London: You probably didn’t notice, but Armageddon moved closer last week. The Doomsday clock, published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, showed a reading of two and a half minutes to midnight; midnight being apocalypse. This is the most dangerous reading since 1953, the year the US decided to pursue the hydrogen bomb. The clock has become a universally recognised indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change and new technologies emerging in other domains. It is the first time since the inception of the clock that the distinguished panel moved the hand by just 30 seconds, reflecting the fact that the new President, Donald Trump, had been in office only a matter of days at the time of the decision and that a further period was needed to judge the implementation of words used during the election campaign. The panel reflected that his “ill-considered comments” about expanding the US nuclear arsenal and the rejection of expert advice on climate change were extremely troublesome and likely to endanger every person, everywhere on earth. While climate change is of concern in the medium to longer term, it is the more immediate dangers of a potential change of US policy towards Iran, the relentless build-up of Russian nuclear assetsand the maverick activities of North Korea which have moved the hands of the clock nearer to midnight.
The world awaits the formal position of the new US administration towards the Iran nuclear deal, but during the election campaign, Trump repeatedly stated that he was opposed to the 2015 deal, brokered by the US, Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France, under which Iran would curb its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. This accord has always been hated by Israel, Iran’s arch-foe, and the formidable pro-Israeli lobby in Congress has been strongly opposed to it. The Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, speaking at his Senate confirmation hearing in January, said that he wanted a “full review” of the nuclear deal, but did not call for an outright rejection of the 2015 accord. However, with the recent death of the “moderate” Ayatollah Rafsanjani, the hardliners in Iran may be emboldened to push ahead with the weapons programme if Trump hints at tearing up the deal, which in turn would cause the Israelis to dust off their plans for a full scale attack on the reactor sites before the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon moves forward. Tick, tick.
Rising tensions between NATO and Russia led to reports at the end of 2016 of the deployment of Iskander-M missiles in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Unlike other weapon systems in the enclave, this sophisticated missile, which has a range of over 500km, can carry nuclear warheads and represents a threat to the US missile defence installations in Poland. Russia is also building new silo-based missiles and a new class of nuclear ballistic submarines—the Borei class. Its land-based intercontinental ballistic missile system is also being boosted by new rail-mobile missiles. Tick, tick.
By far the most dangerous nuclear weapons programme facing the world is being developed in North Korea. Pyongyang conducted two more nuclear tests last year, the one in September yielding about twice the explosive power of the first in January. More worrying, it continued to test its missiles with about two launches per month. In January this year, Premier Kim Jong-un declared that North Korea would soon test a missile with intercontinental range, meaning it could attack mainland US. Although western experts are sceptical, this would be an alarming escalation, which would almost certainly cause the Trump administration to take action. The only country with influence over North Korea is China, but such are the implications of a collapse of the Jong-un regime, China is reluctant to take any effective action. Fearing a mass movement of refugees across the border together with a united Korea supported by the US on its border, President Xi Jinping appears to prefer to support the lesser of two evils, the status quo. Also, the current stand-off between Trump and Xi over trade is hardly likely to endear the Chinese to pressurise North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, although Trump’s apparent climb down on Taiwan on Thursday might help a little. The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution in November 2016 applying new sanctions against North Korea aimed at limiting the country’s access to cash, but sanctions have had very limited effect in the past and few are persuaded this latest move will have any success. North Korea presents a real dilemma for world leaders, as “discussion” and “compromise” are two words absent from Jong-un’s playbook. The recent meeting between the new US Defense Secretary James Mattis and his South Korean counterpart, Han Min-koo, in Seoul confirmed the deployment later this year of the US missile defence system known as Thaad (terminal high-altitude area defence), but China has placed an objection to this deployment, saying that it will “destabilise the regional security balance”. Because of this, some South Korean opposition leaders have called for it to be delayed or cancelled.
The world will be hoping that the dangerous, casual talk by Trump on the campaign trail about countries such as South Korea and Japan arming themselves with nuclear weapons to counteract the threat from North Korea will quickly be forgotten and consigned to oblivion. But then, Steve Bannon, Trump’s Chief Strategist and Senior Counsellor, is said by Time magazine to subscribe to the generational theory of warfare of roughly 80 years between major crises. It is now 80 years since the build-up to World War 2… Tick, tick, tick.
John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently a consultant in the private sector.