Two child bullies, one leading the most powerful nation on earth and the other the most isolated country, are pushing their countries towards a war that could mark the beginning of World War III.
You guessed it. I am talking about the US President Donald Trump and the North Korean President Kim Jong-Un.
Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in the New York Times that Trump, who is 70, acts more irresponsibly than a four-year child. Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post that Trump behaves like a toddler.
Kim, whose date of birth is a state secret, is 32-33 year old. Whimsical, Kim is a lot like Trump, according to some people like Marwan Bishara, the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.
To be sure, it could be a good thing if the grownups occasionally behave childishly if they do not have their fingers on the nuclear button. But Trump and Kim do, and this puts the world on edge.
According to the Arms Control Association, the United States sits on 6,800 powerful nuclear weapons. North Korea has 10 of them. Some other estimates suggest that Pyongyang could have as many as 30 nuclear weapons.
The war of words between Washington and Pyongyang is nothing new, for a reason.
Though they had signed an armistice in 1953, at the end of the Korean War, there is no peace treaty between them yet. The United States has maintained nearly 30,000 forces in South Korea. Meanwhile, North Korea has aggressively pursued nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.
In 1994, the two countries signed an Agreed Framework under which Pyongyang agreed to freeze the nuclear program and allow IAEA inspections in return for help to replace the existing nuclear plants with light water power plants and for normalization of political and economic relations.
Both sides did not live up to the agreement, blaming each other. North Korea tested nuclear weapons, and the international community imposed sanctions against it in 2006, shortly after the tests. Last month, it tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles, which can hit targets in the United States.
In response, at the behest of the United States and under the aegis of the United Nations, the international community imposed additional sanctions. This prompted Pyongyang to fire its first verbal salvo at Washington, and President Trump took the bait.
Trump said he would unleash ‘fire and fury’ if North Korea did not stop producing nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. On 10 August, he doubled down again suggesting that his fire and fury statement was not strong enough.
This is something new. No other responsible Western leader had ever issued such a dire threat to North Korea.
Pyongyang responded by calling Trump ‘bereft of reason’ and his remark as a ‘load of nonsense’ and outlining a plan to attack Guam, where the United States has a large military base. The to and fro has sent the chill down the spine of the world, particularly Asia.
First, Asia. If America attacks, North Korea will attack South Korea, and both Koreas will be ruined. The South Korean capital, Seoul, which has 11 million people and which is hardly 35 miles from the border, will bear the brunt of the destruction.
Besides, North Koreans have threatened to attack Guam. The imprecise North Korean missiles could hit any country on the way to Guam. If push comes to shove, Pyongyang could fire a few missiles to Japan, a close American ally.
If it breaks out, the war will suck in other countries as well. For instance, China. North Korea relies on trade and aid on China. The Chinese official media has said Beijing would protect North Korea if the attack were started by the US. If war starts, millions of North Korean refugees will flood China, and it will force Beijing to take a robust action.
If China gets involved, Russia is likely to keep the agreement between the Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi. Japan and NATO countries will have to support the US under treaty obligations. So World War III could unfold.
If a war breaks out between the US and North Korea, the American people will not be safe either. The North Korean missiles can hit Hawaii, Alaska, and even Chicago, which means most of the United States, barring the east coast.
Besides the direct impact of missiles, there will be economic impacts. The war will destroy the South Korean and North Korean economies. Japan and China will suffer the secondary impact. The impact will ripple to the Pacific rim as a whole and the rest of the world.
The impact is not a figment of the imagination. World stock markets have already recorded a fall because of the escalating rhetoric between the United States and North Korea.
Is World War III about to start? I do not know that. But what I know is this: Arrogance and resentment are often at the root of war.
The powerful countries often militarily intervene in the powerless due to arrogance. For example, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait under Saddam Hussein, the US invasion of Iraq (second time) and of Grenada, the British-French invasion of Libya, China’s attack on Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and Hungry, etc. fall in this category.
The countries defeated and humiliated in war often engage in wars of resentment. The best example is World War II. To prepare his people for war, Adolf Hitler fanned the German resentment caused by the loss in World War I and the harsh conditions imposed on it by the victors.
When you combine arrogance and resentment, you create an explosive cocktail, which is the United States under Donald Trump.
Withdrawing from the climate change agreement and asking Mexico to pay for the wall to be built by the US are screaming examples of Trump’s arrogance.
Projecting America as the aggrieved party in trade agreements and NATO funding are the examples of resentment being fuelled by Trump.
Of course, sometimes normal leaders, too, make incendiary remarks or issue dire threats. But they weigh the cost and benefits and listen to their advisers before they push the button.
For instance, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, both former US Presidents, have done it. Regan undiplomatically called the then-Soviet Union an evil empire. The US President Barack Obama drew a red line in the Syrian civil war for intervention. But they did not act impulsively.
But Trump is not a normal leader the way Reagan and Obama were. Only Trump tweets self-destructive messages in the middle of the night, disregarding his advisers’ advice. Only Trump has told lies all his life. Only Trump takes pride in grabbing ‘women by their pussies.’
Trump can do anything if his ego is challenged. Kim has only to gain by drawing Trump into this spat. So American leaders who can influence Trump should lean on him, and China should lean on Kim to save the world.