If ever we needed a wake-up call, the North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test on July 4 supplied it with a vengeance: The era of nuclear amnesia is over. Ever since the end of the Cold War, we’ve lived without the dread of an overseas crisis that might spiral into thermonuclear war. With the United States alone claiming superpower status, there were few restraints on the deployment and use of US military forces around the world. Now, however, not one but three nuclear-armed powers—Russia, China, and North Korea—have set explicit limits to the exercise of American power abroad, and any attempt by Washington to go beyond those limits risks provoking a military clash with the genuine risk of nuclear escalation. More than ever, we need experienced, levelheaded leadership in Washington to manage the multiple crises arising abroad, starting with the North Korean nuclear threat. Instead, we have Donald Trump, making the situation incomparably worse than it would be otherwise.
Even without the presence of Trump in the White House, this would be an extremely hazardous moment. After a long period in which the use of nuclear weapons appeared inconceivable, we have entered an era of global discord in which such use is becoming increasingly plausible. This is true for a number of reasons, as will be discussed below, but the installation of Trump as commander in chief has made the situation far more perilous. Not only does he lack experience in international affairs and military matters, but he has shown himself to be a spiteful, mean-spirited person with a predilection for employing force at a moment’s whim—the last qualities you would seek in the person most responsible for guiding us through a potentially apocalyptic crisis. Frighteningly, it is evident that we will face a series of such crises in the months ahead.
The North Korea threat is so acute because it is evident that Kim Jong-un, the North’s supreme leader, is racing to develop ICBMs capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the American heartland. He hasn’t quite arrived there yet, but the missile test on July 4 demonstrated that Pyongyang is moving ever closer to this goal. This means that Trump, who has vowed to prevent the North from acquiring such a capability, is running out of time to achieve that end. Given the high bar that Trump has set for meetings with Kim—the only assured way to halt the North’s weapons program short of war—it appears we’re edging ever closer to a US military strike that could well result in nuclear escalation.
But the Korean Peninsula is not the only place where a military clash could lead to such an outcome. In the Baltic region, US forces are deployed in close proximity to Russian forces, while ships and planes from both sides often operate in the same confined air and sea space, inviting accidents and misunderstandings. And in the South China Sea, American warships patrol off the coast of fortified Chinese-claimed islands equipped with anti-ship missiles and other arms. When relations among these powers were relatively friendly, a minor incident—say, a collision between planes or ships from opposing sides—would normally result in hurried phone calls between the top leaders involved, followed by de-escalation. But in these fraught times, with none of the presiding overlords in Moscow, Beijing, or Washington seemingly capable of backing down, such incidents could easily provoke a show of force on each side, followed by rapid escalation.