The Nuclear Age Version 2.5

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Richard Fernandez @ The Belmont Club:

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 works yet. The world 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 dont 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 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 the 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.

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Curt served in the Marine Corps for four years and has been a law enforcement officer in Los Angeles for the last 24 years.

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