If Israeli planners like it or not, regional chaos is increasingly plausible in the Middle East. Whether this chaos should stem from the proliferation of nuclear weapons among Israel’s enemies, or “merely” from the always-present “state of nature” in world politics,[1] Jerusalem’s task will be to make the very best of its available strategic options. To be sure, no contrary argument could make even a scintilla of good sense.

Nonetheless, the obligatory security task need not necessarily  be regarded as regrettable or without tangible benefit. On the contrary, there are assorted good reasons to acknowledge any advancing chaos as prospectively positive for Israel. While distinctly counter-intuitive, such reasons ought to be closely examined in Jerusalem rather than viscerally disregarded. In essence, the lemons from which any lemonade would be drawn are not an inherently bitter fruit. From its core meanings in classical philosophy and mythology, chaos is simply the beginning of everything, the good as well as the bad.

Jewish theology has very similar primal roots in Genesis, an observation to be viewed with manifest favor in the Jewish State. Whether in the Old testament or Greek and Roman thought, chaos can be taken as a tabula rasa, a blank slate which can prepare the world for all things, sacred and profane. Significantly, it is the place from which all civilizational opportunity must inevitably originate.

Chaos is never just a repellant groundlessness that swallows everything indiscriminately. Instead, it is most usefully considered as an auspicious “openness,” a protean realm within which entirely new kinds of human opportunity may be gleaned.  It follows that advancing chaos in the Middle East need not necessarily be interpreted by Israeli military planners as a plainly regrettable harbinger of violence and instability, but rather as a prospectively gainful condition for improving national security.

How best to harness such a radical reconceptualization in Jerusalem (politics) and Tel Aviv (strategy)? This is an extraordinarily difficult and also subtle question, but it would be better answered than disregarded. To begin, such an answer should suggest that Israel’s pertinent decision-makers intentionally stray beyond ordinary prudential security assessments,[2] and venture more routinely in the direction of certain distinctly avant garde analyses. [3]

Among these analyses would be scholarly examinations hypothesizing various radical redistributions of power in the Middle East, including some never-before considered alignments. Moreover, such unexpected alignments, born of a palpably expanding regional chaos, could include not only assorted state-state relationships (e.g., Israel-Egypt; Israel-Jordan; Israel-Saudi Arabia; Israel-Russia), but also various state-sub state or “hybrid” connections.

Similarly unprecedented but also worth considering would be steps toward alleviating the more expressly structural conditions of chaos in the region, including perhaps even very specific forms of cooperation that move toward regional governance. Such  forms, it goes without saying, would have to be both very tentative and very partial, but could nonetheless provide a very welcome start toward area order rather than area chaos. In specifically Hobbesian terms, they would be intended to supplant the corrosive
“war of all against all”[4]  in the Middle East with some suitable “common power” to keep all state and sub-state parties “in awe.”[5]

Ironically, a unique opportunity for regional movement toward greater area collective security would have been made possible by decision-maker perceptions of a more general and region-wide revulsion with anarchy and chaos. In essence, this opportunity will have been born of a growing existential desperation, of a sense that “business as usual” in regional peacemaking can no longer suffice. Of course, it is altogether possible that this particular sense of opportunity could be mistaken or misconceived, in which case any presumed benefits of chaos might turn out to have been a double-edged sword.

There is more. With regard to such an injurious inversion of opportunity for Israel, Jerusalem need only be reminded of its unchanging obligation to avoid markedly existential risks.[6] Ultimately, this fixed obligation can be fulfilled only by assessing all risks and opportunities with thoroughly rigorous intellectual standards. Even when chaos might beckon seductively as an unanticipated font of strategic opportunity, there could be no adequate substitute for capable intellectual analysis.

In turn, any such diligent analysis must eschew “seat of the pants” determinations, and rely instead upon an amply-refined strategic theory.

