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?