Donald Trump isn’t famous for his measured words, but his recent threat to North Korea has taken the rhetoric to a new level. Both sides could easily make a mistake in this dangerous conflict, says DW’s Miodrag Soric.
US President Donald Trump threatened North Korea with “fire, fury and frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” Why can’t those words – like so much of what this president says – simply be ignored as idle talk? As just one more statement from a narcissistic politician that never follows words with action? Because this war of words could easily escalate into a military conflict that could prove fatal for millions of people.
The American president is the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military. That would seem to dictate that he choose his words carefully and issue such threats only if he is truly prepared to back them up with military action. Unfortunately, caution, calculability, rationality and prudence are not among this president’s character traits. He is not known for keeping his cool. In contrast, he is a hothead. He counts on gut feelings when it comes to politics, he is impulsive, impatient and emotional – and that is what makes him so dangerous. That is also why former president Barack Obama warned voters that Trump was not fit to be commander-in-chief during last year’s US presidential election campaign. But US voters thought differently. Any hopes that Trump would grow into the new job and “become presidential” have, to put it mildly, been shattered. His threat to North Korea is further evidence of that.
But with the threat, the president has put his country’s credibility on the line. If Washington backs down – something that would be a good idea in this situation – other potentates and adversaries will take note. And should the opportunity arise, they would likely follow North Korea’s lead and stand up to the US as well. Therefore, the US cannot afford to show weakness in dealing with North Korea’s criminal leadership. Nevertheless, it also cannot allow itself to get dragged into a war that would devastate the entire region.
The situation can only be defused if both sides back off, or if an honest broker can be found to deescalate the conflict. Neither of those options seem likely. Both North Korea and the US do not show any signs of backing down, and potential mediators like Russia and China are playing their own games. Although Moscow and Beijing are opposed to the idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea, they are even more fearful of US influence in the region should Washington successfully topple dictator Kim Jong-un. Therefore, both players see the status quo of a Stalinist regime in Pyongyang as being in their own national interests.
Who will make a mistake?
But Trump seems unwilling to live with that scenario. He wants to force North Korean disarmament. As things stand now, it looks as if the only way to do that will be with military might. North Korean leadership, on the other hand, is betting that Trump is not truly prepared to go to war and is steadfastly pushing ahead with its weapons program. Dictator Kim is convinced that the only way he and his regime will be able to survive into the future is if North Korea has nuclear weapons. Trump is frustrated that his domestic program has stalled, his own party has left him in the lurch and that his supporters are growing increasingly disappointed. It would not be the first foreign war started to divert attention from problems at home. It is a muddled and dangerous situation, one in which both sides could easily make a mistake.