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The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics

The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics by Paul Bracken. Times Books, 2012, 320 pp.

Paul Bracken, Yale University professor of management and political science specializing in global competition and strategic application of technology in business and defense, has been writing about involvement of nuclear weapons in strategy since the early 1980s. Bracken worked under Herman Kahn as a senior staffer at the Hudson Institute. As one would think, his work does favor Kahn’s model for a strong defense as opposed to Schelling’s mutual vulnerability; however, his writing in The Second Nuclear Age seeks to break the mold of Cold War thinking and strongly suggests the rules have changed. He calls upon policymakers and strategists to borrow only sparingly from Cold War thought while formulating new strategies based on the drastically different multipolar world. While this book appears to focus on nuclear aspects alone, Bracken is clear it is not a work on nuclear strategy but a discussion of strategy in the new nuclear age.

Bracken poignantly states that “if we don’t manage the second nuclear age, the second nuclear age will manage us.” While scholars debate proper demarcation between the first and second nuclear ages, they mostly agree on two things: the world has moved on from the first nuclear age and feckless reliance on Cold War thinking is dangerous. Despite this, Cold War philosophies dominate discussion among policymakers, regardless of which side they are on, while condemning the other side’s use of Cold War lessons. Bracken does not advocate jettisoning all Cold War lessons but instead outlines a brief and carefully selected list of eight enduring lessons from that era.

Radical paradigm shifts must occur in US thinking to assure security in the years to come, and this book summarizes many of the problems strategists should account for in planning. Bracken calls leaders to “think about dynamics and instability and not just nonproliferation and containment.” In regard to these last two concepts, he suggests current policymakers see the modern era as post-nuclear. This view is supported by US policymakers’ concentration on reductions and/or eradication of nuclear weapons despite other nuclear powers and potential proliferants seeing nuclear arsenals as inexpensive power equalizers and a source of national pride. Cold War vestiges, such as START and New START, must change to reflect modern multipolar realities. Numerical advantages and mutually assured destruction are gone, while new technological advances are poised to influence balances of power in ways previously not possible. Bracken spends a quarter of the text outlining foreign nuclear capabilities and potential changes such as proliferation in the Middle East. This focus is far from alarmist but instead reflects fundamental and multifaceted international realities that must be addressed before crises arise. One approach Bracken advises is to reinvigorate realistic nuclear war gaming. This helps strategists and policymakers understand the ways conflict can develop and allows them to think about the unthinkable before being faced with it. Unfortunately, war gaming in the nuclear realm lacks realism and is often scripted to avoid potential hot-button issues. His involvement in previous war games and the success of war gaming in the past leads Bracken to suggest renewed emphasis.

His view speaks well to realists regardless of their opinion of nuclear weapons; however, his writing at times only briefly negates idealistic views regarding nuclear weapons. For instance, Bracken makes passing remarks that the United States is the only nuclear power that has not modernized its nuclear arsenal. While true, this statement remains too vague, and thus too easily defeated, to convince many idealists. Also, late in the text, Bracken refutes the idea that nuclear weapons remain on “hair-trigger” alert but does so unconvincingly. He is right that this pejorative is “nonsense,” but there is so much information to refute the idea which he fails to cite. Moreover, Bracken fails to address two major interrelated themes: the potential for authoritarian regimes to rapidly “change directions” toward aggressiveness and the relative lack of nuclear infrastructure in the West compared to nations modernizing more quickly. This latter issue allows for rapid production of weapons by potential adversaries the West cannot match due to dismantled, crumbling, and repurposed nuclear weapons infrastructure. Despite these minor critiques, Bracken provides the right base upon which to build a new nuclear strategy.

This book serves a broad audience, as it is both accessible and deeply thought provoking. For the seasoned strategists, Bracken suggests ways to rethink their approach. He is not the first to advocate for such a change. Instead, this call has sadly been ringing since Colin Gray first proposed changes in his 1999 book of a similar title (The Second Nuclear Age, Lynne Rienner Publications). Many nuclear developments have occurred since then, and Bracken’s text provides a less technical yet profound look at these changes and the resultant lack of strategic paradigm shifts. This book would also help young military leaders looking to develop their understanding of twenty-first-century US strategy needs. For the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons will play a major role in the world regardless the status of the US stockpile. Leaders cannot afford to ignore deterrence and its effects on warfare in a nuclear world.

Maj David C. Leaumont, USAF

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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