Material World: The Second Nuclear Age

Five years ago, we reminded readers of this column that ‘nuclear weapons are still there’ (Socialist Standard, February 2008). True, many fewer of them than at the height of the Cold War. But more than enough to turn the surface of our planet into a radioactive wasteland and still have plenty left over.

In a recent book entitled The Second Nuclear Age (Henry Holt & Co., 2012), the prominent American nuclear strategist Paul Bracken argues that nuclear weapons are now regaining their relevance to statecraft. They are making a comeback. The risk of nuclear war is significantly higher now than it ever was in the past.

This is partly because more states now have nuclear weapons at their disposal. The ‘old’ nuclear powers –the USA, USSR/Russia, China, Britain and France –have been joined by Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Iran, as we are constantly told, may get hold of nuclear weapons within a few years. If so, other Asian states may not be far behind.

Rogue states?

Coverage of the issue of nuclear proliferation in the Western media is dominated by speculation about the dangers of nuclear weapons getting into the hands of ‘rogue states’ like Iran and North Korea. These countries are selected for special attention not because their rulers are exceptionally irresponsible but because they are at loggerheads with the Western powers.

However, there are equally good reasons to worry about the possible use of nuclear weapons by Israel and Pakistan. Both of these presumed Western allies rely on rapidly growing nuclear arsenals to compensate for the potential vulnerability of their territory and conventional forces.

Recent developments in military technology increase the risk of escalation from conventional to nuclear war. The availability of much more powerful –though still ‘conventional’ in the sense of non-nuclear –weapons blurs the previous distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons, especially as both kinds can be carried by the same delivery vehicle. How can anyone tell whether an incoming Cruise missile is armed with a conventional or a tactical nuclear warhead?     

Nevertheless, the main reason why nuclear weapons pose a greater danger now than they did in the second half of the last century is the emergence of a more complicated and less stable interstate system.

A complex equation

The Cold War system was organized primarily around the bilateral US-Soviet axis. There were no territorial disputes between the two superpowers; their spheres of control in Europe were rigidly demarcated; and their rivalry in the Third World was constrained by implicitly understood ‘rules of play’.  

The newly emergent system is multilateral. There are territorial disputes even between nuclear powers, such as the continuing confrontation of India and Pakistan in Kashmir. China is striving to establish a sphere of influence in the Western Pacific, but there is no recognition of such a sphere by Japan or the United States. The result is a clear potential for armed conflict in the South and East China Seas and over Taiwan (on the South China Sea, see MW for April 2009 and June 2012). In the Middle East, Israel seeks to preserve its regional monopoly of nuclear weapons by any means necessary.

A multilateral system makes arms control and conflict management vastly more difficult. Thus, even supposing for a moment that conditions were generally conducive to a long-term relaxation of tensions between India and Pakistan, India would still be unable to reduce its conventional and nuclear forces to a level that posed no threat to Pakistan. That is because Indian strategists have also to take into account the balance of forces between India and China.

Then how about trilateral negotiations between India, Pakistan and China? But Chinese strategists have to factor yet other powers into their calculations –Russia, Japan, the United States. An attempt to settle a conflict between just two countries quickly turns into a complex equation with many variables. So it is not all that surprising that there should be no current global equivalent to the US-Soviet arms control negotiations of the Cold War era.

A world without nuclear weapons

The goal traditionally pursued by campaigners for nuclear disarmament was a world without nuclear weapons –but a world still divided into competing states and blocs, still plagued by conflicts over resources, still armed to the teeth with non-nuclear weapons. The strategy was to separate the issue of nuclear weapons from its broader military and political context and deal with it first. Then, with nuclear weapons out of the way, the next goals would be conventional disarmament, a lasting peace, perhaps a united world.

Arguably this was never a feasible plan. But under the special conditions of the Cold War era it looked as though it might be feasible. Those conditions have now changed –and not for the better. The end of the Cold War did not bring a world without nuclear weapons any closer. On the contrary, the image of that world has receded rapidly and is already well on the way to oblivion.    

This does not mean that a world without nuclear weapons is impossible. It means only that such a world must take the form of a united human community that has no use for weapons of any kind. The efforts of people who want a better world –or simply human survival –must be geared directly toward that goal, for there is no viable halfway house.

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