Ever since Soviet missiles were discovered in Cuba and President Kennedy ordered a full naval blockade of the communist aligned island, the world has been on an unsettling knife’s edge between relative peace and devastating nuclear fallout. Now, has there been a crisis that has realistically brought us to the brink of nuclear catastrophe to the same extent that the Cuban Missile Crisis did? The answer most likely is no; however, as relations between the United States and North Korea continue to deteriorate, a feat that few ever thought possible, the future of international relations is likely to be defined by how these two nations, their allies, and their leaders choose to behave.
Although there is a long, complicated history of belligerence and distrust between the United States and North Korea, there are salient similarities and difference between the two countries that define their relationship. One nation has become increasingly isolationist and frightening in the eyes of the world, has a bombastic and many would say mentally unstable leader who is ostensibly intent on using strife and mayhem to promote his own self-interests, and has come to rely on demonstrations of force to prove its relevance and relative standing. The other nation, North Korea, is an absolute authoritarian dictatorship that is hell-bent on enhancing its nuclear capabilities and has been locked in a perpetual state of war with its southern nemesis since the 1950s. What could possibly go wrong?
After successfully detonating a hydrogen bomb, many now believe that the traditional cycle of a North Korean outburst and American appeasement may soon come to end. Usually, North Korea does something to ignite condemnation, the United States escalates, and then they say they want something, and then we begrudgingly but conditionally oblige. Simple, yet somehow effective. But as the dance went on, there was always the hopeless feeling that both partners were simply delaying the inevitable: war, nuclear or otherwise. What has changed? Well, it is not the party affiliation of the American president. Clinton, the Bushes, and Obama all had similar methods of dealing with North Korea. Then North Korean leadership has changed, but it is hard to argue that Kim Jong Un is more unstable than his late father. One could contend, reasonably, that the only thing that has been standing between a tenuous peace and a potential Armageddon is the temperament of the leader of the United States. If there is an adult in the car, more often than not they can steer it to safety. Now, when there are two leaders who are not exactly known for their steadiness or dovotion to meticulous calculation, to put it mildly, the course of history seems destined to change, one way or another.
Throughout the timeline of longstanding grievances and disdain, there was always one fact that endured: the United States and South Korea have a strong, consistent and unbreakable relationship that is more durable than any threat that North Korea might launch. Now, that historic bond could be in serious jeopardy. Animosity has grown between both Seoul as Washington. The current South Korean government leans in favor of appeasement, reducing the harshness of rhetoric and aiming to achieve peace through negotiation and understanding. The current American government, however, believes that a parade of power and willingness to use force is the last, remaining option to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. At the same time, President Trump has spoken on numerous occasions regarding how he disapproves of the existing trade agreements between the United States and South Korea; he has also frequently questioned the need for the United States to station over 30,000 troops near what is, without a doubt, the most contentious border since the Berlin Wall. Cracks are beginning to appear in the armor, and as the pressure rises and no one seems willing to remove the cap, it appears that war may burst upon the world unlike anything that’s been seen in our lifetimes.
Now, the ideals of classical liberals and civic republicans alike may seem somewhat insignificant in the face of a nuclear standoff, but to think so would be misguided. People comprise these nations. People negotiate and, if needed, fight for these nations. And, perhaps most importantly, people lead these nations. Sometimes, I think it is less important to focus on the ideologies that lead us to certain methodologies of thinking and particular courses of action. Instead, practical, real results are far more essential. Perhaps the ideals of both classical liberals and civic republicans have a considerable effect on the outcomes of actual situations and disputes; it may be necessary, then, to focus less on categories and more on ideas and actions themselves, regardless of where they may lead us.