Always, theory is a “net.” Therefore, only those who “cast,” can “catch.”[7] When “casting,” Israel’s strategic planners should pay especially rapt attention to any discernible links between a prevailing or still-anticipated chaos, and the expected rationality of its relevant adversaries. After all, what might first appear as an unwittingly promising source of improved national safety could promptly be reversed by enemies who would value certain preferences in world politics even more highly than national or collective survival.

Such enemies are not historically unknown in world politics.[8]

At this moment, the most compelling threat of such enemy irrationality appears to come from a steadily nuclearzing Iran. Significantly, there is no way for Israel’s decision makers to systematically or scientifically evaluate the authentic probabilities of any such formidable threat. This is because (a) any truly accurate assessments of probability must always be based upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events; and (b) because there have been no pertinent past events (i.e., a nuclear war).

All the same, an eventual Iranian nuclear threat to Israel remains entirely plausible, and should thus suggest distinctly dire prospects for a final sort of chaos. To make suitably positive use of this fearful vision, Israel ought soon to focus explicitly and meticulously on its still-tacit nuclear strategy, or “bomb in the basement.” Here, for example, preparing to move beyond the prospectively lethal limits of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity,” Jerusalem would need to (1) rank-order identifiable thresholds of enemy nuclear peril as tangible “triggers” for certain incremental nuclear disclosures; and (2) prepare for rank-ordered release some very specifically limited sets of information concerning the invulnerability and penetration-capability of its own nuclear forces, including selected facts on targeting doctrine; number; range; and yield.

Going forward, as Israel can learn from intimations of any impending chaos, the country’s national security could be better served by reduced nuclear ambiguity than by any more traditional or orthodox commitments to complete strategic secrecy.

This counter-intuitive argument is rooted in the reasonable presumption that Israel’s continued survival must depend very largely on successful nuclear deterrence.

When philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche initially explained chaos as something deeply within each individual human being, he did not intend this idea to be a distressing negative portent. On the contrary, like the German poet Hölderlin,[9] with whose work he was intimately familiar, Nietzsche understood that from apparent formlessness can sometimes emerge many things of great or even inestimable value. At this precarious moment in its history, Israel’s leadership would be well advised to think seriously and inventively about such markedly challenging conceptual opportunities, and then to begin fashioning certain strategic theories that begin but do not end with the “abyss.” It would not be a task for the intellectually faint-hearted, or for those who are unable to recognize new and promising strategic “muses,”[10] but the security payoff for Israel’s national defense could still prove overwhelmingly gainful.

There is one last point in this argument that bears repeating. It is that Israel has absolutely no choice about welcoming or rejecting chaos. This condition is not something that Israel can in any way push aside, negotiate, forestall or prevent. It follows that because chaos in some form will inexorably emerge, Jerusalem must do whatever it can (as soon as it can) to reconcile and optimize its pertinent security strategies “with chaos.” Indeed, going forward, a full acknowledgment of this challenging imperative will represent the very acme of Israel’s decisional rationality.[11]



Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of twelve major books dealing with international law and world politics. His twelfth and newest book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield)(2nd ed., 2018).  http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/content/surviving-amid-chaos-israels-nuclear-strategy

[1] Hobbes, the 17th- century English philosopher, argues that the “state of nations” is in fact the only true “state of nature,” that is, the only such state that actually exists in the world: In Chapter XIII of Leviathan (“Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery”),  Hobbes says famously: “But though there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of war, one against the other, yet in all times, kings and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independence, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is their forts, garrisons, and guns upon the frontiers of their kingdoms, and continual spies upon their neighbors, which is a posture of war.”

[2] Such proposed “straying,” which might range anywhere from an eleventh-hour preemption to much greater commitments to regional collective security, could still be in more-or-less complete accord with pertinent international law. In this connection, a core or jus cogens principle of international law remains the unambiguous imperative: “Where the ordinary remedy fails, recourse must be had to an extraordinary one.” (Ubi cessat remedium ordinarium, ibi decurritur ad extraordinarium.” (Black’s Law Dictionary, 1520 – 6th ed., 1990).

