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    Opinion | Jeffrey D. Sachs

    Stopping Armageddon

    lesley becker/globe staff/associated Press

    American arrogance and President Donald Trump’s delusional worldview have brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Before it is too late, American citizens must make overwhelmingly clear that we do not want millions of Americans or others to perish in a reckless attempt by the Trump administration to overthrow the North Korean regime or denuclearize it by force.

    We would rather accept a nuclear-armed North Korea that is deterred by America’s overwhelming threat of force than risk a US-led war of choice, one that would almost surely involve nuclear weapons. Yet National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster has explicitly said that Trump rejects “accept and deter.” The danger from Trump could not be greater.

    “Accept and deter” is not appeasement. It is the moral and practical requirement of survival. Appeasement would be the case if North Korea were demanding the surrender of the United States or South Korea, but that’s not the case. North Korea argues that it needs nuclear arms to protect the regime from the threat of a US attack. According to North Korea, it seeks a “military equilibrium,” not a surrender of the United States or South Korea.

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    US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has just called for direct talks with North Korea without precondition. This is a glimmer of hope. Given Tillerson’s fragile hold on office and Trump’s continued reckless rhetoric vis-a-vis North Korea, we need to rally in favor of diplomacy.

    Sad to say, North Korea’s fears of a US-led overthrow are realistic at this moment in history. Creating the conditions for North Korea’s eventual denuclearization would require trust-building over many years of patient diplomacy and interaction, including US diplomatic recognition of North Korea.

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    The United States faces a trap of its own making. For decades, this country has forcibly overthrown regimes it deemed to be hostile to US interests. North Korea fears that it is next.

    Recently, three regimes that ended their nuclear programs were subsequently attacked by nuclear powers. Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program came to an end after the first Gulf War, in 1990; Saddam was overthrown by the US in 2003. Moammar Khadafy ended his nuclear program in December 2003 and was overthrown by US-backed forces in 2011. Ukraine surrendered its nuclear forces in 1994 in return for security guarantees, but was subsequently attacked by Russia in 2014.

    Since the early 1990s, North Korea has repeatedly demanded security guarantees from the United States – including diplomatic recognition, economic measures, and other steps – in exchange for ending its drive toward a nuclear arsenal. Several agreements were in fact reached on the idea of guaranteeing North Korean security in return for denuclearization, yet all of the agreements subsequently collapsed. A very insightful and balanced account of these failed attempts is provided in a Brookings Institution report by a senior Chinese foreign policy expert, Fu Ying, chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress of China.

    Mutual distrust is the basic reason for repeated failures. The US again and again dragged its feet on granting diplomatic recognition and economic assistance to North Korea, despite explicit promises to do so. North Korea, for its part, violated the spirit if not the letter of the agreements, using covert means at times to skirt agreed nuclear safeguards. Both sides have been trapped in the “security dilemma,” meaning that each believes the worst about the other and acts accordingly. The result is a terrifying arms race and downward spiral toward nuclear war.

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    In this tit-for-tat pattern, it is difficult if not impossible to identify who has broken the various accords first. The bottom line is that there is no security agreement for North Korea, and no long-term suspension or abandonment by North Korea of its nuclear program. Now Trump’s tempermental instability could trigger a nuclear war through the belief adopted by either side that the other is about to launch a devastating preemptive attack.

    The Trump administration is threatening North Korea with war if it fails to denuclearize. There are probably senior US military advisors who believe in the possibility of a quick “decapitation” of the North Korean regime before its nuclear weapons are unleashed. Some advisors may believe that America’s antimissile systems would protect the US and its allies in the event that North Korea launches its nuclear weapons.

    In my view, any confidence in a military solution is reckless and immoral. Most expert assessments suggest massive deaths in South Korea, perhaps 20,000 per day, from a conventional war, much less a nuclear war. Most experts believe that the antimissile systems are highly imperfect, with a real possibility of failure.

    If there is one lesson of history, it is to doubt the boastful pronouncements of warmongers. Things go wrong. One’s own weapons systems frequently fail. Treachery, surprise, accidents, errors are the essence of war. And with nuclear war, one doesn’t get a second chance. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK’s reckless generals urged a military attack, believing that a nuclear war could be avoided. The truth was that the Russian and Cuban troops were already deployed to use battlefield nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional US attack.

    Perhaps the most important lesson that came out of the Cuban Missile Crisis is the conclusion of President Kennedy in his famous “Peace Speech” of June 1963, which ushered in the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty:

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    “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy — or of a collective death-wish for the world.”

    Amen.

    Jeffrey D. Sachs is university professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and author of “The Age of Sustainable Development.”