The nuclear crisis over North Korea has major strategic implications for the wider world, particularly Israel. Acknowledging this critical global inter-relatedness, Jerusalem will soon have to prepare for certain plausible security outcomes of the current crisis, including an accelerated end to “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.” Opinion
“The terrible ‘ifs’ accumulate.” (Winston Churchill)
A tense war of words between North Korea and the United States continues to overheat. Although Washington’s core security interests would best be served by observing policies of diminishing bellicosity, US President Donald Trump continues to play naively into the shrewdly calculating hands of Kim Jung-un. Ultimately, the principal danger of such an obvious American misapplication of strategy is less the creation of more conspicuous symmetry between the United States and North Korea, than the elevating risk of an outright nuclear war.
Words matter. By themselves, however, they do not correlate with any actual power. Should a nuclear conflict arise from the growing verbal momentum of Trump-Kim competition for “escalation dominance,” the grievous consequences could be felt not only in Northeast Asia and North America, but also (though less directly or immediately) in the Middle East. It follows that what is now festering between Washington and Pyongyang could sometime “spillover” in various decisive ways to Jerusalem.
Accordingly, several relevant scenarios should come quickly to mind.
The whole world is interrelated. Like the separate states that comprise it, this complex geopolitical network is a system. Now, as a beleaguered state possessing a presumptive but still determinedly “opaque” nuclear “equalizer,” Jerusalem ought to remain keenly aware that any use of nuclear weapons by the United States or North Korea would prima facie erase any previously-existing global nuclear taboo. By definition, any such erasure could meaningfully increase the odds of certain subsequent and more-or-less similar firings within Israel’s own volatile “neighborhood.”
There is more. Although seldom mentioned, North Korea already has a verifiably direct and specific nuclear assistance history with both Syria and Iran (the Syrian nuclear threat was eliminated by Israel’s preemptive Operation Orchard back on September 6, 2007). On several discrete but intersecting levels, therefore, Jerusalem’s concern over any prospective escalations by Pyongyang would make sense. Indeed, it would be altogether reasonable, commendable and prudent.
On one such level, at least over time, Iran – with or without any further nuclear assistance from North Korea – could be encouraged to render itself increasingly immune to any Israeli hard-target preemptions, and also to Israeli expressions of cyber-deterrence/cyber-war. The calculable extent of any such encouragement could depend, in part, on Pyongyang’s prior success or failure in navigating competitive risk-taking objectives vis-à-vis Washington.
In Jerusalem, Israel’s core nuclear strategy remains “deliberately ambiguous.” Doctrinally, this unmodified “bomb-in-the-basement” posture has endured more-or-less intact since the 1960s, primarily because the Jewish State has not yet had to worry about confronting any enemy state’s already-extant nuclear forces. This once-defensible persistence would need to change, of course, if Iran were sometime perceived by Israel to have become more tangibly “nearly-nuclear.”
Israel’s strategic posture would need to change even more urgently and abruptly if Jerusalem should sometime have to face a “newly-nuclear” Islamic enemy in Tehran.
For Israel, however, it’s not just about Iran or the Middle East neighborhood. For sound and logical reasons, Jerusalem could also need to shift to a more credible and persuasive posture of nuclear disclosure once an actual nuclear attack had taken place almost anywhere else on earth. Although perhaps not readily apparent, there would need to be no determinable connections between any such attack and Israel for Jerusalem to acknowledge certain new and indispensable national survival obligations.
More precisely, any belligerent use of nuclear weapons by North Korea and/or the United States would create substantial instabilities elsewhere. Such use, in an especially obvious example, could plausibly lower Pakistani cost-benefit calculations of nuclear war fighting in specific regard to India. While not purposely directed toward Israel, any such evidently destabilizing developments involving an already-nuclear and coup-vulnerable Islamic country would justifiably raise red flags in Jerusalem.
