President Trump’s United Nations speech today was reckless, inexorably moving us closer to nuclear catastrophe than we’ve been since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. A central longstanding and bipartisan objective of US security policy is to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. Trump’s speech imperils this goal.
His threat to “totally destroy North Korea” – in front of representatives of virtually every nation of the world – completely misapprehends what is likely to move Kim Jong Un to a safer and less threatening nuclear posture. Most Korea experts believe that Kim Jong Un’s quest for long-range nuclear weapons is driven by his desire to preserve the Kim regime. Why then would Trump expect that threatening to destroy North Korea will compel Kim Jong Un to give up his only card – nuclear weapons – to deter us?
A military option is not the solution. Even if a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula were limited to conventional weapons, Kim Jong Un could inflict millions of casualties on South Korea, not to mention more than a hundred thousand Americans living there today. Only diplomacy can provide the verifiable set of measures that we need to protect the US and our allies from North Korea’s nuclear missiles, and at the same time provide the security assurances that Kim Jong Un is seeking. Only diplomacy can bring together the international coalition that will be essential for creating and enforcing this verifiable system of constraints around the nuclear program. The US needs Chinese, Russian, South Korean and Japanese cooperation and support at a minimum. Using force before attempting diplomacy would seriously endanger our ability to work with other nations to address this problem. We can’t bomb our way to consensus.
Trump’s high-risk, high-wire act at the UN also insidiously undermines the 72-year-old taboo against the use of nuclear weapons. This is perhaps the most egregious aspect of the speech. As a society and a nation, we’ve forgotten the horrible and awesome power of nuclear weapons and the vast consequences for our physical, psychological, economic, and environmental security. We’ve lost touch with the mass destruction of a nuclear blast. Hawaii has already re-instituted civil defense drills. Perhaps it will take LA, New York and Washington instituting the same to remind us all in a more visceral way about what’s at stake.
Defense Secretary Mattis was right when he said, “We’re never out of diplomatic solutions.” We should get to work on that now.