It’s Two Minutes to Midnight

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It seems like Doomsday is almost here. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the minute hand of the influential Doomsday Clock on Thursday, January 25. We are living the closest to midnight the world has been since 1953, the height of the Cold War. A common threat underpins all the reasons for the change: hateful and unmeasured words.

In the statement released on January 25, The Bulletin states, “The greatest risks last year arose in the nuclear realm. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program made remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks to North Korea itself, other countries in the region, and the United States. Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions by both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation.”

Important here is that The Bulletin is not excusing one side or the other. Both leaders of the United States and North Korea must be held accountable for inflammatory rhetoric. Leaders’ ravings are little more than declarations of superficial power; each wants the other to cower behind their might.

Let’s consider why Kim Jong Un might feel he needs nuclear weapons. From the onset let me clarify that a person cannot know what another really thinks. I am speculating based on a foundation of nuclear proliferation theory.

I believe the general population forgets that there can be influential domestic drivers for the development of nuclear weapons. Kim Jong Un was third in line to the dictatorship, and in theory he should never had gotten to the seat of power. He was also very young when he took control, clocking in somewhere in his early thirties. In a country where coups are the norm and political power shuffling happens at gunpoint, there was a necessity to show his generals that he was capable of holding power and preserving his regime.

Consider his propaganda speeches. They occur in front of compulsory audiences and always have a strong message of North Korean superiority and unity against their enemies. Each time, Kim Jong Un—again this is my supposition—is trying to prove he has complete control over his domestic policies and those policies prevent both external and internal forces from deposing him.

North Korean nuclear buildup is not the only factor given to explain the minute hand’s change. Other contributing factors to the new time are: U.S.-Russia straining relations, tensions in the South China sea, India and Pakistan’s mutual nuclear arsenal build-up, uncertainty surrounding U.S. support for the Iran Nuclear Deal, and the looming calamity of climate change.  The Bulletin even suggests that the world is looking at another arms race, but on an even larger scale than what we have seen during the Cold War.

The statement released by this think tank criticizes the U.S. isolation policies that look frighteningly similar to those of FDR in the 1930s.  Unstable U.S. leadership is also highlighted as a major catalyst for the minute hand’s move. Now, there is a lack of predictability coming from top U.S. officials.  Translated into political terms, the U.S. is unable to provide reassurance to its allies and delivers weaker deterrence against enemies.

“… [allies] have been forced to negotiate a thicket of conflicting policy statements from a U.S. administration weakened in its cadre of foreign policy professionals, suffering from turnover in senior leadership, led by an undisciplined and disruptive president, and unable to develop, coordinate, and clearly communicate a coherent nuclear policy,” states The Bulletin.  In past administrations, the U.S. has been seen as a helpful and stable force for its allies.  But now, with the current administration, it seems that is not the case.   

On the flip side, deterrence of enemies is only viable if the threat is credible. Without predicable follow through by the defender, the challenger, the object of the deterrence, is more likely to make a move against the defender’s interest. Weak deterrence, poor reassurance, and now frightening movement towards Doomsday seem to stem from the isolationist policies the Trump administration imposes.

Words have immense power. They can build lasting relations between allies but can also be escalatory if enemies spout rhetoric with the sole purpose of reaching a political boiling point.

In these last two minutes to midnight, remember that we need to watch our words, consider our actions, and strive to deescalate the problems at hand.

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