Listening to President Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly this week, I was struck—as were most who listened—by his emphasis on the utility and importance of the nation-state. Moreover, the obligatory call for plodding international cooperation to solve the problems facing our world was largely absent, and Trump plainly asserted that his decisions would be entirely guided by the what is in the best interests of America. None of what he said was a surprise—but I am certain it was quite a shock to an inert U.N. bureaucracy long inured to inaction.
Given that the most pressing threat facing the world today is North Korea’s terrifying habit of firing ballistic missiles here and there—while they are also busily preparing future nuclear payloads—it is not surprising that President Trump’s harshest words were saved for Kim Jong-Un, whom he derisively described as “Rocket Man”. Mr. Trump’s message was clear and pointed: If the threat continues, the United States will obliterate North Korea. His language lacked the diplomatic nuance and caveats we typically associate with political speeches, but it certainly got everyone’s attention.
I do not believe our Commander-in-Chief has gone Dr. Strangelove on us. His bellicose rhetoric is both understandable and reasonable.
First, Trump is reassuring our allies that—if all else fails to deter North Korea—the United States will not hesitate to act unilaterally to remove an obvious threat to world peace. Although our allies may soothingly speak in public of the need for caution and dialogue regarding military force, I guarantee they will quietly provide any logistic and intelligence support we need to bring stability to the strategic situation. A nuclear North Korea with a viable payload delivery system is the world community’s worst nightmare, and the size and power of America’s armed forces provides protection for a great many nations other than our own.
In addition, the President is speaking to North Korea’s two biggest protectors and benefactors—Russia and China—so that they understand the time for dawdling is over. Mr. Trump wants both these nations to use their economic and political influence to prompt policy changes in Pyongyang. There are both strategic and historical ties that bind Russia and China to North Korea and have lessened their willingness to pressure their client state up to this point, but neither wants bombs to fall. Each realizes that American military power—and the American political and economic influence that would follow from any use of force—would be a catastrophe for their long-term regional interests. Moreover, given that China shares a very long border with North Korea (and Russia a much smaller one), each nation realizes that war with the United States would produce an overwhelming flood of refugees that neither wants to face.
Finally, Mr. Trump is speaking to the North Korean military and intelligence commands, which control the institutions that keep Kim Jong-Un in power. If they believe that the reckless actions of their leader run the risk of bringing down disaster and destroying them, there will be changes—don’t have the least doubt. It might be something as overt and clumsy as a coup, but I would bet against this unless it is the very last resort. Having built up their leader to god-like stature through propaganda directed at their citizens, I believe it is more likely—should the forcible removal of Kim Jong-Un ultimately prove necessary—that he will (tragically) expire from a sudden illness, his dying words a poetic paean to his beloved people and a command to obey the will of his “designated successor”.
It might be worth remembering that, as much as we might like it to be otherwise, negotiation and compromise have their limits. Sometimes the raw exercise of power is necessary to secure peace. It may not be humane or artful, but sometimes punching your antagonist in the nose is your most effective recourse. Just as all Americans do, I hope that war with North Korea can be avoided. However, should this be the last and only option available, we need to remember that the decision to pull the trigger was forced upon us by the stupidity and duplicity of others—which has sadly often been the case throughout our history.