Rethinking the Apocalypse: Time for Bold Thinking on the 2nd Nuclear Age

The Licorne thermonuclear test in French Polynesia, courtesy Pierre J/flickr

This article was originally published by the War on the Rocks on 1 March 2016.

For much of the 46-year Cold War, many of the West’s most gifted strategists focused their talents on how to prevent the two nuclear superpowers from engaging in a war that could destroy them both — and perhaps the rest of the human race along with them. With the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the threat of nuclear Armageddon receded dramatically and the First Nuclear Age drew to a close.

The world is far different today. On the one hand, both the United States and Russia have far smaller nuclear arsenals than they did at the Cold War’s end. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads. At the same time, new nuclear powers have emerged. These developments have introduced a shift from the bipolar Cold War nuclear competition, to an increasingly multipolar competition among nuclear powers and the onset of the Second Nuclear Age.

Yet this new age has not yet produced the foundational analyses that guided policymakers through the First Nuclear Age. Perhaps it is because the Second Nuclear Age appears so much more complex than the first. Or maybe it is because the Second Nuclear Age lacks the immediate existential danger posed by the Soviet Union. Or it might be that in the current age the best analytic talent has been devoted primarily to reducing the number of nuclear players (nonproliferation) and number of weapons (arms control and disarmament), rather than the consequences of such efforts falling short of success.

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Tensions Rise Between India And Pakistan


This article was originally published by openDemocracy on 10 January 2015.

International constraint and mutual nuclear deterrence may have prevented all-out war with Pakistan in the past over contested Kashmir. With thousands fleeing their homes amid escalating violence, that may not remain a secure wager.

Rising tension at the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan is putting in question the widely-held assumption that their conflict will not escalate to an all-out conventional or even nuclear war. International concern has extended to the US, previously resistant to mediating in the Kashmir dispute.

This is at the heart of the existential rivalry between the two states. Kashmir has become so symbolically significant to both India and Pakistan that they are beset by zero-sum thinking, though a resolution would potentially put an end to their hostilities. In the current context that seems unlikely. » More

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No New Dawn Likely in US-Iran Relations

Obama phoning Rouhani

President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. Photo: The White House.

Iran has a new president, Hassan Rouhani. He speaks eloquently about wanting a rapprochement with the West and of a desire to refrain from developing a nuclear weapons programme. The Obama administration has responded by opening the first serious high level diplomatic engagement with Iran since 1979. The two leaders have even spoken by phone. But, the odds are that this is a waste of time despite Rohani’s insistence that the environment for negotiations is ‘quite different‘ from that of the past.

Any official representative of the Iranian regime cannot be trusted. The regime has frequently used brinkmanship tactics over the nuclear issue for its own benefit. This takes the familiar form of Iran coming to the table when it feels the squeeze of negative attention and/or sanctions. After a period of ‘diplomacy’ Iran then retreats from the talks and goes back to the business of being a pariah state. Meanwhile, an unbroken pursuit of attaining mastery over the nuclear cycle goes on. The goal always has been for Iran to have a nuclear option due to its precarious regional situation in which it is under threat from all directions, including internal. This pattern has repeated itself so often in the last decade that there is no reason to believe Rouhani this time. » More

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India and the Nuclear Grey Zone

Agni-II missile

Agni-II missile. Photo: Antônio Milena/Wikimedia Commons.

India’s status as a military power is underlined by its possession of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, India’s nuclear weapons program is not permitted under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and New Delhi has elected to remain outside of the formal non-proliferation regime. This ambiguous position has become increasingly accepted by members of the regime, but it represents a challenge for global non-proliferation, because there is no incentive for the country to engage in disarmament or to stem proliferation while this status quo continues. Moreover, India’s place as an accepted nuclear weapons state outside of nuclear regulatory frameworks could significantly impact global non-proliferation efforts. » More

Coercive Sanctions and Military Threats Push Iran Closer to the Nuclear Threshold

The former US embassy in Tehran

The former US embassy in Tehran. Photo: Örlygur Hnefill/flickr.

Iran’s nuclear activities are being portrayed in an alarmist and irrational way in the United States, and political rhetoric only pushes Iran closer to creating a nuclear weapon, said David Cortright, Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and an expert on nuclear dangers and sanctions.

The international community needs to do everything possible to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability, said Mr. Cortright in a phone interview with the Global Observatory, cautioning that “…it’s a very dangerous game, because the very act of threatening military action against Iran is likely to eventually motivate them to go ahead and build the bomb.” » More

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