Another change around us that we ought to ponder is nuclear proliferation

Sometimes the change around us is grim, like having nine countries with nukes.

When the world had the U.S. and Soviet Union staring at each other with nuclear weapons, we focused clearly on the implications. Since the fall of the Soviet Union (which reduced the nuclear war risk, the conventional war risk, and the overall level of suffering & misery around the world) we’ve spent less time thinking about how nukes affect everything else.

That is a mistake, thinks Paul Bracken, in The Second Nuclear Age.

Walter Russell Mead’s WSJ review of the book is at The Return Of a Nightmare,

Mr. Mead summarizes the issue:

{Mr. Bracken’s} central contention is that we are in a second nuclear age. While there were several nuclear powers in the previous one, the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union overshadowed the others. The dynamics then were largely bipolar. We live in a multipolar nuclear world. And there are nine nuclear powers today: the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. More will likely emerge.

Nine nuclear powers is a dramatically different situation that a bipolar world. While that is clearly not worse than having the Soviet Union as the opposite party, it is a major deterioration from after their collapse.

Nine powers changes geopolitics drastically.  Diplomacy changes.  Economics change.  The ability of more powerful countries to facility change and improvement declines.

The author provides background about how the multipolar world changes relationships and how our national thinking is lagging behind the changes.

In a sentence, here is why we need to be thinking more about the second nuclear age and also why merely focusing on nonproliferation isn’t enough:

If you have a nuclear weapon, the United Nations and the International Criminal Court can’t make you do anything you really don’t want to do.

We need to expand our thinking:

Nuclear strategy must come out of its post-Cold War retirement. We are once again in a world where nuclear weapons count.

Mr. Bracken has an article in the Wall Street Journal explaining one component of his thinking – If Iran Gets the Bomb

His main point is the opening paragraph:

You don’t have to fire a nuclear weapon to gain a strategic advantage from it. This is perhaps the most important lesson from the decades of the Cold War. Yet many commentators on the possibility of a nuclear Iran overlook this truth and argue that we could handle this radically new situation.

He goes on to describe how one recently played war game illustrated how the dynamics of the region changed, destabilizing Israel severely, merely by the implied willingness to use a nuke.

Check out the article.

Mr. Bracken has another article in The Diplomat – The Problem From Hell: South Asia’s Arms Race.

There he discusses the dynamics between India and Pakistan. In particular, the increasing emphasis they are developing to monitor each other’s status and the likely development of a carefully thought through escalation strategy.

I’ll put this book on my reading list, albeit a ways down the list. Check out the articles above for more discussion.

3 thoughts on “Another change around us that we ought to ponder is nuclear proliferation”

  1. I wonder if Bracken’s book considers the possibility of an entity other than a state – for example, al Qaeda – obtaining nuclear capability. If hundreds of entities have nuclear capability, then the situation is even worse.

    1. I don’t know if he addresses that idea. That is a serious issue. It doesn’t matter if a non-state entity actually really has one usable bomb. If others think they do, or aren’t sure whether it will work or not, it’s the same as having a dozen or hundred of proven warheads.

      Thanks for the question.

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