Paul Bracken on the Second Nuclear Age


2013-01-13 Paul Bracken has published a very thoughtful look at strategy in the new nuclear age.

Rather than simply looking at nucs, and why they are not going away, Bracken has puzzled over the nature of deterrence in the new nuclear age.

Although many Americans have banned nucs for any real relevance, many ascendant powers have not.  And Bracken’s book is a refreshingly honest look at this conundrum.

We have interviewed Bracken recently and will soon provide for our readers the interview.

Our discussion began with the premise that his work is really about strategy in the new nuclear age, and not about classic nuclear deterrence.  Beginning with that premise, we then discussed what this might mean in the period ahead, and whether US strategists are really addressing this core reality of the next period of the 21st century. 

Recently, the New York Times has provided a review of Bracken’s book on The Second Nuclear Age.

The review by Bill Keller was entitled Rethinking the Unthinkable and provided a comparative look at the nuclear weapons dynamic, the one presented by Ward Wilson (Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons) and the other by Bracken. Wilson underscores the dysfunction and irrelevance of nuclear weapons and Bracken quite the opposite.  (There is a third book reviewed as well which deals with the Iranian nuclear case).

Excerpts from Keller’s review follow:

Wilson’s prescription is “a nuclear pause,” a global freeze on the spread, modernization and financing of nuclear arsenals, until leaders of the world get it through their thick skulls that these prized weapons are no asset. To which Paul Bracken, who comes from the Herman Kahn/Henry Kissinger school of realism, would say: Good luck with that. The idea that nuclear weapons serve no purpose may have sounded plausible in a simpler time, when a few major powers shared a nuclear monopoly. 

But it is a much harder sell to the newer and aspiring members, who are the subject of Bracken’s “Second Nuclear Age.” As the number of nuclear states has grown to nine, he argues, the whole game board has been upended.

For nuclear newcomers, the bomb is both a product of and an instrument for nationalist aspirations. Moreover, in this new, dangerously complicated world, nuclear weapons, while they may not be exploded, are assuredly used in many ways: to bluff, to intimidate, to rally the populace, to throw opponents off balance. “Anyone who says that nuclear weapons aren’t usable should take a look at North Korea,” Bracken writes. 

“Nuclear weapons are used every single day to extort food and oil from the rest of the world to keep the regime going.” Disarmament, he would say, is a sweet fantasy. The best we can hope for is to “manage” the nuclear menagerie — and we cannot be confident of success….. 

Bracken’s aim is to provoke a conversation that goes beyond the familiar nuclear tropes of the cold war and considers the myriad ways nuclear weapons figure in the calculations of lesser powers as they jockey for influence…. Bracken, you can see, does not deal in false comfort, which is pretty much his point. Refusing to think about dreadful outcomes will not prevent them; it just assures we will be unprepared to cope with them. 

One excellent place to start thinking about bad options is Iran. The political consensus in America and Israel — that a nuclear-armed Iran is “unacceptable” — seems to preclude thinking very hard about how either Iran or its neighbors would behave in a world that did include Iranian nukes. Bracken devotes a long, unsettling chapter to what that world might look like, and plays out a variety of mostly disturbing situations that could ensue. His conclusion is that a nuclear-­armed Iran is less dangerous than the consequences of a preventive war to stop it from getting the bomb. Whether you agree with him or not (I do), contemplating the repercussions of either option should make you yearn for a negotiated end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

We conclude this short piece and as preparation for our interview with Bracken by highlighting some of his arguments as articulated in the conclusion to his book.

The bomb has returned for a second act. And it has shown no sign of exiting the stage anytime soon. While voluntary disarmament is always possible, doing so would place a country at a considerable disadvantage, politically and militarily. For Israel or Pakistan or North Korea to give up the bomb would have enormous consequences; they would have to rely on the promise of a major power for nuclear protection or on self-imposed restraint by its enemies. 

With the geopolitical landscape in flux, with the rise of new powers, and with political changes in the Arab world, voluntary disarmament is not a likely development. In the first nuclear age there was a single overarching nuclear rivalry. It took only two to tango, so to speak, in order to moderate any provocations, limit the dynamics, and reduce the number of bombs through arms control. Today, the number of bombs is much reduced from cold war levels, but the number of rivalries that have taken on a nuclear context has increased. 

These rivalries, anchored in the regions but with global impact, have more deeply embedded the bomb in international affairs than was the case even during the cold war. And on top of the regional rivalries, there is now a multipolar system of major powers, and it too has a nuclear element. 

No major power looks ready to voluntarily disarm, either. The second nuclear age is already with us; it does no good to seek ways to prevent it from emerging. However, it will evolve in various ways. Over time the first nuclear age settled down, as conventions evolved that limited the intensity of the competition and as prudent decision making came into effect. 

This could well happen again. There are reasons to think so, because most countries do not want nuclear war. 

But there are big dangers, especially in the transition years the world is now entering, as the international system tries to adjust to a new global order with multiple nuclear powers. 

In these transition years the factors of moderation are likely to be only incompletely developed, or they may not exist at all, because the stresses of the new environment have yet to be discovered or tested. 

At the same time, it may be a relatively calm gestation period, as the new powers build up their nuclear forces, missiles, and other systems. North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran are not too aggressive at present because they are at a vulnerable stage of their nuclear development. But as their forces mature, strategy innovations and nuclear head games could increase and so could the likelihood of a serious nuclear crisis. 

The major nuclear powers are also maturing. All of them, except one, the United States, have modernized their forces for the twenty-first century, and they have positioned their forces strategically. 

I call these developments “the bomb backstage.” The mobile missiles, submarines, bombers, and anti-satellite weapons of China, India, and Russia provide a silhouette visible behind the scenery of day-to-day politics. Sometimes we can hear what’s going on, as when a big prop is dragged around backstage that gives off loud noises. 

Exactly how far offstage this force is depends on the situation, of course. Yet it is always there. This is the key point. 

The bomb backstage can be moved closer to the audience’s view by testing a missile or practicing an alert. It can nuclearize a dispute or turn a small crisis into something far more serious. The threat of bringing the nuclear force onto the visible stage has considerable strategic influence for these new nuclear powers, most especially in keeping the United States at bay…..

Bracken, Paul (2012-11-13). The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics Times Books. Kindle Edition, Conclusion.

For our exclusive interview with Professor Bracken on deterrence in a proliferated nuclear world see the following: