The Doomsday Clock is ticking. How can we turn it back? | Op-ed | Cirincione and Ryan

An Op-Ed coauthored by Joseph Cirincione and Patrick W. Ryan

Published by “The Tennessean” on February 10, 2019

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The Doomsday Clock is ticking. How can we turn it back?

The world is in a precarious place when it comes to the possibility of nuclear disaster. Trump foreign policy offers much bluster but few real gains.

• Joseph Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.
• Patrick W. Ryan is founding president of the Tennessee World Affairs Council.

In 2018 the “Doomsday Clock,” the expression of how close we are to “destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making,” advanced to two-minutes to midnight. Last month the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, keepers of the clock, reaffirmed that precarious position noting the world’s security situation was a “new abnormal.”

Based on decades of experience between us in defense policymaking and assessments, and military duties in operational nuclear armed forces we share the Bulletin’s alarm especially in two cases.

Despite promises of a better deal, none is in sight

In the years after the invasion of Iraq, we began to see headlines asking, “Will America Attack Iran?” Fortunately, sober decisionmakers saw virtue in diplomacy and President George W. Bush eventually chose to back European-led talks, not bombing raids.

The Obama Administration, alongside international partners reached an agreement with Iran in 2015, affirming that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire nuclear weapons.” It rolled back Iran’s nuclear program to a fraction of its former size, largely froze it for at least 15 years and put it under a vigorous UN inspection regime. We and our European allies promised sanctions relief in exchange.

Last year, President Donald Trump broke this anti-nuclear accord, saying he sought a “better deal” than Obama’s. The agreement is still honored by the other parties, while no White House deal-making is in sight. That created resentment among allies and raised the fear that Iran could also pull out, reject inspectors and restart its nuclear activities.

Iran’s stoking of conflicts elsewhere in the Middle East requires countermeasures, but forsaking the deal’s benefits – blocking an Iranian nuclear weapon – was irresponsible. Trump replaced it with unrealistic regime-change threats, risks of a new war and prospects for a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.

Kim Jung-un gained more than the U.S. did

In President Trump’s first year in office, North Korea for the first time tested a hydrogen bomb and long-range missile that could carry that weapon to American soil. Trump responded by threatening “fire and the fury like the world has never seen.” Pyongyang continued testing; Trump told the UN the U.S. “will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” to defend itself.

An opening appeared with North-South Korean cooperation at the February 2018 Winter Olympic games. In a frenzy of diplomatic activity, a history-making Trump-Kim summit was hastily announced leaving regional allies with a case of whiplash.

The Singapore summit produced an agreement where North Korea promised to move towards denuclearization and the United States promised new security guarantees. Trump’s “fire and fury” became, “He wrote me beautiful letters… We fell in love.”

However, after the Singapore klieg lights went out the process faltered. Kim Jung-un, a brutal dictator, acquired new stature as a statesman at the same time he continued building missiles and nuclear weapons. Trump’s national security team unrealistically insisted that Kim completely disarm before any sanctions relief or change in the relationship; Kim refused.

Three observations on White House foreign policy

In late February, likely in Vietnam, Trump and Kim will again sit down. There is the chance for a compromise interim agreement where Kim would finally agree to significant reductions in his nuclear facilities, Trump would relax sanctions enough to allow economic cooperation between North and South Korea, and both would finally declare a formal end the Korean War. We could then proceed step by step to see if Kim is willing to relinquish his full program in exchange for a new security relationship with America.

What do these cases show? First, American policy should be to change regime behavior, not wage war. We don’t want the world again asking, “Will America Attack Iran?”

Second, haphazard diplomacy, as in the case of North Korea, does not serve our nation well. Showy summits lacking substantial consultations of national security experts shouldn’t be organized at a whim. Our regional allies, Japan and South Korea, should be full partners in the process.

Lastly, given President Trump’s precarious domestic position, his flamboyant, incoherent diplomacy shakes the confidence of our friends and could trigger pre-emptive action by our foes who fear he may attack simply to distract.

Sound policy and wise leadership, not wars – real or Twitter – are key to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. We must turn back the “Doomsday Clock.”


Joseph Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. He will speak on “The Policy and Politics of U.S. Nuclear Strategy” at a Global Town Hall for the community, hosted by the Tennessee World Affairs Council at Belmont University, Monday, February 11, 2019 at 6 p.m. Details/registration at TNWAC.org.

Patrick W. Ryan is founding president of the Tennessee World Affairs Council. He retired from the U.S. Navy after 26 years as a submariner and intelligence officer. Views expressed here are his own.

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