Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved up the doomsday threat on Tuesday.
The group — founded in part by Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer and other pioneering scientists, who helped develop the first nuclear weapon, in the belief that they "could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work" — moved its iconic "Doomsday Clock" to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it's been to the doomsday hour ever.
For two years, the clock had been set at 100 seconds to midnight. Moving it even closer, according to a statement issued after a news conference held by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is due "largely but not exclusively to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the increased risk of nuclear escalation."
The nuclear saber-rattling by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the invasion have strained the international system designed to preserve order — and avoid doomsday — in the world.
"Russia's war on Ukraine has raised profound questions about how states interact, eroding norms of international conduct that underpin successful responses to a variety of global risks," the group said.
That includes Putin's thinly veiled threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Elsewhere, fellow despots menace the region and beyond. Iran is getting technologically closer to proliferation, and China is already expanding its arsenal. Even more perilous is Pyongyang, where North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has promised an "exponential" increase in nuclear weapons. Seemingly more stable states like Pakistan and India are also expanding and modernizing their nuclear capacity.
Alarmingly, the Bulletin group said, the geopolitical superpowers of the U.S., Russia and China "are now pursuing full-fledged nuclear weapons modernization programs, setting the table for a dangerous new 'third nuclear age.' Long-standing concerns about arms racing in South Asia and missile arms races in Northeast Asia complete a dismal picture that needs to be addressed."
While founded by and focused on nuclear proliferation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists also recognizes concurrent threats from the climate crisis, bio-threats that make events like the COVID pandemic "no longer ... considered rare, once-a-century occurrences," as well as disinformation and disruptive technology that could provoke armed conflict between and within nation-states.
These and other transnational threats can ideally be addressed through international institutions or direct bilateral diplomacy.
"The broader nuclear-nonproliferation regime is still absolutely critical to the broader nuclear landscape and persuading countries that they don't want to, or that they shouldn't try, to acquire nuclear weapons," Mark Bell, a University of Minnesota professor of political science who specializes in nuclear-weapons issues, told an editorial writer.
At other times, Bell added, a more direct capital-to-capital strategy is key, like one between New Delhi and Islamabad or between Beijing, Washington, D.C., and Taipei.
Diplomacy, however, won't be enhanced by Western capitulation to Russia's illegal, immoral invasion of Ukraine. The opposite is true; rewarding Russian aggression would only incentivize more of it, be it from the Kremlin, China regarding Taiwan or elsewhere. That should resonate as allies try to align their disparate policies on supplying tanks to help Ukraine better defend itself.
Notably, an official with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists advocated for supplying tanks, which he rightly perceived as a way to restore the international order, imperative to avoiding doomsday.
"The U.S. and Russia have a strong shared interest in avoiding nuclear war and in minimizing nuclear risks, and we should be able to pursue this shared interest despite the war in Ukraine, just as we did during the darkest days of the Cold War," Steve Fetter, a member of the Bulletin's Science and Security Board, said in response to a reporter's question.
"U.S. military assistance to Ukraine may complicate those efforts," he said, adding, however, "I think it is essential for the long-term risks of nuclear war and nuclear proliferation that Ukraine is able to resist the invasion and repel Russian forces. And so we should do everything we can to support Ukraine in that."
Indeed, a further deterioration of the global order by allowing unchecked aggression would only make the world more dangerous and push the Doomsday Clock even closer to midnight. Instead, on Ukraine and other security threats, empowered international institutions backed by nations respecting the rule of law are more essential than ever to turn back the clock, however slightly, on the challenges facing an imperiled world.