Ninety Seconds to Doomsday
The famous Doomsday Clock, maintained since 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has been set to 90 seconds to midnight for 2023, its closest setting ever to a hypothetical “doomsday” scenario. The decision to move the hands of the clock was driven in part by the Ukraine war and Russia’s nuclear weapons threat leveled early on in that conflict. Now, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, said he’s suspending his country’s participation in the New START arms control agreement, a troubling development that lends credence to the Bulletin’s decision.
In this special edition of The Pulse, two APLN members reflect on the symbolic importance of this gesture and what it says about the current state of nuclear weapons non-proliferation and disarmament efforts.
Vice Director and Professor of the Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition at Nagasaki University
It’s 90 seconds to midnight…The Doomsday clock published by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in January 2023 warns us that the world is facing the most serious global risk since the end of World War II. In particular, the Science and Security Board warned that Russia’s threats to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine War “constituted the worst nuclear development in 2022,” reminding the world that “escalation of the conflict- by accident, intention, or miscalculation- is a terrible risk”.
In fact, the risk of nuclear weapons use has been increasing during the past decade, due to increasingly dangerous nuclear policies as well as the development of new weapons, including more “usable” nuclear weapons. The US Nuclear Posture Review published in 2022 failed to adopt a “sole-purpose” policy again primarily because of opposition from US allies, including Japan. Russia’s nuclear strategy published in 2020 also stated that Russia might use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional attack if such an attack would threaten the existence of the country. China is building up its nuclear arms and, according to a recent report by the US Department of Defense, may increase the number of its warheads to more than 1,000 from the current 350. DPRK’s new nuclear weapons law published in September 2022 also clarified the conditions under which DPRK might use nuclear weapons first.
Responding to the rising risk of nuclear weapons use in Northeast Asia, the Republic of Korea, Japan, and the US agreed to strengthen the extended nuclear deterrence provided under the security arrangements among the three countries. Japan itself also announced its new security policy in late 2022 which includes possessing “counter-strike capability” as well as a significant increase in the defense budget. ROK President Yoon also suggested that his country might request a “nuclear sharing” scheme with the US, given the background of strong public opinion in favor of South Korea acquiring its own nuclear weapons.
All these movements and policies assume that nuclear deterrence will work (or hope it will work). It is true that nuclear weapons have never been used since 1945, but of course there is no guarantee that deterrence will work in the future. In fact, the increasing concern over nuclear weapons use itself suggests that there is a lack of confidence in nuclear deterrence. We need to assess the real risk of a defense strategy dependent on nuclear deterrence. Under what conditions might nuclear weapons be used, and by whom? What are the likely targets, and what would happen after the first use of nuclear weapons? Can we contain a regional nuclear war without it escalating to a global war? A recent study jointly done by RECNA, APLN, and Nautilus Institute (“Possible Nuclear Use Cases in Northeast Asia: Implications for Reducing Nuclear Risk”, January 2022, https://www.recna.nagasaki-u.ac.jp/recna/nu-nea_project2021-2023-eng), listed 25 “plausible cases” of nuclear weapons use in the region. The report suggests that many of the cases involve first use in which one adversary misinterprets the actions of another. It also emphasizes the large uncertainties about the outcome of the plausible nuclear conflicts. Once nuclear weapons are used, no one knows how nuclear conflicts would escalate.
So, what should we do? On January 3, 2022, the leaders of five nuclear-weapon states (US, Russia, China, France and UK) issued a Joint Statement on “Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races”, in which they re-affirmed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. This statement must now be remembered again and leaders of all nine nuclear-armed states should affirm their own commitments to this statement. In addition, they can work with leaders of nuclear-umbrella states to develop policies to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their security policies, such as adopting “no-first-use” (or “sole purpose”) policies.
In order to turn back the Doomsday clock, we must minimize the risk of nuclear weapons use and the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons must now be remembered again. The message we must remember now is “let Nagasaki be the last”, i.e. nuclear weapons must never be used again under any circumstances.
Lecturer for Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University
The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, in its most recent setting, now warns that we are 90 seconds away from an apocalypse of our own making. The Doomsday Clock is a rhetorical device originally conceived of in 1947 to draw attention to the risk of a global nuclear war. Over the past few years, the threats that the clock represents have expanded to include climate change-related catastrophes, new technologies, biological threats, and disinformation, etc.
What is alarming is that the Clock has hit the 90-second mark for the first time in its 76 years of life.
Is the world perilously close to Doomsday? Are we really living in a time of unprecedented danger? Can we do something about it?
A cursory look only at the climate-related events unfolding all over the world is enough to underscore the existential threats that humanity is facing today. Add to these the rising geopolitical tensions emerging across the world, a deteriorating domestic political climate in several regions, the increase in intra- and inter-state violence, and the near-death of civic discourse, and it all looks like an imminent recipe for disaster. These challenges are further compounded by the massive developments in disruptive technologies that are changing the world around us faster than our collective ability to fathom those changes and build intellectual, moral, and political frameworks to deal with them in a manner that is not inimical to human existence.
Alongside all these challenges is the unresolved perennial problem of war. Granted, wars continued in all their barbarity and lethality even after the end of the Cold War and the much-celebrated “end of history.” Yet, the war in Ukraine has brought the possibility of a nuclear war back to the center stage of political discourse in the West, and for obvious reasons.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, notwithstanding the totality of destruction and massive havoc that these wars wreaked on the people living in those regions, were for the West limited in that these were wars waged by a superpower against states with no wherewithal to respond in kind. The war in Ukraine, on the other hand, carries the potential to escalate into risky terrain. This is no longer just a war between a nuclear-armed Russia and a non-nuclear Ukraine. With all the Western support to Ukraine both in financial assistance and military supplies, it is essentially becoming a war between two nuclear-armed actors, Russia on the one side and NATO on the other. As a result, the threat of nuclear war cannot be dismissed. But is it significant enough to cause alarm?
Part of the challenge of nuclear weapons is that the possibility of their use — intentional, inadvertent, or accidental — can never be ruled out as long as these weapons exist, regardless of who possesses them. It would take only one wrong decision, one bad moment to trigger a chain of events that can create massive destruction.
Yet, we need to carefully ascertain the most effective ways to raise alarm about such possibilities. Alarmism can be useful in so far as it creates a sense of urgency in taking measures aimed at preventing a global catastrophe, eventually paving the way for arms control and disarmament.
However, it also entails the risk of causing unnecessary panic resulting in counterproductive measures, including massive military buildup, arms competition, and heavy investments in disruptive technologies with an aim to achieve victory in what may seem an “unavoidable” war.
Given these risks, the Doomsday Clock’s ‘90 seconds to midnight’ setting will serve its purpose only if we take it as an indicator of the contemporary global reality but not as symbolizing an irreversible trend that can cause apathy and paralysis. It should be seen as a call to pay attention to the threats around us and to make a renewed commitment to work toward changing the world for the better.
Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts, and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts, and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to email@example.com.
Image: Flickr/Hendrik Turbeck