Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Structure of the Second Nuclear Age

The Structure of the Second Nuclear Age

The term “second nuclear age” is rarely used with precision or consistency. Sometimes it is intended to emphasize the “new” problems of nuclear proliferation. But many of these problems, such as deterrence, are not really new at all: they arose in the “first nuclear age,” the Cold War, and even earlier. Defining the “second nuclear age” more precisely permits one to make a critical point: the nuclear age that began in 1945 is not a uniform structure. Rather, it comprises two very different divisions. Ideas formed in the first nuclear age are often applied unthinkingly to the second. Without recognizing it, legacy concepts such as deterrence treat the two eras the same, overlooking their basic differences.

Studying how the second nuclear age differs from the first can help us better recognize how states exploit opportunities and uncertainties created by the structural change of moving from one age to another. Nations choose strategies constrained by the underlying structure of international relations. Historically, most changes in international power occur at times of structural transformation, not by adopting a better strategy or leadership when the international relations structure is stable. The Soviet Union rose to world-class status after World War I, the United States after World War II.

The United States is transforming its national security policy to a degree not seen since the beginning of the first nuclear age in order to prevent a second nuclear age from occurring. Washington forcibly disarmed Iraq, is building active and passive strategic defenses, and is waging an assertive foreign policy toward eliminating, rather than containing, the nuclear capacities of others. The scale of change shows America’s recognition that the second nuclear age is more dangerous than the first. It also demonstrates that a nonproliferation regime built in the first nuclear age to prevent a second from emerging has, after several decades, finally run out of steam.

The Second Nuclear Age

The defining feature of the second nuclear age is the spread of atomic weapons to countries for reasons having nothing to do with the Soviet-American rivalry of the first nuclear age. There is no definitive event like Hiroshima to mark the beginning of the second nuclear age, but it may be India’s 1974 test shot. India claimed to be following a third way, different from either the United States or the Soviet Union. But following this test India did nothing with its bomb. There were no new dynamics as far as outside observers could tell. Therefore, no one was upset except Pakistan. India’s test was seen as a political statement without military import, not as an indication of structural change.

Structural change occurs when individuals and countries act upon new technologies by acknowledging their impact. This can take a long time even as the technologies themselves are taking hold. For example, the Internet was developed in the 1970s, but it didn’t really have a major economic effect until the 1990s. Did the information age begin in the 1970s, or the 1990s? The answer is that although Internet technologies were spreading for two decades, structural economic change only occurred after the recognition of their potential in the 1990s. So it is not only possible, but common, for technologies to spread without causing structural change until some triggering event causes people suddenly to recognize the implications of something that has been taking place, reassess strategies and undertake new initiatives.

The nuclear programs in Israel, North Korea, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran were not taken seriously for years. In the United States, most of these programs were put in the box of “nonproliferation policy” and discussed only in that context, rather than as part of general international relations. The Israeli nuclear program, for example, was discussed largely in terms of the benefits for regional stability of not openly acknowledging that Israel was a nuclear state, so that everything could go on as before even though Israel was rapidly developing a large and complex nuclear arsenal.

Nonproliferation theory likewise meant avoiding any acknowledgment that North Korea was in fact a nuclear state. One of the best-kept secrets of the 1990s was North Korea’s clandestine program to enrich uranium for the purpose of building atomic bombs. North Korea admitted the existence of this program in October 2002, when confronted by American officials. Washington knew that North Korea had this program; it just didn’t make this fact public. Keeping it secret was an instance of the U.S. and North Korean governments’ tacitly agreeing not to admit what both knew. To acknowledge North Korea’s bomb would have triggered a wider recognition that the basic structure of nonproliferation was breaking down.

One of the key functions of nonproliferation theories in the United States was to postpone this recognition. Today the spread of atomic weapons patterns international politics. The axis of evil, nonproliferation, and “coalitions of the willing” are now central to both national security and international order. The existence of a politics revolving around these notions demonstrates that structural change has taken place.

