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Trump’s war doctrine debuts at UN

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Trump’s war doctrine debuts at UN

Not stopping at threatening to destroy North Korea, Donald Trump chose to adopt a confrontational approach in solving global challenges — from Iran to Venezuela — and resolved to defend the US sovereignty

North Korea continues to hog international limelight because of its continuous launch of missiles, nuclear tests and relentless surge in developing the nuclear weapons technology in defiance of the UN Security Council resolutions. It seems the patience of the world leaders is wearing thin because of such sabre-rattling. The climax of threats and counter-threats from either side reached the crescendo when US President Donald Trump made his war doctrine debut at the 192-member world body by making a bellicose address at the 72nd General Assembly at the UN Headquarters in New York on September 19, and threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, a country of 26 million people.

In response to Trump’s speech, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, who is in the US for the UN General Assembly, said he “felt sorry” for Trump’s advisers. “If he was thinking he could scare us with the sound of a dog barking, that’s really a dog dream,” Ri said.

Irrespective of the merit of Trump’s statement, such bellicosity not only baffled even veteran American diplomats, but pushed the world a step closer to a possible catastrophe. Non-pursuance of dialogue as the desirable option and debunking it as a closed window does not behove the quality of the leader of the “only superpower”. Should Trump exercise the military option, the retaliation from North Korea also could be massive and therefore must be avoided at all costs.

Not stopping at threatening North Korea, Trump offered a grim portrait of the world in peril and chose to adopt a more confrontational approach in solving global challenges from Iran to Venezuela and resolved to defend the US sovereignty. He vowed to confront Iran’s “murderous regime” over its weapons programme. But he reserved the starkest language for North Korea, deriding Kim Jong-un with the nickname “Rocket Man” and threatened to end the country. He reminded Kim Jong-un that the US has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, it will have no choice than to totally destroy North Korea. He warned Kim Jong-un by observing: “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.” It remains to be seen if Trump’s blunt warning to the largely isolated and partially China-backed Kim regime shall have any effect on the North Korean leader. In hindsight, it is possible the threat would only harden Kim’s position.

It is true that North Korea’s relentless pursuit of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons has spooked the US and its regional allies, Japan and South Korea. China, the only country possibly with some leverage to influence the Kim regime to suspend its nuclear programme and bring it to the table for dialogue, has been unsuccessful. There are doubts, however, if China is really serious about reining in North Korea or unwilling as it has its own strategic compulsions. China dreads a possible regime collapse for fear of millions of refugees crossing the border into its territory. The prospect of the US forces close to its border in case of regime collapse would be unwelcome to China. Maintaining the status quo and preventing any destabilisation in the Korean peninsula seems to be in China’s interests, which is why doubts always remain about its sincerity to prevail upon the Kim regime to change course.

Trump also had a trilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to discuss the situation arising from North Korea’s missile launches and nuclear test. While praising the UN member countries for supporting the sanctions imposed on North Korea, Trump did not spare China because of its alleged insincerity and clandestine trade with North Korea. Though China claims to have stopped importing iron ore and other trade activities with North Korea, the truism is that it continues to remain North Korea’s only lifeline. Continuing to protect its client state serves China’s twin objectives: Preventing North Korea from a possible collapse and keeping America’s two allies, Japan and South Korea, off balance. China has bilateral issues with Japan over Senkaku and trade issues with South Korea, besides South Korea being an ally of the US.

Following Trump’s declaration of his intention to destroy North Korea, the question that arises is does North Korea really risk extermination? Trump is unlikely to exercise his threat unless it is attacked by North Korea or any of the two allies are the target. The next logical question is: Shall Kim Jong-un target Guam with a nuclear weapon as it has been declaring time and again? Or is it going to “sink” Japan as threatened and does not want Japan to be its geographical neighbour? The situation is something like this — with two “mad” persons threatening to exchange blows, who deals the first punch? The risk is that in the defeat of either, a large part of humanity in both countries shall suffer unmentionable casualty and ripples will be felt across continents. Would the world deserve such a fate if it unfolds the way as feared?

Trump did not confine his threats to North Korea. He called Iran “reckless” for its policies that “speak openly of mass murder, vowing death to America, destruction to Israel, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room”. He called the nuclear deal reached during the Barack Obama administration as “an embarrassment” to the US, thereby implicitly insulting the European allies that initiated the effort and the Security Council, which unanimously endorsed it. He also implied a willingness to use military action in Venezuela “to help them regain their freedom, recover their country, and restore their democracy”. Blasting Cuba, Trump also took a sharp dig at China and Russia. Even for veteran US diplomats used to conventional niceties, Trump’s speech was his “America First doctrine on steroids”, remarked an observer.  

