By Paul Bracken, Yale University

A turn in attitudes about nuclear weapons is taking place.

There is a growing realization that we are entering a multipolar nuclear world.  Despite pious U.S. appeals to other countries to give up nuclear arms, this isn’t happening.  And there’s little sign that it will anytime soon.

New missile and other weapons in Russia and China, continued nuclear programs in Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and Israel, and India’s nuclear triad are hard to square with the conviction that the world is marching toward some kind of global disarmament regime.

What’s taking place isn’t disarmament; rather it’s nuclear modernization.

These countries are building nuclear postures, which in their view will be suited to 21st century conditions.  They may be wrong about this, certainly.

But the larger point is that the United States effort to design a world order that was free of nuclear weapons hasn’t worked out.

Even as the United States fought a war in Iraq to forestall it’s nuclear program, and even as it has declared that a nuclear weapon free global order was beginning, the powerful fact is that sovereign nations make their own choices.  Trying to discourage or overturn these choices is exceedingly difficult.

Put another way, nuclear weapons have returned as a source of influence and power in the international system.

There are some fundamental questions we need to ask about this second nuclear age.  One of the most basic is whether or not it is possible to even live in such a world.  Crises and shocks could develop that major powers would find intolerable.  We are talking about nuclear weapons here.  This isn’t like some terrorist attack that kills three-thousand people.

It’s a capacity to annihilate an entire country in a day.  Major powers might find that certain possibilities are simply too dangerous to tolerate — and act accordingly with their powerful forces, conventional and nuclear.

Below the level of nuclear war, i.e. where someone fires nuclear weapons, crises much more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis are easily imaginable.

Indeed they are quite readily imaginable.  And this is the point.  It’s time to start doing just that, to begin to think about the shocks and crises of a nuclear world.

I can suggest three ways to approach this problem.  They share a common theme.

The United States needs to build intellectual capital about a multipolar nuclear world.  This is a tall order.  There’s going to be serious resistance to even beginning to think about such things.  It will look to some as if the United States has given up on the promise of a nuclear weapon free world.  The argument will be made that it contradicts the dream of disarmament. This is where the turn in attitudes is important.  Both U.S. elite and mass opinion has changed.

As people look at Russia and China, and all of the others they know that the time has come to again do some serious thinking about this subject, no matter how distasteful it is.

Here are three suggestions to advance our understanding of how to manage the risks in this second nuclear age:

  • First is to recognize that since the end of the cold war the United States has grown careless when it comes to nuclear weapons.

The Air Force, for example, has had a number of embarrassing mishaps with nuclear arms and personnel problems in this area.  Yet something far deeper has been happening than merely a breakdown in procedure.  The procedures are being fixed, but this isn’t the hard part of the problem.

The United States has left its nuclear forces to rot, both technologically and intellectually.  Every study that has examined the Air Force mishaps of recent years has reached this conclusion.

The problem isn’t in the force, at least, it’s not only there.

At the top of the DoD there’s been little thinking about the nuclear forces.

More, there’s been a hope in some political quarters that allowing the force to disintegrate is a viable path toward a nuclear free future.  At some point, the argument goes, nuclear weapons will simply disappear.

But thinking about nuclear weapons hasn’t atrophied — not in North Korea, Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Iran, or Israel.

I would add Britain and France to this list, as I’m continually impressed by discussions with experts in London and Paris who have actually thought through what they expect of their nuclear deterrents in the 21st century.  (There’s actually quite a lot the United States can learn from them.)

The good news is that the carelessness problem is easy to fix once political sentiments recognize that we are not rushing into some new non-nuclear global order.

That time is now.

There is bipartisan support in the Congress for recognizing that sloppy thinking in this area is dangerous, and that even more dangerous is to operate in a world where enemies and rivals are modernizing their nuclear arms for the 21st century — while we are not.

University and think tank centers are changing their attitudes as well.

My prediction is that we are going to have a vigorous debate in this country about the future shape of the nuclear posture and about how precision strike, cyber warfare, drones, and other weapons fit in to the challenge of dealing with other nation’s nuclear forces.

  • Second, we need to broaden the range of the scenarios considered.

People often argue against using what they declare are unlikely, fanciful scenarios.

But I would make the opposite point.

The larger danger for the United States is a narrow framing of the nuclear problem.

As an example of this, the belief that all that is needed is a second strike capacity against Russia or China is an extremely narrow framing of the strategic problem.

It overlooks crisis management, provocations, escalation and counter escalation, communication and bargaining, and political perceptions of nuclear equality.

For the United States dealing with other country’s nuclear forces may best be done with our non-nuclear forces.

But the specific ways of doing this need to be worked out and linked to our nuclear strategy.

The band of possibilities here is much wider than in the cold war, and that’s why better scenarios are needed.

There are so many countries with nuclear weapons now, and technologies that can be used to attack them.

The approach used in the cold war was to separate conventional and nuclear options, and to strategically link them using a framework of escalation.   The old escalation ladder flagged the major thresholds, and this allowed political and military leaders to strategize in the same framework.  That wasn’t a bad solution.

But things are a lot more complicated now.

That’s why more scenarios are needed, to get these complications and differences out on the table for open discussion.

  • Finally, there is a significant role in this nuclear rethink for the professional military colleges and institutes.

The services are going to be asked about these issues, what weapons to buy and what strategies to use.  The military has the ultimate responsibility for U.S. national security.  The service leaders are certain to be asked about these matters by Congress.

In short, the military has to restore the thought leadership it once had on where nuclear weapons fit in.

This includes how other countries see nuclear arms in their own strategy.

The logical place for this kind of thinking is the professional military education system, at places such as the Air, Naval, and Army War Colleges and institutes.

The military should not cede the debate about nuclear strategy to universities or think tanks.  It’s too important for that.

Nuclear strategy is fundamental to U.S. strategy for the simple reason major powers have these weapons.

If the United States doesn’t have a flexible, reliable nuclear posture it can’t deal effectively with other countries who do.  It is the ultimate vulnerability that shapes other security choices.  It’s also an issue that if we get wrong can change the world to our disadvantage.

What’s needed is a diversity of opinion and judgment.

A mistake can have catastrophic consequences because there isn’t any do over when it comes to nuclear weapons and international order.

Deliberative arguments and thinking are needed, and we can’t make up for this in a crisis.

The time to take on this challenge is now.