The Structure of the Second Nuclear Age

Professor Paul Bracken, Yale University

November 5, 2003

The phrase "second nuclear age" refers to the nuclear states of the post cold war system. The phrase is frequently used journalistically. A structuralist interpretation puts more meat on the bones of the phrase.

Why study nuclear weapon regimes in a structural way?

First, structural analysis indicates that the "first nuclear age" was not really one age. There were shifts, analogous to the auto industry in the 1970s when Nissan and Toyota entered the market. New competition and personalities entered the nuclear weapons "market" during the Cold War. The Cold War is seen as an age of bipolar nuclear balance, but structural analysis shows that that view distorts the historical reality.

The second reason for analyzing the structural features of the second nuclear age is the idea from management theory that changes in strategy are far more difficult to implement than most people imagine. Changing strategic direction is difficult even once the realization that things have fundamentally changed occurs.

Third, structural analysis gives a helpful level of generality — avoiding both highly specific analysis like the study of the personality of leaders and the overly sweeping generalities inherent in grand strategy discussions.

The second nuclear age is defined by the spread of nuclear weapons to countries for reasons other than the Soviet-American Cold War rivalry, which was the defining aspect of the first nuclear age. The first nuclear age began at Hiroshima. In contrast, it is hard to date the start of the second nuclear age. The date may be China's nuclear test in 1964, India's test in 1974, or some later date. Structural changes do not occur until countries and their leaders acknowledge the impact of technological changes that occurred earlier. The realization that the spread of technologies has fundamentally altered international affairs may come suddenly, with some triggering event. Thus whenever thinkers and leaders came to realize that the Israeli, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs had fundamentally altered world politics, the second nuclear age began.

Command and control was a primary issue in the first nuclear age. It remains an issue in the second nuclear age, but this talk does not deal with it.

The core features of the second nuclear age:

1. An n-player game. The system is far more complicated in the second nuclear age because it is an n-player game—a multiplayer game. Game theory tells us that even three player duels create great complexity. Equilibrium and stability are harder to achieve. Stability requires more agreement and trust.

In the second nuclear age deterrence is far more complex. For example, if Israel had to deter an Iraqi missile attack with the threat of a nuclear reprisal it would have to contend with the fact that its nuclear weapons could kill an American division and a lot of Iranians.

In the Cold War, the options in a potential nuclear engagement were basically wait or shoot. In a multiplayer game, waiting has very different implications. A state might wait while others destroy each other, preserving its arsenal to threaten or finish a weakened adversary.

2. Nuclear weapons and the state. Nuclear weapons have become an essential part of state-building programs. In Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, India, and Israel, nuclear weapons are used to define and empower the state. They symbolize state power. Armies used to serve this role. Today technological military prowess is the preferred method poor states use to demonstrate power.

3. Historical timing. The timing of the second nuclear age distinguishes it from the first. In the first nuclear age, no states or institutions could retard the expansion of the Soviet and American nuclear arsenals. Today's emerging nuclear states struggle to get the established powers and institutions off their backs. States give up their programs under US and international pressure.

4. Asian roots. The old system had Western roots. All today's emergent nuclear powers are Asian states. The decision to build nuclear weapons does not arise out of national culture, but it does come out of strategic culture. Asian states have a distinct strategic culture. The Soviet Union and the United States reflected the world of the Enlightenment. Each side advanced its own international system, democracy and communism. These systems have their own pathologies, but they are not nationalist.

Today's nuclear powers are driven by dangerous nationalism. North Korea seeks nuclear weapons as part of a philosophy of self-reliance and a search for respect; Saddam Hussein attempted to link his regime to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon; Pakistan used Islamic fundamentalism to extend its power into Afghanistan and Central Asia. These decisions are both dangerous and misguided. Nationalism drives absurd behavior and strange decisions.

The internationalism of the Cold War entailed ideological rivalry but not a destructive vision of national superiority. The Cold War rivals subscribed to the icy rationale of deterrence theory and employed experts to perfect it. Public opinion did not drive decisions in crises. Nationalistic nuclear weapons states lack these checks on action. They are prone to destructive visions of national dominance and attached to public passion.

5. The cost of defense. In the first nuclear age, both superpowers were relatively rich. The new nuclear powers are generally poor. They cannot afford the kind of control systems the superpowers had. These states tend to run down their conventional forces to pay for nuclear weapons and missiles. This tendency creates a new kind of instability. In the Cold War, conventional forces functioned as something of a shock absorber. The unreliable conventional forces of the second nuclear age cannot play this role. The tendency to rely on nuclear weapons without a complementary conventional deterrent increases crisis instability by making red lines and escalation thresholds unclear. This difference entails far greater danger.

6. Second-mover advantage. Today's nuclear weapons states can observe states who went nuclear in the past to find out what works. This advantage creates the likelihood that states will take great risks. A second mover may wait and then suddenly play its hand—for instance by weaponizing its nuclear capacity and generating sudden instability. The second mover advantage requires that great effort be devoted to monitoring states with nuclear capability. The second nuclear age then requires a massive change in intelligence programs.

What links the first and second nuclear ages? The answer is arms control. Arms control arose early on in the first nuclear age to avoid a second nuclear age. The dangers of proliferation were known to both superpowers. The superpowers cooperated in a very successful nonproliferation regime—the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Some think that the NPT failed, but the treaty succeeded for twenty-five years. At the time the NPT was framed, the hope was to delay proliferation for five to ten years. Instead it worked for twenty-five—into the nineties.

What are the policy implications of this analysis? First, we should look more broadly at what arms control can do. This means conceiving arms control more broadly than treaties. For instance, arms control may entail helping India and Pakistan make their weapons more secure and survivable.

Today dangers are incredibly high. A nuclear Iraq, Iran or North Korea is a frightening prospect. Statements that these nations will never use their weapons are superficial. The complexities of nuclear deterrence are too complex to anticipate. Stopping proliferation to these states is essential. The six features of the second nuclear age are surely bad for the United States. We must deal with countries that we don't really understand.

On the bright side, one can now imagine a nuclear war without all-out disaster.

Paul Bracken is a Professor of Political Science and Management at Yale. His recent research focuses on changes in the defense technology innovation landscape, and in arms control.

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