Today, nuclear weapons occupy the headlines in a way not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis. On the positive side, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, an advocacy group that promoted the historic treaty to prohibit these weapons that was reached at the United Nations in July 2017.
Although the treaty has been dismissed by the world’s nine nuclear-armed powers, its proponents believe that it will help to build a groundswell of support for the destruction of all nuclear weapons as the only way to guarantee that they will never be used again.
In more worrying developments, President Trump’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal threatens to revive the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, while North Korea’s headlong pursuit of multiple nuclear warheads, alongside its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States, has heightened the confrontation between the US and North Korea to alarming levels.
These tensions have prompted the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to midnight, and to warn that, “the probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.”
At the heart of the process of assembling a nuclear bomb is a relatively simple device called a nuclear centrifuge. A centrifuge is basically a cylinder that spins at very high speeds in order to separate out different materials. It’s what a washing machine becomes when it spins wet laundry to remove the water. Nuclear scientists use centrifuges to separate heavier Uranium 238 atoms from their lighter and more explosive Uranium 235 counterparts, which is what you need to make a nuclear bomb.
That’s why centrifuges occupy centre stage in the current debate. Under the Iran Nuclear Deal, Iran has drastically reduced the number of centrifuges in operation at its two uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, and agreed to undergo inspections by the global nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to ensure that the Ur235 it still produces is only used for peaceful purposes (mainly as fuel for its nuclear power stations).
By contrast, centrifuges in North Korea have been working overtime. It is thought that Kim Jong Un now has enough of them to produce the material required to make six nuclear bombs a year. Kim’s regime is estimated to have perhaps 30 nuclear warheads already, and is continually building more.
But what’s raising the dangers to extreme levels isn’t just the spread of this technology; it’s the fact that in the 2016 Presidential Election, the American people voted to install a centrifuge in the White House. His name is Donald Trump.
Like a centrifuge that continually throws things apart, Trump himself is acting as a great divider, widening divisions, separating those who formerly agreed with one another, and leaving only explosive rhetoric where calm thinking and compromise are required.
In response to North Korea’s provocations, Trump has warned Kim Jong Un’s similarly-erratic regime that “they won’t be around much longer.” He has told Rex Tillerson, his Secretary of State, that he is “wasting his time trying to negotiate” a resolution to the standoff. He has said that he believes “only one thing will work!”
He has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, promising “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Trump’s threats have been met with counter-threats by Kim to strike the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam and conduct an aerial nuclear test over the Pacific. As the brinkmanship continues and the rhetoric spins ever faster out of control, threat and paranoia remain at the centre while caution and reason are thrown to the side.
North Korea and Iran are the two most dangerous examples of how Trump is increasing international tensions, but there are many others. As outlined by his senior advisors Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster, Trump’s vision of the new global order he seeks to create is one in which “the world is not a global community, but an arena where nations…compete for advantage.”
Rather than deny “this elemental nature of international affairs” Trump seeks to embrace it. By pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, he has also signalled his lack of concern, not only for those currently being impacted by global warming but also for future generations.
Aside from his divisive influence on foreign policy, Trump has two other centrifuges in the Oval Office that he is spinning to devastating effect. On domestic policy, his signature issues like immigration, healthcare, tax reform, and freeing Wall Street from regulation are set to vastly exacerbate the problems they purport to address. As journalist and author Martin Wolf has noted, after campaigning on a populist agenda and promising to govern in the interests of those left behind, Trump is actually governing as a pluto-populist (paywall).
What Wolf means is that, having risen to power with the support of the ‘forgotten America’, Trump is seeking to enact policies that will increase the fortunes of the richest one per cent and further widen the yawning inequalities that are fuelling grassroots populism. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Centre has estimated that under Trump’s tax proposals, the top one per cent of taxpayers would receive around 50 per cent of the total tax benefit, while taxpayers in the bottom 95 per cent would see their incomes rise by between 0.5 and 1.2 per cent.
Similarly, Trump’s plans for the massive deregulation of Wall Street threaten to remove the safeguards that were put in place by the Obama Administration to guard against a repeat of the 2008 Financial Crisis, unleashing once again the spiral of recklessness and predatory lending that underpinned it.
Trump’s final centrifuge is also the one that is most visibly tearing America apart, namely his personal vortex of narcissism, paranoia and threat. By stigmatising immigrants and stoking fears of cultural dilution, he is rending the fabric of a nation that, in part, has been built on immigration. By valorising racism and white supremacy he is widening racial divides.
Through his hyper-masculine rhetoric which debases women and glorifies violence, he is casting aside values like equality and empathy that underpin democratic community. From the Obama birther lie, to the Access Hollywood tape, to his description of Charlottesville’s ‘very fine people’, Trump’s vitriol is throwing equality, civility and respect to the margins of public discourse, leaving only egotism, vindictiveness and hatred in their place.
Given the nature and scale of the crises facing America and the rest of world, it is essential that Trump’s angry centrifuges are spun down, and that rationality is restored to domestic and foreign affairs.
While centrifugal forces tear things apart, their opposite, centripetal forces bring things together. This is precisely what international negotiation, treaties, and international cooperation aim to achieve. At a domestic level, it is what actions aimed at narrowing inequality and reducing racial tensions would do by making citizens feel once again that they are all part of a democratic community in which everyone has a say. And it is what disarming Trump’s rhetoric of blame, threat and hatred would achieve by allowing the virtues of tolerance and shared identity—on which our futures rely—to re-take centre stage.
Mahatma Gandhi, a leader diametrically opposed to Trump in both character and temperament, once remarked that “the fact that mankind persists shows that the cohesive force is greater than the disruptive force, centripetal force greater than centrifugal.” The danger is that Donald Trump is testing Gandhi’s wisdom to the limit.