The threat of the outbreak of a nuclear war between the two superpowers ended with the implosion of the Soviet Union. However, the threat of a military conflict escalating into a nuclear conflagration remains palpable in the “second nuclear age.” That is the basic theme of Paul Bracken’s The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics. There are not too many books that are more persuasive than this one in establishing the argument involving the end of one historical era, the first nuclear age, and the beginning of another, the second nuclear age. Bracken’s study is also insightful in describing how distinctive the second nuclear age has already been, and why it will become more conflict-prone and difficult to “manage” than the previous one.
In the first nuclear age, there were two superpowers that determined the rules of engagement governing the use of nuclear weapons. The cornerstone of the first nuclear age, which lasted from the beginning of the Cold War period until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, was the concept of nuclear deterrence. That concept not only restrained the two superpowers from using nuclear weapons against each other (because the result would have been total destruction of both sides), but it also powerfully motivated them to ensure that no proxy wars involving their client states escalated into a nuclear conflict. The two superpowers understood how crucial the management of conflict was between them and their client states during the Cold War era. This strict observance of deterrence made nuclear weapons irrelevant during the Cold War era, with one exception: the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
The chief problem of the second nuclear age is proliferation of actors armed with nuclear weapons. Bracken describes it as “a three-tiered structure” or “MSG framework (for major powers, secondary powers, and groups).” The original five nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France) are still armed with nuclear weapons. However, over the years, India, Pakistan, North Korea, South Africa, and Israel joined the ranks of nuclear weapons states. Here it is important to note that the Western powers, particularly the United States, hushed Israel’s clandestine acquisition of nuclear weapons. By doing so, the United States tacitly took a position that the security of Israel justified its acquisition of an independent nuclear deterrent, while denying that right to states such as India and Pakistan (until 1998, when they both became nuclear powers). Consequently, India became the most ardent critic of the nuclear nonproliferation policies that the United States supported. By insisting that Iran should not develop nuclear weapons (even though Iranian leaders insist that they have no intentions of doing so), the United States continued its attempt to implement the same failed nonproliferation policies toward Iran.
Bracken argues that the second nuclear age is “much more decentralized than the first nuclear age, with many independent decision centers” (p. 95). Due to the strategic rivalries between China and India; Pakistan and India; North Korea and South Korea, Japan, [End Page 152] and the United States; and the nuclear-armed Israel and nuclear-aspiring Iran, “one of the most important questions of the second nuclear age” has become which direction these rivalries will take (p. 95).
Another management principle of the Cold War nuclear era was the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which aimed to promote nuclear disarmament among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, but especially in the United States and the USSR. However, one of the chief reasons for the emergence of India, Pakistan, and North Korea as nuclear weapons-possessing countries was the highly selective implementation of the NPT by the United States, a point that Paul Bracken neglects to emphasize in his otherwise well-written book.
In fact, I would argue that one reason why India, Pakistan, and North Korea became nuclear powers in the post-Cold War era was the United States’ failure to implement NPT universally, displaying a high degree of quiescence regarding Israel’s growing nuclear...