In the age of Trump, I wake up every day to a daily outrage that seethes in me for a good part of the day. Ironically, I find myself more engaged at work because it is a distraction from the looming crises initiated by this President. Never mind that the organization that I work for depends heavily on the largesse of the U.S. Government. We soldier on hoping the axe will not fall, and thus far our hopes have been answered. But our problem is small potatoes.
On Tuesday, Trump delivered a forty-one-minute lecture filled with bombast and caviling to the U.N. General Assembly, to mixed reviews from the right and stunned appraisals from the left. Who knows what world leaders thought, particularly Kim Jong-Un, whom Trump labeled with the sobriquet “Rocket Man” before the distinguished world body in New York.
Stating that the U.S. is “ready, willing, and able” to “totally destroy North Korea”, Trump then suggested that it was the United Nations job to fix the situation. “That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do.”
After lobbing a grenade into the middle of a riot, he hands off responsibility for putting the pin back to someone else. The DPRK is threatening the United States and its neighbors with nuclear missiles, and Trump responds with counter-threats. These tit-for-tat threats leave no room for face-saving maneuvers from North Korea. Worse, Trump’s vacillations on the Iran nuclear deal will make North Korea wary of pursuing negotiations with the United States, recognizing that we are acting in an untrustworthy manner. This is not the way to handle a nuclear-armed rogue state.
In this case, the fundamental instinct that Trump seems to operate on is that as the most powerful country in the world, we can assert our strength over North Korea (and any other perceived bad actor) without the need to participate in negotiations. In Trump’s calculus, talk is for losers, not the powerful. Therefore if the United Nations cannot check Kim’s threats, we will use our unsurpassed military might to eliminate his threats, consequences be damned.
In Trump’s view, not only do we have the right to strategically remove material threats posed by North Korea, we have the right to “totally destroy” the hermit nation. This is Trump’s personal modus operandi writ large, the idea that if someone attacks you, you respond with a disproportionate counter-attack, overwhelming an opponent regardless of the merits of their complaint. This strategy learned at the feet of the late Roy Cohn has served Trump well in private life and in his Presidential campaign. But Trump is no longer acting on his own behalf, and his weapons are nuclear warheads, not lawsuits.
The bedrock notion here is that might makes right. Because we are powerful, our actions cannot be immoral, they are righteous. By dint of our power, any aggressor then is morally unjust. The logical fallacy is that were North Korea to successfully attack Japan or South Korea, then their actions would be justified by their military superiority. Or consider a North Korean attack on New Zealand, the Philippines, or Thailand, bystander nations that have no reasonable defense against nuclear annihilation. By virtue of their might, North Korea would be morally justified in attacking and destroying these countries.
The United States has arguably acted in this fashion before, most recently in Iraq. But even in that case, there were careful lines drawn. The effort was undertaken with a host of international allies, with the clear intention of toppling a regime that had few friends in the region or the world. Trump takes this idea even further, threatening not just a regime but a nation of twenty-five million people, neighboring two of our largest trading partners. Furthermore, by word and deed, his administration has closed off any face-saving exit from what could be a catastrophic armed crisis.
Make no mistake, if we or an ally are attacked, we have a unique obligation to respond. At the same time, a just response is a measured response, and even in – especially in – the case of a nuclear-armed rogue state, the path to diplomatic resolution must remain open. This is not an easy needle to thread. The options are few and mostly bad. With his speech to the UN, I believe Trump has simply made a bad situation worse.
Inspired by the WordPress.com Daily Post, September 22, 2017.