What rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be
– The Second Coming,
by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
In history, there
is a powerful difference between anarchy and chaos.
forms of violence erupt across Northern Africa and the Middle East, a core
observation should spring to mind: Chaotic disintegration is already well
underway in parts of the world. Significantly, substantial and possibly sudden
extensions of this condition to other parts of our planet are now
For the United States, facing both military limitations and
further financial crises, the implications are worrisome.
For Israel, an
increasingly- beleaguered mini-state, they are existential.
law will not save Israel.
Nor will the United States, even under a
different president. Assorted treaties notwithstanding, including the New Start
agreement between the US and Russia, nuclear and biological weapons may still
spread. These “unthinkable” devices could soon become all too
There are foreseeable interactions between individual
catastrophic harms that could make the overriding risk of global chaos still
more pressing. For Israel, a country smaller than Lake Michigan, the dangers are
both particular and unique. Facing not only an unprecedented nuclear threat from
Iran, but also the more-or-less simultaneous appearance of “Palestine,” the
Jewish state could quickly find itself engulfed in mass-casualty terrorism,
and/or unconventional war.
The probability of expanding Middle East chaos
could be enlarged by enemy irrationality. If, for example, Israel should face a
jihadi adversary that would value certain religious expectations even more
highly than its own physical survival, any deterrent threat could be
neutralized. Such paralysis could mean a heightened threat of nuclear and/or
biological war. It could also place Israel in the cross hairs of
In world politics, irrationality is not the
same as madness. An irrational adversary is one that values certain goals more
highly than even its own self-preservation. A mad adversary would display no
preferred ordering of goals or values. It follows, at least from the standpoint
of successful Israeli deterrence, that enemy irrationality would be “better”
than enemy madness.
But a choice is unavailable. Whether Israel or
America face irrationality, madness, neither or both is not up to
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” wrote Yeats, “and everywhere the
ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Now, assembled in almost 200 armed tribal
camps called nation-states, humanity coexists uneasily and insecurely. The
origins of this radically decentralized world lie discernibly in the Peace of
Westphalia – a major treaty that put an end to the Thirty Years War back in
Now, chaos is more portentous than ever. This owes largely to the
fusion of anarchy with authentically apocalyptic weaponry.
In time, even
with the UN and its vaunted “international community,” there may be no safety in
arms, no rescue from political tyranny, and no answers from science. New wars
could rage until every flower of culture is trampled, and until all things human
How shall such circumstances be averted? Before answering,
we must first acknowledge that chaos and anarchy represent opposite ends of the
same global continuum. “Mere” anarchy, or the absence of central world
authority, has always been “normal.” Chaos, however, is unique. It is thoroughly
Since the seventeenth century, our anarchic world can be best
described as a system; what happens in any one part necessarily affects the
other parts. When deterioration is marked, and begins to spread from one nation
to another, the effects can undermine international stability.
deterioration is rapid and catastrophic, as it would be following the start of
any unconventional war and/or unconventional terrorism, the corollary effects
would be correspondingly immediate and overwhelming.
These effects would
Aware that even an incremental collapse of remaining world
authority structures will affect its many enemies, leaders of Israel quickly
need to advance precise and plausible safeguards against collapse and chart
durable paths to survival.
Such indispensable considerations are likely
not yet seriously underway.
Israel’s leaders are wasting precious time
with their ritualistic considerations of assorted “peace plans.” Soon, in
consequence, they may need to consider just how they should respond to life in a
global ‘state of nature.’ The triggering mechanism of a global descent into
chaos could be a variety of mass-casualty attacks against Israel, or against
other western democracies. Even the traditionally “powerful” United States would
not be immune. For that matter, Israel’s own largely middle-class demonstrations
this summer against the “oligopoly” reveal a previously unrecognized internal
Any further chaotic disintegration of the world system
would fundamentally transform the Israeli system. Such a transformation could
involve total or near-total destruction. In anticipation, Israel will have to
orient its strategic planning to an assortment of worst-case prospects, focusing
on a wide range of primarily self-help security options.
persistently one-sided surrender of territory, its mistaken reluctance to accept
certain critical preemption options, and its periodic releases of live
terrorists in exchange for slain Jews may never bring direct defeat. Taken
together, however, these policy errors will have a weakening effect on Israel.
Whether the principal result here will be a “mere” impairment of the Jewish
state’s commitment to endure, or a devastating missile attack and/or major acts
of terror is still not clear.
The fragmentation of the Middle East and
North Africa is just the beginning.
For Israel, wider patterns of anarchy
are inevitable. What might still be avoided, however, are chaos,
mega-destruction and an unendurable sorrow. This avoidance will require early
awareness in Jerusalem that, as in any primordial state of nature, survival
demands resolute courage, intellectual imagination, and a willingness to suffer
even huge short-term harm to prevent a much longer-term collective
disappearance.The writer is professor of political science and
international law at Purdue University.
The author of many major books
and articles in the field, he was chair of Project Daniel (Israel).
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