Nuclear proliferation: Trump plays a dangerous game

US President offers a vision that is almost guaranteed to fail

In setting out a vision of American retreat from the postwar international order the United States did so much to design, Donald Trump's bleak and belligerent inaugural address to the United Nations general assembly this week confirmed the worst fears of many US allies. Those who lament Trump's disdain for multilateralism as a principle might have taken solace had the US president's speech succeeded at a practical level, by offering a persuasive plan that held out the potential to effectively address the key theme of his remarks: nuclear proliferation. As it turned out, he offered a vision that is almost guaranteed to fail.

On the most pressing and complex foreign policy question facing his administration, Trump offered crude soundbites in place of a coherent strategy. He told world leaders that the US may have "no choice but to totally destroy" North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong-un ("Rocketman") was "on a suicide mission for himself and his regime". While the US was "ready, willing and able" to obliterate North Korea, "hopefully this will not be necessary". The international community has no good options in dealing with Pyongyang, but ratcheting up the rhetoric in this way not only risks antagonising the unpredictable Kim Jong-un but also pushes Trump himself further into a strategic corner. The US president can only turn up the volume of his threats for so long without acting in some way or losing face.

So far, the international approach to Pyongyang has been chiefly one of containment and, in recent weeks, the US has had some success in persuading the UN security council to impose tough new sanctions on the regime. But the long-term goal is to persuade North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons, and Trump’s approach makes that much less likely to happen.

That's because the regime in Pyongyang can see exactly how Trump deals with those who strike the type of accord western powers envisage for North Korea. The Iran nuclear agreement, signed in 2015 between Tehran and the so-called P5+1 – the five permanent members of the UN security council (China, France, Russia, the UK and the US) and Germany – imposed limits on Iran's uranium enrichment and granted international inspectors access to its nuclear sites. In exchange, the EU, UN and US committed to lifting sanctions on Iran, in effect reintegrating it into the global economic system. The deal was a landmark achievement. It has also held. The EU, UN and US intelligence agencies all believe Iran is abiding by its terms. Trump grudgingly renewed it in August, but in New York this week he denounced it as "one of the worst and one-sided" deals and characterised Iran as a "murderous regime". With a message like that, what incentive would North Korea – a cruel and erratic regime, but also a rational one – possibly have to negotiate?

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