On Friday, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, tweeted: “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong-un will find another path!” As Trump’s tweets go, this one is particularly bewildering. Locked and loaded is both a technical military term meaning a firearm has a bullet or a shell in the breach and is now ready to fire, and a phrase popularized in American culture by John Wayne in “Sands of Iwo Jima”. Trump, who famously found a medical excuse to avoid the draft, may be using it in the Hollywood sense. On the other hand, in the rest of his tweet he refers to “military solutions”, and he is after all the commander of chief of the U.S. Armed forces. But if so, it makes little sense.
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As far as the president is concerned, the military is always “locked and loaded”. As commander of the world’s only truly global military, Trump can order a nuclear strike to be launched in fifteen minutes and a tactical strike or special forces operation to take place on any spot on the globe within hours. Whatever solutions or contingency plans he may be referring to regarding North Korea existed long before he took office. But then this is Trump, who six months in to his presidency, is still discovering daily, exciting powers he never dreamt of before. To him it’s all new.
Trump of course is not the first U.S. president to enter office without experience or knowledge of military matters: his immediate predecessor Barack Obama was equally inexperienced, as was Bill Clinton. The massive American fighting machine was designed to be wielded by an elected civilian. Just not one who seems incapable of learning how to do so and yet so eager to boast of its capabilities. Obama and Clinton were handed the world’s most powerful and destructive weapon, locked and loaded, and set about learning from the experts how to use it carefully, when needed. Trump is waving it around, with his finger inside the trigger-guard.
And while it is not fair on many levels to compare a president who was elected democratically (even if he did lose the popular vote) with a despotic princeling who rules on the broken backs of millions of indentured and starving slaves, the supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un probably knows more than Trump does about how to use a locked and loaded weapon. Which is why he won’t use it any time soon, unless as a last resort. Kim has bled the North Korean people dry building his nuclear arsenal because he needs it to ensure his cruel dictatorship survives. He’s not going to use it just like that.
Trump doesn’t understand why American needs its nuclear weapons, and worse, he doesn’t seem to understand why it shouldn’t use them, but we have to hope that even he is not deluded enough to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on North Korea without any real intelligence of an imminent attack. If he is, we have to assume (and hope) that the vice president and cabinet are alert and ready to use the Twenty-fifth Amendment and declare him “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”.
So there is room for optimism that we’re not quite yet on the verge of nuclear war breaking out between the U.S. and North Korea, but neither are we on the verge of de-escalation any time soon either. Both Trump and Kim have done what no two leaders of nuclear-armed countries, not even during the Cuban missile crisis, have done before and publicly threatened to attack each other with nuclear missiles. As Kim’s foreign ministry put it “to strike a merciless blow at the heart of the U.S. with our powerful nuclear hammer, honed and hardened over time” or as Trump threatened “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Even at the peak of animosity between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, when the two super-powers were gripped in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, was there anything close to these levels of threats being hurled back and forth. And it’s hard to see how either man can now take what was said back.
A dictator like Kim cannot afford to show a moment’s weakness and Trump is of course easily goaded in to making ever more rash statements. Even if Kim is unlikely to use his handful of nuclear devices unless he feels his regime is in mortal danger and Trump will stop short of unleashing America’s thousand-times more powerful arsenal, the temptation will grow at some stage to match the escalating war of words with actions. Which is why Trump’s tweet on “military solutions are now fully in place” is much more worrying than his “fire and fury” remark. Those solutions have long been in place but considered too potentially disastrous to use. Now we have an American president who is insistent on talking himself in to a corner where he may feel he needs to use them.
There is no precedent to this situation. To coin a phrase, we are living in locked and loaded times. As every infantryman knows, when you have locked and loaded weapons in the room, you have to devote all your attention to ensuring their safety. It could mean that for months, perhaps the next few years, international diplomacy, certainly America’s (much depleted under Trump) diplomatic service will be able to focus on precious else than the Korean crisis. The implications for other parts of the world where American influence was crucial for keeping some form of stability may be major. Meanwhile, the world will have to hope that either ill health, or impeachment in Trump’s case or a long-overdue rebellion in Kim’s, will remove one or both of these dangerous men before words turn in to irrevocable deeds. That either of them can be prevailed upon to de-escalate seems too much to hope for.