A United States president (Richard Nixon, not Donald Trump) once reportedly picked out targets for nuclear strikes in North Korea while drunk. Some years later, former British Army captain turned singer James Blunt somehow claimed that he prevented World War III – an honour more credibly shared by Vasili Arkhipov, the Soviet submarine officer who prevented a 10-kiloton warhead being deployed against the United States.
There are a large and disturbing number of nuclear near misses since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings seven decades ago. Causes include a solar flare, a moonrise over Norway and a computer error. My generation, while able to watch the bombing of Iraq or the Syrian Civil War in more gruesome rolling detail than ever before, has been the first since the thirties to grow up in a world where instant annihilation was not a common, almost daily threat. As for this week’s brinksmanship, every country in the world has had leaders with a penchant for dangerous macho sabre-rattling. The United States, which has spent over 90 per cent of its history at war, is no exception.
This is why there is something concerning about our treatment of Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric on North Korea. Framing it as something completely unprecedented, as leading establishment opponents have, betrays a wilful ignorance. Yes, Trump (and Kim Jong-un) make good comedy villains – malicious yet bumbling with both terrifying and comic features – but there is nothing new about the dangers they pose.
Pretending otherwise fits with a common establishment anti-Trump strategy; denying him a place in the American presidents’ hall of fame and rejecting his fans’ comparisons to Reagan, Jackson, and other “heroes.” It’s not true: Trump fans have a point when comparing him to Jackson, the right-wing populist behind a new era of plantation slavery on razed Native American land, or Reagan who ran dog-whistle racist campaigns at home while funding death squads abroad. Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, brazenly backed atrocities and coups under the auspices of Barack Obama’s White House and Hillary Clinton’s State Department.
There is plenty of continuity between Trump and the actions and rhetoric of past leaders.
This line of thinking opposes Trump not because of his dangerous rhetoric or his love of weapons of mass destruction, but because he is insufficiently polite about it all. We are left arguing not for the end of nuclear genocide buttons, but for them to belong to people who speak a little less intemperately, for a somewhat nicer and calmer approach to potential nuclear annihilation.
Those arguing we should break from the doctrine of world-ending deterrence sit on the fringes, reviled. Yet, the mutual-deterrence principle that underlined Cold War thinking is failing. The near-misses and brinksmanship are old, but the geopolitical conditions are new and worrying – and should cause a rethink of defence policy and the US’ role in the world, not merely an excoriation of one president’s neuroses.
Lyndon Johnson recognised the danger of being overzealous in the face of nuclear war in his 1964 campaign and reacted vigorously to his opponent’s casual comments about nuking Vietnam, with a chilling political ad. Yet Johnson ultimately escalated Vietnam to the cost of millions of lives. War brings the political establishment together. Trump’s random airstrikes on Syria brought opponents in from the cold to praise how presidential he seemed. Maybe it’s time we accept that the problem isn’t how “presidential” he is – he’s louder than some of his predecessors when it comes to war, but not all that different.
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