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Michael A. Cohen

Stop the (Doomsday) clock

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists unveils the 2018 “Doomsday Clock” on Jan. 25 in Washington.Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Doomsday Clock is now two minutes to midnight, which is as close as it has ever been to armageddon, or so says the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

The Doomsday Clock, which has been updated continuously since 1947, has long been a backdrop to the nuclear era and a means for raising awareness about the threat of nuclear war. But this week’s pronouncement may have the perverse effect of unintentionally increasing the threat to global peace and security. Rather than updating the Doomsday Clock, the entire exercise should be scrapped.

After all, the clock is more a public relations device than a calculation of real-world probabilities. Its countdown settings are completely subjective and ultimately unverifiable. Indeed, when the clock was first introduced, in 1947, it was set at seven minutes to midnight because, according to the artist who created it, that setting “looked good to my eye.”

During the Cold War, when the US and USSR had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, one could argue that the clock served as a useful, if imperfect, tool for reminding the public about the possibility of nuclear war — and preventing such an event from occurring. But even though that threat has diminished markedly since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the clock has remained at quite close to midnight. It’s as if none of the lessons from the nuclear era have been understood.


During the Cold War, deterrence — that is, the near-certainty of nuclear annihilation should a nuclear conflict occur — largely prevented the use of nuclear weapons. Somehow we’ve forgotten that deterrence continues to be a thing.

Today, even as tensions have increased on the Korean Peninsula, the potential for nuclear conflict there remains incredibly small. Unless one believes that North Korea, which created a nuclear strike force in order to protect its regime, would take the suicidal step of launching a weapon at the United States and thereby triggering a devastating counterattack, it’s hard to argue that the prospect of nuclear conflict is greater now than during the Cold War.


Further, there were plenty of international tensions during the Cold War — tensions far greater than those we’re seeing on the Korean Peninsula today — that never led to existential conflict. Moreover, though a nuclear exchange between the United States and North Korea would certainly be awful, it would not have the humanity-destroying magnitude of a US-USSR Cold War conflagration, which would have potentially meant the use of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. North Korea would certainly be annihilated, but given the much smaller size of their nuclear arsenal and the unresolved question of whether they could even successfully strike the US mainland, the actual threat to America is far less severe. This might seem like a minor or even a grotesque distinction, but precision in how we talk about global threats is actually vitally important. The more cavalier we are, the greater likelihood that the threat will seem so great that any policy to limit them will garner support.

Critics, of course, will argue that the big difference between today and the Cold War is the man who resides in the Oval Office. As the argument goes, Trump is an unstable madman who wouldn’t think twice about launching a nuclear attack. Although President Trump is perhaps more inclined to use nuclear weapons than previous presidents, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is unintentionally giving him cover to follow through on his administration’s heated rhetoric about launching a pre-emptive war against North Korea to remove the threat posed by Pyongyang.


Moving the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight only serves to ratchet up the fear among ordinary Americans that a nuclear exchange is something about which they should be deeply concerned and scared. If Americans become convinced that the nuclear apocalypse is nigh, they may be more inclined to support a military conflict that would eliminate the threat, just as they supported a preemptive war against Iraq that was misleadingly sold as a way to prevent American cities from being enveloped by mushroom clouds.

Actually, the risk of a conventional conflict on the Korean Peninsula, initiated by an American president intent on removing the threat of a North Korean nuke, is far greater than that of a nuclear exchange between the two countries. And focusing on the unlikelihood of the latter increases the possibility of the former. Ironically, the most likely (though still improbable) scenario for the use of nuclear weapons in coming years is a nuclear exchange started by North Korea in retaliation for a US conventional strike against it.

If the Doomsday Clock’s proponents want to be helpful, they should focus more on the dangers of conventional conflict on the Korean Peninsula and less on North Korea possessing nuclear weapons, which at this point is largely a fait accompli. After all, we have plenty of experience and success at deterring nuclear powers. Preventing war, even preemptive war, has been more of a challenge.


On Thursday, Rachel Bronson, the president and CEO of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists argued that the “power of the Doomsday Clock . . . gives us a way to talk about these enormously complicated issues in a way that real people can have real conversations.”

In reality, the opposite is true. The clock is not only overstating the potential for nuclear war, but misinforming “real people” about the risks they actually face. In the process, it is potentially increasing the chances of war, which is a strange way to move the world away from the Doomsday Clock’s proverbial midnight.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.