Nuclear annihilation is sum of all global fears as Trump squares off

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No danger weighs as heavily on the minds of leading global thinkers as the specter of nuclear war. That message rings clear in the fourth annual report card on International Cooperation, released today by the Council of Councils, an international network of 29 prominent think tanks.

These findings take on greater salience as President Trump enters a showdown this spring with the world’s two greatest proliferation threats: North Korea and Iran. The world is adrift in troubles. Besides nuclear weapons, the leaders of the Council of Councils institutes ranked interstate war, transnational terrorism, internal violence, and climate change as top global threats. Each of these dangers can seem intractable.

{mosads}Rising geopolitical tensions could well erupt into conflict between NATO and Russia in Europe, or between China and the United States over Taiwan or the South and East China Seas. The self-proclaimed Islamic State, meanwhile, has lost 98 percent of its territory but retains ideological appeal and transnational membership among extremists. Civil wars grind on in Syria and Afghanistan, abetted by external powers. Global warming continues unabated, exacerbated by the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

But it is nuclear annihilation that remains the sum of all global fears. No other weapon has the power to level entire cities, or indeed threaten civilization. The detonation of a single device in a major urban area would transform world politics at once, as societies struggle for security at all costs. In the United States, civil liberties could be curtailed dramatically, transforming the republic into a garrison state, making the national response to 9/11 look quaint by comparison.

Global pessimism about nuclear proliferation permeates this year’s report card. Indeed, think tank leaders awarded it a dubious trifecta: They voted it the most important global priority, the area in which international cooperation has been poorest, and dead last in terms of opportunities for breakthrough in the year ahead. In last year’s report card, these experts gave multilateral efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation a middling B-. This year they awarded a failing D+.

Such pessimism is easy to understand. After all, North Korea repeatedly provoked the international community in 2017, conducting its sixth nuclear weapons test and launching 23 missiles, some capable of hitting the continental United States. Washington and Pyongyang engaged in increasingly bellicose rhetoric, with the Trump administration mulling a “bloody nose” strike on North Korea that could easily spiral into a wider, potentially nuclear, conflict. Meanwhile, President Trump repeatedly threatened to decertify Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, despite the continued endorsement of that agreement by Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iran itself.

International experts polled for the report card recognize that preventing a second nuclear age depends on persuading North Korea to embrace disarmament and Iran to permanently freeze its own weapons program. But they had precious little faith in Donald Trump’s willingness or ability to advance either objectives, given his undisciplined temperament.

This spring will help answer whether these anxieties are warranted or overblown. On North Korea, the unpredictable Trump surprised critics by agreeing last month to meet soon with Kim Jong Un. The stakes in this summit are high. Trump will seek nothing less than a commitment to complete, comprehensive, and irreversible denuclearization, tightly supervised by international monitors.

Kim has indicated a willingness to take these steps in return for a formal peace treaty, as well as additional security guarantees and economic incentives. But longtime Korea hands are understandably skeptical, given Pyongyang’s decades of deception. They worry that White House naiveté will yield to anger, disillusionment, and military confrontation.

The Iranian story is different. Here is Trump playing the inveterate skeptic, threatening to tear up an agreement with which his own government says Iran is complying, despite recent pleas from Emmanuel Macron of France and Angela Merkel of Germany. If he repudiates the accord, the president will not only create a crisis within the Western alliance, he will also undermine the credibility of any deal he strikes with Kim over North Korea’s actual, as opposed to potential, nuclear arsenal.

Drawing on global opinion leaders, the 2018 report card provides a useful snapshot of the state of contemporary multilateralism. But it also provides something more, which is a barometer of foreign attitudes about the Trump administration’s retreat from global leadership and its implications for international order. From global trade to cyber governance to climate change, foreign policy experts repeatedly commented on how U.S. absence and unpredictability had roiled international waters.

If there are grounds for hope, they lie in two findings. The first is that other countries have at times been willing to fill the vacuum left by America’s abdication. China has emerged as a de facto leader on climate, for example, as have certain U.S. states, namely California. In trade, the remaining Trans Pacific Partnership members have pledged to continue without America. Such leadership helps explain why the overall grade for international cooperation in 2017, a C-, was unchanged from last year.

The second is that Trump’s bark has often been worse than his bite, at least to date. The president has not abandoned NATO, but rather reinforced it. He has berated the United Nations and threatened the World Trade Organization, but not sought to leave either institution. These are admittedly thin reeds on which to lean. But there is some consolation in the recognizing that it could always be worse.

Stewart Patrick is the James Binger senior fellow in global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World.” He is on Twitter @StewartMPatrick.

Tags Diplomacy Donald Trump Foreign policy Global Affairs Government Iran Kim Jong Un National security North Korea Nuclear weapons United States White House

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