It didn’t take long for the nightmare scenario to arrive. The joke used to be the mere suggestion that Donald Trump could win the Republican nomination, then that he would be president, and then that he would have his finger on the nuclear button. Oh, how we laughed.
But the first two came to pass, even if we still can’t quite believe it, and now we are on to the third, most worrying of all, scenario.
Tensions between North Korea and the US are rising, and the world is in the difficult position of owing its continued existence to the behaviour of two erratic ego-maniacs who are complete strangers to diplomacy. In the circumstances, Trump would not be the president of choice of many of us in the UK.
This week, Trump virtually underlined all concerns that might be held about his suitability for holding such a powerful position in a delicate situation. He revealed that during his first talk with China’s president, Xi Jinping, he had learned that China could not simply deal with the nuclear threat from North Korea.
“After listening for ten minutes, I realised it’s not so easy,” said Trump. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power over North Korea. But it’s not what you would think.”
It is quite astonishing to learn that the president of the United States has a grasp of international affairs that appears to be as weak as this, and can be significantly enhanced in the space of just a few minutes.
To demonstrate how serious matters have become in a relatively short time, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi warned that “conflict could break out at any moment”. His plea was straight. “We call on all parties to refrain from provoking and threatening each other, whether in words or actions, and not let the situation get to an irreversible and unmanageable stage.”
This is in stark contrast to Trump’s brash assurance on Thursday that “the problem of North Korea” would be “taken care of”. Said Trump: “If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! USA.”
As if matters were not bad enough, Trump is clearly in gung-ho mood, having attacked Syria with cruise missiles and the Taleban in Afghanistan with what was described as the “mother of all bombs”.
If there is any glimmer of hope, it is that North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme may not be capable of developing a warhead capable of striking the US mainland until the longest potential duration of Trump’s White House tenure has elapsed. But that is no consolation given the immediate problem, with US forces off the Korean peninsula.
It is a statement of the obvious, but Wang Yi pointed out yesterday that if war does break out, there can be no winner.
If North Korea goes ahead with a further nuclear test today or in the next few days, then an international response is necessary, but it must not involve military action. We have to hope that Trump can invest another precious ten minutes of his time in listening to his own advisers.