The Nuclear Age Version 2.5

Paul Bracken in his book, The Second Nuclear Age, argues that rather than tending to a Nuclear Zero, the world has in fact already gone straight from the First to the Second Nuclear Age in the years since the Fall of the Wall. Bracken, a professor at Yale School of Management who spent years in the classic think Cold War think tank notes that not only have the original nuclear powers (the US, Russia and the UK) kept their weapons, but so have the subsequent entrants (France, China and Israel).  Now with with India, Pakistan and North Korea new entrants and Iran and Saudi Arabia probably in the pipe the Second Nuclear age is fairly and truly begun.


One may not like it, but there it is.

But as when the bipolar nuclear world was still new in the 1940s,  there are as yet no established maps for navigating the new one.  And as the Cold War’s first years were so dangerous because policymakers had yet to figure out how to operate within a nuclearized context, so too are the coming decades likely to be fraught with peril.  We don’t know how the new nuclear world works yet.  The international system took 50 years to learn the rules of the old one the hard way — via the Berlin Crisis, Korea, Cuba and Vietnam — it will likely require the same type of hard knocks to figure out the new.

The strategic problems of the First Age were only addressed when the debate widened to include the public, where it drew the attention of the best minds of the day (Kissinger, Kahn, Schelling).  During the 1948 Berlin crisis the only strategies available were the ones left over from World War 2.  Then, just as now, nuclear weapons were attractive to policymakers because they were cheap.  Truman wanted to cash in on the Peace Dividend after VJ day and the only alternative to keeping 165 conventional divisions in Europe to hold back the Red Army was the Bomb. The problem was he had no guidelines on how to use it. Still he may be better off than we are now, when many think we don’t need to think about those issues.

The recommended military response to Stalin’s blockade of Berlin was actually for Truman to send an armored column — one that would probably have been outnumbered 50 to 1 — racing towards the former German capital.  Nobody believed it would work, but it was the only response in the pre-nuclear playbook.

Truman had to improvise a strategy by announcing the famous Airlift, complemented by “routine deployments” of Silverplate B-29s to bases all around the USSR and staging joint reviews of mock bombing raids with his Republican presidential opponent Dewey to let Uncle Joe know the policy was bipartisan.


No one knows what would have happened if Stalin had ordered the Berlin aerial resupply interdicted.  But the alternative history is unimportant. It is sufficient to note that by trial and error Truman began to figure out how the game between the superpowers could be played without blowing up the world. It was crises of these types that pushed the problem of strategy out into the open. An analogous process has still not happened in the post Cold War period. We still sail on under colors of confident ignorance, untested by crises.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall seemingly banished such problems forever.  But they did not. The accession of new nuclear powers has created an unacknowledged new nuclear age with distinctive features.  For one, it is driven by regional dynamics.  The “circuit breakers” no longer run through Washington and Moscow. Instead, they pass through the Middle East (Israel vs Iran vs Saudi Arabia), South Asia (India vs Pakistan) and East Asia (China vs Japan vs North Korea). These new detonation circuits have been overlayed onto a world where the US, Russia, France and the UK still play a part. The remnants of the First Age are now written over by the structures of the Second.

And the linkages are connected in ways that create emergent and unexpected phenomena. Bracken spends many paragraphs citing actual war game results where decision makers (but not the top ones) are suddenly shocked to learn for themselves that the regional conflicts can escalate and spill over. Lesson number one: the Second Nuclear Age is more unpredictable than the First.

Equally shocking,  many are determined to ignore their own unpreparedness through a process of invincible denial. “No, nonproliferation is not dead. It’s no use talking about strategy, there is no strategy possible for thinking about nuclear weapons. We must get to Global Zero and all these problems will go away. How dare you think the unthinkable … ” etc etc etc. The official line triumphs over common sense.


It is as if we were transported back in time to 1948 again, re-learning the ropes but with Barack Obama instead of Harry Truman at the helm. “Have we forgotten too much?” Bracken asks of our strategy. His answer is ‘yes we have’. And what is more we don’t even know that it’s important to remember.

One of his best chapters,  that on South Asia, illustrates the depth of Bracken’s thinking but at the same time points to what I think is the book’s major weakness. In describing Pakistan’s strategic dilemma, Bracken notes that it was India’s progress that destabilized the regional situation.  When India got rich, Pakistan could only equalize with more Bombs.

India has an economy so much larger than Pakistan’s that it is winning this (the conventional arms) race easily… Pakistan lags in almost all areas of modern conflict except one: nuclear weapons. And that is the problem. Pakistan may be forced to use nuclear weapons to try and restore a balance with India.

