I am a child of the Cold War. My parents let me stay up on a school night to watch The Day After, and I saw Reagan tell the world that stopping incoming warheads was a realistic possibility in the technology of the time. And Carl Sagan explained what nuclear winter would do to human civilization.
On the whole, it was a frightening time when the end of the world was something that was within human reach. As history reveals, we came close to grasping that. The Cuban missile crisis is the best known, when total war was only avoided because a Soviet political officer refused to launch a torpedo with a nuclear warhead on American ships that were dropping depth charges on his submarine, among other examples of the people involved backing off the apocalypse. The Reagan administration conducted war games with NATO called Able Archer 83 that the Russians thought was the prelude to a real attack. Russian computers went buggy and claimed that a missile was on their way, and again, one man insisted on taking the time to verify that what his screen was telling him was real.
When the Soviet Union fell apart, despite the collapse having its own dangers, there was a sense in the 90s that we’d all taken a step back from the madness. We saw with Chernobyl what irradiating a population would do, even if we’d forgotten the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the world was tired of being told that “you’re either for us or against us.”
The threat wasn’t over, however. During the Clinton administration, the Norwegians launched a research rocket from one of their northern islands, and the Russians briefly thought that it was an attempt at a sneak attack. Boris Yeltsin was handed the launch packages — we call it the nuclear football in this country — for a retaliatory strike. Once again, rationality won out, and once again, we got too close to the alternative.
And then came 9/11. Another American president presented the multipolar world a binary choice, and the good cheer evaporated. Trump and politicians like him are on the ascendancy in many nations that are now supposed to be democracies, and the hellish state of North Korea persists because the Chinese like goading the U.S. and our allies.
Now we have two schoolyard bullies, Trump and Kim, facing each other in the playground, taunting each other. It would be pathetic if in this analogy the two hadn’t both stolen their fathers’ guns and brought them along to emphasize their ego stroking.
The answer with children is to get adults in between the chest-thumping bullies and send them off to supervised detention. As things stand currently, though, who are the adults? Trump’s administration is in chaos, filled with backstabbers and yes men, and what China might do isn’t clear — likely the result of uncertainty about America’s intentions.
In the Cold War, we at least had some certainty about what each side wanted, and that included the knowledge that both sides wanted to continue living. Trump’s apparent dementia, his fragile psyche, and the investigations that threaten his occupation of a federal building leave us with the reality of a madman with nuclear weapons at his disposal. Kim Jong-un was raised in a nation straight out of 1984 in which his father and grandfather were treated as gods and political success was found in murdering one’s adversaries internally and threatening war with enemies elsewhere. Could we come up with two worse “leaders” in this situation?
Robert E. Kelly, associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University, argued in an article for The National Interest that North Korea’s weapons are a threat to us, but not an existential one, though he acknowledges that things would be that bad if a strike and counterstrike from the U.S. resulted in a widening conflict that brings China in, but an electromagnetic pulse high above our continent could shut down the country and wouldn’t require a warhead that can survive atmospheric re-entry.
So some adult must step in. Send Trump some fawning headlines about him, and get him some chocolate cake so he’ll calm down. If we can avoid war now, the American people need to learn the collective lesson that electing trolls is bad for all of us, no matter how much some in this country hated the black guy. Beyond that, we need a lot more global discussion about the value of democracy and the responsibilities involved in possessing the power to split atoms.
Short of that, we should put Kim and Trump together on an island with lots of ice cream, video games, and a porn account and leave them to themselves.
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