Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations on Tuesday moved the world closer to war. The speech was Hitlerian in tone and content, filled with vitriol and grievance. Germany, said Hitler, was stabbed in the back by its own leaders after World War I. The Obama administration, declared Trump, signed an agreement with Iran that was “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” Trump threatened, from the very podium of the UN General Assembly, to “totally destroy” North Korea, a country of 25 million people.
Almost as chilling as the speech was the reaction. US neo-conservatives who had led the United States into the disastrous war with Iraq, such as former Ambassador John Bolton, cheered. So too did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recklessly and relentlessly itches for the United States to destroy Iran. Most pundits chastised Trump for his tone or demeanor, but viewed the speech as a television spectacle to be rated rather than a threat to world peace. Don’t worry, they tell us, the United States will never launch a war against nuclear-armed North Korea.
This complacency is perhaps our greatest danger. Take Trump, President Kim Jong Un of North Korea, and Netanyahu at their word. They mean what they say, even if what they say is irresponsible vainglory that could get millions killed. Bombastic and self-absorbed narcissists throughout history have meant what they said. And yes, they have gotten many millions killed. Now one warhead can do the job.
Even if such talk is bluster and bluff, the consequences can be the same. The game of chicken often ends in disaster. That, after all, is what the game is all about, daring to go beyond the limits. And accidents are likely even when leaders imagine they are in control. As John F. Kennedy observed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “There is always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word” despite an order for restraint from above.
War is avoided by cool heads and steady hands at the helm, the opposite of Trump. War is avoided by solving political problems, by seeing the deeper reasons for the confrontation through the eyes of the adversary. War is avoided by diplomacy, not bluster.
Trump is doing the opposite, aiming to humiliate his North Korean counterpart, even mocking him as “Rocket man,” and thereby (he seems to believe) forcing a highly visible retreat by North Korea.
North Korea told the world about its strategic objectives a few days ago, but the Trump administration has pointedly refused to acknowledge the statement, and the media has failed to analyze it. The North Koreans declared that they seek an “equilibrium” with the US military to deter a “military option” by the United States. In their own words, they are not seeking war, world domination, or nuclear annihilation. What they are seeking is to avoid being overthrown by the United States.
Their fear of US-led regime change is, alas, all too realistic. The United States is addicted to overthrowing its adversaries, most recently Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Moammar Khadafy, and (unsuccessfully) Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. In the case of both Saddam and Khadafy, the US-led regime change came after both of those leaders had renounced their nation’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.
In the case of Iran, Trump’s overheated rhetoric is even more bizarre. A nuclear agreement has already been reached and is being fulfilled. Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rohani has won re-election against hardliners. The country is fighting ISIS effectively. The real explanation in the case of Iran lies with the US administration acceding to the reckless lobbying by both Israel and Saudi Arabia to lure us into a war with Iran for the narrow interests of those two countries (at least “interests” as warmongers in the two countries perceive them).
Have no complacency. Speak out against war. Demand democratic constraint over the US military and oversight by our hapless, so-far useless Congress. War typically seems impossible until it is too late. Then it is utterly disastrous and ruinous for all.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is University Professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and author of “The Age of Sustainable Development.”