The Structural Differences

When we speak of structural differences between the first and second nuclear ages, we mean changes affecting the pattern of relations connecting the elements of a system. By contrast, the personality of a rogue state’s leader is a transient, not structural, feature.

It is often said that command-and-control problems are new to the second nuclear age. But deterrence, command-and- control, and escalation featured in and before the first nuclear age. They are not structurally distinctive features distinguishing one era from the other. There are, however, six distinctive structural features distinguishing the second nuclear age from the first.

1. An n-player game. The Soviet-American rivalry was a bilateral contest. The dynamics of competition in an n- player game (i.e., multiple-player situations) are not fully appreciated. Ideas like stability and containment have to be reevaluated when applied to n-player contests. Game theorist Martin Shubik points out the complex dynamics of n-player games using a simple three-player game called the “truel,” in which each of three competitors is in direct opposition against the other two. A truel could describe three countries with nuclear missiles aimed at each other. The players have to decide (l) whether to shoot at all, and (2) if so, which countries to shoot at, with how many missiles, at what targets, and in what order.

In a two-player duel this is simple: the problem reduces into whether to shoot at the enemy or to wait. In the Cold War, a “wait” strategy was idealized. The reckless dangers of having nuclear forces that created a reciprocal fear of surprise attack destabilized the deterrent relationship, yielding what was dubbed “crisis instability.” In the simple choice of either fire or wait, waiting is much better, and a second-strike posture clearly attractive. But in the three- person case, waiting to fire has a different, ominous connotation. It can become a tactic to allow the first two players to finish each other off while the third waits, only to knock off the few remaining missiles the first two players haven’t fired at each other.

With three players, solutions to the problem require more stringent assumptions about communication, trust, and commitment than with two players, where only weak assumptions are needed to achieve crisis stability. The number of possible scenarios is enormous compared to the two-person duel. Nonetheless, pronouncements are made that states such as North Korea can be contained and deterred for the long term, applying first nuclear age concepts to the second.

2. Nuclear weapons and the state. The atomic bomb is central to the state-making project of countries that came into their modern national existence in the nuclear age. Most of these states became independent, throwing off colonial rule, in the late 1940s. To them, these weapons are much more than military instruments: they are symbols of power, legitimacy, and status.

Israel’s bomb is deeply embedded in the holocaust psychology of “never again.” Recent research shows that the decision to go nuclear came so early on in Israel’s history that it is difficult to separate it from the Israeli state-making project. In Pakistan, India, Iraq, China, and North Korea, the original, major state-making project was the army, which was made colossal. This was partly for military purposes, but also created a school for statehood, instilling in everyone who passed through it a sense of political identity aligned with the national government.

Today the problem is how to dismantle the large armies created after decolonization. Removing them from business and politics is critical to Asian nations’ economic development. The inefficiencies of the army’s being king- maker are now apparent to all but those regimes who have little interest in development (such as North Korea). Nonetheless, countries still need projects to reinforce the national identity and cohesion that globalization destroys. Nuclear weapons demonstrate national capacities and are symbols around which nationhood is being built.

3. Historical timing. The timing of the second nuclear age-the fact that it followed the first-is itself distinguishing. During the first nuclear age there were no countries or international institutions to retard the two superpowers of that age from expanding their arsenals. There was no arms control regime to govern them: it was the actions of the superpowers that led to the creation of these institutions. States going nuclear today have had to factor in the reaction of large powers such as the United States. They have handled this in varying ways, but they all share a penchant for secrecy. Whether the state is Israel or North Korea-two countries that could not be more different from one another-secrecy is a defining feature of their programs. In the first nuclear age secrecy arose to protect the secrets of the bomb; in the second it is used to advance a program without stirring up unwanted attention. The new nuclear states hide all aspects of their programs to distract attention from what they are doing. The activity having been removed from public view, observers easily believe that nonproliferation efforts are more successful than they really are.

