Here’s what the Doomsday Clock is telling us, and the message isn’t reassuring

The Clock is signalling alarm by the dedicated abuse of information technology as a weapon of mass destruction

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 February, 2018, 12:07pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 February, 2018, 10:34pm

The world moved closer to oblivion this week as the Doomsday Clock ticked 30 seconds closer to midnight to 11:58pm. Two minutes matches the low of 1953 – but surely our current dangers are nothing like that at the height of the cold war?

In Hong Kong our darkest hours were in 1941, the Japanese invasion, or perhaps the 1967 Communist riots, which could have destroyed all Hong Kong’s hopes for the future. Today many of us have lived in a stable, prosperous China and, despite the ever-increasing influence of Beijing on our institutions, we at least have an awareness of our future.

Few people (including the 15 Nobel Laureates on the Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists) can remember the very real fear in 1953 of an imminent invasion of Europe by the Soviet Union using nuclear weapons. They are however unnerved by Donald Trump.

About North Korea, they note “hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions by both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation”. They point out that “neither allies nor adversaries have been able to reliably predict US actions – or understand when US pronouncements are real”. They see the US pulling back from a global leadership role, “reducing its commitment to seek common ground and undermining the overall effort toward solving pressing global governance challenges”.

The fret about a blossoming nuclear arms race, especially as in recent days both Trump and the Chinese military have called for an increase in their nuclear stockpiles. North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, or “Little Rocket Man”, will certainly be adding to his. In the Middle East, Trump is having wobbles about the Iranian nuclear deal. There is a lot less sensitivity at high levels about letting one off. But it is not just Trump. The cold war Allies, Russia and China increasingly invade each other’s airspace or organise military exercises on their borders. Pakistan and India have growing nuclear arsenals, and tensions in the South China Sea and East China Sea have increased.

The youngsters winding the Clock’s timepiece throw in spanners that didn’t bother the mechanism in 1953. Climate change has become the new nuclear midnight as they accuse governments of cloaking evidence about the catastrophic impact of global carbon dioxide emissions on temperatures.

The hacking, stealing and control of technologies, unknown in 2003 let alone 1953, are disrupting world security. The board points to finance and power systems being hacked and even that the world’s 20 billion personal devices might eventually be used to make independent “kill” decisions!

The Clock has been alarmed by the dedicated abuse of information technology as a weapon of mass destruction. Campaigns that can broadcast disinformation in seconds are a real weakness for the West, which relies on an informed electorate with popular confidence in the overall fairness of the executive, legislature, judiciary, public institutions, science, business, and the press. Russian trolling, North Korean worms, and Trump’s low tech attack on the media (using Goebbels-like repetition of the words “fake news”) highlights how easy it is to destroy public trust. What worked for Trump will surely work against him in time

The Boaster-in-Chief, the man with the biggest button, had the reality checkers working full time during Wednesday’s Presidential State of the Union address. The economy is booming, the stock market is up, unemployment is down and Trump’s few wins in domestic politics all increase the feel-good factor. The address showed however that he sees China and Russia as rivals – through the eyes of a businessman. Without the historical context and a posse of political opponents, Trump regards China as a full equal – no longer a poor developing economy. He observes that China is protecting its own economy while taking full advantage of the open US economy.

The price of that equality of recognition is that much will be demanded. Access to the US market is critical to the Chinese economy but at some point the US will say “equal or nothing”. Equal means equal access to markets, equal access to currencies, equal access to banking and industry, equal access to (non-military) government contracts, equal access to lending and investment, equal access to universities, equal access to technology sharing. We live in Hong Kong; we know that will not happen.

Donald Trump is definitely worth a few ticks on the Doomsday Clock because he makes policy by gut not brain. We should expect his next State of the Union address to likely focus on China and Russia. Will the big hand have moved closer to midnight by then?

Richard Harris is an investment manager, banker, writer and broadcaster – and financial expert witness at Port Shelter Investment Management