Israel’s Strategic Context: Anarchy and Chaos in the “State of Nature”

A key element to Israel’s upcoming strategic decision-making will be context. This article explains the core differences between anarchy and chaos, and the obligation to observe these vital differences with caution and wisdom. Opinion

Hezbollah supporters at a rally in Beirut to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution (Photo: AP)

"There aren't any grownups. We shall have to look after ourselves." (William Golding, Lord of the Flies)

Scholars and policy-makers who examine Israel's constantly changing strategic options may devote too little attention to context. Here, rather than consider anarchy and chaos as important factors in their own right (anarchy, as we will see, is not the same as chaos), these analysts generally look toward more "classical" considerations. This means a purposeful focus on armaments, alignments, power balances and more-or-less precise "orders of battle."

Such a traditional military orientation is essentially correct and perhaps even indispensable. Nonetheless, it can only make long-term operational sense when it is understood within the background of "Westphalian" international relations. Unsurprisingly, this enduring system of decentralized global authority has its historic origins in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, the codifying settlement that ended the Thirty Years' War.

This war was the last of the European religious conflicts sparked by the Reformation.

But everything changes. The strategic world is endlessly in flux. The specific kinds of anarchy facing Israel in the years ahead will be stunningly different from what first emerged back in the seventeenth century. Among other things, anarchic forms could become more unabashedly primal. One might think productively here of that "state of nature" envisioned by English novelist William Golding in The Lord of the Flies.

By definition, in any such conspicuously unmanageable state of human affairs, anarchy would take on potentially catastrophic forms.

At that markedly portentous stage, "mere" anarchy could seem benign, even a positive or nostalgic reminder of better days past.

At that point, anarchy will have been supplanted by chaos.

There is occasion here for greater precision. Israeli strategic thinkers already understand that the most refractory threats still lying ahead may originate less with usual adversarial armies than with criss-crossing sub-state militias. To suitably identify optimal strategies for dealing with such surrogate foes, Israeli strategists will first have to look much more closely at context.

Immediately, they will need to delineate the transforming and cumulatively disintegrating structures of regional authority across the Middle East.

For example, going forward, the expected threat from Iran-backed Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon will be different from what it had been in earlier conflicts; and not only because of palpably vast increases in enemy arms and firepower. Moreover, certain newly imaginative considerations of context will have to be augmented by various up-to-date considerations of evolving superpower relations. Plainly, we are already in the midst of "Cold War II," a largely adversarial posture between Russia and the United States that is both similar and dissimilar to the original Cold War.

This hard-to-predict posture will have significant and largely unforeseen effects upon Israel's national security, including its still-ambiguous nuclear strategy. In a region prone to periodic and potentially primal conflict, the particular role of nuclear weapons will need to be more closely considered. This overriding obligation pertains not only to the nuclear capacities and intentions of Israel and pertinent foes as discrete objects of study, but also to their various and probable intersections.

Conceivably, such assorted intersections could sometimes become authentically "synergistic." In these bewildering circumstances, the "whole" of any threatening enemy developments would exceed the calculable sum of their relevant "parts." Accordingly, in their unprecedented task, Israeli strategists would then need to ensure that (1) there is no further spread of nuclear weapons among Israel's enemies, whether Arab or Iranian, and that (2) attempting to counter any one designable enemy will not assist any other.

Sometimes, Israeli strategists must more fully acknowledge, context can be broadly intellectual rather than narrowly geopolitical or geographic. Expressed in terms of seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes' fearful argument about the "state of nature" in Leviathan, Israel must always do whatever it can to avoid allowing any "dreadful equality" in lethal capacity.  In the Middle East, that most remorselessly primal regional setting, Israel could learn prophetically from Thomas Hobbes, "...the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest." No matter how "powerful" Israel may appear vis-à-vis its pertinent adversaries, even a "less-powerful" Hezbollah could potentially "kill" Israel.

In all likelihood, this lethal capacity would obtain not because of any direct military victory, but rather in regard to some subsequent assault by a newly-nuclear Iran.

Also worth noting, in this connection, is that any presumed failure of the July 14, 2015 Vienna Pact (JCPOA) in controlling Iranian nuclearization could lead Egypt and/or Saudi Arabia to hasten its/their own nuclearization efforts. In time, even if true motives would have more to do with doctrinal Shi’ite-Sunni or Persian/Arab animosities than with the Jewish State per se, their own new nuclear weapons capabilities could present an enlarging existential threat to Israel. Even though Cairo and Riyadh now seem willing to make certain backchannel accommodations with Jerusalem regarding common Jihadist enemies, this does not mean that they have thereby become genuine friends of Israel.

Looking even further ahead, assorted terror groups could gain incremental access to usable forms of profoundly dangerous weapons, including assorted biological ordnance. Any residual civilizational capacity to deal with global chaos would obligate Israel to combat Islamist enemies who are armed with the most modern implements of mass destruction/annihilation. Sometimes these enemies will be Sunni; at other times, they will be Shi’ite. On one occasion or another, by seeking to weaken one set of adversaries, Israel could unintentionally strengthen another set.

