Seconds to Midnight

02/02/2015

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An interesting article from The Conversation on the semiotics of the Doomsday clock.

What’s interesting in the article is the historical note as to how high the perceived risk was during the frigid decade of the 1980s. Able Archer 83 being given as an example of the potential for misstep into a nuclear war. The National Security Archive has released a set of briefing documents with commentary that give a fascinating insight into the thought processes of the major players leading up to, during and post Able Archer 83.

Here we see a situation where the perception of risk, and more importantly the degree of uncertainty about that risk, can drive actors to behave in ways that actually increase or decrease risk. The Soviets Operation RYAN can be viewed as a prudent measure to reduce the epistemic risk inherent in the situation. Risk in this context is not a system parameter that can be objectively observed in the scientific sense, but rather a dynamic interaction between observer and the observed.

Compare and contrast the degree of control over nuclear forces and the evolving situation by the Able Archer players versus that exerted by the major players during the Cuban missile crisis. If we view the risk in both situations as being about a loss of control of the situation then it’s clear that while the geopolitical relations were nearly as fraught, the control, communication and information available had significantly improved for both sides. Likewise the mechanisms for coordination, disclosure and communication between the players themselves had improved. So maybe, looking in from the outside, the Bulletin got it wrong.