Is the world edging towards the outbreak of a major conflict? Rising international tensions stemming from United States president Donald Trump being at loggerheads with North Korea and Iran over their respective nuclear programmes raise such a possibility. Some commentators fear such conflict, if allowed to get out of hand, could even be the trigger of the long-predicted but dreaded World War III.
The likelihood of war with North Korea, however, is much greater, given the intensity of a war of words currently taking place between Washington and Pyongyang. In fact, just a few days ago in an interview with the US television network NBC, respected retired American general Barry McCaffrey pointed to the possibility of war with North Korea by the middle of next year.
“The current language out of the administration, that lack of a diplomatic and serious engagement strategy, in my view, has us sliding towards war by next summer,” McCaffrey said. NBC anchor Brian Williams noted that McCaffrey does not have a reputation for inflammatory rhetoric which makes the warning all the more chilling.
Readers may recall that in his inaugural address to the United Nations General Assembly last month, Trump had listed North Korea, along with Iran and Venezuela, among “a small of group of rogue regimes” that are “the scourge of our planet today”.
“If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph,” the president said, telling the UN this is its role.
Referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man”, Trump threatened that if North Korea persisted with nuclear and missiles testing in defiance of the international community, America could wipe the Asian country off the map.
“The US has great strength and patience,” Trump said. He made clear, however: “If it is forced to defend ourselves or our allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea”.
The prospect of such a war, especially if it widens and escalates into a global conflict, is particularly chilling. Unlike World Wars I and II, it raises the spectre of death and destruction on a scale never before seen, given the advanced military hardware, including nuclear weapons, currently in the arsenals of many more countries, compared with just a handful at the height of World War II 72 years ago when the first nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan.
The last time the US was at war with North Korea back in the early 1950s in what was the first conflict of the former Cold War, there were real fears that the conflict could have escalated into a wider war – World War III – involving China and the then Soviet Union, the superpower rival of the US and leader of the former communist world which included North Korea.
It did not happen, however, and the Korean War came to an end after three years in 1953. In all, some five million soldiers and civilians lost their lives. Uneasiness, however, has since characterized relations between North Korea and the United States which Pyongyang sees as the main obstacle to reunification with South Korea which has enjoyed the support of the US since the partition of the peninsula.
Should the Trump administration go to war with North Korea, there are signs it will not have the full backing of the international community in what is a clear sign of declining US influence. When the US president threatened to annihilate North Korea, there were murmurs of disapproval in the UN General Assembly.
Interestingly too, the administration’s decision last week to turn its back on a nuclear treaty with Iran that was negotiated under the former Obama administration, has not met with approval from America’s traditional allies. Indeed, it seems Europe is now looking within itself, rather than to the US for leadership on global issues.
Clearly, the world has entered an interesting phase. Hopefully, good sense will prevail on all sides and the UN will prove its effectiveness as an institution devoted to the maintenance of world peace. Even though countries like ours are basically powerless bystanders in the context of the current sabre rattling, we cannot simply ignore these events or adopt a “que sera, sera (what will be, will be)” approach.
An outbreak of international conflict will inevitably have an adverse impact on our economy at a time when we can least afford it. To mitigate the possible fallout, we need to consider what can happen in a worst case scenario and plan accordingly. It is better to plan and be prepared instead of being caught in the whirlwind and having to struggle to keep our heads above water whilst swimming against the ferocious current.