The escalating war of words between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un has fuelled concerns that the region is on a dangerous trajectory to a nuclear conflict that could have calamitous global consequences. Since 1947, nuclear scientists have maintained a ‘Doomsday Clock’ that symbolically measures how close the world is to a man-made global cataclysm, represented by midnight. The clock now shows two and a half minutes to midnight and ticking, the closest it has been to catastrophe since the US exploded the first hydrogen bomb in 1953.
But are we really on the brink of a nuclear conflict? And is there a viable strategy for avoiding war without conceding to Kim’s nuclear blackmail?
There is no doubt that the long running North Korean nuclear issue has reached a dangerous tipping point and the crisis is being exacerbated by the intemperateness of the personal exchanges between Trump and Kim. Although we are used to hyperbole and invective from North Korea’s leaders, Trump’s combative style has shocked and angered friends and foes alike raising serious questions about his capacity to astutely manage the most serious foreign policy crisis of his presidency.
But nuclear Armageddon is not yet upon us. Stripped of its confrontational rhetoric, Trump’s actual strategy is straight out of the crisis management play book. Don’t telegraph your punches; keep all options on the table, including military force; mobilise friends and allies; employ multilateral tools like sanctions to obtain buy in from other states; and decouple your adversary from key supporters – in this case China.