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Tomorrow’s world

Spectre of a Chinese Dr Strangelove

Hypersonic missiles on display at a military parade in Beijing, 2019. Getty Images

A couple of months ago China secretly flew a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile around the world, says Mark Almond in the Daily Mail. The fact that it missed its target by 24 miles “brings scant comfort”: hypersonic missiles fly much lower than conventional ballistic missiles, so they can “sneak under the radar of US anti-missile defences”. It raises “the terrible spectre of Chinese Dr Strangeloves” calculating that China could be the only superpower left standing after an atomic war. When Mao Zedong said something to this effect 60 years ago, “Soviet leaders thought he had gone mad and promptly cut nuclear co-operation with his regime”.

Hypersonic missiles aren’t new, says Nick Allen in The Daily Telegraph. China started testing them seven years ago, and in 2018 showed off the launch of its Starry Sky-2 rocket on state television. Russia also has hypersonic missiles – one model can carry a two-megaton nuclear warhead, vastly more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. America, which “risks becoming the third wheel in the hypersonic race”, is now spending $1bn a year to catch up. It expects to have hypersonic weapons within the next decade and hypersonic drones in the 2030s.

But here’s the thing, says Jeffrey Lewis in Foreign Policy. America’s missile defence system “is too small, and its test record stinks”, so it couldn’t stop all “or even most” of China’s current arsenal of nuclear weapons. Hypersonic technology doesn’t change the principle of mutual deterrence: if the US is attacked, it will in turn incinerate “hundreds of millions of Chinese families” with its own nukes. A new arms race just makes the balance of power more unstable.

Cities where you’ll never need a car

Paris is a pioneer of “15-minute cities”. Getty Images

“The 15-minute city” is all the rage, say Carlo Ratti and Richard Florida in The Independent. The idea is that “all the necessities of daily life” – shops, restaurants, schools, workplaces, parks – are no more than a 15-minute walk or bike ride from home. Painful commutes and scrambles for parking become a thing of the past. Developments adhering to the principle are springing up “from Paris to Portland”.

But it has its problems. A 15-minute neighbourhood is a tough fit for America’s “far-flung, sprawling suburbs”, which might only make the time limit if cars are allowed. And it’s impossible to replicate great universities, museums and theatres at a neighbourhood scale. Cities thrive because they create big markets for these institutions. Of course we need “easy access to the essentials”, but “the truly vibrant parts of the city often begin when the first 15 minutes end”.

🚲🌳 The 15-minute concept was popularised by Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, where public squares have been revamped with trees and cycle lanes, and co-working spaces are being set up in individual neighbourhoods. Portland “is celebrated in urbanist circles as a model of US city planning”, say Feargus O’Sullivan and Laura Bliss in Bloomberg: the Oregon city has the highest rate of bike commuting in any large American metropolitan area. But the average trip distance is still 6.2 miles – “hardly a 15-minute walk or bike ride”.