As someone who was born in 1948,
the risk of a nuclear World War III
was a very real part of my childhood.
That threat — or at least the threat of
East and West Germany both being
completely destroyed — persisted
until the end of the Cold War and the
collapse of the Soviet Union.
Since then, the risk of nucleararmed
superpowers triggering
Armageddon has been substantially
reduced. Today, the bigger danger is
that an increasing number of smaller
countries ruled by unstable or
dictatorial regimes will try to acquire
nuclear weapons.
By becoming a nuclear power,
such regimes can ensure their own
survival, promote their local or
regional geopolitical interests, and
even pursue an expansionist agenda.
In this new environment,
the “rationality of deterrence”
maintained by the US and the Soviet
Union during the Cold War has
eroded. Now, if nuclear proliferation
increases, the threshold for using
nuclear weapons will likely fall. As
the current situation in North Korea
shows, the nuclearization of East
Asia or the Arabian Gulf could pose
a direct threat to world peace.
Consider the recent rhetorical
confrontation between North
Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and US
President Donald Trump, in which
the latter promised to respond with
“fire and fury” to any further North
Korean provocations.
Clearly, Trump is not relying on
the rationality of deterrence, as one
would have expected from the leader
of the last remaining superpower.
Instead, he has given his emotions
free rein.
He did not start the escalating crisis
on the Korean Peninsula. It has been
festering for some time due to the
North Korean regime’s willingness
to pay any price to become a nuclear
power, which it sees as a way to
ensure its safety.
The regime is also developing
intercontinental ballistic missiles
capable of carrying a nuclear
warhead and reaching the US west
coast or farther. This would be a
major security challenge for any US
administration.
Ultimately, there are no good
options for responding to the North
Korean threat. A US-led pre-emptive
war on the Korean Peninsula, for
example, could lead to a direct confrontation with China and the
destruction of South Korea, and would
have unforeseeable implications for
Japan.
And because the China-South Korea-
Japan triangle has become the new
power center of the 21st-century global
economy, no country would be spared
from the economic fallout. Even if
the US continues to allude to the
possibility of war, American military
leaders know that the use of military
force is not really a viable option given
its prohibitively high costs and risks.
When North Korea achieves nuclearpower
status, the American security
guarantee will no longer be airtight.
A North Korea with nuclear weapons
and the means to use them would add
pressure on South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear capacity,
which they could easily do. That is the
last thing China wants.
The situation in Asia today has the
nuclear attributes of the 20th century
and the national-power dynamics
of the 19th. That could prove to be a
highly inflammatory cocktail. At the
same time, the international system is
becoming increasingly unstable, with
political structures, institutions and
alliances worldwide being upended or
called into question.
Much will depend on what happens
in the US under Trump’s wayward
presidency. The investigation into his
campaign’s possible collusion with
Russia ahead of the 2016 presidential
election, and the failure to repeal the
Affordable Care Act (Obamacare),
have shown his administration to be
unstable and ineffective.
And agenda items such as tax cuts,
the Mexican border wall and the
renegotiation of the North American
Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) —
to say nothing of Trump’s emotional
outbursts — are fueling America’s
radical right.
Instability within the US is cause for
global concern. If it can no longer be
counted on to ensure world peace and
stability, no country can. We will be left
with a leadership vacuum; nowhere is
this more dangerous than with respect
to nuclear proliferation.
Another nuclear danger looms this
fall. If the US Congress imposes new
sanctions on Iran, the nuclear deal
could fail. President Hassan Rouhani
publicly announced just last week that
Iran could abandon the deal “within
hours” in response to new sanctions.
In light of the North Korea crisis, it
would be the height of irresponsibility
to trigger a gratuitous nuclear crisis
— and possibly a war — in the
Middle East. And a return by the US
to a strategy of regime change in Iran
would likely be self-defeating because
it would strengthen the country’s
hard-liners.
All of this would be taking place in
a region that is already riven by crises
and wars. And because Russia, China
and the Europeans would stick to the
nuclear deal, the US would find itself
alone and at odds with even its closest
allies.
Today’s nuclear threats demand
exactly the opposite of “fire and fury.”
What is needed is level-headedness,
rationality and patient diplomacy that
is not based on dangerous and fanciful
threats of force. If the last superpower
abandons these virtues, the world will
have to confront the consequences.

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