Danielle McLaughlin: Donald Trump's North Korea aggression a betrayal of promises
As mutual threats between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un escalate, I am reminded of the last time nuclear war seemed like an actual possibility. It was 1986. I was 11. The Rainbow Warrior had been sunk in Auckland harbour a year before. New Zealand's anti-nuclear activism was in full swing. And my teacher, a wonderful liberal lady who let her kids call her by her first name, embraced the issue passionately.
It's 2017. I'm in New York City, surrounded by 9/11-hardened New Yorkers who take the daily existential threat of a terrorist attack in stride. The reaction to this madman's feud has been muted. I've seen plenty of eye rolls at Trump's bluster (New Yorkers have seen it all before). But I have felt no sense that the threat is imminent, or that we should be stacking cash in boxes and charting escape routes out of the city.
It seems like a lifetime ago, perhaps, but Donald Trump delivered his maiden foreign policy speech just 16 months ago, on April 27, 2016. From a gilded hall in Washington DC's Mayflower hotel, in typical Trumpian fashion, the speech was not notable for its accuracy. Trump asserted that Obama had made Iran into a great power; that the world was "laughing at us" because we failed to secure the 2016 summer Olympics. Obama, who shepherded the US through an historic economic recovery, had crippled the country.
The soon-to-be president promised that "unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct," noting that "a superpower understands that caution and restraint are really truly signs of strength."
After the address, in which Trump filled out the skeletal foreign policy fragments of his tweets and rally speeches, the media determined immediately that while Hillary was a hawk, Donald was a dove.
Fast forward to the bright light of the summer of 2017, some 200 days into Trump's presidency. The speech promising a light touch on American interventionism is revealed for its inverse relationship with the reality of the Trump presidency. Trump promised he would keep our allies close. That he would honour the agreements the US had made. Trump asserted that our rivals no longer respect us and that Obama watched helplessly as North Korea's nuclear threat strengthened.
Truth is, Trump has ticked off Turnbull and insulted Merkel. He has undermined the Iran nuclear deal, attempted to renege on paying for a South Korean missile defense system, and was outraged over an Australian refugee resettlement pledge. Putin's Russia, which Trump has curiously assuaged and exalted, called Trump weak and humiliated for signing sanctions legislation. And on North Korea, Trump has offered little more than dangerous bluster. With an off-the-cuff comment from his New Jersey golf resort, on which he doubled down a day later, Trump changed the course of 60 years of American policy on the rogue state's nuclear intentions. His vow to rain "fire and fury like the world has never seen" on North Korea if it threatened the United States only weakened the US position. North Korea crossed the president's red line within hours, threatening Guam.
There is a limited set of bad options on North Korea: strategic patience leading to the likely development of nuclear capability, a first strike that would provoke North Korea into launching nuclear or conventional weapons directed at South Korea, a retaliatory strike that would obliterate Pyongyang as well as Seoul, leaving in its wake a humanitarian crisis on a scale never seen before.
There is also another way. A way that requires the restraint Trump promised to Americans. If the president can secure a multi-lateral peace agreement halting Kim Jong Un's nuclear program, he will achieve in North Korea something no other president has accomplished.
If he does not, and this sabre rattling results in either no change, or the deaths of millions, He will be remembered as a president who began his foreign policy pronouncements characterising the legacy of his predecessor as filled with "weakness, confusion and disarray" when in fact he was predicting his own.
Sunday Star Times