In a rapid-fire question-and-answer portion of the first Democratic presidential debate Wednesday evening, each candidate was asked about the greatest geopolitical threat to the U.S.
Multiple candidates mentioned nuclear weapons or nuclear proliferation, but Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii — a combat veteran who served on the armed services and foreign affairs committees — went further, claiming that “we’re in a greater risk of nuclear war today than ever before in history.”
Gabbard’s language might seem hyperbolic, especially to Americans who as children may have participated in “duck and cover” drills amid fears of a Soviet nuclear volley during the Cold War. But experts are split on whether she’s actually that far off — with one saying the nuclear war threat is as dire as ever, and another calling Gabbard’s assessment “nuts.”
“It is not clear that the risk of nuclear war is greater than ever before, but it is clearly higher than it needs to be or should be,” Jon Wolfsthal, director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and former senior White House National Security Council official under President Barack Obama, told ABC News.
Wolfsthal noted that the unnerving “Doomsday Clock” created by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which has tracked the threat of nuclear disaster since the late 1940s, is currently set at two minutes to midnight, where it’s been since January 2018. The Bulletin says that’s “as close to the symbolic point of annihilation that the iconic Clock has been since 1953 at the height of the Cold War” due to the dual threats of nuclear weapons and climate change.
“This suggests that things are as bad as they ever have been, but not worse,” said Wolfsthal, who sits on the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board.
In April, a United Nations expert on nuclear disarmament, Izumi Nakamitsu, warned the international body that the threat of nuclear weapons being used, “by accident or through miscalculation, is higher than it has been in decades.”