LONDON – “Without a proper sense of urgency, we will be eventually defeated, dominated and very likely destroyed,” wrote former Gen. Michael Flynn, U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, last year. “They are dead set on taking us over and drinking our blood.”
It’s so early in the new year that nominations for Year’s Most Ridiculous Statement are not even officially open yet, but this has to be a strong contender. Flynn was talking, believe it or not, about the “Islamic terrorist threat.”
He was predicting that the United States, despite having the world’s biggest economy, 325 million people, the world’s most advanced technology, and more than 4,000 nuclear weapons, faces defeat, domination and probably destruction at the hands of 10,000 to 20,000 Islamist terrorists — unless, presumably, it gets serious and starts torturing people again.
Even if all of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims were politically and militarily united — an event less likely than their mass conversion to the Jedi faith — and they were all committed to a cold or even a hot war against America, the United States would survive. This is not just doomsday talk. It is extremely stupid doomsday talk. But there is a lot of it around at the moment.
Take, for example, the famous Doomsday Clock, a metaphorical device concocted by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1947 to signal how close we are to the end of the world. Midnight was the apocalypse, all-out nuclear war. Last month the bulletin moved the minute hand of the clock to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, the closest it has been since the depths of the “Second Cold War” in 1984.
I was already a journalist in 1984, and I had already interviewed the commanders and the operators of the nuclear forces on both sides of the Iron Curtain. And I was 10 times more frightened then than I am now.
What’s going on here is simply inflation. Terrorism is strategically a mere nuisance, and in terms of your personal threat level it is statistically irrelevant. An American, for example, is 10 times likelier to drown in the bath than to die in a terrorist attack. Yet terrorism gets as much media attention today as the threat of a global nuclear war got back in the Cold War. To paraphrase Parkinson’s Law, threats expand to fill the (media) space available.
The scientists who calibrate the Doomsday Clock are serious and sincere people, but they are not immune to the inflationary trend. The clock was set at seven minutes to midnight during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (which came close to triggering global nuclear war and killing hundreds of millions of people). Now, they say, it’s only two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Really? Are you sure?
Nonsense. The world is a bit more dangerous than it was just after the end of the Cold War in 1991, when the clock was set back to seventeen minutes to midnight, but no year in the past 25 has been as dangerous as any of the years before 1991. Nuclear war between great powers is still the real Big Deal.
However, the people who run the clock have greatly expanded the range of threats they worry about since the risk of a nuclear war declined. They include climate change now, and the resurgence of old-fashioned nationalism from America and Britain to India and Japan, and pretty well everything else down to acne and hangnail. There is no fate worse than being ignored.
That’s how we got to this point, allegedly two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. From 17 minutes after the end of the Cold War, they pushed the minute hand forward every time anything worrisome happened — and only once pushed it back, by one minute, for only two years.
It went forward three minutes in 1995 because there were still 40,000 nuclear weapons in the world. It jumped forward another five minutes in 1998 because Indian and Pakistan had tested nuclear weapons (although the total number of weapons in the world had halved). And another two minutes in 2002 because the Bush administration in the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Another two minutes forward in 2007 because North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and Iran was rumored to be working on one (it wasn’t). Then a two-minute jump forward in 2015 because of “unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals.”
So when Trump came to power two weeks ago, frightening people with his reckless talk and impulsive actions, the clock was already at three minutes to midnight, and they could only push it forward by another 30 seconds.
That’s about right in terms of the extra threat Trump represents. It’s completely wrong in terms of where the global threat level is now. Trump is a loose cannon, but he’s not the Apocalypse, and most other world leaders are still grown-ups. Let’s say 10 minutes to midnight.
Gwynne Dyer is a Canadian independent journalist and military historian.