Today is the 72nd anniversary of the America atomic bombing of Nagasaki, a lovely port city that also served as a Japanese naval base during the second world war. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki prompted Emperor Hirohito to announce in a radio address Japan’s surrender, though fanatical war hawks tried to stop him. The atomic bombings saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, but they remain the only time that a country has actually deployed these fearsome weapons. Donald Trump’s implicit threat to unleash an unprecedentedly devastating nuclear attack on North Korea that would apparently eclipse Hiroshima and Nagasaki offers a reminder that in this regard America remains unique. Nuclear weapons are the great taboo—or at least they have been. Neither the Soviet Union nor China has ever used them in combat. India and Pakistan haven’t either. With Trump and Kim Jong Un, a bad hombre if there ever was one, now uttering dire imprecations at each other is that about to change?
Trump’s entourage says no. The old man, we are told, was in a lousy mood. Maybe he had a bad day on the links at Bedminster, where he issued his warning during a photo op at the Trump National Golf Club. The reaction from both Republicans and Democrats was not favourable. John McCain said, “I take exception to the President’s comments because you’ve got to be sure that you can do what you say you’re going to do.” The Heritage Foundation, the citadel of conservatism in Washington, indicates that Trump should employ more restrained language. And Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, notes that Trump’s flamboyant rhetoric sounds much like the kind of fulgurations that routinely emanate from Pyongyang.
The problem with Trump’s remarks is that unless he really is preparing to back up his red line, then he is debasing the credibility of America’s nuclear forces. Far from being cowed by Trump’s remarks, North Korea is talking about attacking American forces based in Guam. It’s likely to conduct another ICBM test this weekend. Indeed, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency, North Korea has up to 60 nuclear bombs and can miniaturise a warhead. There is no beautiful wall that can be built to fence off America from North Korea.
Maybe Trump can successfully deploy what’s known as the “madman” theory of international relations in which a foreign adversary is supposed to believe that the American president is so bonkers that it’s best to come to terms. But what if Trump really is a madman? What if he really means it when he says that he’s ready to rain down “fire and fury” upon North Korea, or at least convinces himself that it’s a neat idea?
Another possibility: Trump might be bluffing, but North Korea could (gulp) take his cavalier statements seriously and strike first. Either way, at a moment when even Washington’s neocon hawks are counselling caution, it’s hard not to have a bad case of the collywobbles when it comes to the prospect of the irascible and volatile Trump trying to stare down the pariah of Pyongyang. I know I do.