tribunal. The principles of international law recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and the judgment of the Tribunal were affirmed by the U.N. General Assembly as AFFIRMATION OF THE PRINCIPLES OF INTERNATIONAL LAW RECOGNIZED BY THE CHARTER OF THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL.  Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, Dec. 11, 1946.  U.N.G.A. Res. 95 (I), U.N. Doc. A/236 (1946), at 1144.  This AFFIRMATION OF THE PRINCIPLES OF INTERNATIONAL LAW RECOGNIZED BY THE CHARTER OF THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL (1946) was followed by General Assembly Resolution 177 (II), adopted November 21, 1947, directing the U.N. International Law Commission to “(a) Formulate the principles of international law recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and in the judgment of the Tribunal, and (b) Prepare a draft code of offenses against the peace and security of mankind….” (See U.N. Doc. A/519, p. 112).  The principles formulated are known as the PRINCIPLES OF INTERNATIONAL LAW RECOGNIZED IN THE CHARTER AND JUDGMENT OF THE NUREMBERG TRIBUNAL.  Report of the International Law Commission, 2nd session, 1950, U.N. G.A.O.R. 5th session, Supp. No. 12, A/1316, p. 11.

[4]See by this author, at DOD/Pentagon/US Air Force:  Louis René Beres https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/ASOR/Journals/Volume-1_Issue-1/Beres_Nuclear_War_Avoidance.pdf,  For representative earlier accounts by Professor Beres of nuclear war effects, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018). https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy

[5] “Friction is the difference between war on paper and war as it actually is.” (On War).

[6] See, by present author, Louis René Beres:  https://israeldefense.co.il/en/node/28931; https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/07/louis-beres-nuclear-war/; and https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/03/louis-rene-beres-worst-does-sometime-happen-nuclear-war-ukraine/

[7] This term was the title of an important early book dealing with nuclear war dangers. See: Ruth Abrams and Susan Cullen, The Final Epidemic: Physicians and Scientists on Nuclear War (1981). The well-respected contributors to this sobering anthology were associated with two prominent scientific/medical organizations of the time: Physicians for Social Responsibility and International Physicians Against Nuclear War. The present writer, Louis Rene Beres, was a non-physician member of these groups at both Princeton and Purdue.

[8] The principle of “military necessity” has been defined authoritatively by the United States: “Only that degree and kind of force, not otherwise prohibited by the law of armed conflict, required for the partial or complete submission of the enemy with a minimum expenditure of time, life, and physical resources may be applied.” See: United States, Department of the Navy, jointly with Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps; and Department of Transportation, U.S. Coast Guard, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M, Norfolk, Virginia, October 1995, p. 5-1.

[9]Expressions of decisional irrationality in Ukraine-related crises could take different and overlapping forms. These forms include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculating enemy intentions; incapacities to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of specific policy decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of  deciding individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary decision maker).

[10] See recently, by this author: Louis René Beres, “Nuclear War Avoidance: Why It Is Time to Start Worrying, Again,” Air and Space Operations Review, Spring 2022, United States Air Force, Pentagon, pp. 69-81.

[11] America’s relevant foes could also include various sub-state or terrorist organizations, a fact that would have to be reckoned with in fashioning any comprehensive US plan for optimal handling of potentially synergistic adversaries.

[12] It is at least conceivable that this overriding avoidance obligation could involve preemption. In law, such a defensive first strike could sometimes be claimed as “anticipatory self-defense.” The precise origins of anticipatory self-defense lie in customary international law, specifically in The Caroline, a case that concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this case, the serious threat of armed attack has from time to time justified militarily defensive actions. In an exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for self-defense that did not require an antecedent attack. Here, the proffered jurisprudential framework permitted a military response to threat so long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” See: Beth M. Polebaum, “National Self-defense in International Law: An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age,” 59 N.Y.U.L. Rev. 187, 190-91 (1984) (noting that the Caroline case had transformed the right of self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a legal doctrine). Still earlier, see: Hugo Grotius, Of the Causes of War, and First of Self-Defense, and Defense of Our Property, reprinted in 2 Classics of International Law, 168-75 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1925) (1625); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations, reprinted in 3 Classics of International Law, 130 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1916) (1758). Also, Samuel Pufendorf, The Two Books on the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law, 32 (Frank Gardner Moore., tr., 1927 (1682).

[13]In studies of world politics, rationality and irrationality have taken on very specific meanings. More precisely, an actor (state or sub-state) is presumed determinedly rational to the extent that its leadership always values national survival more highly than any other conceivable preference or combination of conceivable preferences. Conversely, an irrational actor might not always display such a determinable preference ordering.

[14] In the very pertinent observation of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, “It must not be forgotten that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.” See: “The New Spirit and the Poets” (1917).

