Trump’s Tweet Won’t Start a Nuclear War — But the Real Danger Is Still Terrifying

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Media Outlet: New York Magazine

Heather Hurlburt wrote her take on Trump's latest North Korea tweets for New York Magazine.

I’m not worried about a nuclear exchange with Pyongyang this weekend or next. The more absurd the public exchanges become, the easier it will be for cooler heads on both sides to prevail — in the short term, at least. We now know that President Nixon did not, in fact, have control of the nuclear launch codes during a period when his closest aides judged him to be impaired and unreliable. Perceptions of erratic behavior also played a part in the palace coup that drove Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader whose actions sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis, out of office. Current and former U.S. defense officials have gone out of their way, in congressional testimony and other public forums— pretty much anytime a reporter asks — to make it clear that they do think about receiving illegal or immoral orders, and how they might respond. Even Kim Jong-un, who said last fall that a “frightened dog barks louder,” seems to understand that these exchanges with Trump are for show.
No, what I’m worried about — and much more worried about after the “button” tweet — is what happens when a powerful country loses credibility so rapidly that it doesn’t know it’s gone. Imagine the plight of the U.S. envoys trying to negotiate a Ukraine peacekeeping mission with teeth, or the military officer telling Iranian boats to stay clear of our ships. Imagine foreign nations offering a response that seems to say, “And how is your button today?”
The temptation to try to reestablish U.S. credibility through shows of force — on the Korean Peninsula or elsewhere — is going to be enormous. The pressure won’t just come from our president wanting to use his metaphorical button. It will come from the men and women in the security Establishment who are used to demonstrating U.S. resolve. And it will come from our allies and partners, who agreed to work with a U.S. that means what it says.
At the same time, Kim Jong-un has just made it look easy to make our president look ridiculous. Others will be tempted to follow suit. Tweets, though embarrassing, are harmless. Other kinds of provocations may not be.


Author:

Heather Hurlburt is director of the New Models of Policy Change initiative at New America's Political Reform program.