COMMENTARY | During the Cold War, the Bureau of Atomic Scientists (BAS) developed a “Doomsday Clock,” an artificial device that was supposed to explain how close we were toward the destruction of the world. It made headlines this week as the BAS announced we are on the brink of obliteration. But by always putting the world on the verge of annihilation, even after the Cold War, it has ceased to provide a truly useful function.
The clock seemed like a good idea in 1947. As threats increased, we would get close to “midnight.” As the threats diminished, we would get further from midnight. The closest we ever came to midnight by their clock was when the hydrogen bomb was tested in 1953. See the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ timeline for details).
Frankly, I would have focused more on the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 as a more dangerous time, but I’ll go with the BAS on this one, in that the late 1950s were pretty tense.
But after the Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed by the USA and the USSR, the BAS moved the clock back to 12 minutes from midnight. Similarly, signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty moved the clock away from midnight. The Doomsday Clock made sense back then.
A resurgence of superpower confrontation moved the clock toward midnight in the early 1980s, just as superpower cooperation at the end of the decade moved it away from midnight. By 1991, the clock was 17 minutes from midnight, a record.
If only the Bureau of Atomic Scientists followed their simple rules, we might care about this device, as we might have during the Cold War.
Even though the U.S. and Russia cut their nuclear arsenals from 40,000 nuclear weapons to 7,000, the Doomsday Clock actually moved closer to midnight. The BAS moved it even closer to midnight in 2007 when the atomic scientists claimed “the world stands at the brink of a second nuclear age,” citing some sort of superpower rivalry.
What actually happened was a New “Start” Treaty, signed by the U.S. and Russia, and ratified by the U.S. Senate by a nearly 3:1 margin in 2010, drastically reducing nuclear stockpiles and increasing monitoring and verification. That was enough to move the clock back a minute, but the B.A.S. is actually telling us that we’re in tenser nuclear age than 1960 or 1980.
Okay, so a few other countries have crude arsenals, which hardly make up for the nearly tenfold reduction in the actual number of overall nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan are hardly threatening nuclear war. There’s a nuclear deal with Iran. China hasn’t really gone on a nuclear weapon building spree, any more than Britain and France have. While North Korea is still out there, they seem as much a danger to themselves than anything.
In recent years, the Doomsday Clock organizers have sought to find ways to keep the hands ever closer to midnight, like touting climate change and killer robots, while largely ignoring terrorism, with groups far more likely to employ nuclear weapons if they get them than even the most rogue state.
What we really have going on is an attempt to make something from the late 1940s still remain newsworthy. And by always keeping us positioned near disaster, the BAS can always tell us “we told you so.” But by coming up with ad hoc reasons for always keeping us on the brink of disaster, and failing to recognize any recent progress or cooperation, the clock seems to have run out of any reason for us to spend time paying attention to it.