The latest phase of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula demonstrates the tenuous nature of positions, interests, and realities in the international system. It is one system that is uniquely fluid – existing in a permanent state of flux, in all ramifications. This is what provided context for its characterization by Lord Palmerston as a milieu in which friendship and enmity are wholly shifty; where only the interests of players bear the semblance of permanence.
Speaking of England, in the House of Commons on March 1, 1848, the English lord proclaimed what came to be regarded as a cardinal rule of global diplomacy thus, ‘We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.’ Extant crisis on the Korean Peninsula is simply about a new reality, which the wider world, not without a reason though, is quite reluctant to acknowledge and relate with. This is, hate it or leave it, the arrival of a nuclear-armed North Korea, and the change in strategic engagement in the region, nay the world, that should ordinarily be attendant upon that.
Without much regard to this new reality, the United States and its allies, especially in the north Pacific region, continue to stand on the increasingly tenuous position of the United Nations that the Korean Peninsula be denuclearized. History suggests that this is a laudable objective, though. What with the horrific memories usage of the atomic bomb in World War II continue to evoke? To be sure, a nuclear war is one, which, as Jimmy Carter noted in 1979, ‘in horror and destruction and human death will dwarf all the combined wars of man’s long and bloody history!’ Elsewhere, he cautioned that ‘The survivors (of a nuclear war), if any, would live in despair amid the poisoned ruins of a civilization that had committed suicide.’ With this in focus, the moral platform on which a programme of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is predicated cannot be faulted. The challenge begging to be dealt with, however, is hinged on what the US has chosen to do in pushing this agenda, to wit, denial that indeed, North Korea has crossed the Rubicon and become nuclear armed!
To be sure, ours cannot be anything but the age of realpolitik. Were it not so, the question would have some significance, why the US that is itself armed-to-the-teeth with the nuclear bomb, would at the same time claim the moral authority to dispute other nations’ right to own what it already owns. It is evident that the regime in Pyongyang is truly in awe of what it assumes is the determination of Washington to destroy it, and lay its country to waste. Thus, for the regime, only a credible nuclear arsenal is its ultimate protection against US aggression; a position that, with the benefit of hindsight, comes with some degree of credibility. What with the way Libya, which under pressure from the West, dismantled its own nuclear weapons programme, has come to look like, consequent upon the regime change proclivity of the United States. How does that fear get allayed, such that amassing nuclear weapons, or preparing to ‘fight to finish’ with this terribly bad weapon becomes rather otiose for the North Koreans? Methink this is the challenge before global diplomacy today.
The queer logic of realpolitik allows everybody to wink at the contradiction inherent in a nuclear armed US moralizing on the inadmissibility of other nations into the nuclear club. That same logic now compels a huge paradigm shift in attitude towards North Korea. It requires that the US government, and indeed the United Nations, acknowledge the arrival of Pyongyang on the nuclear platform. The world then must begin to figure out ways of treating this rogue nation as a nuclear power, no matter how irritating that is. This, it is evident, is all the North Koreans think they deserve. It is what they want.
As things stand now, it is clear that blustering on the part of the US will not achieve much. Additional sanctions, as Vladimir Putin has now indicated, will also not just be unnecessary, but wholly ineffectual. The North Koreans, according to the Russian leader, will rather eat grass than abandon their atomic energy programme! At any event, the Kim dynasty has demonstrated well enough over the years that it cannot be bothered by the negative outcomes of additional sanctions on the country. It has taken time to condition its population to accept the most excruciating forms of privation as synonymous with service to the fatherland. Where does the world go from here?
In the past few days, Washington has made it clear that it has ran out of patience with North Korea. Its UN Ambassador, Nikky Haley, has assured the world that on North Korea, America’s patience is not unlimited. The Defense Secretary, General James Mattis, promised ‘massive retaliation,’ in the event that the North Koreans choose to press their luck too far.
Their principal, President Donald Trump, had set the ball rolling by promising the North Koreans ‘fire and fury’ – like the world had not seen before! Meanwhile, the North Korean leader struts around with some queer confidence in his ability to inflict real damage on the United States. In the rhetoric of war, Carter’s admonition on the practical uselessness of nuclear weapons seems to be lost. Henry Kissinger once confirmed that when the US was putting nuclear weapons in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, it really did not know what to do with them. Everybody knew that these weapons, in spite of costing humongous amounts of money, were not supposed to be used. This is because the victory that a nuclear confrontation is capable of giving can at best only be pyrrhic – one that is so damaging and destructive, so tainted that it is not worthy of celebration. The question then is, why the concern, given that everyone knows that nuclear warfare is a ‘no, no’?
