Trump has stooped to using the same apocalyptic tone and rhetoric as a second-rate leader who decided to rush into the nuclear race.
It’s a sad coincidence that Donald Trump threatened the impertinent North Korean dictator with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” right before the 72nd anniversary of the devastating nuclear bomb attack on Nagasaki. Kim Jong Un quickly responded to this jewel of a threat by announcing a plan to attack the island of Guam, an American military enclave in the Pacific. It’s also sad that the American president "stooped” to using the same apocalyptic tone and rhetoric as a second-rate leader who decided to rush headlong into the nuclear arms race in order to give meaning to his spoiled existence. But of course, we should be used to Trumpian verbal diarrhea by now.
Seasoned scholars of the United States are now torn between two historical analyses. First, to what degree does Trump want to emulate one of his predecessors in the job, Harry S. Truman, who, in 1945, declared that if the Japanese did not surrender they “may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth?” And he wasn’t bluffing. This phrase came as part of the announcement that the United States had bombed Hiroshima… and three days later Nagasaki.
The second historical analysis has to do with presidents’ use of rhetoric at times of high tension. The overwhelming majority opted for a guarded tone in such moments, precisely to stop escalating verbal conflicts from leading to unwanted consequences. Coming from Trump, honestly, these latest comments seem more like outbursts than measured, calculated statements. But this lack of restraint is exactly what adds an additional layer of risk to a situation like this one.
Most experts rule out a possible armed confrontation. No one, not even North Korea, wants a war. As if they were discussing a small child, these experts attribute Kim Jong Un’s constant weapons tests and threats to “attention-seeking." He wants the United States to acknowledge a legitimate right for North Korea to develop its nuclear arsenal as part of its survival strategy. While waiting for the diplomatic solution — which now seems farther away — the fear is that someone might go too far in this cross-Pacific game of “see who can throw furthest.” A miscalculation would have dire consequences.
For now, the big loser in this whole story is nonproliferation. Apart from the nuclear deal with Iran, the past few years have seen a slowing down, if not a clear step backward, on many initiatives related to the control or elimination of atomic weapons.
In some cases, global actors have brought back and normalized the idea of — and support for — wielding nuclear power as a means of guaranteeing national security. Trump himself boasts that his first order as president was to modernize his nuclear arsenal. Furthermore, the treaty being negotiated at the United Nations that would set a new standard and prohibit nuclear weapons for good, recognizing their existence as a global threat, is being vetoed by the countries that have these weapons — among them, interestingly enough, the five permanent members of the Security Council.