The tenor throughout Trump’s 40-minute speech smacked of extreme arrogance, in sharp contrast to many of the trends of the 21st century. Trump forgot that the world is deeply interconnected economically, culturally, and politically, and that no single country can survive in isolation, that the US needs the world now more than the world needs or wants the US (Trump). With more than one country in possession of nuclear weapons and strong military muscle, boasting of superior capability and enjoying more leverage are the qualities of modern-day leadership. Trump was wrong on all these counts. The first lesson that Trump ought to learn is to carefully use the words, for every single word the American President uses shall have global implications.

According to Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group, a risk consulting firm, the long-term fallout of Trump’s speech may be acceleration of identity politics and anti-globalisation sentiments that fuel so many of today’s conflicts. According to him, the world has been headed towards a “geopolitical recession”, a period of instability featuring setbacks to globalisation and international cooperation. Trump’s unilateralist rhetoric is symptomatic of such a trend. His diatribe at the UN address against several countries stems from such a stance. Trump’s stance also seems to be in sharp departure from George Bush’s policy of promoting democracy and nation-building and Obama’s emphasis on human rights, global outreach and resolving old tensions (reaching out to Cuba, visiting Vietnam and Hiroshima, for example).  

If Trump preferred to go bellicose, does he expect Kim Jong-un to sober down his weaponisation programme? If Trump really intended that to be the case, he would be proved wrong as his threat is likely to reinforce Kim’s determination to have nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles ready that can deter the US. The sense of insecurity among the two US allies in the region — Japan and South Korea — shall be palpable as they would fear Trump’s belligerent words will make Pyongyang even more dangerous. Trump is only closing the window for dialogue forever, a very undiplomatic strategy in today’s complex world.

Reactions to Trump’s speech

Trump’s remarks rattled the world leaders. Minutes earlier, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had appealed for statesmanship, saying: “We must not sleepwalk out way into war.” As he opened a gathering of world leaders dominated by the crisis with North Korea, Guterres expressed global anxiety over a nuclear war that is at its highest level in decades since the end of the Cold War. He expressed concern that millions of people are living in dread as a result of North Korea’s provocative nuclear and missile tests. He warned that rising tensions were increasing the chance of miscalculation and that “fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings”. He told the Assembly: “The use of nuclear weapons should be unthinkable” and therefore called for a political solution.

Trump even rubbished the advice of his own diplomats who are urging for a diplomatic solution. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis briefed reporters that the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was working to resolve the crisis diplomatically. If Trump has his way, all these hopes would prove futile.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian PM Narendra Modi were absent when Trump spoke. But the US diplomats and leaders from other countries were shocked. By condemning the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Trump displeased most, except probably Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who was present. Fear was expressed that if the Iran deal is abandoned, the consequence could also backfire in relation to North Korea.

Trump’s speech infuriated the Iranians. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reacted by observing that “Trump’s ignorant hate speech belongs in medieval times — not the 21st century UN — unworthy of a reply”. Xi Jinping snubbed Trump by not even coming to New York to build on the relationship started over dinner at Mar-a-Lago in April. Though Trump’s dependence on China over North Korea is unlikely to diminish, Xi is unlikely to persuade Trump’s “Rocket Man” to surrender his deadliest weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not also bother to attend. This explains to what extent Trump can look up to Putin for support on North Korea, particularly to tighten the squeeze on Pyongyang through UN sanctions. Both China and Russia have been warning that Trump’s talk of “fire and fury” and use of military option to address the North Korean crisis would have catastrophic consequences and therefore pushing for a diplomatic route.

Angela Merkel of Germany also stayed home as she is busy with domestic issues. It is well known that Germany is firmly committed to the Iran nuclear deal and is unlikely to change its position. In Germany, Merkel said she would do everything in her power to ensure a diplomatic solution. “Anything else would lead to disaster,” she said. Trump did succeed in forging closer ties with Saudi Arabia by making his first foreign visit to that country, but neither the King nor the Crown Prince came to New York to attend the UN General Assembly. Did Trump feel snubbed? There is no clear answer.

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom expressed dismay by observing, “it was a wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience”. Analysts now opine if other US Presidents would have been so unwise to speak with so much venom and bravado as Trump did. Though the threat of retaliation shall be the chief deterrent against any nuclear attack, to express the wish to use it, at a global forum, was diplomatically untenable. On this Trump has erred.

Dr Panda is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. The views expressed are his own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India. E-mail:




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