This article was originally published by the Harvard International Review on 5 December 2016.
Since the atom was first split, the possibilities of war, terrorism, and proliferation have polluted the connotation of “nuclear,” driving public fear and associated dialogue surrounding the development of nuclear technology. In the last half of the twentieth century, the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union defined the modern geopolitical layout of the world, from alliances to modern conflicts. Nuclear capabilities became one of the greatest criteria to determine a country’s power and respect on the global stage.
In this year’s US presidential election, the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran was a divisive issue. The multinational agreement aims to prevent weapons development by fostering an officially recognized and heavily regulated nuclear energy program. This deal reflects a shift in the global nuclear narrative, from aggressive prevention efforts to diplomatic limitations. It further recognizes that as more states acquire nuclear development infrastructure, there will be more chances for materials to fall into the wrong hands. Preventing proliferation to terrorists, militant groups, and less amicable state actors is a global priority. Greater involvement and oversight from institutions like the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can facilitate better security standards for protecting nuclear materials.
Courtesy Dr Case/flickr
This article was originally published by the E-International Relations (E-IR) on 28 September 2016.
In July 2016, reports in U.S. newspapers indicated the Obama Administration considered adopting a declaratory policy stating that the United States would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in conflict. Subsequent reports, however, indicated that the United States was unlikely to adopt this particular change in U.S. declaratory policy before the end of the Obama Administration because both military and civilian officials in the Administration oppose the declaration of a “no first use” policy. The press reported that, during deliberations on the policy change, Pentagon officials argued that current ambiguity provides the President with options in a crisis. For example, Admiral Haney, the Commander in Chief of Strategic Command, noted that the shift could undermine deterrence and stability in an uncertain security environment. The reports stated that Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Carter also raised concerns about the possibility that a “no first use” policy could undermine the confidence and security of U.S. allies. The press reported that several U.S. allies also weighed in against the change in policy. Some in the U.S. Congress, like Senator Dianne Feinstein, argued that the only moral use for U.S. nuclear weapons is as a deterrent to their use. Others, including Representative Mac Thornberry and a number of Republican Senators, argued that changes in U.S. nuclear policy could lead to a more dangerous world by undermining nuclear deterrence and “shattering the trust” of U.S. allies.
This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 9 March 2016.
On September 11, 2013, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, writing in The New York Times, issued “A Plea for Caution From Russia.” Putin sought to communicate directly with the American people, warning against U.S. and Western unilateral military action in Syria — in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens — without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council. Such an action, Putin warned, would be destabilizing, deepen the cycle of regional violence, and potentially throw “the entire system of international law and order out of balance.” Putin further chastised the United States for its alarming tendency to intervene militarily in overseas civil wars and implied that U.S. strategies for dealing with problem states were encouraging the spread of nuclear weapons. Putin’s plea: “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”
We know that this “plea for caution” was nothing more than an effort to protect a Russian client state dressed up in the language of political and legal principle. How else can we understand Russia’s unilateral, unsanctioned military intervention in the Syria conflict in September 2015? Cynical? Maybe, but of even greater concern than Russian hypocrisy in the Middle East is its nuclear saber-rattling in Europe and elsewhere. On this issue, it is imperative that the Kremlin heed a genuine plea for caution from the United States and reconsider its policy of using the language — and practice — of nuclear force to coerce and intimidate. This policy truly does have the potential, to use Putin’s words, to be destabilizing and to undermine the international order. And it could set in motion responses that would heighten strategic competition and risk and, in the process, damage Russia’s own interests.
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.