For Israel, the following basic question now needs to be raised and borne in mind: What strategic moves and counter-moves should be considered by Jerusalem once (a) the United States had fired its nuclear weapons toward North Korea; (b) North Korea had fired its nuclear weapons against Guam; (c) North Korea had fired toward another regional state such as Japan or South Korea; or (d) North Korea had fired against some vulnerable configuration of allied states (e.g., South Korea, Japan) and/or the United States)? The exact manner and extent to which Israel could be impacted in any such diverse taboo-fracturing circumstances would largely depend on then-prevailing geopolitical alignments and cleavages, both regional and worldwide.
For Israel, this expected impact would lie in the particular way that US President Donald Trump had eventually handled the American nuclear crisis with North Korea. In this connection, all pertinent “players” in Washington and Jerusalem ought to be reminded that there are no suitably scientific ways of ascertaining risk in such wholly unprecedented narratives. The reason for this projected absence is simple and incontestable. It is that in any authentically scientific calculation, probabilities must be based upon the discoverable frequency of pertinent past events. Leaving aside the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which may not represent an apt analogue here, there are literally no pertinent past events.
Inevitably, the potential spillover effect on Israel of any actual nuclear weapons use by North Korea and/or the United States would depend upon (e) the particular combatants involved; (f) the expected rationality or irrationality of these same combatants; (g) the yield and range of the various nuclear weapons fired; and of course, (h) the aggregate calculation of prompt civilian and military harms suffered in all the affected areas. If, for example, North Korea had fired any of its nuclear weapons against specifically American targets, military and/or civilian, Israel could reasonably anticipate an overwhelmingly destructive US response to Pyongyang. Exactly how overwhelming and protracted this American response would be could depend a great deal on the inherently uncertain and rabidly idiosyncratic “Trump Factor.”
For Jerusalem, there could be further decisional complications. Israeli planners would have to account capably not only for singular nuclear weapons operations launched by North Korea and/or the US, but also for any multiple interactions or synergies that might then be expected. Recalling that world politics is not geometry, Israelis would especially need to understand that the cumulative “whole” of inflicted harms could be substantially greater than the simple additive sum of attack “parts.”
Before anything enviable could be born from such a predictably primal chaos – even if confined to limited parts of northeast Asia – a measureless legion of gravediggers would need to wield their life-giving “forceps.”
Looking ahead, where should Israeli strategic planners proceed with such bewildering insights, complications, and (hopefully) informed expectations? To begin, they will need to factor into their still-evolving corpus of national nuclear policy preparations a usefully-updated version of Carl von Clausewitz’s classic “friction.” In this aptly nuanced conceptual emendation, Israeli analysts will need to base their newly enhanced adjustments of Israel’s nuclear doctrine upon a widely integrated range of potentially critical security factors.
Inevitably, this refined range should involve a meticulously calculated loosening of “deliberate ambiguity,” including a more recognizable Israeli capacity to counter any expected enemy nuclear attack objectives with advanced anti-missile defenses.
Among still other called-for post-North Korean episode refinements, Jerusalem will need to assess whether or not the unpracticed American president was able to maintain complete rationality during crisis escalation, and whether he convincingly and safely grasped certain then-expected benefits of “pretended irrationality.” In this connection, Israeli leaders will likely recall Moshe Dayan’s earlier advice on such always-precarious calculations. Said the Israeli Minister of Defense famously, many years back, “Israel must be seen as a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.”
While contemplating episodic or protracted nuclear crises between Washington and Pyongyang, Jerusalem should continuously bear in mind that several intersecting and overwhelmingly destructive consequences could rapidly extend to Israel. To best prepare for such a realistic threat, Israel’s strategic planners must consciously and systematically factor it into their own ongoing operational plans for national security and survival. To be sure, the “terrible ifs” will always continue to “accumulate.”
For Jerusalem, the critical task is not to stop such threatening uncertainties – that would be impossible – but rather to effectively manage them.
Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to Israel Defense, 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.