The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that it would push the doomsday clock back one minute, to six minutes to midnight, in recognition of President Obama’s efforts to combat nuclear proliferation and climate change. The clock was first introduced in 1947 by scientists concerned that the world was spiraling toward nuclear disaster. It has only been adjusted 18 times in the last 63 years and it is no doubt a useful device intended to indicate how close humanity is to annihilating itself. Reuters explains the Bulletin’s decision:
The group, which includes 19 Nobel laureates, said a key to the “new era of cooperation is a change in the U.S. government’s orientation toward international affairs brought about in part by the election of (U.S. President Barack) Obama.
Progress has definitely been made, but before we pat ourselves on the back it is worth noting that in 1947 the clock was set at 7 minutes to midnight, therefore, according to the clock, the times we live in now are more dangerous than they were 60 years ago. On the face of it this doesn’t make much sense. In 1947 nuclear weapons had been used just two years earlier, norms against their use did not exist, the Soviets were determined to develop nukes, the US was determined to build more, and tensions between the Soviet Union and the West were escalating. In other words, things were pretty scary.
While today there is no superpower arms race (in fact the US and Russia are on the cusp of further nuclear cuts), tensions between superpowers are minimal by comparison, and strong norms have developed against the use of nuclear weapons, the depressing reality is that a nuclear incident is perhaps more likely today. As President Obama explained in Prague last spring:
Today, the Cold War has disappeared but thousands of those weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.
Today we are confronted by new nuclear dangers, stemming from the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the dangers of illicit terrorist groups gaining access to nuclear materials. The congressionally mandated bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism concluded in a report published two years ago that a nuclear terror attack was likely within the next five years if nothing was done:
Unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.
Combating proliferation and nuclear terrorism is a real and serious problem and has been set at the top of the Obama foreign policy agenda, which is largely why the clock has been moved back. However, to move the clock back further the coming six months will be crucial.
The nuclear calendar is jam-packed and Obama will encounter test after test of his commitment to the nuclear agenda – starting with the effort to focus the the Nuclear Posture Review on terrorism. This will likely be followed by an effort to ratify a START follow-on treaty in the Senate. Meanwhile, there are two global nuclear conferences coming up. In April a global Nuclear Security Summit will be held in Washington with the goal of preventing the spread of nuclear materials. This will be followed in May by the NPT Review Conference, which is the treaty that underpins all international non-proliferation efforts. If all goes well, the Senate will take up the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, as well – a treaty that bans countries from testing nuclear weapons. Oh and then there are those easy cases of North Korea and Iran.
Make progress on all of these fronts and the atomic scientists might have to get a new clock.