[15] This metaphor is generally attributed to Novalis, the late 18th-century German poet and scholar. See, in this connection, introductory citation by Karl R. Popper to his classic The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959). Ironically, perhaps, Novalis’ fellow German poet, Goethe, had declared, in his early Faust fragment (Urfaust): “All theory, dear friend, is grey. But the golden tree of life is green.” (Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, Und grűn des Lebens goldner Baum.)

[16] See, by Professor Louis René Beres, at Small Wars Journal: https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/united-states-nuclear-strategy-deterrence-escalation-and-war

[17] In his relatively ignored book on Woodrow Wilson, Sigmund Freud observes: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind. Usually, they have wreaked havoc.”

[18] It is reasonable to conclude that we are now in “Cold War II.”

[19] Nonetheless, Henry Kissinger, in his 1957 book Nuclear Weapon and Foreign Policy, commented: “We cannot base all our plans on the assumption that war, if it comes, will inevitably be all-out. We must strive for a strategic doctrine which gives our diplomacy the greatest freedom of action and which addresses itself to the question of whether the nuclear age presents only risks or whether it does not also offer opportunities.” Summing up, said the future US Secretary of State: “Limited nuclear war represents our most effective strategy against nuclear powers…”

[20] Dialectic formally originated in the fifth century BCE, as Zeno, author of the Paradoxes, had been acknowledged by Aristotle as its inventor. In the middle dialogues of Plato, dialectic, with its conceptual root in the Greek verb meaning “to converse,” emerges as the supreme form of philosophical/analytic method. Plato describes the dialectician as one who knows best how to ask and answer questions. This particular knowledge – how to ask, and to answer questions, sequentially – should now be usefully transposed to the improved study of American national security issues.

[21] Americans are inclined to project their own dominant sense of rationality upon diverse adversaries. Acknowledging that western philosophy has always oscillated between Plato and Nietzsche, between rationalism and irrationalism, Americans have routinely cast their psychological lot with the Greek thinkers and their inheritors. Beginning with the Vietnam War, this judgment has proven gravely lethal to United States interests.

[22] “Do you know what it means to find yourselves face to face with a madman,” inquires Luigi Pirandello in Act II of Henry IV, “with one who shakes the foundations of all you have built up in yourselves, your logic, the logic of all your constructions? Madmen, lucky folk, construct without logic, or rather, with a logic that flies like a feather.”

[23] From the standpoint of international law, it is always necessary to distinguish preemptive attacks from “preventive ones.” Preemption is a military strategy of striking an enemy first in the expectation that the only alternative is to be struck first oneself.  A preemptive attack is launched by a state that believes enemy forces are about to attack.  A preventive attack, however, is launched not out of genuine concern about “imminent” hostilities, but for fear of a longer-term deterioration in a pertinent military balance.  Hence, in a preemptive attack, the length of time by which the enemy’s action is anticipated is very short, while in a preventive strike the interval is considerably longer. A problem for Israel, in this regard, is not only the practical difficulty of determining imminence, but also that delaying a defensive strike until appropriately ascertained imminence is acknowledged could be fatal.

[24] In ancient Greece, playwright Euripides sometimes concluded his plays with a deus ex machina, or “god out of the machine.” Appearing, literally, above the action, in a sort of theatrical crane, the relevant god was seemingly able to solve all sorts of dreadful complications arising from the action, and thereby to supply a more-or-less happy ending.

[25] See, on this triumph, F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), especially Chapter IV: “Cavalry, Elephants, and Siege craft.”

[26] As part of this fundamentally intellectual task, Sun-Tzu’s Art of War calls for gaining the upper hand through the “unorthodox.” In his Chapter 5, on “Strategic Military Power,” Sun-Tzu states succinctly: “In general, in battle, one engages with the orthodox and gains victory through the unorthodox.” To be sure, the ancient Chinese author’s idea of “battle” would include present-day deterrence. After all, as he says elsewhere in the Art of War, at Chapter 3, “Planning Offensives:” “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting, is the true pinnacle of excellence.”

[27] Regarding the expected consequences of an India-Pakistan nuclear war, see by Professor Louis René Beres: https://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1318&context=auilr

[28] “Is it an end that draws near,” inquires Karl Jaspers in Man in the Modern Age (1951) “or a beginning.”

[29] “Everything is very simple in war,” says Clausewitz, in his classical discussion of “friction” in On War, “but the simplest thing is difficult.” Herein, this concept refers to the unpredictable effects of errors in knowledge and information concerning strategic uncertainties; under-estimations or over-estimations of relative power position; and on the unalterably vast and largely irremediable differences between theories of deterrence, and enemy intent “as it actually is.” See: Carl von Clausewitz, “Uber das Leben und den Charakter von Scharnhorst,” Historisch-politische Zeitschrift, 1 (1832); cited in Barry D. Watts, Clausewitzian Friction and Future War, McNair Paper No. 52, October, 1996, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University Washington, D.C. p. 9.

