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Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late

Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late by Joseph Cirincione. Columbia University Press, 2013, 280 pp.

Joseph Cirincione’s latest work, Nuclear Nightmares, offers a thoughtful and balanced look at the issue of nuclear proliferation and arms control. Echoing a recent theme by the Obama administration, Cirincione labels nuclear weapons as one of two threats that could lead to global catastrophe, the other being global warming (p. 1). The author serves as president of the Ploughshares Fund, an organization that finances and supports initiatives to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—a fact that helps explain the subject of this work and the title of the publication. Although he desires to focus solely on nuclear proliferation, a concurrent theme running throughout the book is the debate surrounding the nuclear policy of the Obama administration (p. 2).

Cirincione presents arguments from both sides of the particular issues he addresses, including counterproliferation, force structure, modernization, and the nuclear defense budget. While he provides competing views on various matters concerning America’s nuclear policy and force structure, the reader can clearly determine which side of the debate the author aligns with based upon his writing. Cirincione’s approach expands beyond current debates about diplomacy and budgets as he adds chapters covering topics like nuclear effects and nuclear accidents. Perhaps the most controversial part of Nuclear Nightmares is the declaration that Pakistan is the most dangerous country on the earth. It is not that the nation possesses a nuclear capability, the author argues; rather, it is the “confluence of several disturbing trends[:] . . . an unstable government, a fragile economy, strong extremist influences in its military and intelligence agencies, and enough nuclear material for 200 bombs” (p. 119).

Cirincione acknowledges the realism associated with pursuing nuclear weapons but offers a cooperative diplomatic strategy for confronting proliferation. As he notes, “The main reasons that states acquire nuclear weapons are security, prestige, domestic policies, and, to a lesser degree, technology, and economics” (p. 153). Although realism drives the desire to acquire nuclear weapons, the author states that international regimes can put the genie back in the bottle: “The reason that more states do not have nuclear weapons is because many nations working together have implemented policies to steadily reduce the role and numbers and desirability of nuclear weapons in the world” (p. 154). There appears to be some inconsistency in Cirincione’s analysis since most of those nations banning together already possess nuclear weapons. Is this really an international regime at work or just national realism in action as the haves try to keep the have-nots from joining the nuclear club?

Anyone without a firm foundation in nuclear weapons policy, force structures, or even weapons effects will find Nuclear Nightmares a solid primer on these issues. Although Cirincione attempts to deal with such matters evenhandedly, his last chapter delves into promotion, which outlines the work of the Ploughshares Fund and other organizations devoted to nonproliferation. Despite such self-aggrandizement, readers will discover in that chapter a treasure of information about grant money available for further research into these topics. Nuclear Nightmares takes a compelling look at a national security issue that will continue to grow in importance.

Dr. Mel Deaile, USAF, Colonel, Retired
Montgomery, Alabama


"The views expressed 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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