This is where the factor of miscalculation comes in. In 1963, J. F. Kennedy spoke truthfully on the reality of nuclear armament thus, ‘Every man, woman, or child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.’ The world has come to a stage now in which it is not just that Kim Jong-un will not give up his nuclear programme as Putin has noted. There is indeed the possibility that things could spiral out of control if the maximum ruler in Pyongyang is convinced that a harsher fate awaits him, his regime, dynasty and country, if he does not act expeditiously. That is why the ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric of President Trump is worrisome.
There is the possibility that a Trump desperately searching for respect at home and abroad; a man largely driven by ego, and the need to live the machismo image he tries to cultivate, may trigger a preemptive attack on North Korea. Lacking in the depth and sobriety needed to appreciate the true nature of a nuclear warfare, therefore, makes Trump a present danger in the evolving situation.
Evidently, the more temperate members of the Trump administration, especially the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, seem to appreciate the need to walk back some of the more truculent comments coming from the President. He has in the past couple of weeks tried to lower the tone of engagement. He once assured Americans that a nuclear war was not really imminent. This, however, does not detract from the danger that such hawkish statements and tweets the US president is wont to put out there represent. Trump has even suggested he is willing to do the unthinkable – putting his country’s $519 billion trade with China on the line! This is a country to which the US is indebted to the tune of over a trillion dollars. The President’s style is echoed by his UN Ambassador who continues to evoke naivety, and the image of a rookie on the global diplomatic stage. The Ambassador does not seem to know that limitations now exist to what military power can accomplish in the present age. She does not seem to see the evidence of her country’s diminishing stature and leverage in global affairs consequent upon the Donald Trump phenomenon.
The point here is that the current attitude of the US government holds within it the possibilities of miscalculation, especially on the side of the North Korean regime, which could be prompted, on purely wrong assumptions, to start a war. If the young man who runs that country is made to believe that his regime and dynasty, nay his country, is in certain danger by reasons of the type of rhetoric oozing out of the White House, he may be tempted to act. Such happened before in history, albeit with dire consequences. In his very compelling work, “Why Nations Go To War,” John G. Stoessinger demonstrated that all the major wars fought in the 20th century, including the two World Wars, were products of miscalculation. Unless true realists in the evolving game of power on the Korean Peninsula, and the changing equation thereof, emerge on the scene to stanch the drive towards the precipice, the world may actually be on the path to destruction, largely by reason of miscalculation and the huge ego of a Trump and Kim. These are two men, who though were born and grew up in different ages and circumstances, and live thousands of miles away from each other, but manifest comparable emotional and psychological traits.
How does this affect Nigeria? There is not much we are in a position to do in terms of helping to stave off the disruption of the prevailing global system that would be consequent upon a conflagration on the Korean Peninsula. We also do lack the wherewithal to protect our country and people in the event of such a conflagration. The only veneer of positivity consists in the fact that our country is far from the epicenter of the evolving crisis. Thus, even in the event of outbreak of war, Nigeria may be saved its horrors, provided such armed encounter is limited to the troubled peninsula. The question is, who really is able to predict the boundaries of engagement in such a conflict? A nuclear war involving the US is not likely to be limited to just that, with the North Koreans. A nuclear war right on the border of China is not going to be viewed as an episodic affair by the rulers in Beijing. It is also not going to be a non-issue for a Russia that actively seeks a roll back of US power and global influence, and ascendance of its own. What all of these suggest is that whichever way it goes, Nigerians will at best be onlookers; and in the event of a nuclear war, await the true meaning of horror!
The times call for constructive and clear-eyed realistic leadership on the part of the US. America is the superpower, and thus the one expected to hold and use power more responsibly than an aberrant North Korea. This is the only guarantee for staving off a nuclear confrontation at this moment. The concern is whether such leadership type is available now in what the White House presents.
Prof. Mimiko, mni, is of the Department of Political Science, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.
Please Note: This is an unedited article and the raw opinions of the writer.