Same As It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War

TitleSame As It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War
Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsGavin, FJ


Nuclear alarmists argue that (1) the spread of atomic weapons has become more likely and more dangerous, and (2) that it is the greatest threat to both U.S. national and international security. Nuclear proliferation, in what has been labeled the “second nuclear age,” is more likely for two reasons: the end of bipolarity and the emergence of so-called tipping points.

The Spread of Nuclear Weapons Has Become More Likely And More Dangerous:

1. End of Bipolarity:

During the Cold War, international politics was dominated by two equal military strength, the United States and the Soviet Union. Both constructed large alliance systems and offered security guarantees to their client states, in some cases backed by a promise to use nuclear weapons if attacked. Given the bipolar structure of the international system and the relatively equal strength of each side’s alliances, small or medium powers had little incentive to develop or acquire nuclear forces, and the world was stable (Waltz 1964).

States are more fearful in a system of multipolarity and thus want nuclear weapons: The end of the Cold War and bipolarity following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 increased states’ incentives to acquire nuclear weapons. According to Benjamin Frankel, “Bipolarity inhibits the spread of nuclear weapons while multipolarity induces their proliferation.” (1993) Frankel predicted that in the post– Cold War era, “nuclear arms proliferation will likely intensify,” and “the owners of these weapons will likely brandish them more openly to advance their political objectives.” He warned that their “inherent complexity . . . dooms multipolar systems to instability, making them susceptible to crisis and war.” Thus, the “end of bipolarity means that superpower guarantees—the most effective instrument to moderate the effects of systemic characteristics—will be reduced and weakened.”

Proliferation is more dangerous because multipolarity is more dangerous than bipolarity: As Stephen Rosen notes, the future could see “multipolar nuclear interactions,” a phenomena that “we’re totally unfamiliar with. We’re used to dealing with a bipolar U.S.-Soviet nu- clear deterrent relationship which was stable over a number of decades.”16 Many experts believe this change will be disastrous. According to a senior U.S. Defense Department official from the George W. Bush administration, “We know how nukes worked in a two-player situation (the US and Russia), or even on the Indian subcontinent. But we don’t know how it works in a multi- player situation. . . . The risk of catastrophic misuse rises dramatically. I don’t think the international community has addressed it with sufficient urgency.”

2. Tipping Points:

Many nuclear alarmists assert that a nuclear chain reaction is imminent: Changes in the international environment, starting with the end of the Cold War and accelerating after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have tempted nations that once foreswore nuclear weapons to reconsider their utility. These alarmists fear that even democratic states and signatories to the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) might begin to pursue “hedging” strategies that would allow them to develop a nuclear weapons capability quickly. (Levite 2002/03)

This will lead to a tipping point dynamic: In other words, actual or threatened proliferation, particularly by one or two states within unstable regions such as East Asia or the Middle East, might cause governments that previously eschewed nuclear weapons to reconsider their decision. A nuclear Iran might drive Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey into the nuclear club.

This is the Greatest Threat to US Security Interests

The first nuclear age, according to nuclear alarmists, was a challenging but ultimately predictable period in history. As dangerous as the Soviet Union was, its rulers were rational. More importantly, both the US and the Americans were constrained by their mutual vulnerability to devastating nuclear attacks. Both sides understood that pushing too far risked a catastrophic war (On Nuclear Strategy: Shelling 1966, Jervis 1990).

According to nuclear alarmists, the second nuclear age is less predictable, involves more complex and dangerous rivalries, and includes new and far more terrifying actors than existed during the Cold War. According to one commentator, “In the first nuclear age, centered on Europe and the cold war, we were on familiar ground. The second, though, is happening across a swath of Asia and is steeped in historic grudges, suppressed national pride and regional ambitions that the West poorly understands, let alone controls.” To many observers, the Cold War—with its stable list of players and its known conventional and nuclear arsenals—has little relevance to today’s nuclear world, and offers few, if any, lessons for the future.

Today’s “rogue” states and terrorist organizations, the nuclear alarmists argue, may not be as deterrable as the Soviets and the Americans were during the first nuclear age. Their leaders may not be rational; they might value human life so little that they would be willing to use nuclear weapons despite the threat of retaliation; or they could and nonconventional and nontraceable ways of delivering nuclear weapons. Dobbs argues, “Four decades later, the word is in an infinitely more complicated—and in some ways more dangerous—place than it was during the Cuban missile crisis. Back then we knew who the enemy was and where he would be most likely to strike. These days, we cannot be sure who the enemy is or who possesses the power to destroy worlds.

Four myths on which nuclear alarmism is grounded:

1.     Old threats in new clothing.

The three threats alarmists focus on—“rogue” regimes, tipping points, and most frighteningly, nuclear terrorism—are not new, and are often overstated, especially compared with the apocalyptic challenges confronting the world following the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945. In addition, alarmists often mischaracterize the past, especially the so-called Long Peace, while conflating nuclear history with Cold War history and Cold War history with post–World War II history.

Rogue States: they do not adhere to the logic of nuclear deterrence that kept the Cold War from becoming “hot” (Payne 2006). Neither rogue regimes nor the fear they inspire, however, is new. Analysts have been deeply worried about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of noxious regimes (i.e. the USSR and PRC) since the start of the atomic age.

Nuclear weapons could make Iran more aggressive. Or, as with China, they could provide international legitimacy and security, making Iran less aggressive than it has been.

Nuclear Terrorism: Experts disagree on whether nonstate actors have the scientific, engineering, financial, natural resource, security, and logistical capacities to build a nuclear device from scratch. Even if a terrorist group were to acquire a nuclear device, expert Michael Levi demonstrates that effective planning can prevent catastrophe. There is further evidence that terrorist groups are rational and can be deterred (Pape 2003, Abrahms 2008, Crenshaw 2007)

2.     Nuclear Weapons and the Long Peace

The so-called Long Peace was not as peaceful or stable as nuclear alarmists claim. During the Cold War, the United States, the Soviet Union, and their al- lies spent trillions of dollars, fought proxy wars and overthrew governments, and dramatically transformed their domestic institutions for five decades in what many considered a life-and-death struggle. The competition was not predictable or free of crisis. To be sure, the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States did not lead to world war. If, however, one defines stability as the absence of crisis, uncertainty, and risk-taking behavior that could lead to war, then this rivalry looks different indeed (see Copeland 2000).

3.     Politics, Not Weapons

Too often, alarmists focus on the how the nature and qualities of nuclear weapons shape the international environment, as if the possession of nuclear bombs, absent political intent, diplomacy, motivations, or particular strategies, drives world politics. For example, nuclear alarmists often fail to fully explore the underlying political and security interests that make Iran and North Korea willing to take extraordinary political risks to acquire the bomb. Much of their analysis emerges from a view of the past that conflates nuclear history with the history of the Cold War.

The Cold War did not represent a security dilemma but involved geopolitical and ideological clashes.

4.     Postwar is More Than Cold War

Distinguishing Cold War history from the larger post–World War II history offers a better understanding of the forces driving proliferation today. Looking back, it does not appear that regime type or the structure of the international system was the most important factor determining who acquired weapons, when they acquired them, and what their strategies were. Nor did the NPT or the emergence of nuclear parity and assured destruction between the super- powers halt proliferation, as might have been expected; the 1970s witnessed intense nuclear proliferation pressures in many regions.

In considering contemporary Iran, for example, Tehran’s calculations about developing a nuclear weapons capability may have more in common with Brazil, France, India, or Japan than analysts recognize