Rhetoric and Reality

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. The US ambassador said a week ago in the Security Council that Kim Jong-un is ‘begging for war’. This was preceded by President Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ threat a couple of weeks earlier.

This language is now starting to expand the limits of our world. The possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula, nuclear war even, starts to become part of our reality. We are starting to make ourselves acquainted with the thought that millions of people might die as a result of military action against Kim Jong-un.

The ramifications of this new reality are horrifying. History has shown us that words have their own logic; that possibility often turns into fact. We sleepwalked into WWI, as historian Christopher Clark has explained, and there is a real risk that we will do something similar again. We might lull ourselves into the illusion that a limited military strike is possible against North Korea – that Kim Jong-un will not risk everything if faced with a targeted military strike. But he will, perhaps step by step, but escalation in these situations tends to be frightfully quick. Seoul is on North Korea’s doorstep, and Seoul will be the first victim of military action.

In principle the United States cannot act on its own. Society has tried to put limits on everybody’s world by demanding that military action against a state will have to be authorised by the Security Council, except in cases of self-defence. Unfortunately the effectiveness of this limit is doubtful, as we saw during the second Gulf war.

The task of everybody scared of the power of language, and scared that haphazardly millions of lives will be sacrificed, is to use the power of language to resist the inflation of war rhetoric, and to make clear to the United States that North Korea is not only an issue for Mr. Trump, but for the community of states. We must do all we can to empower the Security Council, must make sure that this does not become a shoot-out at the OK Corral in which millions of human lives are sacrificed at the altar of temperament, impatience and lack of cool thinking!

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