Security Defense

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.