The Straits Times says

Unholy strategy of playing on fears

Regrettably, American president Donald Trump failed to use his United Nations debut to rally the world against shared threats. Instead, Mr Trump reverted to type by lobbing threats at North Korea and pouring vitriol on Iran when addressing the UN on Tuesday. It was a provocative "domestic speech to an international audience", as one observer noted. In reprising his "America First" election theme, he squandered a precious opportunity to positively influence world opinion at a particularly dangerous moment.

Tension was heightened about a week ago when Pyongyang threatened to use nuclear weapons to "sink" Japan and reduce the United States to "ashes and darkness". Mr Trump did not help the situation by threatening to "totally destroy" North Korea if the US is forced to defend itself or its allies. What the Korean nuclear and missile tests call for is an astute response from the major powers, given the dilemma posed by different forms of nuclear strategy. A rogue nation might acquire nuclear weapons to try to condition the response of others: for example, to secure a better deal during negotiations or to pit major powers against each other. Other postures include cowing others with threats of a first nuclear strike in response to even non-nuclear attacks, and deterring nuclear aggression by showing it has second-strike capability.

The security dilemma that arises is akin to the much-analysed "prisoner's dilemma" - a paradox created when two players acting separately in their own self-interest produce outcomes that harm both badly. Second-guessing intentions and playing on each other's fears could lead to rash moves and disastrous chain reactions. Dialogue, however, often yields better results for both.

If Mr Trump and his advisers had sought lessons from history, they would have seen similarities in past policy debates when American presidents from the 1960s pondered viable options to thwart China's nuclear programme. Two administrations ruled out military action because of the grave risks involved but did not launch any initiatives. When President Richard Nixon took over, he steered a diplomatic course which led to the Shanghai Communique. That dramatically altered the tone of Sino-American relations.

The risks posed by military intervention to extinguish nuclear ambitions are far greater now. That being so, Mr Trump would have done more good if he had shed light on how "many of the means by which a state tries to increase its security decrease the security of others", as Columbia University professor Robert Jervis had observed with reference to the Cold War nuclear stand-off. Instead of misguided faith in nuclear sabre rattling, which must be rebuffed by all in today's world, more reliance must be placed on active diplomacy to address security issues.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2017, with the headline 'Unholy strategy of playing on fears'. Subscribe