HOW close is the world to a genuine nuclear confrontation between America and North Korea? Frankly, even if we get safely through the next few weeks, it feels very like 1914, when all it took was a slight miscalculation to turn a minor terrorist incident into a bloody world war that killed 18 million people.

I do not subscribe to the theory of nuclear deterrence that has ruled our lives since 1945. Sure, the threat of mutual annihilation does broker a temporary truce between enemies and rivals. Nato and the old Soviet Union teetered on the brink of war for 40 years but thankfully navigated several Berlin showdowns, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and umpteen proxy wars in the third world without pushing the final button.

Elsewhere, India and Pakistan could nuke each other but content themselves with diplomatic growling and the odd border clash. Iran and the Arab countries remain wary of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, which (frankly) explains why Israel is still there. China’s burgeoning nuclear weaponry is more about prestige and self-respect than a genuine threat to its neighbours.

And yet … the fundamental logical flaw in the mutual deterrence theory is that it implies a universal and permanent political stability that is never going to happen. Eventually – sometime and somewhere – the balance will tip and the world will go up in a puff of smoke. This will happen by technical accident, by a local commander overstepping their orders, by somebody thinking they can get away with a pre-emptive strike, by escalation of a conventional war by a losing party, or simply because Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un don’t want the world to know they have small willies. In fact, we have come close to nuclear annihilation on a number of occasions since 1945. In the 1950s, when Russia had few nuclear warheads and even fewer planes and rockets to deliver them, the US military were seriously thinking about a pre-emptive strike. In 1950 at the onset of the Korean War, President Truman dispatched B-29s equipped with nuclear bombs to both the UK and Guam (yes, Guam) to deter the Communists — though their fissile cores remained in the US till needed. That bluff failed, so in 1951 Truman upped the ante. Nine nuclear bombs complete with fissile cores were transported to Okinawa, to threaten Red China. Truman publicly announced he would use them if Mao Zedong did not come to terms in Korea.

The point here is that America had gone beyond passive deterrence (“nuke me and I’ll nuke you back”) into using atomic weapons as a political bargaining chip — much like Trump is doing today. It’s a reckless game of nuclear poker. As it happens, Mao was up for a nuclear war to finish off capitalism — he reckoned more Chinese would survive — and told the Russians so. The Kremlin was more cautious, preferring to buy time while it caught up with the Yanks militarily. One result was that Mao never trusted the Russians again and set out to acquire his own nukes.

Later, under Khrushchev, the Russians tried to engineer their own nuclear balance by stationing atomic weapons in Cuba, within striking distance of America’s big cities. To get them out, President Kennedy imposed a blockade on Cuba and took the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon in the autumn of 1962. We escaped by the skin of our teeth, partly because Kennedy and Khrushchev did a secret deal whereby the Americans took their own missiles out of Turkey and agreed never to invade Cuba. However, it later became clear that Khrushchev had given field command of his Cuban nukes to the Russian general on the island. If US paratroopers had started landing, it would have been (in order) goodbye Miami, goodbye Moscow, goodbye the Polaris base at Dunoon, goodbye world.

As a result of this political humiliation, Khrushchev was deposed by his Kremlin rivals and Russia started an immense military build-up of its conventional and nuclear forces. This led directly to a new arms race that (again) destabilised rather than helped create conditions for peace. Both the Americans and Russians strived to create first-strike nuclear systems, thus undermining the notion of deterrence. Frustrated politically, both sides launched a series of conventional proxy wars in the third world. That led to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and American support for Islamic fundamentalist jihadists — we know how that backfired.

THEN President Reagan thought it would be a good idea to tempt the Russians into bankrupting themselves by building an anti-ballistic missile system. The Russians were duly bankrupted and Communism collapsed. Fortunately — and despite a serious coup attempt by Kremlin hardliners in 1991 — Gorbachev managed the transition peacefully. But the West then tried to treat Russia like an economic colony, with the result that we got Putin. To restore Russian self-respect (he says), Putin is rapidly modernising Russia’s nuclear forces. In retaliation, Nato is stuffing Romania with tactical nukes right on the Russian border. And you call this stability?

Curiously, the UK has been so self-absorbed that the British media and political establishment have been seemingly oblivious to the latest nuclear build-up on all sides. In fact, President Obama quietly initiated a major modernisation programme for America’s nuclear weapons systems. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that America will spend $400 billion on upgrading and managing its nuclear arsenal in the next decade. That includes a new Columbia class of missile-carrying submarines, a new B-21 strategic bomber, and new rockets with new warheads. And that’s before Trump.

All of which suggests that the mid-21st century is not going to be peaceful. Chuck in a likely fifth of humankind becoming refugees as a result of climate change, and a nuclear world looks very insecure indeed. At best, with some cool diplomacy, we might survive. Unfortunately, cool diplomacy is the one thing we are not getting. The UK is rushing for the exit door in Europe. America has a minority president whose idea of diplomacy is to threaten to nuke North Korea and to invade Venezuela.

Underlying all this is an economic system that is based on competition and national rivalry. With saturated domestic markets in America and Europe, this competition is turning toxic as neither China nor India is likely to look favourably on Western exporters. On the contrary, China is pouring cash into a transport and communications infrastructure aimed at penetrating Western markets. Just as happened at the start of the 20th century, economic rivalry is laying the ground for military confrontation.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. But we urgently need to rekindle a vision of popular international cooperation and anti-militarism that we saw in the early 1980s – a movement that helped get cruise missiles out of Europe. We need a new European peace movement to counter the drift into a revived Cold War with Russia. We need public protests everywhere to confront Trump’s bombastic rhetoric. If Trump comes to the UK, he should not be able to leave his hotel without meeting a demonstration. We need the European left and civic movements – including those in Russia – to coordinate action for peace. The one thing we cannot afford is passivity. Or else the world ends in a mushroom cloud.