4. Asian roots. Too little attention has been given to how strategic culture shaped the two nuclear eras. With the possible exception of Libya, all the emerging nuclear states are Asian; in the first nuclear age, all were Western. The decision to build a bomb has little to do with national culture, but the use of these weapons is shaped by strategic culture. Here, the Asian versus Western cultural divide is important.

The bomb was invented by European physicists to solve a European problem. That it was first used against Asians was an unlucky consequence of the early collapse of Nazi Germany. The two superpowers were thoroughly Western in their cultural heritage, reflecting the world of the Enlightenment in advancing their own unique “internationalisms” (democracy in the case of the United States, communism for the Soviet Union.)

Compare such noble internationalisms with nationalism driving the new nuclear states. Pakistan uses Islamic fundamentalism to try to build an extension of nationalism in Afghanistan and Central Asia; North Korea seals itself off from the outside world with a juche philosophy of self- reliance and convinces its people that they are respected by the countries of Asia. These behaviors arise out of an emotional nationalism-that one people is better than another. The United States and the Soviet Union had their own absurd ideas, to be sure. But neither believed that their peoples were innately superior to each other, only that their core political beliefs were. They didn’t see nuclear weapons as a way to annihilate inferior people. In showdowns over Cuba, Berlin, and elsewhere, there were no hysterical crowds screaming for blood in Times Square or Red Square, demanding that national honor be upheld regardless of the cost. An icy rationality governed nuclear weapons, with college professors and think-tank experts lecturing on the analytical theory of deterrence. Policy was driven by experts and specialists, not by the mob.

5. The cost of defense. The nuclear powers of the second nuclear age are poor. For this reason it was often said in the 1960s that India, Pakistan, and others couldn’t go down the nuclear road because they couldn’t afford it. The rejoinder to this argument was the most famous quote in the history of the nonproliferation movement. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, foreign minister of Pakistan in 1965 (he later became prime minister), said that if India got the bomb, “We will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.” But these weapons programs come at a much higher marginal cost to impoverished countries, marginalizing their conventional forces. The problem isn’t that nuclear forces are too expensive, but that they’re too cheap.

The dangerous implications of this shift are most likely to show up in crisis instability. Rather than using the metrics of the first nuclear age to measure crisis instability (e.g. the percentage of missiles surviving a first strike), one has to solve the messier problem of how armies and nuclear threats interact. A nuclear overwatch posture for a second- rate army, or a third-rate air force, is a much more dangerous thing.

6. Second-mover advantage. Countries of the second nuclear age can free-ride to get the nuclear know-how of the first. The how-to of laser separation, calutrons, and zirconium fuel rods is there for the $5 it costs to order the report from U.S. government libraries. In short, they have second-mover advantages that the United States and the Soviet Union did not have. These can be interpreted as options. Second movers observe their environment and build certain capabilities that allow them to move down paths should they opt to do so in the future. Thus, if there is a triggering event that creates opportunities for them, or problems for their enemies, they can act using stored-up knowledge that is readily available. They have what in finance theory is termed a call option-the capacity, but not the obligation, to acquire a particular asset, here an atomic or hydrogen bomb.

Business competition with significant second-mover advantages and call options tends to be “lumpy.” For long periods of time there is stability; then, without warning, there are daring moves as competitors strike their options. In the second nuclear age, after extended periods of stability, an upstart can use its call option to rapidly acquire a few bombs, thus upsetting stability. Incumbents cannot cleanse the system of its nuclear potential for once and for all because second movers can always exercise their call options. As more countries rely on these, an enormous amount of effort will have to be devoted to continuously monitoring their behavior. A massive change in the focus of intelligence programs, hedging against failure through strategic defenses, and a rapid early-strike capacity are increasingly needed to deal with the dangers of this environment.

