Seeking American Victories via Escalation Dominance

Victory is no longer a reliable standard of war outcome. For the United States, and for Israel as well, the objective must now be "escalation dominance" without incurring imprudent risks. Opinion

Seeking American Victories via Escalation Dominance

US forces in Syria (Photo: AP)

At the beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump proudly exclaimed that America would start "winning" its wars again. Although this stirringly nationalistic announcement had a pleasing resonance among the faithful – after all, winning is better than losing – it simultaneously overlooked the corollary obligations of serious strategizing. More specifically, the new American president ignored that (1) the achievement of tangible military victories always requires certain incremental and prior successes in crisis escalations; and (2) the achievement of success via "escalation dominance" is always transient, and potentially very perilous.

All things considered, President Trump ought not to have affirmed that America shall once again strive to "win," but rather that any forthcoming search for success would be tempered by prudent concern for escalatory caution. Of course, determining what, exactly, might be the calculable "sweet spot" in optimizing these two interconnected goals must always depend, inter alia, upon the particular crisis in question, and also on the readily available analytic bases for rendering precise comparisons. By definition, without being able to compare all plausible outcomes to any pertinent crisis, US leaders would become unable to choose or decide rationally between all possible alternatives.

Had President Trump displayed any discernible benefits of historical insight or understanding, he might already have observed that because nation-states no longer typically declare wars, or even enter formally into legally binding war-terminating agreements, applying the traditional criteria of "war winning" can no longer make any conceivable sense.

There is more. In the "old days," extending well into the twentieth-century, states generally had to defeat enemy armies before being able to wreak any wished-for destruction upon that enemy's own cities and infrastructures. In other words, in the earlier days of more traditional arrangements concerning war and peace, any individual country's demonstrated capacity to win was necessarily prior to its desired capacity to destroy. Today, however, a state adversary of the United States needn't necessarily be able to first defeat our armies in order to harm us as a nation. Reciprocally, America now needn't first be able to win a war with enemy states in order to satisfactorily threaten those foes (i.e., to exert successful deterrence), or to inflict upon them very considerable and actual harms.

For America's new president, the core lesson of these far-reaching transformations (which have thus far plainly eluded him) is two-fold and unassailable.

First, jurisprudentially, winning and losing no longer mean very much. This consequential devaluation should be especially obvious with regard to ongoing wars on terror. Prima facie, after all, the US can never really "win" any war with Al-Qaeda, ISIS, or Hezbollah, etc., primarily because one can never know for certain whether such a zero-sum conflict with virulent sub-state or assorted "hybrid" adversaries is ever certifiably "over."

Significantly, this particular insight pertains as well to America's similarly-oriented allies, especially the State of Israel.

Second, operationally, winning and losing are now either altogether extraneous to core collective interests, or, in those foreseeably unfortunate cases where "victory" is mistakenly expressed as a national objective, starkly injurious. In principle, at least, the naively misconceived Trump orientation to "winning" could quickly lead America toward palpable and potentially irreversible "losses." Going forward, therefore, the lesson is that US military posture should never be shaped according to the distracting expectations of clichés or empty witticisms, but rather upon the most carefully disciplined theses and antitheses of dialectical thought.

Once again, this particular "lesson" is immediately relevant to assorted US allies, most notably Israel.

Long ago, Sun-Tzu had reasoned famously: "Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence." To meet current US (and Israeli) national security objectives, this ancient Chinese military wisdom suggests, among other things, that Washington's orientation should strongly emphasize deterrence, and not victory. At the same time, any such informed emphasis should still be self-consciously connected to the exceedingly complex requirements of controlling military escalations, both expected and unexpected.

"Escalation dominance" is not any less relevant today than in earlier human history; it is still critical, but in a markedly different way. Specifically, it is now fundamentally central to ensuring stable deterrence against a broad variety of enemies, both state and sub-state, and also in myriad circumstances that could plausibly range from entirely conventional ordnance (non-nuclear), to others that are more-or-less increasingly nuclear. Concretely, the likely best example going forward is a forthcoming cycle of threat and counter-threat unwinding between North Korea and the United States.

Should any such spiral of competitive risk-taking ever involve nuclear weapons, the "spillover" effects could quickly extend to certain other states that also count upon durable nuclear deterrence, especially Israel.

During any spiral of deterrence and counter-deterrence, President Trump's most basic obligation should never be to allegedly "win" against Pyongyang, but to consistently dominate escalatory processes without putting America's most elementary security into unacceptably grave danger. Accordingly, should he still seek "victory" as a reasonable goal, Mr. Trump would likely cast all true caution to the winds, and thereby invite prospectively unprecedented levels of American homeland destruction.

In the final analysis, managing such a genuinely demanding task as purposeful escalation dominance without catastrophe is fundamentally an intellectual obligation. Under no circumstances should this task ever be undertaken with a primary view to pleasing untutored public sentiments. In the end, escalation dominance must always remain an essential security objective of President Donald Trump, but never with the effectively meaningless security goal of "winning."

Following Proverbs, Israel, too, should base its own ongoing war preparations upon such unassailably "wise counsel."


Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.

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