Oy! It was another week of bellicose theatrics from our president. Trump, ever eager for more attention, went places that no recent president would have ever dreamed of going. As usual Trump picked the worst location to threaten nuclear war: the United Nations, an organization we helped create to promote peace and understanding and reduce the likelihood of war through the promotion of civil dialog.
Trump’s target this time was North Korea, which keeps lobbing missiles over Japan and recently concluded a likely hydrogen bomb test. Trump’s implicit threat to utterly destroy North Korea is today only possible using our nuclear arsenal. This means, if it’s true, that Trump is considering proactively using our nuclear weapons. He’s also assuming it can be done in a way that won’t send a nuclear warhead at us or our allies, a dubious assumption at best.
Trump isn’t the first president to threaten North Korea with nukes. President Eisenhower did too, mostly out of frustration because the interminable peace talks at the time were going nowhere. We were basically the only nuclear power at the time, with the USSR just getting into the game, so it was a viable threat. The threat didn’t bring peace in 1953, but it did lead to a cessation of hostilities, making the 38th parallel a neutral zone and an exchange of prisoners.
All these years later we are still grappling with a way to bring true peace to the Korean peninsula. Trump’s strategy seems to be to try Eisenhower’s strategy again, as if you can still scare the North Korean government into submission. All it has done so far is ratchet up the tensions and lead to ever more bizarre and bellicose statements from the “leaders” of both sides. With each exchange of insults, these “leaders” look more puerile. If only the United Nations could take them out of the sandbox and give them long timeouts instead.
As for utterly destroying North Korea, that’s exactly what our air force did during the Korean War with conventional weapons. It wasn’t enough. We had total dominion over the Korean skies. Toward the end of the war North Korea looked pretty much like Dresden after World War Two. The Chinese helped of course by supplying soldiers and material. As the Vietcong also learned, there are ways to move militaries without being seen. North Korean and Chinese soldiers were very fast with their feet and traveled mostly at night. So total destruction did not mean winning the war. Nuking North Korea would not end this war either. It would also not necessarily destroy North Korea’s nuclear program or its arms caches, which are likely well underground. It would likely kill tens of millions, including millions of South Koreans, and at best provide the illusion of peace. It would leave a generational memory that would resurface again and again.
Not content with chastising just North Korea, Trump excoriated Iran during his U.N. speech too. He called our nuclear deal with Iran the worst deal ever. Yet even his administration agrees that Iran has fully complied with the terms of the agreement. If the United States were to cancel the deal, the effect would likely be disastrous. Iran would be free to continue to develop its nuclear stockpile and work on nuclear weapons. It’s understandable that Republicans would be upset by what the deal doesn’t do. It doesn’t keep Iran from developing long-range missiles, but it wasn’t designed to be comprehensive. It was designed to keep a new nuclear power from forming in the worst possible part of the world. So far it’s succeeding in those goals. The Trump administration could open talks on these other issues, probably multilateral talks like the Obama Administration used. Or we can start a war with Iran instead. Which is likelier achieve our aims?
Like it or not, the United States can no longer use military power to achieve its aims, at least not with countries beyond a certain size. Most use of military power like this is counterproductive both in the short and the long term. The conflicts we are dealing with are much more complex than they used to be. Today they are less nationalistic than ideologically driven, and that includes here in the United States where a great conflict of ideology is underway. With Republicans in charge, the bias is toward using the military to achieve its goals, which means there is a bias not just toward war, but also toward creating wars.
Because Republicans respect force, they think it is the solution to all these problems. While certainly Democratic administrations have had similar proclivities (Kennedy and Johnson in particular, although they inherited the Vietnam War), it’s been mainly Republicans that have proctored our involvement in new wars. Eisenhower proctored proxy wars in Iran and Guatemala that were covertly run by the CIA. Our meddling in Iran eventually saw the eviction of the Shah and the creation of a deeply anti-American Islamic Republic there. In essence our involvement caused the animus Iran now has toward us. Reagan’s meddling in El Salvador led to civil war and right wing death squads that continue to this day. It certainly did not lead to stability in Central American. Nixon’s secret war in Cambodia and Laos exposed a larger war but also proved ineffectual. George W. Bush’s war in Iraq has proven to be disastrous and also based on lies. It led to among other things the creation of the Islamic State and the collapse of Syria.
Trump seems almost eager to continue this Republican losing streak, perhaps reigniting the Korean War as well as setting off a potential war with Iraq. It’s really about showing American potency and relevance. It’s effectively being the muscular guy on the beach and taunting guys coming by so you can kick sand in their faces.
Solving these problems is going to be very hard and requires new thinking. It will require a bias toward multilateral solutions and diplomacy rather than force, in short using bodies like the United Nations more rather than less. It will mean dialog and engagement, particularly with those we find most difficult to engage with. It will take time and trust and verification. It will mean we will have to make concessions to affect a greater deal.
It’s painfully clear none of this will happen until not just Trump is gone, but Republicans no longer control the White House.