US Nuclear Strategy: Theories, Metaphors, and Scenarios

In world politics, everything is interconnected. The United States' nuclear strategy will have increasingly serious implications not only for US national security, but also for assorted allies, most notably Israel. Opinion

The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Maryland (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber)

Going forward, a core question arises: What particular explanatory frameworks can best guide the Trump administration in its vital nuclear dealings with North Korea and Iran? In partial response, US strategists should operate according to the basic assumption of enemy rationality. These planners must also prepare for scenarios that would involve non-rational judgments or even outright enemy madness.

Rationality, Irrationality and Madness

Details are needed. In strategic studies, decisional irrationality does not mean the same as madness. Residual warnings about madness, however, could still merit serious policy consideration. This is because "ordinary" irrationality and full-scale madness could both have comparable and consequential effects upon a country's national security decision-making.

Any country.

Words matter. In normal strategic parlance, "irrationality" identifies a decisional orientation or modality wherein national self-preservation is not the highest preference. Significantly, a prospectively irrational decision-maker in Pyongyang or Tehran need not be "mad" in order to become a problem for designated leaders in Washington. Such an adversary needs only to be more expressly concerned about certain other preferences or values than collective self-preservation.

While this sort of preference ordering may sound implausible in Washington, it ought to sound much more comprehensible or to-be-expected in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In Israel, after all, such ranked priorities are recognized and dealt with daily among assorted Jihadist foes, Sunni and Shia.

To determine whether a particular adversary should be deemed irrational or "mad," US military planners would first have to input a generally similar decisional calculation. Here, the underlying premise must be that a pertinent adversary might not be suitably deterred from launching a military attack by any American threats of retaliatory destruction, even where such threats would be fully credible and expectedly massive. Such a prospective failure of US military deterrence could include both conventional and nuclear retaliatory threats.

In fashioning America's nuclear strategy vis-à-vis both nuclear and not-yet-nuclear adversaries, US military planners must include a mechanism to determine whether a conspicuous adversary (e.g., North Korea or Iran) will more likely be rational or irrational. In operational terms, this means ascertaining whether the relevant foe will value its collective survival (either as a state or as an organized terror group) more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. This early judgment must always be based upon defensibly sound analytic principles; they should never be affected merely by what the analysts might themselves "want to believe."

Pretended Irrationality, Escalation Dominance and Dialectical Thinking

A corollary US obligation, depending in large part upon this prior judgment concerning enemy rationality, will expect strategic planners to assess whether a posture of "pretended irrationality" could sometime enhance America's nuclear deterrence posture.  On several occasions, it should be recalled, President Donald Trump openly praised at least the underlying premises of such an idiosyncratic posture.

US enemies include state and sub-state foes, singly and also in various forms of collaboration. Such forms could be "hybridized" in different ways between state and sub-state adversaries. In dealing with Washington, each recognizable class of enemies could itself sometime choose to feign irrationality. In principle, this could represent a potentially clever strategy to "get a jump" on the United States in any expected or already-ongoing competition for "escalation dominance."

Any such calculated pretense could fail, perhaps even calamitously.

On occasion, these same enemies could "decide," either consciously or unwittingly, to be irrational.  In such bewildering circumstances, it could become incumbent upon American strategic planners to capably assess which particular form of irrationality – pretended or authentic – is actually underway. These planners would then need to respond with a dialectically orchestrated and optimally counterpoised set of useful reactions.

The term "dialectically" (drawn originally from ancient Greek thought, especially Plato's dialogues) is used here with very precisely stipulated meanings. This is to signify a continuous or ongoing question-and-answer format of inherently compl