Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Second Nuclear Age

Steven E. Meyer


February 18, 2011
by Steven E. Meyer

Since the end of the Cold War we have witnessed the rise of a second nuclear weapons age, which has arisen for very different reasons than the first. British and French systems notwithstanding, the first nuclear age was characterized primarily by the Soviets and the Americans.  This second nuclear age is marked by a dangerous expansion of the nuclear “club.”  In addition to the “old” nuclear powers, several other states now have nuclear weapons, and there is a strong threat that non-state actors could obtain them. 

This second nuclear age has emerged at the dawn of the 21st century as one more facet of a rapidly globalizing world.  Certainly, economic integration is the original hallmark of globalization, but it also is having a significant impact on politics and the future of warfare, including nuclear weapons.  Indeed, the specific characteristics of globalization are proving to be a boon for the contemporary spread of nuclear weapons: the advent of complex interdependence; the decline of the United States as a world power and the concomitant growth of other states; the porousness of borders; the explosion of non-state actors, especially “terrorist groups;” the advent of several types of tactical and smaller nuclear devices; and, the relatively easy access to technology. 

Arguably, then, this second nuclear age is even more dangerous than the first. The sheer number of actual and potential owners of nuclear weapons in a more integrated world increases the possibility for accidental use as well as easy use in expanding varieties of regional disputes and detonation by dissident groups.  Moreover, safeguards against the use of nuclear weapons may now be even more suspect than they were during the first nuclear age.  There are four reasons why this is so.

First, deterrence today is more unreliable than it was during the first nuclear age.  To be sure, there is no empirical evidence to prove that deterrence ever worked—we just assumed that deterrence prevented the exchange of nuclear weapons between the Soviet Union and the United States.  But, at least then these weapons were confined essentially to two state actors who could monitor each other. This is much less possible today, particularly when it comes to smaller weapons.  Second, anti-missile systems—purportedly to guarantee against missile strikes by enemy countries as well as terrorists—are remarkably ineffective.  Anti-missile systems are based on a philosophy of using a “bullet to hit a bullet,” and there is no solid empirical evidence to demonstrate that this approach is technically possible.

Third, a philosophy—and policy—of “moral equivalence,” or perhaps better stated, “moral inequivalence,” has evolved, which argues some countries are morally equipped to have nuclear weapons, while others are not.  The problem, however, is not that some countries can be trusted and some not, but the sheer number of nuclear weapons “owners” and the expanded risk of use.  Finally, there is no defense against the use of small weapons that can be fitted to such delivery systems as tactical missiles or even suitcases.

What, then, should we do?  Ultimately, attaining “zero” nuclear weapons may not be possible.  But, there are practical steps we can take.  First, the Obama administration should adopt a “sole purpose” position—that is, nuclear weapons will be used solely to defend in case of a nuclear attack.  Second, while the administration should certainly continue to negotiate with Russia to reduce nuclear arms, the most pressing issue for negotiations is the “arc of nuclear proliferation” from Israel to Iran.  Third, the administration needs to abandon the concept of “targeted counter proliferation” which is based on the corrupt notion of “moral inequivalency” and work to reduce nuclear weapons wherever they are found.  Finally, the administration needs to significantly improve intelligence and communications capabilities, including programs to reach out to “terrorist” groups.  

 —Steven E. Meyer is a Professor of National Security Studies and Political Science at the National Defense University, Washington, D.C.  The ideas expressed in this article are those of the author alone.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”