[30] The law of war, the rules of jus in bello, comprise: (1) laws on weapons; (2) laws on warfare; and (3) humanitarian rules. Codified primarily at The Hague and Geneva Conventions, these rules attempt to bring discrimination, proportionality and military necessity into all belligerent calculations. Evidence for the rule of proportionality can also be found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) at Art. 4. Similarly, the American Convention on Human Rights allows at Art. 27(1) such derogations “in time of war, public danger or other emergency which threaten the independence or security of a party” on “condition of proportionality.” In essence, the military principle of proportionality requires that the amount of destruction permitted must be proportionate to the importance of the objective. In contrast, the political principle of proportionality states “a war cannot be just unless the evil that can reasonably be expected to ensure from the war is less than the evil that can reasonably be expected to ensue if the war is not fought.” See Douglas P. Lackey, THE ETHICS OF WAR AND PEACE, 40 (1989). modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.” See: Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Done at Vienna, May 23, 1969. Entered into force, Jan. 27, 1980. U.N. Doc. A/CONF. 39/27 at 289 (1969), 1155 U.N.T.S. 331, reprinted in 8 I.L.M.  679 (1969).

[31] Under authoritative international law, crimes against humanity are defined as “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population before or during a war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated….”  See Charter of the International Military Tribunal, Aug. 8, 1945, Art. 6(c), 59 Stat.  1544, 1547, 82 U.N.T.S.  279, 288

[32]See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, opened for signature, December 9, 1948, entered into force, January 12, 1951, 78 U.N.T.S. 277. Although the criminalizing aspect of inter­national law that proscribes genocide‑like conduct may derive from a source other than the Gen­ocide Convention (i.e. it may emerge from customary international law and be included in different international conventions), such conduct is dearly a crime under international law. Even where the conduct in question does not affect the interests of more than one state, it becomes an inter­national crime whenever it constitutes an offense against the world community delicto ius gentium. See M.C. Bassiouni, “The Penal Characteristics of Conventional International Criminal Law,” 15 Case W. Res. J. Int’l 27‑37 (1983).

[33] Not to be forgotten is that international law is a part of US domestic law. In the precise words used by the U.S. Supreme Court in The Paquete Habana, “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction, as often as questions of right depending upon it are duly presented for their determination.  For this purpose, where there is no treaty, and no controlling executive or legislative act or judicial decision, resort must be had to the customs and usages of civilized nations.”  See The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 678-79 (1900).  See also:  The Lola, 175 U.S. 677 (1900); Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (per curiam) (Edwards, J. concurring) (dismissing the action, but making several references to domestic jurisdiction over extraterritorial offenses), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1003 (1985) (“concept of extraordinary judicial jurisdiction over acts in violation of significant international standards…embodied in the principle of `universal violations of international law.’”).

[34] Here it is also important to note that responsibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin for such crimes is not limited by his official position or by any requirement of direct personal actions.  On the principle of command responsibility, or respondeat superior, see: In re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1 (1945); The High Command Case (The Trial of Wilhelm von Leeb) 12 LAW REPORTS OF TRIALS OF WAR CRIMINALS 1, 71 (United Nations War Crimes Commission Comp. 1949); see: Parks, COMMAND RESPONSIBILITY FOR WAR CRIMES, 62 MIL.L.REV. 1 (1973); O’Brien, THE LAW OF WAR, COMMAND RESPONSIBILITY AND VIETNAM, 60 GEO.L.J. 605 (1972); U.S. DEPT OF THE ARMY, ARMY SUBJECT SCHEDULE No. 27 – 1 (Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Hague Convention No. IV of 1907) 10 (1970).  The direct individual responsibility of leaders for genocide and genocide-like crimes is unambiguous in view of the London Agreement, which denies defendants the protection of the Act of State defense.  See AGREEMENT FOR THE PROSECUTION AND PUNISHMENT OF THE MAJOR WAR CRIMINALS OF THE EUROPEAN AXIS, Aug. 8, 1945, 59 Strat.  1544, E.A.S.  No. 472, 82 U.N.T.S.  279, Art. 7.  Under traditional international law, violations were the responsibility of the state, as a corporate actor, and not of individual human decision-makers in government or the military.

[35] This term is found, inter alia, at art. 38 of the UN Statute of the International Court of Justice. See: https://www.icj-cij.org/en/statute

[36] Such refinements would need to distinguish elements of strategy from elements of doctrine. Military doctrine is not the same as military strategy. Rather, doctrine “sets the stage” or foundation for strategy. It identifies various central beliefs that must subsequently animate any actual “order of battle.” Among other things, military doctrine describes underlying general principles on how a particular war ought to be waged. The reciprocal task for military strategy is to adapt as required in order to best support previously-fashioned military doctrine.

Prof. Louis René Beres – moderndiplomacy

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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