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  • Nuclear Stability and Polarity in Post–Cold War Asia
  • Rajesh Basrur (bio)

Contrary to the widespread notion that the “second nuclear age” is hugely different, and for the worse, from the first nuclear age, the reality is more complex. The post–Cold War period is indeed different from the preceding one, but the differences have not been properly grasped. While there are certainly dangers associated with the current age, we need not be distracted by many of the so-called risks—such as arms racing, brinkmanship, and irrationality—identified by strategic experts.

The nature of the “second nuclear age” has been widely misunderstood. The apparently sharp divide between the Cold War era and the present age is illusory. There has been no great transformation from nuclear bipolarity to multipolarity; on the contrary, strong similarities persist. Nor is the view accurate that the relative stability of yesteryear has been replaced by a high degree of uncertainty and instability. In important ways, the current nuclear-strategic landscape is more stable than before. Yet in other ways that are also important, it is less stable. It would be wise to jettison our penchant for simple contrasts and recognize today’s complexities if we are to attend properly to the nuclear problems of our time.

How Different Is the Post–Cold War Era?

Analysts often identify four chief differences between the two periods, of which only two are accurate. The first difference is that the center of gravity in nuclear politics has shifted from the Euro-Atlantic region to the Asia-Pacific. This is correct: Europe is no longer a focal point of contention, and two important European players during the Cold War, Britain and France, do not figure as prominently in contemporary nuclear politics. Russia, which has a partly Asian identity, remains a key player, however.

Second, whereas the Cold War was dominated by a single rivalry with global dimensions (between the United States and the Soviet Union), there is no relationship of comparable magnitude today. This too is correct: China [End Page 5] promises to be a challenger to U.S. dominance but is still a regional power and shows no sign of being a serious global competitor for strategic primacy.

The third reputed difference is that the Cold War era was “bipolar,” whereas the post–Cold War period is “multipolar.” This is incorrect. If we take 1989 as the year when the Cold War began to wind down with the dismantling of Communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe, then the number of nuclear-armed states before and after remains the same. Before 1989, there were nine nuclear powers: the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, South Africa, India, and Pakistan.1 After 1989, South Africa denuclearized, and the only new state that developed nuclear weapons capabilities was North Korea. It may be objected that the U.S. and Soviet arsenals were so far removed from the rest in magnitude that the term multipolarity does not really apply. But then, the difference between the big two and the rest remains enormous even today. More importantly, conventional notions of balance do not apply to nuclear weapons given that very small arsenals have regularly deterred very large ones.2 Moreover, strategic politics among the nuclear-armed states in the pre-1989 period was often multipolar: for example, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China were hostile toward each other in the 1960s, and the United States and China were antagonistic toward the Soviet Union in the 1970s and the 1980s. There were also strategic dyads centered on South Asia, with India and the Soviet Union loosely aligned against China and Pakistan.

Fourth, the Cold War is often held to have been a stable geopolitical environment, whereas the Asian multipolar environment is said to be unstable and likely to become more so. This is also incorrect. In fact, the first quarter-century of the Cold War (1949–74), beginning with the appearance of the first nuclear weapons dyad, was just as unstable, if not more prone to crisis, than the comparable period after the Cold War (1989–2014). The first period was characterized by four major confrontations between...


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