In Multipolarity

Editorial, New Scientist (UK weekly), April 22, 2017

U.S. soldiers hang a South Korean flag on their tank during May 2013 military exercises (Jung Yeon-je, AFP-Getty)

Two and a half minutes to midnight. That was the time the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set their Doomsday Clock to just a few months ago – later than it has ever been except between 1953 and 1960, the height of the cold war H-bomb race. Among BoAS’s concerns were bellicose sentiments from Donald Trump and North Korea’s efforts to make its own nuclear weapons.

Those were prescient. Sabre-rattling prompted a North Korean official to warn this week that “thermonuclear war may break out at any moment”. Given Trump’s apparent casualness about such a war, including tweets threatening unilateral action, the world feels more on edge than it has since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

An unwelcome development is the return of cold war chatter about “local” nuclear wars – the idea that a few warheads tossed around east Asia might be locally unpleasant but manageable on a planetary scale. This idea needs to be quashed. Quite apart from the difficulty in preventing a local conflict from growing into a large-scale multinational war, those who study nuclear war scenarios say millions of tonnes of smoke would gush into the stratosphere, resulting in a nuclear winter that would lower global temperatures for years. The ensuing global crisis in agriculture – dubbed a “nuclear famine” – would be devastating.

Needless to say that is a dismal finding, albeit one that will probably be summarily dismissed by Trump and his cheerleaders as fake news. But even he is sensitive to global opinion: witness his sudden switch from an isolationist to interventionist foreign policy.

As BoAS points out, citizens now have powerful technologies at their disposal to make their views heard. It recommends demanding that the US engages with North Korea rather than provoking it. It might have added that we should all work to dispel the notion of a limited, regional nuclear conflict. There is no such thing – and we cannot afford to let the clock tick closer to midnight and find that out the hard way.

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