A few years ago, before he formally launched his political career, Donald Trump declared via Twitter, “The global warming we should be worried about is the global warming caused by NUCLEAR WEAPONS in the hands of crazy or incompetent leaders!”
It’s a sentiment to keep in mind as one takes stock of today’s news.
Amid sharply escalating tensions with North Korea, President Donald Trump on Tuesday promised “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if the country continues to threaten the United States.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” the president warned, responding to a reporter’s question during at his Bedminster Golf Club, where Trump has spent the last several days. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. [Kim Jong-un] has been very threatening, beyond a normal state. And as I said, they will be met with fire and fury –and frankly power – the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Trump’s [rhetoric] came just hours after reports that North Korea had developed a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on a missile.
Trump didn’t delve into any specifics – he’s not a detail-oriented kind of guy – but when a sitting American president effectively threatens a rogue adversary with a nuclear attack, it’d be helpful to get some clarification.
For example, is it Trump’s position that “threats” alone from North Korea will necessarily be met with “fire and fury”? Because it’s a safe bet that Kim Jong-un’s regime still has plenty of saber rattling to do.
Raise your hand if you have confidence in America’s first amateur president leading during a nuclear crisis.
What happens next will help dictate the direction of the crisis, though it may be worth keeping an eye on the president’s Twitter feed, since it could start a war. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent had a good piece in December – before Trump’s inauguration day – that’s worth revisiting today.
Arms control experts I spoke with suggested that Trump’s willingness to Tweet about nuclear weapons raises the possibility of Trump doing the same as president – and more to the point, the possibility of him doing so amid some species of international crisis or escalation.
Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear non-proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, points out that in peacetime, any belligerent Trump Tweet about nuclear weapons might not appear as alarming, simply because “confirmation bias” might lead key actors not to interpret it in its most frightening light at that moment. Amid rising international tensions, though, that confirmation bias might work in the other direction, he says.
“Imagine we’re in a crisis — if he recklessly Tweets, people could read these things in the worst possible light,” Lewis tells me. “The North Koreans have a plan to use nuclear weapons very early in a conflict. They’re not going to wait around. If they think we are going, they’re going to use nuclear weapons against South Korea and Japan.”
Or, we now know, against us.
Last week, we were told new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly might help turn Trump into a more restrained and more responsible president. If you believed this hype, I’m afraid I have some very bad news.