Strategy is a "game" that Israel must both play and win, always – and without any significant declensions. Behind the manifold complexities of this ongoing context is the obligation, inter alia, to see things through the eyes of each pertinent adversary. In essence, this is a generic psychological or psychiatric obligation, not one in any way specific to military calculation. As such, it has been succinctly summarized by existentialist thinker Rollo May in The Discovery of Being (1983): "The problem is how we are to understand the other person's world."

Sooner or later, a visibly stark juxtaposition of pre-modern ideologies with futuristic weapon systems could present a unique challenge to Jerusalem for dealing with an emergent chaos. This unimaginably complex challenge could be exacerbated by (a) persistently dense considerations of enemy rationality; (b) steadily expanding uncertainties of decisional miscalculation or escalation; and (c) stubbornly corollary issues of Palestinian statehood. These already-overlapping factors could become still more daunting whenever the dynamic relationships between them were not "merely" intersecting, but also synergistic.

For Israel, the problems of context must similarly obtain among sub-state and technologically non-advanced adversaries. Regarding even the most uncontroversial narratives of counter-terrorist strategy, Israel's industrially backward enemies could still display a more-or-less ready recourse to capabilities for cyber-defense and cyber-warfare. For Israel, a country smaller than America's Lake Michigan, the implications here would be of a substantially high-order. Under plausible circumstances, despite adversarial "backwardness," they could sometime become existential.

Struggling amid chaos, it should be expected that Israel will ultimately fail to find tangible succor in international law. Assorted agreement expectations notwithstanding, including the flawed JCPOA pact with Iran (a problematic agreement made worse rather than better by the American president's unilateral US withdrawal), certain of Israel's Islamic enemies will likely seek to "go nuclear." Should this actually happen, there would then take place both anticipated and unanticipated interactions between relevant threats.

For Israel, the expected perils of any primal chaos are both particular and unique. The calculable probability of Middle East chaos could conceivably be enlarged by instances of enemy irrationality. If, for example, Israel should have to face a Jihadist adversary that would value certain presumed religious expectations more highly than its own physical survival (e.g., the Islamic expectations of a Shahid, or "martyr"), Israel's deterrent could be diminished or immobilized.

The presumptively worst case scenario would involve an irrational nuclear Iran; that is, a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been especially concerned about this "unthinkable" kind of chaos. Once it had been determined in Jerusalem that Iran's supreme leaders were meaningfully susceptible to certain non-rational judgments vis-à-vis Israel, the Jewish State's rational incentive to strike first defensively could become overwhelming, even irresistible.

Israel could discard the preemption option – which would likely be described in expressly legal terms as "anticipatory self-defense" – but it would then still need to identify other usable and multi-vector strategies of deterrence. Any such identification would then 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 critical 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 hypersonic missile attacks, cyber-defense and cyber-war.

Such alternative Israeli strategies should be carefully worked out in advance of identifying any specific or particular crisis. In all such calculations, chaos itself would need to be included as a potentially salient explanatory factor or variable. Chaos would still maintain its analytic pride of place, however distasteful to Israel's strategists and policy-makers.

At that point, there could remain no reasonable expectations of safety in arms, no rescues from any higher political authority and no comforting reassurances from science. As with any true forms of chaos, new wars would 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 would quickly become little more than iconic cultural artifacts of a once still-functioning world legal order.

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

It is a point, therefore, that should be avoided at all costs.

Although counterintuitive, chaos and anarchy actually represent opposite end points of the same global or regional continuum. However ironic, mere anarchy, or the absence of central world authority, is essentially "normal." Chaos, on the other hand, is sui generis. It is 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, therefore, 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 quickly 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 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 credible premonitions of collapse. Such considerations will be distasteful, of course, and are most likely not yet fully underway. Still, even without charting any precise Spenglerian theory of decline, Israeli strategists ought not to avoid altogether this indispensable obligation.

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

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 even renounced. Israel's occasionally 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 ominously synergistic policy errors will have a cumulatively weakening effect upon Israel.

Whether the principal outcome here will be one that "merely" impairs the Jewish State's core commitment to endure, or that also opens it up to a devastating missile attack and/or major acts of terror, is still unclear. In any event, whatever the actual extent of regional disorder, deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post, must remain Israel's overriding goal. If, for any reason, especially amid an expanding primal chaos, Jerusalem would lose sight of this objective, Israel should be reminded of the perpetually apt description of Nature from philosopher Thomas Hobbes' Chapter XIII of Leviathan: "...every man is enemy to every man... no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society... continual fear and danger of violent death... "

As the "normal" context for national strategy in world politics, anarchy has always been dangerously unstable.

Chaos, however, would be incalculably worse.

In this more fearful "State of Nature," it would be "everyone for himself."

In this real-world Lord of the Flies context, there wouldn't be "any grownups."


Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to IsraelDefense, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue University. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with national security studies and Israel's nuclear strategy.

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