Now India has satellites, an advanced IT industry, manufacturing, money and lots else while Pakistan lives on handouts. It’s a deadbeat with no prospect of employment beyond the shakedown.  The land of Islamic purity has nothing but nukes to boast of. And therefore it is turning them out like mad to stay in the game. Like North Korea, cheap nukes are the only way Pakistan can remain relevant, in Bracken’s words like “a starved rat with a nuclear bite”. This has created an instability which Washington doesn’t know how to deal with.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have gone out of their way to say that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are safe, that they’re “under control.” Why have two presidents issued reassuring statements? There are no comparable announcements about Israel’s weapons, or China’s. no cold war president said that Soviet nuclear weapons were under control either. …

Imagine if a president had said the opposite … “We think Pakistan might lose control of the bombs to terrorists or groups like Laskhar-e-Toiba; or that someone might sell the weapons the way A.Q. Khan did; or that a ‘mad major’ in the Pakistani army could start World War III.” Saying such things wouldn’t be politic … it would inflame fears all over … Congress would call hearings. The Pentagon would have to come up with some sort of plan in response.

And India would get very nervous … so the president says, “Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are secure.”


Washington says the Pakistani nukes are secure not because they are really secure; just that the Beltway has no strategy for thinking about what to do if they are not. There is no real Plan B if Global Zero turns out to be a pipe-dream and the nuclear genie is out of the bottle. There is no alternative to the unpleasant possibility that the entire assumption of 20 years of post-Cold War politics turns out to be a fantasy. There’s a real chance that Barack Obama will have to think like Harry Truman and just maybe he can’t or doesn’t want to.

The major weakness of Bracken’s book is that he overlooks the possibility that we’re no longer in the Second Nuclear Age but already in Version 2.5. His Second Nuclear Age looks too much like the first in that it assumes that the actors are somehow as permanent as the first set of players.  But Pakistan is representative, rather than atypical of the kind of new entrants to the nuclear club.  And while Bracken correctly points out that countries like Pakistan, North Korea and Iran want nuclear weapons because it gives them international power he neglects to reckon that nukes also destabilize these countries internally.

It is only since the Arab Spring that we can clearly see how fragile these authoritarian regimes are.  Underneath the facade they are rotten to the core. The WMDs and big armies gave their strongmen a false sense of security which obviated the incentive for internal reform. Khadaffy and now Assad are learning that while such weapons may protect you against foreign enemies they are useless against internal rebellion. In fact they may act something like the eggs laid by an ichneumon wasp in a host.  When they hatch, they kill you. WMDs can eat out a rotten regime from within. They incubate power centers, ambitious ‘mad majors’ or invite an invasion of jihadis (as is the case with Syria) who desire to possess them.


This results in a vicious circle. The poorer Pakistan gets, the more nukes it builds. The more nukes it builds the poorer it gets; the greater the incentive to sell them or shake down its neighbors; the more fragile the hold of the corrupt state upon their internal security. The distinguishing feature of the Nuclear Age Version 2.5 is that the bomb spreads to countries which will be doomed by possessing it.

An Iran with nukes is dangerous for precisely the reason Israel’s nukes or China’s are not dangerous. The Iranian regime is unstable — like Pakistan and North Korea — and using nukes to give it an artificial solidity only means loose marbles will have to be collected when it inevitably falls over. The same scenario applies to Saudi Arabia. If Iran’s bomb brings on the Kingdom’s — supplied presumably from Pakistan — and the other Gulf States follow in their nuclear path the danger is what happens afterward.

Those perils will be exacerbated in any likely regional crisis. A limited nuclear exchange in South Asia, the Middle East or with North Korea will shakes loose their arsenals.   In the resulting chaos all kinds of goodies will be up for grabs. If securing Assad’s nerve gas stockpiles are a nightmare now then what will a collapse of nuclear armed KSA be like? It will be a mess.  In his last chapter, Bracken gives us a preview of what challenges may have to be faced once things get out of hand.

An intense crisis or a nuclear war may prove to be so horrendous that the major powers will overcome their differences to punish the perpetrator, to make sure it never happens again. The shock of losing a country to nuclear attack, or of repeated nuclear crises that upset the international order, may spark the major powers into collective action. One question, then is: How far will the major powers go? The retribution may focus on the offender, the country that broke the nuclear order, but it’s also possible that the major powers may issue ultimatums to other secondary nuclear powers to hand over their arsenals in a forced disarmament. Disarming all countries with nuclear weapons who are judged to be irresponsible will look much more realistic following a nuclear disaster. That the major nuclear powers will possess the means to back up such an ultimatum is beyond question.


This sounds horribly like the nightmare described in the Three Conjectures, which seemed far-fetched when I wrote it half a decade ago.  As I noted in that essay, the question is how far the major powers will go if things get out of hand. Like all nightmare scenarios, a nuclear disaster in the Age 2.5 is imagined not in the hope of fulfillment but in the belief that it can be averted. Bracken hopes so too. He ends by saying:

Through a combination of prudence, and luck, the world made it through the first nuclear age without a nuclear disaster. Unless we prepare for the second nuclear age with a far more sober attitude, we may not be so lucky this time.

That’s what we should do to make it through Nuclear Age 2.0 or 2.5 — but whether we will is another matter.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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