NEW YORK – Fifteen years after George W. Bush declared that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea formed “an axis of evil,” Donald Trump, in his maiden address to the United Nations, denounced Iran and North Korea in similarly vitriolic terms. Words have consequences, and Trump’s constitute a dire and immediate threat to global peace, just as Bush’s words did in 2002.
Back then, Bush was widely praised for his response to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. It’s easy to rally the public to war, and that was especially true after 9/11. Yet, on every front – Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea – US militarism squandered global trust, lives, finances, and precious time. And Trump’s approach is far more belligerent – and dangerous – than Bush’s.
For Trump, as for Bush, there is Good (America) and Evil (Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iran, North Korea, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein). America the Good makes demands on the evildoers. If the evildoers do not comply, America can exercise the “military option” or impose punitive sanctions to enforce “justice” as the United States defines it.
Bush applied the logic of force vis-à-vis Afghanistan and the “axis of evil,” with disastrous results. The US quickly overthrew the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2002 but could not secure order. Fifteen years on, the Taliban controls considerable territory, and Trump has just ordered an increase in troops. America has spent roughly $800 billion in direct military outlays in Afghanistan, and indeed has been at war there almost non-stop since the CIA covertly intervened in 1979, helping to provoke the Soviet invasion of that country.
The response to Iraq was even worse. The US invaded in 2003 on false pretenses (Saddam’s alleged but nonexistent weapons of mass destruction), squandered another $800 billion in direct military outlays, destabilized the country, caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, and, contrary to stated US objectives, plunged the region into turmoil. The indirect costs of the two wars (including the long-term costs of veterans’ disabilities) roughly equal the direct costs.
Bush’s hardline approach toward Iran also produced none of the envisioned results. Iran’s regional influence – particularly in Iraq, but also in Syria and Lebanon – is stronger today than 15 years ago. Its ballistic missile development is much further advanced. And the halt in its development of nuclear weapons is due entirely to President Barack Obama’s diplomacy, not Bush’s militarism and threats.
Bush’s approach vis-à-vis North Korea was similarly unsuccessful. At the start of 2002, a fragile 1994 agreement between the US and North Korea was still restraining the North’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons, though the US had dragged its feet on several parts of the agreement. Scorned by Bush administration hardliners, the agreement collapsed in mutual recrimination in 2002. In January 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and resumed full-scale weapons-development efforts. Now the country has thermonuclear bombs and ballistic missiles.
All four cases reflect the same US failing. The US has repeatedly disdained negotiation as a sign of weakness and appeasement. The hardline approach is initially popular with much of the US public, but invariably ends in grief.
Trump is doubling down. He has all but declared his intention to abandon the nuclear agreement with Iran, signed not only by the US but also by the other four permanent Security Council members (China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom) and Germany. Abandoning the 2015 deal would parallel Bush’s abandonment of the nuclear agreement with North Korea. Israel and Saudi Arabia recklessly encourage Trump’s Iran policy, but both countries stand to lose grievously if the deal falls apart.
In the case of North Korea, Trump’s approach is even more reckless, threatening that the US will “totally destroy” the country if it does not agree to abandon its nuclear program. The probability that North Korea will accede to the US demand is close to zero. The probability of provoking a nuclear war is high and rising. Indeed, North Korea has asserted that the US has effectively declared war, though the White House has denied that interpretation.
Trump, like Bush, has turned President John F. Kennedy’s famous dictum on its head. JFK told Americans that they should never negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate. Trump, like Bush, rejects negotiations, for fear of appearing weak, in favor of unilateral demands backed by the threat or reality of force.
With some vision, it would not be hard to see Iran and the US cooperating on many fronts, instead of facing off with threats of war. Achieving the two-state solution in Israel and Palestine would also help to defuse Iran’s anti-Israel stance.
In the case of North Korea, the regime is seeking a nuclear arsenal to deter a US-led attempt at regime change. Those fears are not completely misplaced. The US has, after all, overthrown or at least tried to overthrow non-nuclear regimes that it opposes, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and (unsuccessfully) Syria. The North Korean regime has declared explicitly that it seeks “military equilibrium” with the US in order to avert a similar scenario.
The US suffers from an arrogance of military power disconnected from today’s geopolitical realities. Militarism has failed time and again – and is more dangerous than ever. Trump, a malignant narcissist, is seeking instant gratification and a political “win.” America’s recent wars have provided such immediate gratification, before quickly giving way to grief – the ultimate quick high followed by a very deep low. The US is on this path again, heading for a collision with a nuclear-armed adversary, and it will remain on it unless other countries, other American leaders, and public opinion block the way.
There is a better path: negotiations with Iran and North Korea over mutual security interests that are direct, transparent, objective, and free of US military threats. The same is true regarding the conflicts in Syria, Libya, Israel-Palestine, Yemen, and elsewhere. And there is a venue for this: the UN Security Council, created in 1945 to negotiate solutions when the world hovers between war and peace.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
By Jeffrey D. Sachs