The cold war ended more than two decades ago, and with its end came a reduction in the threat of nuclear weapons―a luxury that we can no longer indulge. It’s not just the threat of Iran getting the bomb or North Korea doing something rash; the whole complexion of global power politics is changing because of the reemergence of nuclear weapons as a vital element of statecraft and power politics. In short, we have entered the second nuclear age.
In this provocative and agenda-setting book, Paul Bracken of Yale University argues that we need to pay renewed attention to nuclear weapons and how their presence will transform the way crises develop and escalate. He draws on his years of experience analyzing defense strategy to make the case that the United States needs to start thinking seriously about these issues once again, especially as new countries acquire nuclear capabilities. He walks us through war-game scenarios that are all too realistic, to show how nuclear weapons are changing the calculus of power politics, and he offers an incisive tour of the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia to underscore how the United States must not allow itself to be unprepared for managing such crises.
Frank in its tone and farsighted in its analysis, The Second Nuclear Age is the essential guide to the new rules of international politics.
What is the backstory behind The Second Nuclear Age? What was your influence?
The backstory behind The Second Nuclear Age is the development of an international order with major powers, most of whom have the bomb. This was clear to me, even though at the time in 2010 to 2013 the dominant academic trope was one of global nuclear disarmament. Nuclear abolition, global zero, etc. were what people on campus were talking about. It seemed to me that this just wasn’t what was taking place in the world. Quite the opposite. What I found clear since the late 1990s was the evolution of the international system with great powers – US, China, Russia, EU, India – and to be a great power a country needed to have nuclear weapons. In addition, the second tier powers in this system – Pakistan, Israel, N. Korea – needed the bomb for defense and for other reasons. Check out this article on this point.
As to the influences on me, undoubtedly it was my career at the Hudson Institute working with Herman Kahn, Don Brennan and others, and then moving over to be a professor at Yale in the 1980s. At Hudson one would come to lunch and find people there like Ed Teller, Freeman Dyson, Eric Hoffer, the director of the CIA, Tom Schelling, Albert Wohlstetter and many other interesting people. At Yale, I worked with Martin Shubik, Irv Janis and others. I also was greatly influenced by Andy Marshall in the Office of Net Assessment. Here is an piece I wrote on Andy Marshall.
Is there one “war-game” scenarios from your book you would like to share?
One war game stands out because it was played by the actual principals, the Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It was called “Proud Prophet” and is described in my book (pp. 84-90). The game used actual SIOP and NATO war plans, which made our military very nervous. This was in 1983, just as the Soviets were resorting to very dangerous actions exemplified by the 1983 nuclear war scare the CIA wrote about years later, the downing of the Korean Airliner 007, an intensified US maritime strategy, and serious political splits inside NATO over nuclear missiles. I believe this game profoundly impacted the US government at the time, to shift away from a nuclear rivalry to emphasize advanced conventional weapons. More, along with many other things going on it showed the era to be more dangerous than anyone thought at the time. War games can do this. They pull people out of their narrow silos to offer an integrated assessment that’s hard to get from other methodologies.
If you would want people to remember one thing from your book would what would it be?
The most important takeaway from the book is the importance of a policy analysis framework. That is, looking at a wider band of possibilities and policies, and seeing how they perform in different strategic environments. The overwhelming tendency nowadays is to jump to an answer without this kind of deliberation.
What are your thoughts on North Korea’s Nuclear test?
North Korea raises many issues that haven’t been thought about because the focus has been on nonproliferation, i.e. prevention and disarmament. But North Korea is a nuclear weapon state, and it’s going to stay a nuclear weapon state. We need to better determine how to live with, and
Writing a book is tough, were there any surprises as you set out on that journey?
Like many authors I discover a lot in the writing process. It’s actually a great deal of fun. For example, I’d never thought about the complexities of nuclear multi polarity before. But a lot became clear in the process. For example, a country can provide nuclear targeting data to an ally, something I dubbed “information transfer” in the book. Also, what it means to be a nuclear coalition – like NATO – is quite interesting.
Can you provide a specific example or story where reading has helped you learn from others experience? Was there a specific challenge where you were able to rely on others experience to make your decision?
One example of learning was in several Hudson studies I was involved with from the 1970s and 1980s about NATO defense. The real problem we found out from private meetings with US corps commanders, Helmut Schmidt, and other European political leaders wasn’t making the US nuclear threat credible. Tom Schelling had argued that the US could resort to threats that leave something to chance to enforce an otherwise implausible threat.
What we found instead was that the only rational European strategy at some point of a crisis was “preemptive surrender.” This finding had a huge impact on US policy, as it meant that the US had to ensure the allies wouldn’t surrender too quickly in a crisis. It was an argument for the US to embrace conservative, incremental steps to forestall this. It’s also a lesson relevant today, in East Asia with North Korea, and in the Middle East with Iran.
How did your leadership and ethical philosophy develop?
This is an interesting question. Many people viewed Herman Kahn and Hudson as nuclear warmongers pursuing dangerous policies. Some people view Andrew Marshall this way as well. I do not. I think they lowered the risk of nuclear war by being hard headed and realistic, and for this they should receive accolades. Having your heart in the right place is one thing. But we also need to focus on performance of our policies, not only on the values that they enshrine. World War I started out of an arms race. But World War II started because there wasn’t an arms race.
What is Next for you and your writing projects?
My current project is to analyze how strategic innovation shapes national security and international order.
Paul Bracken is a professor of political science and business at Yale University. Bracken is a respected thought leader in global competition and the strategic application of technology in business and defense.