2 minutes to midnight?

On 25 January, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced the current time on its long lasting Doomsday Clock: two minutes before midnight, the Editorial Board decided, with midnight, of course, equalling apocalypse. The following day, The Economist, a magazine, carried a cover story on ‘The Next War: the growing threat of a great power conflict’. Are things really that bad? And if so, what can be done about them?

The focus of The Bulletin is a bit broader than that of The Economist on this occasion. While the latter focuses some well placed anxiety on the risk of great power war, regarded until recently as a banished spectre, The Bulletin starts with North Korea’s nuclear programme and the tense confrontation that has emerged because of it. But it also includes the unfolding impact of climate change and the pressures of new information technologies in its analysis of rising risk. On the political side, both publications worry that the international system is failing, though there is an important different in the direction of the argument. The Economist bemoans the US failure to protect the international system it established and from which continues to benefit. The Bulletin places more emphasis on the international institutional framework of treaty obligations and United Nations that is treated less respectfully now by some key world leaders than was the case until recently.

My view is that all the components that The Bulletin and The Economist focus on are real. The same issue of The Economist has some seriously worth-reading hard-nosed analysis of why President Trump may not be bluffing with some of the harsher and hotter things he said to and about North Korea. That just serves to underline not only the sharpness of the current risks to security in Northeast Asia, but also the importance of finding a way back from confrontation, despite the enormous difficulty of mobilising the machinery of global diplomacy including the UN to do so.

SIPRI just recorded a 5-minute summary of my view some of the key issues.

To focus on North Korea where many observers find the highest short-term risk, it seems to me that nobody would gain from the kind of war that is likely to explode if there is an attack by either side on the Korean peninsula. To my mind, that makes war extremely unlikely at any time – but not impossible. My view of what’s rational is not everybody’s view and in the heat of events and incidents, miscalculation, misunderstanding and plain old accident can take over.

That is to say, war in Northeast Asia is the archetypal low probability, high impact risk. Neither complacently nor in panic, we have to work our way out of the current impasse.

The good news, which surely puts us at least a few seconds further away from midnight than two minutes, is that diplomacy between North and South Korea has eased tensions in the last month. Perhaps that is only a temporary effect, encouraged by the PyeongChang Olympics, and already in doubt.  The question now is how to prolong the good work – through the Olympics, which take up most of February, and afterwards. Worthwhile but modest confidence building measures have been adopted.

What matters now is turning down the volume of the mutual megaphones and building quietly on the progress towards more peaceful relations and away from midnight.

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