Louis René Beres
While President Trump intends to bolster US power through enhanced weapons systems and a rededication to belligerent nationalist foreign policies, authentic national security will require new emphases on intellect, or “mind.” This means focusing on new ways of thinking about world politics, especially much-needed escape plans from lethal cycles of competitive geopolitics. Washington must slow its still-growing inclination toward renewed arms racing and to other kinds of military escalation and shift its policy emphases to the greater utilities of intellect.
The core problems of American national security are not about weapons or tactics. Those complex problems can never be resolved simply by ramping up lethal ordnance and verbal bellicosity. Rather, such existential concerns can be mitigated only by disciplined applications of “mind.”
This basic lesson was taught by the ancient Greeks and Macedonians. As we know from the work of distinguished historians, especially Frank E. Adcock’s The Greek and Macedonian Art of War (1962), these early strategists described their own wars as contests of “mind over mind.” As best as we can determine, there was never any expressly favored notion of war solely as a narrowly operational struggle of “mind over matter.”
Not only were these military analyses substantially correct in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, but the intellectual truth of their core premises remains valid today.
What is the dominant lesson for the US and its allies? In essence, President Trump and his advisors should stop asking themselves, “How can we most expeditiously kill more of the enemy?” (Vietnam deja vu), but instead, “What are our current and future wars actually about?” Only by first asking the right questions can we protect ourselves from premature declarations of US “victory” (to wit: “ISIS has been defeated”) and productively engage our often intersecting enemies on a conceptual level.
Before any real American victories can be achieved, the US will need to pay less attention to incessantly modernizing technologies and more to shaping imaginative and challenging ideas. More precisely, the US will need to ask: “What determinants and correlates of war are recurrent, enduring, and consequential?” Or: “How shall US forces best apply tangible considerations of ‘mind’ in current and impending conflicts?”
These questions are difficult, and meaningful answers lie in shadowy corners of human psychology. Accordingly, until its leaders begin to acknowledge rudimentary aspects of adversarial thinking, the US will remain imperiled as a nation. Under such opaque conditions, America can never hope to win by developing bigger and bigger bombs, including hypersonic missiles and the already multiplying infrastructures of purported space warfare.
At its most basic level, what we still experience in theaters of military engagement is the malignant tribalism of belligerent nationalism and its derivative chaos. As expressed by the 19th century German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel, we are witnessing once again that “the State is the march of God in the world.” Ominously, this observation now applies to certain sub-state (especially jihadist) terrorist groups and to various state-sub-state hybrids.
Faced with the dizzying unreason of already-sovereign and sovereignty-seeking “tribes” – states and sub-state proxies that promise inclusion and immortality in exchange for “martyrdom” – the US and its allies stand little chance of achieving protracted security. What, then, should be done by President Trump to help the US escape from its limiting “balance-of-power” mindset, a geopolitical stance that still foolishly identifies American military success with enemy body counts? Especially after Vietnam, US national security should never be expected to stem from any counting of enemy corpses.
An unprecedented fusion needs to be examined and taken into account: the joining together of atomic capability with enemy leadership irrationality. At present, the possibility of such a fearful combination is most worrisome in North Korea, Iran, and perhaps even a potentially post-coup Pakistan. These US worries are strongly shared in Jerusalem.
In Pyongyang, the risks do not include a regime inspired by deeply religious expectations of power over death (that is, by promises of personal immortality). Regarding adversary Kim Jung-un, President Trump must bear in mind that North Korea is different from Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. While Trump’s realistically worst-case scenario in the three Middle Eastern cases would be “only” a refractory lack of progress, US failure in the case of North Korea could entail a full-blown nuclear exchange. (It is worth noting in this context that the world has found it easy to forget that Syria might now be as close to nuclear capability as North Korea had it not been for Israel’s Operation Orchard on September 6, 2007. That preemption did for eliminating a prospective nuclear Assad challenge what Israel’s Operation Opera accomplished against Saddam Hussein’s nuclearizing Iraq at Osiraq in 1981.)
Although it is scientifically meaningless to assign probabilities to unique events (mathematical probabilities must always be based upon the determinable frequency of past events), such an exchange cannot be dismissed out of hand. This is because Washington and Pyongyang could find themselves in the midst of competitive risk-taking for “escalation dominance,” a potentially lethal dynamic that could spin quickly and irreversibly out of control.
The US cannot hope to “fix” conflicts without understanding the human orientations of its adversaries. In world politics, passion often trumps reason. There is potentially more to be learned from Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Jung, and Freud than from contemporary political leaders or current architects of military science.
America’s key task is not a narrowly operational problem reserved for generals (warriors who have never experienced nuclear conflict), but rather a broadly conceptual one for the attention of the nation’s most capable scientists and thinkers.
Trump and his advisors are going to have to learn to look more seriously behind the news. The grinding chaos of our various war zones should be seen as a symptom of pathology rather than as a disease unto itself. Still more explanatory than any immediately recognizable issues of war, insurgency, and physical survival are ultimately the consequences of individual human death, fear, and dreaded “tribal” exclusion.
In the end, it must be understood that global violence and disorder are largely secondary phenomena – symptoms that are rooted in the disorders of individuals. Further, such a primal malady of pain and anarchy reflects the incapacity of our enemies to discover meaning and purpose within themselves; that is, outside the deceptive comforts proffered by some sort of presumptive tribal “victory.”
No system of belligerent nationalism or balance-of-power can substitute for a determined US presidential commitment to “mind.” President Trump must acknowledge that there exists a latent inner meaning to global order and US national security. Uncovering this inner meaning will require a systematic and ever-increasing willingness to examine the critical preference hierarchies of America’s principal enemies.
It does not require a nationally self-defeating posture of “America First.”
“Just wars,” argued legal philosopher Hugo Grotius in the seventeenth century, must have a correct place in the world. They must, however, be fought to protect the innocent – never to slaughter anonymous “others” in some vain calculation of national military advantage.
Although unrecognized in the Trump White House and in Jerusalem, there is no greater power in world affairs than a presumed power over death. Large-scale violence in world politics has always been driven by tribal conflicts, both between and within nations. In one form or another, the destabilizing “danse macabre” always extends a reassuringly “sacred” promise to reward the “faithful” with measureless freedom from earthbound mortality.
Could there possibly be any greater or more persuasive promise?
The lethal and irresistible exchange of violence for sacredness is not unique to the present moment. It was evident in the seemingly interminable wars of ancient Greece and Rome, during the Crusades, and during the genocidal Third Reich. Today it can be detected not only among America’s and Israel’s various Islamist enemies,but even in religion-free North Korea, where many thousands of troops enthusiastically pledge their lives to protect the “Great Leader.”
Seeing requires distance. Up close and personal with statistics, charts, and calculations, Trump and his advisors still misunderstand the most decisively animating rhythms of enemy war-planning. America’s most relentless foes will never be deterred by neatly “rational” proposals for peace or by the annihilatory threat posed by doomsday weapons.
In the final analysis, only when the American president appreciates that each source of regional or global instability must be countered intellectually, that is, by apt considerations of “mind,” will the US be ready to articulate a sensible national security doctrine. Until that happens, the negative consequences will affect other states, especially US ally Israel.
Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue and the author of 12 books and several hundred articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. The second edition of his Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield) was published in 2018.