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The Second Nuclear Age

NEW HAVEN – North Korea’s launch of a long-range missile in mid-December was followed by a flurry of global condemnation that was almost comical in its predictability and impotence. But the launch underscored a larger reality that can no longer be ignored: the world has entered a second nuclear age. The atomic bomb has returned for a second act, a post-Cold War encore. This larger pattern needs to be understood if it is to be managed.

The contours of the second nuclear age are still taking shape. But the next few years will be especially perilous, because newness itself creates dangers as rules and red lines are redefined. This took at least ten years in the first nuclear age, and this time may be no different.

In the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia, old rivalries now unfold in a nuclear context. This has already changed military postures across the Middle East. Part of the Israeli nuclear arsenal is being shifted to sea, with atomic warheads on diesel submarines, to prevent their being targeted in a surprise attack. Israel also is launching a new generation of satellites to provide early warning of other countries’ preparations for missile strikes. If Iran’s mobile missiles disperse, Israel wants to know about it immediately.

Thus, the old problem of Arab-Israeli peace is now seen in the new context of an Iranian nuclear threat. The two problems are linked. How would Israel respond to rocket attacks from Gaza, Lebanon, or Egypt if it simultaneously faced the threat of nuclear attack by Iran? What would the United States and Israel do if Iran carried its threat to the point of evacuating its cities, or placing missiles in its own cities to ensure that any attack on them would cause massive collateral damage?

Pakistan has doubled the size of its nuclear arsenal in the last five years. Its armed forces are set to field new tactical nuclear weapons – short-range battlefield weapons. India has deployed a nuclear triad – bombers, missiles, and submarines – and in 2012 tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, giving it the ability to hit Beijing and Shanghai. India almost certainly has a multiple warhead (known as a MIRV), in development, and has also launched satellites to aid its targeting of Pakistan’s forces.

In East Asia, North Korea has gone nuclear and is set to add a whole new class of uranium bombs to its arsenal. It has rehearsed quick missile salvos, showing that it could launch attacks on South Korea and Japan before any counter-strike could be landed.

China, too, is shifting its nuclear forces to mobile missiles and submarines. These weapons can be put on alert in a way that would be highly visible to US satellites and the global media. Thus, the Chinese can easily “nuclearize” a crisis with the US or anyone else. They do not have to detonate a nuclear weapon, but only alert adversaries to the dramatic increase in the political stakes and dangers of a showdown.

Russia, not wanting to be left out of the act, has recently staged the largest nuclear exercises in decades to remind everyone that it remains a serious nuclear player, too.

These individual developments are troubling. But they cannot be understood in isolation from the larger multipolar system of major powers that is forming. To a great extent, this is a nuclear multipolar system: possessing nuclear weapons contributes to a country’s global status as a major power.

To see this, consider the following question: When was the last time that the US or anyone else seriously proposed that India sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – that is, that India give up the Bomb. Given America’s economic problems and looming defense cuts, as well as growing Chinese power, there is no longer even a remote possibility that this demand will be made. India has become an accepted, legitimate member of the nuclear club, the fiction of the NPT notwithstanding. It is even less likely that China or Russia would disarm for the sake of a nuclear-free world.

But the most urgent problem stems from the breakdown of major countries’ one-time nuclear monopoly and the empowerment of smaller countries like North Korea, Pakistan, Israel, and, quite possibly, Iran. A new set of rules for diplomacy, military strategy, and arms control is needed to stabilize this emerging nuclear order. Pretending that it does not exist is not a strategy.