Three minutes from apocalypse?

Washington, DC (openDemocarcy) – At the very point of origin of the cold war, June 1947, a group of scientists wanted to highlight the extreme danger posed by rapid nuclear development for military purposes. That month, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, founded at the University of Chicago, published on its frontpage the image of what it called a Doomsday Clock. The clock showed the time at seven minutes to midnight. In later decades, at various critical junctures in United States-Soviet Union relations, the clock hand was moved closer to the fateful hour. It was a clear signal that a major confrontation between the two superpowers was becoming more likely.

Clock Image Source: Alan Cleaver, Flickr, Creative Commons

Image Source: Alan Cleaver, Flickr, Creative Commons

By contrast, the end of the cold war and the expectation of a “peace dividend” helped to move the clock hand back, as far as seventeen minutes to midnight. Yet since 1995 the time has once more crept forward, gradually approaching the dreaded hour. Over the next two decades, several factors – huge nuclear arsenals, accelerated environmental degradation, new technological advances – have generated an increasingly turbulent international situation. In January 2015, the clock was positioned at three minutes to midnight because, in the words of the Bulletin, “international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty – ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization.”

Nine states possess some 10,215 nuclear warheads with a destructive power equivalent to a million times those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the last five years there has been a growing number of incidents (theft, loss, accidents) involving sensitive nuclear material. In addition, the average global temperature, the sea level, and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are all on the rise. To this list can be added other disturbing phenomena such as the spread of massive spying and of cyberattacks between nations, together with worrisome technological transformations derived from robotics and its application in the field of lethal weapons.

In this context, three further factors are provoking serious and uncontrolled tensions. The first is the worsening of a manifold, mostly intertwined crisis in the Middle East, central Asia and north Africa. The fiasco of military interventions (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya) led by the west; the collapse of the Arab spring; the degradation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the expansion of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’a; the multiplication of irregular armed militias, such as ISIS, resorting to widespread terror; the ongoing border frictions between countries; the upsurge in fragile states; and the potential nuclear proliferation have turned this vast portion of the world into a permanent hotspot that no one knows how to manage – neither the United States and the declining European powers, nor the emerging powers from the global east and south. The idea that all these overlapping critical questions can be administered for much longer by the traditional mix of force and realpolitik is conceptually naïve and strategically wrong.

The second factor is the heightened pugnacity between the west and Russia. A flawed analogy would be to see this as a repetition of the cold war; also a dangerous one, in that it could lead to inappropriate messages and flawed measures that will only exacerbate the tense situation around Ukraine. It is clear that the west and Russia have differing views on the ingredients of a stableEurasian order, and they look unable or unwilling to compromise. The combination of an overextended Atlantic alliance that is still suffering a significant recession and a weakened Russian economy governed by an electoral authoritarianism is very problematic. Both parties, and the world, must seek to avoid paralysis, humiliation, or warfare.

The third factor, crucial to understand, is the complex geopolitical dynamics of southeast Asia. The transformation of China from a major regional actor to a global power is provoking significant reactions and realignments in the area. Managing the international power transition underlying China’s re-emergence in world affairs is fundamental. History shows that shifts in relative power often (if not always) end in war. There are evident signs, among geographically close actors such as Japan and distant ones like the United States, of a commitment to resist and eventually reverse Beijing’s resurgence. The absence of confidence, moderation and self-restraint may lead inadvertently to a crisis. For example, the so-called “pivot” of Washington towards the Pacific rim, the new security advanced by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, and China’s recent military strategy do not seem to agree on a common path to accommodate the interests of these key players.

In short, it is the first time in a quarter century that the world as a whole has witnessed such a delicate situation. The warning by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists should be taken very seriously.