Doomsday Clock moves closer to midnight, but there’s a whisper of hope

By Ameen Izzadeen

Every year in November, scientists and public interest activists meet in Chicago to assess the danger to the planet we live in and set the Doomsday Clock accordingly. Early this year, the clock was set to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. It was three minutes to midnight throughout the previous two years.
This week, instead of the scientists and experts, the brinkmanship of the United States President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jung-un set the clock to a few seconds to midnight. Not since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 has the world been brought so close to the brink of nuclear war.
In their 2017 statement, the Science and Security Board, which is behind the Doomsday Clock concept, warned, “It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”
But there is hardly a public demonstration in any world capital against this danger. Most people the world over go on with their daily chores. Probably they believe their leaderrs will take care of the situation. Wake up, folks!
True, nuclear powers do not go to war. In nuclear terminology, this is called ‘deterrent’, the core of which is MAD — mutually assured destruction. The deterrent value of nuclear weapons, however, depends on the condition that countries that possess nuclear weapons are ruled by sane leaders. Given the imbecility of Trump and Kim, a big question mark hangs over the deterrent the nuclear weapons offer. Those who follow the bellicose rhetoric of Trump and Kim since Tuesday could not but fear that the world was to be destroyed by a nuclear war that was to take place any time.
In response to a Washington Post article that claimed that North Korea had developed miniature nuclear warheads that can be fitted into missiles, Trump issued a doomsday warning. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire, fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before,” he said.
The credibility of the Post article apart, was Trump, as usual, shooting his mouth off? If so, we need not take what he says seriously. Look at all what he publicly said about the wall on the Mexican border during and after the campaign. But in private he requested the Mexican president not to talk about the wall, indicating that what he said need not be taken seriously.
But beware! He has also meant what he said with regard to the Muslim travel ban and the withdrawal from the Paris climate deal. His presidency’s hallmark is his unpredictability. Thus the world cannot just dismiss Trump’s warning as a headline grabber. After all, the issue is about a nuclear war. We will perish in that war or will be affected by it in some way.
To make the situation more perilous, the North Korean leader, who is as erratic and irrational as Trump or, should we say, even more, apparently beats Trump in brinkmanship.
In response to Trump’s ‘fire-and-fury’ threat, North Korea said yesterday it would send a salvo of four missiles over Japan and towards the US territory of Guam and mocked Trump as a man “bereft of reason”.
The one-upmanship has plunged the world in a hellhole of uncertainty. In Game Theory, the situation is expressed in terms of two racing cars speeding in opposite directions on a single track. Foolhardy, both drivers believe the other will swerve to avoid a crash.
When one nuclear power is not sure what a rival nuclear power will do in a tense situation, the recommended option is a preemptive strike.
All nuclear powers know that in a nuclear confrontation, the one who strikes first has a huge advantage. However, if a nuclear war breaks out, the US may survive, but North Korea faces near wipeout, for today’s nuclear bomb is some 50 times more powerful than what was dropped on Hiroshima 72 years ago this month.
If North Korea fires an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile on a US target, it is more likely that the missile will be shot down before it reaches the destination by US anti-missile missiles deployed in South Korea and other parts of the world. Even in the case of a North Korean nuclear missile hitting a US territory, it will not undermine Washington’s ability to strike back, notwithstanding the devastation. But North Korea can ill-afford this miserable luxury. Kim Jung-un is not unaware of this. Though a bully and sadistic dictator, he may, therefore, act with responsibility. At the same time, he may, on the spur of the moment, order a nuclear strike on a US target.
But can the world trust Trump with the nuclear button, despite the US having a system of a Command, Control and Communications system with regard to nuclear weapons? In this intricate process, the President is the ultimate authority on the use of nuclear weapons.
During the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962, the use of nuclear weapons was an option for the US. But President John F Kennedy shot down the advice given by the generals.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon is said to have put US nuclear bombers on standby to attack North Korea after the communist state shot down a US spy plane. Nixon also pondered the use of nuclear weapons against Vietnam. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor, managed to dissuade the President.
Trump, however, does not have a Kissinger. His security advisors are hardline generals. Both his Defence Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster are hardline military men who have warned North Korea of dire consequences if it does not stop its nuclear and missile programmes.
Needless to say, such warnings will only provoke the North Korean leader to act more defiantly.
With a series of United Nations resolutions against North Korea coming a cropper, the latest being last week, Trump blames China for his failed North Korea policy. Beijing, no doubt, has the persuasive powers to rein in Kim Jung-un. But it will not take any action at the cost of losing North Korea as a strategic ally — the only ally in the region where almost all other countries have territorial disputes with China and maintain close defence relations with Washington.
If Western media reports are to be believed, another option the US is said to be considering is a commando raid on North Korea to kidnap Kim Jung-un. Well, Kim Jung-un is not Osama bin Laden. With the very first sign of a military raid, Kim can unleash his military power, if not on the US, on South Korea. If a military confrontation breaks out, in the very first hour itself, it is feared that nearly a million South Koreans will be killed. Don’t forget the immense damage the nuclear strikes can cause to the environment. Even if the US shoots down North Korean missiles in the air, we do not know what the consequences will be. Let’s hope, the two maverick leaders will withdraw from brinkmanship and explore the possibilities to solve the crisis diplomatically.

(This story first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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