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contributor perspectives

Oct 17, 2012 | 10:46 GMT

The Next Nuclear Age

Chief Geopolitical Analyst, Stratfor
Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst, Stratfor
Global Affairs with Robert D. Kaplan
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Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst

In 1999, Yale Professor Paul Bracken published Fire in the East: The Rise of Asian Military Power and the Second Nuclear Age, a brief and clairvoyant tour de force that I had the midshipmen in my classes read at the U.S. Naval Academy when I was a visiting professor there a few years ago. The book's main thesis was that the very "finite size of the earth" would increasingly be a force for instability, as military hardware and software condensed distances on the geopolitical map. Indeed, while the Americans and Europeans were focused on globalization, the appeal of nationalism and military power was growing on the increasingly crowded Eurasian supercontinent. Missile and bomb tests, biological warfare programs and the development of chemical weapons are "the products of a prosperous, liberalizing Asia," Bracken pointed out. What the West has "failed to recognize" is that the technologies of war and wealth creation have always been closely connected: From Asia's economic rise has come its military rise, even as the map gets smaller and more claustrophobic.

Keep in mind that this was all written in the 1990s, long before the policy elites concentrated their attention on China's air and naval expansion and the action-reaction arms race throughout Asia that has happened as a result.

To this shrinking geography, Bracken added the destabilizing factor of "disruptive technologies": technologies that rather than help sustain leadership and the current global power structure that works to the benefit of the United States, "undermine it by disrupting the status quo." Such technologies include computer viruses and weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear and biological ones. During the Cold War, both superpowers approached nuclear warfare with "detachment and rationality." That may not be the case in what Bracken called "the second nuclear age," in which Eurasia constitutes a small room crowded with poor countries, some of which are nuclear powers. Thus, we have a dystopian landscape of the early- to mid-21st century as foreseen in the 1990s by a prescient political scientist.

Now Bracken has followed up his 1990s thesis with a new book, which everyone interested in nuclear proliferation in the Middle East should read: The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics. His signal insight is that whereas in the first nuclear age — that of the end of World War II and the Cold War — nuclear weapons arose out of the existential need for survival and the concomitant requirement to be able to utterly destroy an ideological adversary. In the second nuclear age, such weapons have emerged merely from "natural causes": the normal dynamics of insecurity and regional balance of power politics. In other words, the daily undercurrents of events in the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia now all have a nuclear context. It is not just the obvious crises related to Iran and North Korea that make this so, but also in the way that China's nuclear arsenal, for example, has quietly over the decades affected the whole context of power relationships.

Consequently, Bracken writes, there is no "overarching conceptual framework such as deterrence or containment" that can adequately deal with the variation of "strategic personality" of every individual country — China, India, Iran and so on. We use words like "deterrence" and "containment," not realizing that their application may have been limited to the Cold War and do not impact the world of today.

For example, during the Cold War, both superpowers were careful not to encourage public rallies during crises: "Doing so could have backed them into a corner to be trapped by their own rhetoric." Indeed, the cold warrior style of strategy "didn't taunt the enemy or make hysterical calls for its annihilation," Bracken notes. But the new nuclear age upon us isn't like this at all; it will be closer to the mood of the mob in the street. And that is because rather than ideology, the new nuclear age is driven by religion and nationalism. Nationalism may be passe among Western elites, but it is young and vibrant in Asia.

Then there is terrorism, which, when mixed with radical religiosity and nationalism can lead to "catalytic war" in the new nuclear age.  In other words, a terrorist strike of modest proportions ignites a crisis with nationalistic or religious overtones, that, in turn, results in a nuclear standoff or worse. I don't mean a group of terrorists detonating a nuclear bomb — that is a banal worry by Bracken's standards. He is talking about the interaction of terrorism and nuclear states. And the most dangerous states are those with nuclear weapons but weak or at least difficult-to-deploy conventional forces. Credible conventional capacity means a state does not have to resort to nuclear weapons even in an extreme crisis. Add weak armies and air forces to the mix and you have real instability.

This is certainly not the clinical world of Cold War "deterrence" managed by think tanks and game theorists in Washington and Moscow, which is what makes Bracken's new book so penetrating.

In fact, Bracken is one brave Ivy League professor. He is willing to say to his colleagues in the liberal academy that the "bomb" will not be abolished precisely because it is so useful. If it were not, he says, respectable countries like Britain and France would have already given it up, a country like Pakistan wouldn't want so many more of them and a country like Iran would not want to acquire one.

When it comes to Iran, Bracken knows of what he speaks since he has not only studied the problem for decades but has participated in a number of Pentagon war games that factor a nuclear Iran into the scenarios. His take-home assessment is that the idea that an Iran with only a first-strike capability would be more vulnerable to attack than the Iran of today is likely wrong. A nuclear Iran, even with just a few primitive (albeit deliverable) bombs, would modify both Israel's and America's behavior in the direction Tehran wants. That is what the war games indicated.

Israel, which knew how to escalate in a conventional setting against a terrorist strike, an intifada, an insurgency or a Hezbollah missile barrage suddenly became more cautious when a deployable Iranian nuke was factored into the war game's equation. The Israelis worried, "What would Iran do?" Consequently, they argued among themselves even more strenuously than usual.

Another thing the war games revealed: The Iranians are not irrational. But their rationality is different than that of the Cold War Americans and Soviets. The Iranians would put nuclear-tipped missiles beside schools and hospitals, in hardened silos and hidden among masses of conventional missiles: signaling to the world that some bombs were camouflaged, others well protected and still others quite vulnerable but only if the Americans and Israelis were willing to kill many innocent civilians. Bracken describes vividly how a nuclear Iran would stretch relations between Washington and Jerusalem to an even greater breaking point than already exists.

Moreover, Bracken points out that whereas the United States and Israel would do almost anything now — short of invasion — to change the government of Iran, once Iran goes nuclear their calculus could shift: For an Iran in political chaos, or in some level of disintegration, could put the nukes in the hands of the worst radical elements that are no longer constrained by bureaucratic control mechanisms. Therefore, the Iranian regime knows it will be safer from the intrigues of the Americans and Israelis once it has the bomb.

One can argue with much of this. But even if you disagree, Bracken is an example of why fresh and fearless thinking is required when considering the near-term future of geopolitics.

Robert D. Kaplan was Stratfor's Chief Geopolitical Analyst from March 2012 through December 2014. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., and has been a foreign correspondent and contributing editor at The Atlantic, where his work has appeared for three decades. In 2009, he was appointed to the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, which advised former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on key issues. Mr. Kaplan served on the board through 2011. From 2006 to 2008, he was the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the U.S. Naval Academy.
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