Back in January, the Chicago-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set their “Doomsday Clock” to 90 seconds before midnight. The clock captures the organization’s assessment of how close the world is to “global catastrophe,” namely the prospect of nuclear war. In a statement, the Bulletin said the new clock setting was “largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine.”
In January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set their “Doomsday Clock” to 90 seconds before midnight, in an assessment of how close the world is to “global catastrophe”—the prospect of nuclear war. Three recent events over the past few weeks have reinforced the idea that the world is entering a dangerous era of nuclear risk.© Provided by World Politics Review
That the war in Ukraine would be the primary factor in the organization’s determination is understandable. Over the past year, Russian officials, notably President Vladimir Putin, have repeatedly hinted at the possibility of using nuclear weapons if Western nations respond too strongly to Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, such as attacking Russian territory. Additionally, the West’s hesitant and tentative approach toward Russia appears to show the value of possessing nuclear weapons. Think back to the debates over the implementation of a no-fly zone early in the war. The concern, well-expressed at the time by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, is that “we would end up with something that could end in a full-fledged war in Europe.”
Make no mistake, by “full-fledged war,” he meant the potential use of nuclear weapons. No such threat existed when the U.S. imposed no-fly zones over Bosnia, Iraq and Libya in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. This is also why the Biden administration and NATO allies have been tentative and gradual in their disbursement of advanced weaponry to Ukraine. Each step—starting with HIMARS rocket launchers, then Main Battle Tanks and perhaps soon F-16 fighter jets—is a potential rung up the escalation ladder, a ladder that could conceivably end in the use of a nuclear weapon by Putin.
One can question the methodology and mission creep that goes into the setting of the Bulletin’s clock, such as how it has broadened over the years to include non-nuclear war and other threats to human civilization, such as climate change. Regardless of such questions and criticisms, it is undeniable that the past few weeks have done much to reinforce the idea that the world is entering a dangerous era of nuclear risk. Three recent events stand out.
First, adding to an already tense nuclear situation in Europe, Putin signed a law Tuesday formally suspending Russia’s participation in the New START arms control treaty. The treaty—signed in 2010 by then-U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart at the time, Dmitry Medvedev—significantly reduced the excessive U.S. and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons built up during the Cold War. And it was intended to pave the way to finally eliminating them. But during an address last week marking the first anniversary of the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, Putin claimed that the Western powers and NATO want “to inflict a strategic defeat on us and also to get to our nuclear sites.”
The past few weeks have done much to reinforce the idea that the world is entering a dangerous era of nuclear risk.
Of course, one could claim that the treaty was already effectively dead, as Russia had been refusing to allow verification of its nuclear facilities by U.S. inspectors, a key component of the treaty. Nevertheless, Russia’s explicit suspension of its adherence to the treaty is worrying, given the various veiled and not-so-veiled nuclear threats it has issued over the past year.
Second, it now seems that Iran has effectively achieved weapons-grade uranium, having last week reached an enrichment level of 84 percent, according to international monitors. Though 90-percent enrichment is usually described as the threshold needed for a weapon, the lower level would simply require a greater amount of fissile material. Iran’s government claims that the 84 percent enrichment level was reached only momentarily and accidentally, as the country was only attempting to hit 60 percent enrichment, which would be below the threshold for weaponization.
Setting such technicalities aside, the episode serves to further heighten the fears of the U.S., some European nations and states across the Middle East that have long opposed Iran acquiring a bomb, even if they have taken different approaches to preventing it, ranging from diplomatic enticements to “maximum pressure” coercion. The fear is that once Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, it could set off a regional cascade of proliferation, with other states, such as Iran’s long-time rival Saudi Arabia and possibly Turkey, also developing a bomb. More immediately and quite concerningly, reports are resurfacing that Israel may take matters into its own hands, allegedly with U.S. support, by striking Iran before it reaches the nuclear threshold or is able to actually arm a bomb.
Third, the Korean Peninsula is once again becoming a dangerous arena for potential nuclear use. This past week, North Korea, perhaps frustrated by the lack of attention it is getting given everything else going on in the world, appears to be planning another nuclear test. This comes on top of a record year of testing of its ballistic missiles, which would be used for delivering a bomb.
Though one could dismiss North Korea’s saber-rattling as nothing new, more disconcerting is the fact that South Korea is now also sending similar signals, with recent reports suggesting that Seoul is considering developing its own bomb. Part of South Korea’s concern is that the U.S., long the anchor of deterrence on the peninsula, could be stretching itself too thin, given the renewed need to focus on Europe and protect Taiwan in the face of China’s latest ominous pronouncements regarding the island. Seoul could even be seeking to hedge against the possible return of a U.S. president skeptical of Washington’s alliance commitments after the 2024 election. Regardless of the reasons, it would be a dangerous escalation, one that contrasts with the pursuit by previous South Korean governments of a “Sunshine Policy” aimed at positively engaging with North Korea.
On a related note, if South Korea goes the nuclear route, could Japan be far behind? While Japan already has a “bomb in the basement,” meaning it has the latent technical capabilities to quickly develop a nuclear weapon, all indications are that going nuclear is not an immediate policy option for Tokyo. But Japan’s government has given it serious thought in the past. For instance, although former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo ultimately opted not to develop a nuclear capability, in 2002, when he was serving as deputy chief Cabinet secretary, he reportedly told an audience of students, “The possession of nuclear bombs is constitutional, so long as they are small.” The legacy of being the only country to have had nuclear weapons used against it may serve as a powerful brake on Japan itself developing the weapons. But ultimately, Tokyo will not exclude any action, including the possession of a nuclear bomb, if it feels that is the only way to deter potential aggression by China.
The expectation is that the war in Ukraine will last into the future. Tensions continue to rise between the United States and China. And the escalation threats are peaking in the Middle East and on the Korean Peninsula. The world may or may not be inching ever closer to doomsday. But it is indeed entering a dangerous era of nuclear risk.
Paul Poast is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago and a nonresident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.