The Heart of the Matter – How to prevail in the Second Nuclear Age?

Paul Bracken, our guest editor for this forum has focused on the emergence of the second nuclear age as a key 21st century strategic challenge.  In this forum, we will address this challenge in its various manifestations.

The core point is rather simply put: the rules that applied to the first nuclear age do not necessarily apply to the second.  The new nuclear powers are acquiring nuclear weapons or on paths to obtain them as part of a re-shaping of global dynamics within the 21st century and to re-shape global power balances.

Rather than relegating nuclear weapons to the dustbin of history, the new nuclear powers are seeking to make them center pieces of their global aspirations and ability to position themselves within their regions and beyond.

In this forum, we will address the emerging rules of the road as global powers compete to define the role of nuclear weapons within the second nuclear age.

The challenge of the second nuclear age is to frame the problem of the spread of atomic weapons in the right way.  If we frame the problem in the right way we will at least be in the right ballpark with any proposed ways to manage it.

Our decisions will then be focused on the right problems, so to speak. 

If the challenges of the second nuclear age are framed in the wrong way, there is little chance that good decisions will be made, since they’ll be directed at the wrong problems.

This counsel might seem banal.  But it’s important.

We are in the early stages of the second nuclear age. 

The real problems are only taking shape, and the norms and conventions that will surely develop don’t exist yet.  Some of them, at the moment, are completely unthought of.

There’s just a lot we do not know yet about the dynamics of a multipolar international order where many of the major powers have nuclear weapons and where some of the secondary ones do as well.

It’s like we are in back in 1948, in the very early cold war.  The vocabulary and distinctions of a nuclear crisis haven’t been invented yet.  Counterforce and countervalue, deterrence, second strike surviving forces, signaling, escalation and de-escalation, fail safe operation are undiscovered in 1948.  By 1958 all of them will be widely used, and institutionalized into U.S. forces and plans.

These concepts were not perfect solutions to the challenges of a first nuclear age, but they were a giant step ahead of the debate in 1948.  They also were the basis of a U.S. nuclear strategy.

Arranging them in different ways gave different strategic alternatives.

For example, one school of thought sought to maximize counterforce striking power, while another wanted to emphasize second strike countervalue forces.  People debated which of these was better.  But my point is that in 1948 the country couldn’t have a meaningful debate about what the best U.S. strategy was because they lacked a vocabulary and distinctions for doing so.

This possibility – that there could even be such a thing as a nuclear strategy – was widely denied by experts in the late 1940s and early 1950s. 

Many experts (e.g. Bernard Brodie working at RAND) believed that strategy had come to an end.  Many individuals in Congress and the Pentagon believed the same thing.  They saw the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons as so great that no strategy could be developed to apply this power to a larger end.  As a result, thinking about what a nuclear war would be like, how it might start, or, especially, how it might end came to a stop.  This was quite dangerous.

The single greatest security challenge that the United States ever faced was getting little serious attention – beyond telling leaders that they must avoid a nuclear war at all costs. 

Some brave, creative analysts saw what was happening.  It was the very absence of analytical attention that invited disaster.  A small crisis could blow up into a war.  A war could escalate.  Or a nuclear war might go on without pause because no one had thought how to stop it.  In other words, there were a lot of scenarios and possibilities that were being overlooked because of the inhibition against analyzing various dynamics between nuclear-armed countries.

I think the people who broke the ice here – those who studied nuclear war in a serious analytical way – deserve a lot of kudos.

They made the cold war safer.  Of course it was better to avoid nuclear war.

But that’s like saying it’s better to avoid Hurricane Katrina or the AIDs epidemic rather than trying to manage them so that the damage is limited.

History is repeating itself today. 

In my book, The Second Nuclear Age (Macmillan, 2012), I argued that the quality of thinking today about nuclear weapons had reached a dangerously low level in the United States.  What was happening was in certain ways like 1948.  The idea was that if any discussion about using nuclear weapons was allowed, people would conclude that these things had value, and this was a message the United States shouldn’t send.

I can see the logic behind this argument.  It does have some validity, in my view.  But I don’t find it persuasive.  Because it means that the challenges of a nuclear Iran, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, and the refusal of the major powers to embrace disarmament, are being treated the same way nuclear escalation was in the late 1940s.

The advice is: “Don’t think about it.” 

Whenever a nuclear context is introduced to any of these problems the strong reaction is to offer arguments about why it won’t happen, why it can’t happen, or whey we have to make sure that it doesn’t happen.  Few people think about what happens when it does happen.

But a nuclear context is happening.

It is enveloping every one of the problems listed above, as well as regional dynamics and the shifting strategic balance in East Asia and South Asia.  At present there are nine nuclear weapon countries, and all of them – with one exception, the United States, — are modernizing their forces for 21st century conditions. The change from a conventional to a nuclear context is one of the biggest challenges we face.

But, as in the late 1940s there’s an unwillingness to consider its significance.

Granted, some analysts do look at the challenges of this second nuclear age in terms of the old nuclear frameworks used in the cold war.  Deterrence is advanced as the bedrock concept. Now, I happen to think that deterrence will be important in the second nuclear age, as it was in the first.

My difficulty with deterrence is that it’s incomplete.  There’s a lot more things going on than can be considered under the single concept of deterrence.

To truly understand the challenges of a second nuclear age we need multiple perspectives, not just one.

This Forum is dedicated to generating multiple perspectives and inputs with regard to the core questions.  We invite inputs, short or long, to the deliberation over how to navigate the challenges of the second nuclear age and ways to prevail.

A starter set of what I believe these perspectives are is:

  • Multipolarity
  • Changing Attitudes toward Nuclear Nonproliferation and Other Institutions
  • Shifts in Technology
  • Defense Economics
  • Deterrence

I would like to use this Forum to explore the second nuclear age using a multiple framework approach.  And we welcome contributions to shaping a debate crucial to survival and navigation of the challenges of the Second Nuclear Age.

—Paul Bracken



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One response to “The Heart of the Matter – How to prevail in the Second Nuclear Age?”

  1. peter huessy, president of geostrategic analysis says:

    I find your work very useful and challenging; here is the problem that I see; in discussing how to sop a nuclear conflict once it has started may be seen as a green light to try and lay out scenarios where the use of a limited number of nuclear weapons could used and then such use stopped. The global zero folks and those opposed to strategic modernization have used this line of argument repeatedly not only today but during most of the Cold War. Would not a better line of reasoning be that US and allied policy should be aimed at stopping the first use of nuclear weapons–at any number. A small number could be defeated with missile defenses; a larger number in the 100’s is an invitation for a massive retaliatory response, what I describe as the Armegeddon option–which leaves an adversary with the first option that won’t accomplish the mission and the second option that invites utter societal destruction–in short, keep the nuclear guns firmly in the nuclear holsters….All the best, Peter Huessy

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