James Holmes

The Second Nuclear Age

While nuclear inventories have decreased dramatically since the end of the Cold War, new states are gaining atomic weapons.

My trusty sidekick Toshi Yoshihara and I have a book coming out this December titled Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age. The premise behind this collection of essays is simple. Efforts at nonproliferation and counterproliferation are worthwhile and must continue, but nuclear proliferation has occurred. Averting our eyes from that unpleasant reality does no good. Accordingly, contributors to Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age try to get their minds around the strategic dynamics at work in this brave new world.

It is high time, that is, for officials and strategists to try to catch sight of how new entrants to the unofficial nuclear club will employ mass-destruction weaponry to protect themselves while advancing national purposes. (The official nuclear weapon states are the five countries recognized by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which also happen to be the permanent members of the UN Security Council.) Foresight will help oldtimers like the United States, the chief guardian of the first nuclear age, adjust their own strategies to shore up deterrence.

While he didn’t coin the phrase second nuclear age, Yale University professor Paul Bracken has done the most to popularize it. What is the second nuclear age? For one thing, it is an Asia-centric phenomenon. The first nuclear age was the age of relatively stable competition between the U.S.- and Soviet-led blocs.(“Relatively” being the operative word—especially this month, when we observe the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.) Writing in 1999, Bracken prophesied that newfound military strength would empower Asian governments to nullify Western superiority in the region. New technology would invert trendlines that originated during the fifteenth century, when Vasco da Gama first dropped anchor in Calicut. While China’s ascent to economic and military prominence has dominated headlines, this is a development of regionwide dimensions—and world-historical importance.

Today’s nuclear arsenals are a fraction the size of Cold War inventories. Nevertheless, the geometry of deterrence is more intricate than it was during the era of bipolar competition. Adding more competitors to the mix complicates the structure of the international system, for one thing. Each time a new country fields nuclear weapons, outsiders debate whether its leadership will abide by the familiar logic of mutual assured deterrence. In the 1960s, alarmed at Mao’s nonchalant talk about atomic war, both the United States and the Soviet Unioncontemplated striking at the Chinese nuclear complex preventively. North Korea is a wildcard today. So is the Islamic Republic of Iran, an incipient nuclear newcomer.

Trends among established nuclear powers further complicate deterrence. The late Samuel Huntington portrayed post-Cold War competition as a matter not of “buildup versus buildup but rather of buildup versus hold-down.” East and West ran a symmetrical arms race for decades. Today, established Western powers are striving to preserve their edge in unconventional weaponry vis-à-vis rising challengers. For Huntington the outcome of such a race was foreordained: “The hold-down efforts of the West may slow the weapons buildup of other societies, but they will not stop it.”

Huntington had it half right. Western nuclear weapon states do want to hold down proliferation, but at the same time they have undertaken partial disarmament rather than additional arms buildups. It would be more accurate, consequently, to describe the emerging dynamic as “build-down versus hold-down.” How Western governments will navigate the challenges of a world where no military can make the rubble bounce—but where many countries, driven by disparate histories, cultures, and incentives, deploy modest arsenals—remains to be determined.The Naval Nuclear Diplomat will survey some of the newcomers and their strategies over the next few days.