Israel, anarchy and global chaos

The fragmentation of the Middle East and North Africa is just the beginning.

What rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
– The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
In history, there is a powerful difference between anarchy and chaos.
Watching different 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 plausible.
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.
International 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 thinkable.
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 mass-destruction terrorism.
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 us.
“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 1648.
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 are leveled.
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 “abnormal.”
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.
When this 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 be chaotic.
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 vulnerability.
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.
Israel’s 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).