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  • Asia's Complex Strategic Environment:Nuclear Multipolarity and Other Dangers
  • Christopher P. Twomey (bio)
Keywords

Asia, Nuclear Weapons, Security, Balance of Power

[End Page 51]

Executive Summary

This article evaluates the implications of nuclear multipolarity and strategic complexity in Asia.

Main Argument

Ongoing changes in traditional state-to-state nuclear dynamics are reshaping international security in Asia. Today, Asia is a multipolar nuclear environment in which long-range nuclear weapons are joined by other systems with strategic effect, and in which countries hold different views about the role and utility of nuclear weapons. This article discusses the implications of these shifts from the Cold War to the present for several guises of stability, on the one hand, and for competition and conflict, on the other. Though each of these considerations leads to dangerous outcomes in isolation, their combined effect is even more deleterious. The implications of this analysis are deeply pessimistic, both for peace in general and for U.S. national security interests in particular.

Policy Implications

  • • Asia is likely to see vigorous competition in the strategic arena, ranging from increased offensive nuclear weapons to the development of advanced conventional offensive munitions and missile defenses. These technologies will likely continue to spread.

  • • Competition between Asian states is likely to lead to increased reliance on nuclear threats, bluster, and statecraft. This will erode any "nuclear taboo" and will increase the chance of nuclear weapons detonation.

  • • Arms control is unlikely to substantially mitigate any of these concerns in the current environment.

  • • Given the pessimistic factors outlined above, increased understanding across states of how each sees the utility of nuclear weapons will be extremely beneficial.

  • • Missile defenses systems make, on balance, a positive contribution to regional security; nevertheless, their negative implications should be addressed through judicious use of transparency about nontechnical aspects of the systems.

  • • Expansive national security goals such as regime change should be abandoned, given the potential for catastrophic nuclear escalation. [End Page 52]

The Cold War continues to constrain thinking about nuclear issues. In the first 20 years of the Cold War, a dynamic nuclear environment posed great risks of truly catastrophic war. Yet by the end of the 50 years of bipolar rivalry, many argued that nuclear weapons had stabilized Soviet-U.S. relations. Traditional deterrence theory, with its emphasis on calculating rationality, seemed to contribute to Americans' understanding of world events. Certainly the latter years of the rivalry saw the rise of arms control efforts within and beyond the nuclear arena that facilitated the end of the Cold War. Throughout that period, the two primary nuclear powers developed sophisticated national security apparatuses with an increasingly deep understanding of the efficacies and dangers of nuclear weapons. Few of these factors speak to the nuclear environment in Asia today.

It is increasingly clear that the second nuclear age is upon us.1 Much work on this epochal shift focuses both on the role of asymmetry in nuclear balances and on the role of nonstate actors.2 Indeed, some analysts characterize this situation in pejorative terms: an advanced set of nuclear "haves" declaring less developed latecomers to be the primary source of danger in the nuclear order smacks of hypocrisy and Orientalism.3

This article argues that these elements of the second nuclear age, while important, are complemented by three ongoing changes in traditional state-to-state nuclear dynamics that are even more important: the nuclear environment is multipolar, long-range nuclear weapons are joined by other systems with strategic effect, and many countries hold different views about the role and utility of nuclear weapons. These three changes are manifest most clearly in Asia since the Cold War. While each change leads to dangerous outcomes in isolation, their combined effects are even more deleterious. Consideration of these three factors challenges the more positive conclusions that currently dominate analysis of Asian nuclear affairs.4 The implications of [End Page 53] this analysis are thus deeply pessimistic, both for peace in general and for U.S. national security interests in particular.

This article proceeds as follows:

  • pp. 54–56 lay out the baseline for a comparison of the present environment in Asia with the Cold War

  • pp. 56–67 characterize the nature of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2960
Print ISSN
1559-0968
Pages
pp. 51-78
Launched on MUSE
2011-02-02
Open Access
No
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