Three quarters of a century after the first atomic device was exploded in the New Mexico desert, and three decades after the end of the Cold War, there appears to be a recognition in both academic literature and policymaking circles that a “new nuclear era” could be upon us.
This shift is being driven by a mixture of political, normative and technological drivers, which when taken together, are challenging the central axioms and apparatus upon which global nuclear order is based and nuclear stability is maintained, and at the same time changing the nature of nuclear risks. We can think of this as the start of a Third Nuclear Age.
The drivers of this Third Nuclear Age include: the emergence of-often non-nuclear and intangible-disruptive technologies that are creating a plethora of new nuclear dangers and pathways to nuclear use; a gradual realisation that many of the central mechanisms of global nuclear governance are coming under significant pressure or even being eroded; a reduction in interest in nuclear weapons as a global existential risk amongst both elites and the public; and the fact that we are witnessing a return to great power nuclear politics, dangerous rhetoric and aggressive posturing, at the same time as the global nuclear order is becoming genuinely multipolar and more complex.
Given this considerable flux, it is essential that we consider the implications of this transition into what portends to be a distinctly new era of nuclear politics. At the very least we need to act now to reassess the continued validity of established ideas and frameworks and their ability to keep us safe in this more complex and potentially dangerous Third Nuclear Age.
For sure, characterising nuclear history into “nuclear ages” (a first nuclear age is said to have existed during the Cold War and focussed on the US-Soviet arms race, and a second nuclear age that focussed on regional proliferation and nuclear terrorism in the years that followed) is historically imperfect and can be accused of being an overly Western-centric notion. But using such constructs helps focus the mind on the most pressing problems and risks we face, and hopefully prevents us from sleep-walking unprepared into a more precarious and uncertain chapter in our nuclear story.
The argument here is that the unfolding milieu of changes in the global nuclear space mean that we need to reorient our focus again, away from an overtly post-Cold War, post-9-11 focus. Thus, it is useful to think of the current moment as the beginning of a distinct Third Nuclear Age, were the rules, challenges and central dynamics of the global nuclear game will be different from that which came before.
Perhaps the most prominent feature of the Third Nuclear Age is the impact and importance of new “disruptive technologies”. Of course, the influence of military technological developments upon nuclear order is not new, but today the challenge is different because it is a whole suite of weapons and enabling technologies, many of which are non-nuclear, intangible and dual use, and at the same time a transformation in the nuclear information space. It is also an inherently global phenomenon.
The incorporation of Artificial Intelligence and Automation into nuclear planning, possible uses of Computer Network Operations across the nuclear realm, 3D printing, the rise of non-nuclear counter-space capabilities, moves towards full-spectrum missile defence, the possibility of unmanned weapons systems, quantum computing, advances in remote sensing, tracking and the development of long-range precision conventional weapons (including hypersonic missiles), as well as a nuclear real-time digitised nuclear ecosystem, all create different pressures for stable deterrence relationships, secure-second strike forces, escalation, crisis management and proliferation.
The Third Nuclear Age also seems set to be characterised by the erosion or at least weakening of previous international arms control mechanisms and traditional norms of nuclear restraint. Part of this is a worrying recognition that many of the treaties and negotiating bodies established in the First and Second Nuclear Ages are either under pressure (the Non-Proliferation Treaty), risk falling away (New START and the Treaty on Open Skies), have been badly damaged (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the “Iran deal”), or in the case of the INF Treaty, which helped bringing stability to Europe for a generation, have been abandoned altogether.
Some of this erosion can be explained by the impact of new military capabilities and rekindled geopolitical rivalries, but it is also a reflection of what appears to be a growing nuclear apathy among global publics and perhaps also amongst many policymakers. This in turn may be contributing to what some have mooted as a withering of the nuclear taboo (and the return of warfighting and aggressive nuclear rhetoric), and a general disinterest in nuclear issues as an existential threat to humanity more broadly.
Paradoxically, this may even have been compounded by the 2017 Nuclear Ban Treaty, which seems likely to further widen the fissures and differences between the nuclear haves and have-nots rather than creating a viable pathway forward to reduce nuclear risks.
The final piece of the Third Nuclear Age puzzle is the very public return of great power nuclear politics, especially rhetoric and posturing, but also nuclear modernisation and vertical proliferation, and a genuine move towards a multipolar nuclear world. For sure, the nuclear order essentially become multipolar in the 1950s and 1960s as the UK and then France joined the nuclear club, but today it is clear that the nuclear balances and risks in the Middle East, South and Northeast Asia are on a par if not exceeding the historical focus on the Euro-Atlantic.
Thus, and while we may still be living in a predominantly US-led nuclear world, this nuclear order is now far more geographically interlinked and interdependent, whereby actions or developments in one region will have truly global implications. Consequently, what happens in other parts of the world is increasingly shaping the overall nuclear picture and we must move to adjust our theoretical and conceptual nuclear frameworks, and the largely Western and Euro-Atlantic-focussed arms control and governance architectures, to account for this.
At the moment, all nuclear-armed states are seeking to modernise and, in some cases, expand their nuclear and advanced/strategic non-nuclear capabilities, which suggests nuclear weapons may be becoming more rather than less important in international politics. It also suggests that we have probably reached the end to the 30-year trend of reducing global nuclear stockpiles, at least for the time being. Indeed, this snapshot of recent history suggests that new, innovative and perhaps flexible frameworks and mechanisms of managing nuclear risks will be required as we go forward into the Third Nuclear Age.
The global nuclear order is in a state of flux, with myriad new pressures that need to be understood if we are to continue to safely manage the dangers posed by nuclear weapons.
This Third Nuclear Age will be conceptually and materially different from the two nuclear ages that preceded it and require a concerted global collaborative reengagement with the challenge of ensuring nuclear peace.
The starting point is probably a recognition that we are entering into a different type of nuclear world, where some (though not all) nuclear risks and challenges have altered and where new thinking and measures will be necessary. This may look daunting considering the clear complications of pursuing arms control for disruptive technologies given their very different nature to what has gone before, especially in such an unconducive and fractious geopolitical climate, and seeking to reengage global public opinion and the attention of policymakers as the challenges of climate change and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take centre stage.
But the world has faced similar challenges before, including during times of heightened geopolitical tension and transition, and determined thinking about risk reduction, informal mechanisms of restraint, different types of confidence building architectures, and education across all levels of society, can help to prepare us what seems likely to be a more dangerous nuclear world as we move into the Third Nuclear Age.