[3] In his 1927 preface to Oxford Poetry, W.H. Auden wrote: “All genuine poetry is in a sense the formation of private spheres out of public chaos….” Looking ahead with an appropriately avant-garde orientation, Israeli strategists must essentially seek to carve out livable national spheres from a steadily expanding global chaos. Ultimately, of course, following Nietzsche, they must understand that such chaos originally lies within each individual human being, but – at least for the moment of their present strategic deliberations – they must focus upon collective survival in a true Hobbesian “state of nature.” This is a condition wherein “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest,” normally possible only where individual human beings coexist in nature, but possible also in world politics wherever there exists nuclear proliferation. Accordingly, the German legal philosopher Samuel Pufendorf reasoned, like Hobbes, that the state of nations “lacks those inconveniences which are attendant upon a pure state of nature….” Similarly, said Baruch Spinoza: “A commonwealth can guard itself against being subjugated by another, as a man in the state of nature cannot do.” (See: A.G. Wernham, ed., The Political Works: Tractatus Politicus, iii, II; Clarendon Press, 1958, p. 295).

[4] This Hobbesian orientation, which incidentally is the explicit underpinning of US President Donald Trump’s announced foreign policy, stands in direct opposition to the core jurisprudential (international law) assumption of solidarity between all states. This jus cogens or immutable assumption was already mentioned in Justinian’s Digest (533 CE); Hugo Grotius’ Law of War and Peace (1625); and Vattel’s The Law of Nations, or the Principles of Natural Law (1758). According to General McMaster, Mr. Trump’s National Security Advisor, this policy is known formally as “pragmatic realism.” Historically, however, this term is merely a self-reinforcing falsehood, as absolutely no forms of “realism” or “Realpolitik” have ever worked for long. For Israel, the best “lesson” to be extracted from this egregious US policy error is to think of the erroneous American posture as one of “naive realism,” and then to draw upon expectations of advancing chaos to inspire more promising forms of national strategy and international cooperation.

[5] See Hobbes, Leviathan, especially Chapter XVII, “Of Commonwealth.” More generally, the presumed obligation to use force in a world of international anarchy forms the central argument of Realpolitik from the Melian Dialogues of Thucydides and the Letters of Cicero to Machiavelli, Locke, Spykman and Kissinger. “For what can be done against force without force?’ inquires Cicero. Nonetheless, the sort of chaos that Israel could confront shortly is much different from traditional anarchy or simply decentralized global authority. In essence, it is conceivably more primordial, more primal, self-propelled and potentially even self-rewarding.

[6] Such a primary warning is the central motif of Yehoshafat Harkabi’s The Bar Kokhba Syndrome: Risk and Realism in International Politics,” (New York: Rossel Books, 1983).

[7] Attributed by philosopher Karl Popper (The Logic of Scientific Discovery) to the German poet, Novalis.

[8] See Sigmund Freud in Civilization and its Discontents: “Fools, visionaries, sufferers from delusions, neurotics and lunatics have played great roles at all times in the history of mankind….usually they have wreaked havoc.”

[9] In philosophy, Hölderin, Nietzsche and Heidegger struggled with the fundamentally same ontological problems of existence, or “being,”

[10] “Whenever the new muses present themselves,” cautions the Spanish existentialist José Ortega y’ Gassett in The Dehumanization of Art, “the masses bristle.”

[11] Reciprocally, a rational state enemy of Israel will always accept or reject a particular option by comparing the costs and benefits of each alternative. Wherever the expected costs of striking first are taken to exceed expected gains, this enemy will be deterred. But where these expected costs are believed to be exceeded by expected gains, deterrence will fail. Here, whatever the prevailing levels of order or chaos, Israel would be faced with an enemy attack, either as a “bolt-from-the-blue” or as an outcome of anticipated or unanticipated crisis-escalation. In this connection, too, Israeli planners will want to stay abreast of each side’s ongoing search for “escalation dominance.”