Every year, a group of top scientific and security experts meet to discuss the exact time on the Doomsday Clock—and the probability of apocalypse. And if that sounds rather dramatic, it’s because it is—especially at a time like now, when two immature, petulant, seemingly psychopathic national leaders are brandishing their nuclear toys at each other. It is perhaps the first time in history that we have seen a scenario quite as frightening as this.

But what is Doomsday Clock, and why was it created?

The idea goes back to the first people who actually witnessed the awesome power of a nuclear weapon. As they watched its mushroom cloud rise 5 miles (8km) into the sky over the New Mexican desert in 1945, most of them were silent, some wept (though a few apparently laughed). And the thought that went through the mind of the “Father of the Bomb", J. Robert Oppenheimer himself, was an eerie line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds".

Oppenheimer went on to become a passionate opponent of the Bomb, and badgered the US government to ban nuclear weapons. Having personally seen their effect, he evidently knew. In 1947, along with Albert Einstein and others who had been involved with the atomic project, Oppenheimer helped set up the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to highlight the global nuclear threat. And on the cover of the first issue, the group decided to put the illustration of a “Doomsday Clock", set at 7 minutes to midnight.

What the Doomsday Clock measures, essentially, is the degree of threat as perceived by its board of physicists and policy experts (and, of late, climate control scientists). Over the years this group has moved the clock’s hands forward and backward several times, depending on the global situation—from 2 minutes to midnight in 1953, when the US and Russia both exploded hydrogen bombs within months of each other, to 17 minutes to midnight in 1991, when the Cold War finally, officially, ended. In the process, the Doomsday Clock has arguably become the most influential infographic of our times—a potent graphic reminder of the level of continuous danger we live in today.

Tick, tick, tick

In 2015 the Doomsday Clock was advanced to 3 minutes to midnight, because of the continued upgrade of their nuclear arsenals by the US and Russia, as well as the lack of action to address the threat of global climate change. And then in 2017, something significant happened.

On 20 January 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the US, and six days later the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists decided to advance the Doomsday Clock to 2 minutes to midnight—the second closest it has been to apocalypse since 1953. Its board specifically cited the factor of Trump’s “ill-considered comments about expanding the US nuclear arsenal" and his “troubling propensity to discount or outright reject expert advice related to international security", adding that this is “first time the words and stated policies of one or two people placed in high positions have so impacted our conception of the existential threats the world faces", referring to Trump, as well as to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It then went on to list other factors like a general worsening of the security landscape, a growing distrust of scientific expertise and the rise of ultranationalism around the globe.

But that, of course, was back in January 2017—and since then things have gotten even worse with North Korea, which was first noted by the Doomsday Clock in 2007, when it tested a nuclear weapon, now moving to the centre of the global stage.

Today the Doomsday Clock still officially stands at 2.5 minutes to midnight, but the fact is that if it was to be reset now, it would undoubtedly be closer. For example, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the US and Russia stood eyeball-to-eyeball—and the US secretary of defence famously confessed, “I thought it was the last Saturday I would ever see"—the Doomsday Clock still stood misleadingly at 7 minutes to midnight, which it had been set at in the beginning of the year. So now with the US and North Korea having ratcheted up the situation yet another notch by launching their war games this week, some security analysts argue that the Doomsday Clock has moved to approximately 2 minutes to midnight—the closest it has ever been.

The Madman Theory

Given today’s scenario—being played out mainly between two individuals—dubbed “Kim Jong-un and Wun Dum Gai" in a wickedly memorable meme—one can’t but help recall Richard Nixon’s famous “Madman Theory". As Nixon explained to his chief of staff during the Vietnam War, “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his finger on the nuclear button’—and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace."

That Madman Theory was a key feature of Nixon’s foreign policy: his administration sought to present him as unstable, irrational and capable of anything: a pose deliberately crafted to deter opponents from provoking the US for fear of an unpredictable American response.

During Trump’s presidential campaign he made a virtue of his own supposed unpredictability, arguing that being unpredictable would make others think twice before messing with the US. “We must, as a nation, be more unpredictable," he said in a campaign speech. “We are totally predictable. We tell everything. We’re sending troops—we tell them. We’re sending something else—we have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable. And we have to be unpredictable starting now."

But, unfortunately, there’s a crucial difference between Nixon and Trump.

The wrong strategic game?

Nixon’s Madman Theory was carefully, calculatedly, overlaid upon his reputation for being a shrewd strategic thinker—which is what kept his opponents always slightly off-balance. And that is very different from Trump’s own special brand of inconsistent unpredictability, marked by its apparent whimsicality, absence of strategic direction, frequent policy reversals and mixed signals from different components of his administration. It’s the kind of rogue strategy, in fact, that a weak player, with very limited objectives, might use against a dominant player, in pursuit of the belief that “Crazy always beats Big". But for a dominant player like the US, with broader, grander long-term policy objectives, it makes little sense. On the contrary, it works to erode the US’s credibility, confuses and unnerves its allies, and thus squanders valuable strategic assets that have taken decades to build. Indeed, it has even been suggested that Trump is playing Kim’s strategic game, instead of his own.

Kim, on the other hand, now comes through as a grim survivor, rather than a madman: he has evidently noted what happened to Muammar Gaddafi (who had agreed to give up his pursuit of nuclear weapons), and to Saddam Hussein (who turned out not to have had nuclear weapons in the first place). His task is to ensure that he’s not next in line. He therefore appears to be pursuing a nerve-jangling strategy to set up the ultimate negotiations, in which he can extract major diplomatic and economic concessions from the US, and thereby hopefully secure the continuance of his regime.

And in this dangerous calculus, let’s face it, he has everything to gain, and little to lose. Meanwhile, South Korea—the player with everything to lose, and little to gain—is stuck, extremely uncomfortably, in the middle.

Anvar Alikhan is an advertising professional and strategy consultant.

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