The Link Between the Two Nuclear Ages

Arms control is the connecting link between the first and second nuclear ages. The arms-control regime that arose in the first nuclear age recognized the dangers of a second and metamorphosed to establish an international firewall against the spread of these weapons. Understanding that this regime has failed is fundamental to understanding our new international security environment.

The nonproliferation regime evolved gradually, as the superpowers naturally focused on dampening the dynamics of their own competition. As they turned from their own rivalry to stanching the spread of the bomb, arms control gradually refocused to nonproliferation. From common-sense constraints on giving away the know-how and material to build a bomb grew a full-blown nonproliferation policy framework. Over twenty years, beginning with the 1968 nonproliferation treaty, controls were tightened. Monitoring of critical technologies and people, coordination of suppliers, and formal treaties were arrayed into a regime that included a norm of condemning nations that pursued nuclear weapons.

This nonproliferation regime worked longer than anyone thought it would. Originally proposed as a way to buy time to resolve more fundamental strategic problems, it was never foreseen as something that alone would permanently stop the spread of these weapons. Prominent strategists believed that the NPT would buy five, or, with luck, ten years. In fact, it bought nearly twenty-five years. Compared with the durability of most U.S. government policies, this isn’t too bad. Compared to most international agreements, it looks better still.

In the current environment of active counterproliferation and missile defense in the United States, it is easy to imagine that militarized solutions, rather than arms-control strategies, have become the best options for dealing with proliferation. But one cannot and should not rely on military solutions alone. We need to consider the features that a new, replacement arms-control regime should have. A return to the old nonproliferation regime makes little sense. The new regime needs to incorporate the military realities of the more assertive American foreign policy, strategic defenses, and homeland security. It needs continuous intelligence surveillance. If a new, and as yet unspecified, regime works for “only” twenty-five years, as the old one did, then this is a reason to break out the champagne.


The 9/11 attacks triggered widespread recognition of trends long underway. Terrorism is the trigger, not the cause, of the shift. September 11 is like the Berlin blockade of 1948 in that it brought widespread recognition of how much has changed. The U.S. confrontation with Iraq, or North Korea or Iran, does not only involve a regional disagreement. The Iraq confrontation, for instance, can be looked at for its impact on Saudi Arabia, oil, or Israel. But it also shows a structural conflict over whether the United States is going to allow a basic change in international order. Iraq, with a GDP 15 percent the annual revenues of Wal-Mart, could potentially have exploited a low-cost nuclear weapon to alter an international order that had existed for five decades in the Middle East. Allowing such countries to do this is permitting small and economically unserious countries to control international order.

On the face of it, the power imbalance between the United States and an Iraq or North Korea would seem to offer containment as the most attractive approach Washington could take. But the facts that the second nuclear age is intrinsically a multiple-player game, that its bomb programs are rooted in nationalism, and that there are tremendous differences in strategic culture all mean that Washington could be facing sequential crises with opponents capable of unpredictable and explosive behavior. It means assembling domestic and international coalitions repeatedly to enforce containment, sometimes after years of nothing happening, as these regimes decide to exercise their options. These structural features make long-term containment highly unattractive.

A more sophisticated debate must be held on the long-term consequences of current trends. One reaction to the many uncertainties is to abandon the effort to devise a package of long-term strategies, with conditions this past winter on Iraqi inspection and UN support for the United States fluctuating daily. On the contrary, it is more important than ever to design alternative long-term strategies. Without this, strategy will be dictated by the events of the moment. Short-term factors will decide policy, just as they did when the 1991 Gulf War was terminated early in the euphoria of the victory there. Many of what today would be considered wildly unrealistic arms-control proposals could easily become feasible following American actions against Iraq and others.

The United States and all responsible powers must structure a replacement regime for the second nuclear age. This means much more than outlining military reactions to violations, or returning to a regime that once worked but no longer works. If we don’t think more soberly about new structures for this age, of the kind that developed in the first nuclear age, we could lose an enormous opportunity for changing the second.