Since then, the risk of nuclear-armed superpowers triggering Armageddon has been substantially reduced. Today, the bigger danger is that an increasing number of smaller countries ruled by unstable or dictatorial regimes will try to acquire nuclear weapons.
By becoming a nuclear power, such regimes can ensure their own survival, promote their local or regional geopolitical interests, and even pursue an expansionist agenda.
In this new environment, the “rationality of deterrence” maintained by the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War has eroded. Now, if nuclear proliferation increases, the threshold for using nuclear weapons will likely fall. As the current situation in North Korea shows, the nuclearization of East Asia or the Arabian Gulf could pose a direct threat to world peace.
Consider the recent rhetorical confrontation between North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump, in which the latter promised to respond with “fire and fury” to any further North Korean provocations.
Clearly, Trump is not relying on the rationality of deterrence, as one would have expected from the leader of the last remaining superpower.
Instead, he has given his emotions free rein.
He did not start the escalating crisis on the Korean Peninsula. It has been festering for some time due to the North Korean regime’s willingness to pay any price to become a nuclear power, which it sees as a way to ensure its safety.
The regime is also developing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and reaching the US west coast or farther. This would be a major security challenge for any US administration.
Ultimately, there are no good options for responding to the North Korean threat. A US-led pre-emptive war on the Korean Peninsula, for example, could lead to a direct confrontation with China and the destruction of South Korea, and would have unforeseeable implications for Japan.
And because the China-South Korea-Japan triangle has become the new power center of the 21st-century global economy, no country would be spared from the economic fallout. Even if the US continues to allude to the possibility of war, American military leaders know that the use of military force is not really a viable option given its prohibitively high costs and risks.
When North Korea achieves nuclear-power status, the American security guarantee will no longer be airtight. A North Korea with nuclear weapons and the means to use them would add pressure on South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear capacity, which they could easily do. That is the last thing China wants.
In this new environment, the rationality of deterrence maintained by the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War has eroded. Now, if nuclear proliferation increases, the threshold for using nuclear weapons will likely fall.
The situation in Asia today has the nuclear attributes of the 20th century and the national-power dynamics of the 19th. That could prove to be a highly inflammatory cocktail. At the same time, the international system is becoming increasingly unstable, with political structures, institutions and alliances worldwide being upended or called into question.
Much will depend on what happens in the US under Trump’s wayward presidency. The investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia ahead of the 2016 presidential election, and the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), have shown his administration to be unstable and ineffective.
And agenda items such as tax cuts, the Mexican border wall and the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — to say nothing of Trump’s emotional outbursts — are fueling America’s radical right.
Instability within the US is cause for global concern. If it can no longer be counted on to ensure world peace and stability, no country can. We will be left with a leadership vacuum; nowhere is this more dangerous than with respect to nuclear proliferation.
Another nuclear danger looms this fall. If the US Congress imposes new sanctions on Iran, the nuclear deal could fail. President Hassan Rouhani publicly announced just last week that Iran could abandon the deal “within hours” in response to new sanctions.
In light of the North Korea crisis, it would be the height of irresponsibility to trigger a gratuitous nuclear crisis — and possibly a war — in the Middle East. And a return by the US to a strategy of regime change in Iran would likely be self-defeating because it would strengthen the country’s hard-liners.
All of this would be taking place in a region that is already riven by crises and wars. And because Russia, China and the Europeans would stick to the nuclear deal, the US would find itself alone and at odds with even its closest allies.
Today’s nuclear threats demand exactly the opposite of “fire and fury.” What is needed is level-headedness, rationality and patient diplomacy that is not based on dangerous and fanciful threats of force. If the last superpower abandons these virtues, the world will have to confront the consequences.
• Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.
© Project Syndicate