Humanity is one minute away from midnight
Amman – Every year since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – founded by Albert Einstein and Manhattan Project scientists who helped develop the atomic weapons used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – has set the doomsday clock. The clock uses “imagery of the apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero)” to indicate humanity’s vulnerability to man-made disasters. In January 2022, the Bulletin’s Science and Security Council set the clock for the third consecutive year at 100 minus midnight, marking the closest extinction of humanity in 75 years.
Barely a month after this grim prognosis, Russia launched a large-scale “special military operation” against Ukraine. Worse still, Russian President Vladimir Putin soon after ordered Russian nuclear forces on high alert and threatened to use this arsenal if the West tried to intervene militarily in Ukraine.
Given such inflammatory rhetoric, the apparent erosion of collective mechanisms for managing conflict and global security risks, and the fact that nine countries possess a total of 13,100 nuclear weapons, it may now be necessary to reset the doomsday clock once again. This time, it should advance barely a minute before midnight.
Thucydides, the Greek historian and philosopher, warned of how the terrible collapse of human values under the pressures of war could cause humans to exalt “revenge above innocence and profit above- above justice”. These are malevolent values, and yet powers around the world are promoting them more and more. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, even relatively pacifist countries began to rearm.
Instead of withdrawing from the precipice, the world seems to be rushing towards it. After years of geopolitical divisions, civil wars and human catastrophes, we seem to have reached a point where leaders can wield the nuclear threat in the most cavalier fashion.
Amid the untold suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s major powers have remained more focused on their military capabilities than on human well-being. Russia, for example, has threatened to use newly tested hypersonic missiles that can travel at more than 15 times the speed of sound, autonomously determine their trajectories and deliver nuclear payloads undetected by radar.
The use of such weapons would undoubtedly trigger immediate retaliation, destroying much of the planet within hours. Anything that survived would soon be killed by radiation, a harsh nuclear winter, and ecosystem collapse. More generally, the myriad hotspots and conflicts around the world have pushed countries towards a nuclear tipping point, triggering a “proliferation epidemic” instead of constructive dialogue.
To reverse this grim trend, we need a new global security architecture to limit nuclear weapons, hypersonic missiles, killer pathogens, and the growing military capability of artificial intelligence-powered automated weapons. Quite simply, the world must build a new “world order” that protects humanity.
Whether it’s climate change or nuclear weapons, we need a global governance grid that can solve the existential problems that nation states cannot solve alone. A fundamental element of such an arrangement must be the elimination of autonomous nuclear, biological, chemical and lethal weapons. New conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms, especially to settle disputes between major political, economic and military powers, are needed to advocate for mutually assured survival instead of mutually assured destruction.
In January 2022, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States reiterated then-US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1985 statement that “nuclear war can be won and should never be waged”. Leaders know that no country will be spared the heavy toll of such a war. We therefore call on the international community to facilitate negotiations for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and to take steps to build a lasting architecture for peace.
As the hands of the doomsday clock approach midnight, the choice facing the world is clear. It is more critical than ever, as Einstein and the philosopher Bertrand Russell noted, that everyone “remember their humanity and forget the rest”. Project union
HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal is Emeritus Member of the Board of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Sundeep Waslekar is president of the Strategic Foresight Group.
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