The Doomsday Clock ticks while the markets boom
The Santa rally continues. And the Good Book says, “Eat, drink and be merry; for tomorrow we may die.”
You are James Bond. The Doomsday Clock is at three minutes – and it’s ticking. Your cutters hover over two wires. Then you see a third. What do you do?
The Doomsday Clock was set at seven minutes to midnight in 1947 by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to reflect the looming spectre of nuclear war. It has been moved 21 times since then, and is reviewed annually. We are currently at three minutes to midnight - the closest since the Cold War days of 1984 when reactionary Yuri Andropov was Russian President and Ronald Reagan faced off.
Every channel of communications was closed. The US went ahead with a space-based, anti-missile defensive shield, possibly rendering Russia’s arsenal impotent. The two proxy-fought each other in Afghanistan and Pershing, and cruise missiles were deployed in Europe. Reagan intensified the arms race and unintentionally toppled Russia into bankruptcy in 1990. A year later, the clock was put back to 17 minutes before the hour.
Today’s three minutes may seem inconsistent with 1984’s bleak outlook but the scientists look at nuclear weapon potency and intent, rather than numbers. Modern technology allows multiple independently targeted warheads, pinpoint delivery accuracy, and the use of tactical as well as strategic nuclear weapons. The effect of an uncontained explosion in a city would render it inhabitable – perhaps forever.
The closest to nuclear midnight was two minutes, set in 1953, when the US first tested a hydrogen bomb that vapourised a Pacific island. Within nine months, the Soviets tested their own. The furthest from the hour was 17 minutes in 1991, just after the fall of the Soviet Empire and the end of the Cold War.
To get the scientists to move the clock back requires peaceful intent, such as when in 1988 Presidents Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize for signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. In 1972, Nixon and Brezhnev signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, and 126 nations signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 to end atmospheric nuclear testing.
This year’s European terrorist attacks, the Syrian crisis, Brexit, the explosion of fake news, and Trump’s victory all make it more likely that the clock will be set to two minutes – but does it make sense to equal the most dangerous time since the second world war?
Admittedly, the superpowers are in an expansive mood. President Vladimir Putin’s acquisition of the Crimea could have happened by forcing a referendum – but sending in tanks enhanced his bare-chested, huntin’ shootin’ and fishin’ reputation. In the last few days, he has again beaten his bare chest by placing a line of missiles along the Polish and Lithuanian borders. He is a man who likes to get his retaliation in first.
And it is not politically incorrect to point out that China has been building new fighter jets, another aircraft carrier, and islands in the South China Sea as military hardpoints. This activity clearly impinges on its neighbours. China will wish to take advantage of US and Russian eyeballing – but might this result in China threatening the other two?
Modern leaders are too young to have personally experienced the tragedy of all-out war, which made leaders recoil from war for fifty years. The leaders of the three superpowers today are all post-war babies; they like to be controversial, to get their own way, and are not afraid of confrontation.
Donald Trump has said “I’m not going to use nukes, but I’m not taking cards off the table.” Big talk from a man whose closest experience of war is a Full Dinner Jacket. Trump has also said that he will overturn the carefully negotiated nuclear deal between Iran and the superpowers - the brightest spot in the world last year.
Any “bromance” between a star-struck Trump and wily and experienced Putin is likely to last as long as Trump’s first tweet. His latest cringemaker (requesting the UK to name a particular individual as UK ambassador to the US) was so wrong on so many levels - and so damaging to US foreign relations.
Fortunately in Hong Kong we are likely to be way down the pecking order, even if Russian and US warheads are set to Chinese targets. Ironically, we are protected by One Country Two Systems. The US regards us as being international rather than purely domestic Chinese, while the Russians would be more interested in big strategic targets. Short of buying New Zealand farmland, Hong Kong looks pretty safe.
Meanwhile the stockmarkets launch through all-time highs in a way not seen since 1999. The Santa rally continues. And the Good Book says, “eat, drink and be merry; for tomorrow we may die.”
Richard Harris is an investment manager, writer and broadcaster – and has lived in Hong Kong for nearly half a century. www.portshelter.com