The most interesting thing about the second nuclear age is that it actually came about.
It wasn’t supposed to happen, at least according to most political science theory. What was supposed to happen after the cold war was a reinvigorated global nuclear nonproliferation regime, which along with U.S. leadership and muscular counter-proliferation policies, that would prevent a second nuclear age from developing.
Anti-nuclear norms — authoritative rules and principles — were expected to enforce this regime.
Nuclear weapons were thought by many to have little value even if you did get them.
What could you do with a nuclear weapon, after all? You could sit on it, in which case it would be a monstrously expensive symbol of folly.
Or, you could fire it, and become a glass parking lot from the certain retaliation.
But the second nuclear age did come about.
What significance does this have, and what can be said about the fact — in comparison to widely held expectation that a second nuclear age wouldn’t arise?
Here I highlight some answers to these questions.
Some definitions are in order. By the “second nuclear age” I mean the spread of nuclear arms for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the cold war (Bracken, The Second Nuclear Age, New York Times Books, 2012). In the 1990s there was a widely held belief that nuclear arms would join the cold war in the graveyard of history. Nuclear weapons were analyzed in terms of nonproliferation theory, or if not that in terms of disarmament.
The argument was that there was a “twilight of the bomb,” to use a phrase widely embraced at the time. The bomb might last a few years, but its irrelevance to the security challenges of a post cold-war world would make it useful only in largely unimaginable situations. Say, a Russian surprise nuclear attack on U.S. cities. Possible, yes, but hardly conceivable.
This was a core belief in intellectual and academic circles, and in 2009 with President Barrack Obama’s Prague speech, it was brought into official U.S. policy and strategy.
But after the cold war the bomb spread, to India, Pakistan, then and North Korea. Israel’s nuclear arsenal virtually came out into the open, and Iran made a serious push to go nuclear. Others are trying to do so now, or at least hedging their bets with options to do it quickly should the need arise.
The international system is now composed of a constellation of major powers, most of which have nuclear weapons. The United States, Russia, China, India, Britain, and France qualify here. Indeed Japan is the only major power, which doesn’t have it. But Japan is linked into U.S. missile defense and protected by a U.S. security guarantee. In addition, there are three smaller powers, North Korea, Pakistan, and Israel, who also have the bomb.
What do these facts tell us about our initial proposition that a second nuclear age wasn’t supposed to happen?
Obviously, that a second nuclear age wasn’t averted.
More, it says that nuclear weapons have become a foundation for being a major power.
When was the last time anyone even argued that India should give up nuclear weapons and sign the NPT as a non-nuclear state?
This not only isn’t going to happen, it’s an argument that isn’t even made any longer. India couldn’t be an ally to the United States as an offset to China if it also wasn’t a nuclear power.
The program for avoiding a second nuclear age — an intensive nonproliferation regime, U.S. leadership, widely embraced anti-nuclear norms by most countries, was not unreasonable. As goals they made perfect sense, for the United States if not for others. I think most strategic analysts would support them as highly desirable, although this can get complicated.
The fact that we are in a second nuclear age shows important features of the emerging international order. Let me underscore that I am talking about international order here, and not winning wars.
So the first big insight is that this order is in fact a nuclear order.
It’s security is based, at bottom, on a threat to blow up large parts of the world, even if one chooses not to acknowledge this, either by talking platitudes or simply not thinking about it. Nuclear war may be unthinkable.
But it isn’t impossible. Because for all of the talk about how no one wants a nuclear war and how inconceivable it is, these weapons are always there.
No one is getting rid of them, not India, Britain, Israel, China, or the United States.
The international system is made up of sovereign states and within the country boundaries most can do pretty much what they please. Most countries have decided not to go nuclear. But some have, and they have found ways to do so in the face of daunting opposition and powerful allies who didn’t want them to do so.
China, Israel, and Pakistan — all have different strategic situations, but share a common feature, that powerful allies opposed their getting the bomb. The biggest determinant of whether a country gets the bomb isn’t major power opposition, norms against it, arms control, or international law like the NPT. It’s whether they want to get it or not.
If they do, they can probably find a way. Short of all out military strikes to destroy their nuclear capacity, or ground invasion and occupation, it’s hard to stop them. None of this is an argument against the NPT, efforts to institutionalize norms, or arms control.
They are simply unlikely to prove effective against a determined state seeking to get the bomb.
Another feature about the second nuclear age is that international order depends to a considerable degree on the structure of the system, rather than academic blueprints for how history should evolve in the future.
We are moving toward a multipolar order.
I don’t mean to invoke any academic theory here, but only to make the point that there are multiple decision-making centers in this system. Not one, and not two, but several.
So, the second nuclear age is a multipolar nuclear order, meaning that most major powers in it have nuclear weapons. This is, obviously, a unique development, since in the cold war only two major powers with the bomb really mattered.
That this is a nuclear order means that escalation and even the willingness to use conventional force is necessarily made in a nuclear context.
A third aspect that the realization of a second nuclear age has come about has to do with military technology. Major powers have lost their monopoly over advanced military technologies. It was in the late 1990s that this happened, as second and third-rate powers (Pakistan, North Korea) could get nuclear weapons.
Now, these countries not only have atomic weapons, they have other tools like drones, cyber arsenals, and mobile missiles. Nuclear weapons were once restricted to big wealthy states with an advanced technology base, major powers. They were the only ones with wealth, and the missiles and long-range bombers to deliver it. Technology was a force that worked against multi-polarity here.
No more. Today Pakistan flies drones, and North Korea is building a nuclear ICBM. Now, technology works toward accelerating multi-polarity, further weakening the monopoly major powers once held.
Finally, the second nuclear age isn’t only a structure.
Like all big structures it has processes and dynamics.
Given the overwhelming policy focus devoted to an alternative structure — of a nuclear-nonproliferation regime and its norms — the strategic dynamics of a second nuclear age have received little attention.
Consider that India is building a triad of nuclear forces, many with MIRV warheads. India will be able to destroy from ten to twenty Chinese cities. China and Russia are expanding their own strategic forces. Japan is buying into U.S. missile defense, big time. Japan, as well has a U.S. nuclear guarantee. Taken together, with a now certain modernization of U.S. strategic forces, a new “pentapolar war system” is forming in Asia. This has to profoundly shape how China sees the world.
The dynamics of a second nuclear age will determine world order.
They are most unlikely to simply be a replay of cold war dynamics. It’s actually quite fantastic when you think about it.
New nuclear interactions played out on the vast geography of Asia, are most unlike the cold war dynamics of Europe.
The second nuclear age calls for a fresh look at the structures, dynamics, and processes of a world order that many did not want to see come about.
But there’s an old saying that applies here. “You have to play the hand you’re dealt, not the one you wish you were dealt.”
Editor’s Note: We have made the argument that Trump is coming to power when significant strategic shifts are ALREADY under way.
The second nuclear is one of the most important of these.
With the Obama Administration having focused on the strategic atrophy of the importance of nuclear weapons, the Trump Administration will need to deal with the return of the nuclear equation including how these weapons intersect with the use of conventional forces in deterrence and war fighting with peer competitors.
For a discussion of how the nuclear dynamics are playing out in Asia, see the earlier article by Professor Bracken published in Global Asia:
For our earlier Forum on the Second Nuclear Age, see the following: