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Two nuclear hotheads and a job for Justin Trudeau

Evan Solomon: The PM should have used his UN platform to tell the world Canada will broker peace between North Korea and the U.S.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts during the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) test launch in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017. (KCNA/Reuters)
Kim and Trump (Reuters)
Kim and Trump (Reuters)

It’s getting weird and scary. Donald Trump called Kim Jong-un “Little Rocket Man” and threatened to “destroy North Korea.” Kim responded by labelling Trump a “frightened dog” and a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” Between checking up on the Elton John song references and running to the dictionary to look up “dotard” (a senile old man, for the record), it’s easy to lose track of the fact that the world may be tweeting towards a nuclear war.

For over 70 years, the game-theory logic underpinning the deterrence theory of Mutually Assured Destruction gave nuclear-armed nations a rational expectation of stability—we nuke them, they’ll nuke us. That was the basis, and frankly, the comfort of the Cold War. But all that’s changed. Can there be a Cold War with two hotheads?

It doesn’t look promising. Kim exhibits little of the rational behaviour that anchored deterrence theory in the two-superpower world, which was all about having nuclear weapons, but never using them. Kim is an amoral dictator who has correctly glommed onto the insight that nuclear weapons allow him to cut the line and get a seat at the adult table of nations, a position that ought to be reserved for countries that actually feed and educate—and don’t torture—their own people.

That he is strategically right about the power of nukes does not mean, however, that he’s sensible on how they might be used. Kim is a nuclear-armed cult leader in the vein of a Jim Jones or a David Koresh, and he may share the same eschatological death wish they did, only on a far more deadly scale.

Trump is not remotely in that league and it’s a vulgar equivalence to compare the two men in any moral way—Kim is part of histories’ rogue gallery of evil men. To his credit, Trump has recognized that past U.S. presidents all failed to contain Kim’s nuclear ambitions and he successfully rallied both the UN and China to take a tougher stance on the increasingly provocative regime, even as his own rhetoric may have been part of the provocation.

READ MORE: What would nuclear war with North Korea look like?

Still, Trump is an unpredictable man, afflicted by a short attention span, bouts of self-pity and bursts of outrage. He’s an enormous personality with an equally massive appetite for attention and respect. The only thing thin about him is his skin, which leads to childish name-calling that passes as Trumpian diplomacy and needless, irresponsible incitements of war. Trump has goaded Kim into escalating rhetoric in a gut-churning game of one-upmanship.

Even stranger, Trump appears to be doing it in his spare time. I counted his tweets and retweets between Sept. 21, two days after he gave his famous “Rocket Man” speech at the UN and Sept. 26, the day after Monday Night Football, and the day when the president finally announced he would visit hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. In that time, Trump’s Twitter feed had four tweets about Puerto Rico, seven about a Senate primary election in Alabama, nine about North Korea and his speech at the UN, 10 about health care, and 24 about the NFL, the NBA and the anthem issues. Twenty-four about…sports.

It’s as if Trump is not governing by strategy, but merely channel surfing through global issues, pausing occasionally to deliver spot reviews. Hurricane? Tremendous progress. Health care? Must pass. Puerto Rico’s massive destruction? Skip. Only when he’s not busying himself with the unrelenting issue of professional football and the conduct of players during the national anthem—is there a fight he has not picked?—does Trump apparently turn his speckled attention to boosting the possibility of a nuclear war with North Korea. Trump is the political equivalent of a butane stove, a device whose sole function is to heat things up.

Given these two hot-headed personalities, there still should not be a resigned acceptance of an inevitable march to war. That’s a death wish. It’s critical that world leaders intervene to de-escalate the situation, which is why it was such a disappointment on the part of Justin Trudeau not to use his recent speech at the UN to publicly offer Canada as a global mediator. Trudeau came to power announcing that Canada is “back” and he’s been openly lobbying for a seat on the UN Security Council, so why did he refuse to address the most pressing crisis facing the world right now?

While it’s critically important to highlight Canada’s failed relationship with the first peoples of the land and address the fundamental failures of the colonial world—and the Prime Minister did that—he nonetheless missed a chance to do what Canadians see themselves doing best: brokering peace.

Canada has a long history of leadership at the UN on critical issues: the foundational work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Canadian John Humphrey; Lester B. Pearson’s role in pioneering the idea of “peacekeeping” during the 1956 Suez crisis; the global treaty banning landmines; helping to establish the International Criminal Court; and pushing the idea of the Responsibility to Protect, as well as maternal and child health.

In other words, Canada has been a major part of making what is often a very flawed, often impotent institution relevant and useful. It is equally fair to say that the very idea of the UN, its ideals and goals, have animated Canada’s own foreign policy, and shaped it since the end of the Second World War. Canada has long tied itself to the UN. Even today, on the Global Affairs website, articles quote Pearson’s imperative:

“Canada cannot occupy her rightful place in international society so long as its security is dependent on American benevolence. If we are to escape from permanent inferiority, our security must be found in an organization to which we ourselves contribute.”

In her widely read and critical June speech in the House of Commons, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland echoed this sentiment, saying Canada cannot be the “client state” of the U.S. She spoke about Canada taking a leadership role on the world stage, but the Prime Minister inexplicably did not follow up on it in his appearance at the UN.

I fully expected a part two, to flesh out the details, but it wasn’t there. It was as if, because Trudeau didn’t want to upset the U.S. during the highly sensitive NAFTA negotiations, he decided to avoid the North Korean issues altogether. Whatever the reason, it was a mistake. Canada should be at the centre of this situation, doing our part to cool things down.

I spoke with Canada’s ambassador to China, John McCallum, and he told me Canada is ready to be a broker for peace—but has not made a formal offer to do so. Why not? The PM should have used his UN platform to let the world know Canada, with its unique relationship to the U.S., China, South Korea and even North Korea—we shed blood and treasure on that peninsula as well—is a perfect broker.

The world is changing. This is not a classic “peacekeeping” mission, rather a peace-brokering mission. As the rhetoric of war heats up, there needs to be a great cooling down, and cold is what we do best. Who would have guessed that one day we would all long for a nice, rational Cold War with a nuclear power?