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Axis of Evil 2.0?

Implications of President Trump's Speech at the United Nations and How America's Position in the World Has Changed in 15 Years

September 21st - 2017

On September 19th 2017 US President Donald Trump delivered one of the most prolific and memorable speeches ever made at the United Nations General Assembly. The predominant theme was America's place in the world and the imminent threat that its adversaries posed to world order. It was in many ways a second instalment to President Bush's renowned 2002 State of the Union Address in which he outline the threat of the 'Axis of Evil' - but in this case with a far more sinister and direct threat of mass destruction and even genocide rarely heard from world leaders. In 2002 President Bush outlined the existence of an axis of 'evil' states, North Korea, Iran and Iraq, which he claimed posed an existential threat to both the world and to their own people. Fifteen years later, with Iraq destabilised and facing an ongoing civil war and one million of its people dead - President Trump in the same order threatened North Korea, Iran - and to replace Iraq added its neighbour and fellow Ba'athist state Syria. These States were referred to as "evil" and "the scourge of our planet today." All were accused of being a threat to the world and to their own people as they had been 15 years prior - all with the same warnings of the threat of these states' weapons of mass destruction. It seemed the threat of an 'Axis of Evil' made up of small countries had only grown since President Bush's speech in 2002.


There were several outstanding aspects of President Trump's speech which differed from that of Bush and reflected the profound geopolitical changes that had taken place in the last 15 years. The United States' growing antagonism towards Cuba and particularly Venezuela was reflected in Trump's criticism of, support for economic sanctions against and call for regime change in both of these countries. The emergence of both China and Russia as key challengers to U.S. global power were also alluded to, with Trump pledging to challenge "threats to sovereignty, from Ukraine to the South China Sea." Russia in particular was targeted by omission on a particularly sensitive issue when Trump praised the efforts of Poland, Britain and France to fight Nazi Germany - but notably omitted Russia which contributed the most to victory in the very same war. However, perhaps most critically, the circumstances surrounding the US President's speech targeting various adversaries and 'rogue states' around the world reflects an American position of weakness far from the unchallenged strength and global supremacy it enjoyed in 2002. In the early Bush era, when U.S. military strength was unchallenged globally, it appeared that attacks on the three 'Axis of Evil' states were immanent and a truly unipolar world in which all 'rogue states' were subdued could soon come to be. Today such a reality seems increasingly far fetched - and growingly hostile and dangerous rhetoric reflects not strength but rather America's diminishing power relative to its adversaries.


Despite President Trump's threats to "totally destroy North Korea," coming from the leader of a nation which in the 1950s killed up to 30% of the North Korean population, the circumstances under which these threats are made differ profoundly from the Bush era threats against the country. While Trump's rhetoric implies genocide - not just of the political entity of North Korea but of its population of 24 million people as well - the threat the United States can realistically pose to the country is negligible compared to what it was 15 years ago. Unlike in 2002 it is today nearly impossible for the United States to start a war with North Korea, largely because of the country's considerable military advances, its nuclear and missile programs - but also perhaps most critically due to the air cover now provided by sophisticated Russian and Chinese air defences deployed to its borders. None of these critical factors existed in the early Bush administration, and while in President Trump's own words: "they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen" - such threats made today are empty due to the impossibility of carrying them out in a way that the Bush administration's threats of war never were.


The United States' primacy in the military and economic fields are today challenged by China and Russia in particular in a way that would have been considered impossible just 15 years ago. Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Iran and North Korea all continue to enjoy growing levels of Chinese investment despite harsh US sanctions - while all but Cuba have the protection of new highly sophisticated Russian military equipment including state if the air air defences which would make U.S. military action extremely difficult - as attested to by studies made by several American military think tanks. Russia's successful use of its military to deter U.S. regime change operations against the Syrian government under the Obama administration in 2013 marked a turning point in the post Cold War world order - and today the United States has few options against the 'Axis of Evil' and 'rogue regimes' other than rhetoric and sanctions - as demonstrated on the Korean Peninsula. President Trump may threaten North Korea with destruction, but in reality there is little he is capable of beyond sanctions - and even these can be circumvented. Ultimately while the Bush administration enjoyed a position in which it had the potential to eliminate 'rogue states' and cement its power - a number of critical mistakes in foreign policy, economic policy and military acquisition during the administration and the following Obama years have left the Trump administration in a significantly weaker position.


While the original declaration of an Axis of Evil heralded what could have been the end of the 'rogue states' - Trump's speech represents an era in which the United States lacks the means to enforce its will and under which it's adversaries are able to effectively deter American military action. Gone are the days when the U.S. military could unilaterally carry out regime change - and it appears that the security of even it's smaller adversaries such as Syria, Iran and North Korea are guaranteed now more than ever.

The statements, views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Watch Magazine.

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