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date: 03 April 2020

The Great Debate: The Nuclear-Political Question and World Order

Abstract and Keywords

In the wake of the development of nuclear weapons, the survival of civilization, and perhaps humanity, hinges on answering the “nuclear political question”: Which political arrangements are needed to provide security from large-scale nuclear violence? Over the course of the nuclear era, a great debate on this question has occurred in three quite different rounds. In the first round, “nuclear one world” ideas about the obsolescence of the state-system and necessity of a world state predominated, but reached both conceptual and practical impasses. In the second round, across much of the Cold War, a trinity of deterrence-centered approaches, simple deterrence, war strategism, and arms control, prevailed. In the currently unfolding third round, proliferation and leakage have weakened confidence in nuclear deterrence, while both war strategism and arms control have become more radical, offering opposite “bombs away” answers of coercive counter-proliferation and preventive war, and deep arms control and nuclear abolition.

Keywords: nuclear one worldism, deterrence, strategism, arms control, terrorism, statism, abolition

23.1 Contested Legacies

Hiroshima was “the day humanity began taking its final exam” as futurist Buckminster Fuller has observed (Fuller 1969: 56). While outright failure has not happened yet, the prospects for passing and moving on to the next grade do not look very promising. Experts disagree strongly on basic questions, unexpected surprises abound, and the contours of the debates over fundamentals periodically shift in major ways. The future, unfortunately, is likely to continue these patterns: avoiding the ultimate civilizational failure of nuclear war is unlikely to persist indefinitely.

The bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 marks the beginning of a new era in human history in which human capacities of destruction began to pose an existential threat to civilization and humanity. This ominous new reality has triggered a great debate about how to achieve security in a nuclear world. Even before nuclear weapons were brought into existence during the Manhattan Project or used on Japan during the waning days of the Second World War, contentious debate over their implications for humanity and international politics was underway among nuclear scientists (Boyer 1985). Across the seven decades of the nuclear era, controversy over these great engines of destruction has been a prominent, and immensely complex, facet of contemporary global civilization. These disputes have spilled into virtually every domain of human thought, particularly in the United States and Europe. Despite their high stakes, debates over nuclear weapons among theorists of international politics are marked by little consensus. At the core of these arguments is a very simple question, the nuclear-political question: What political arrangements are necessary for security from nuclear weapons? This question poses a dark puzzle upon whose successful resolution rests the fate of civilization, and perhaps human survival.

Unfortunately, there is little prospect for inductively answering this question in any fully convincing manner by recourse to empirical facts. While a great many answers (p. 335) have been offered to this question, and many experts are confident they have the answer to it, their answers and confidence are not soundly based on empirical vindication, but rather on a combination of deductive theory and problematic interpretations of a limited number of highly ambiguous historical episodes.1 Any satisfactory answer to the nuclear-political question would require convincing responses to two key questions: How probable is nuclear use? And what happens after nuclear weapons are used? Because nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945, it is impossible to say with any confidence why they have not been used.

Attempts to answer these questions tend to hinge on conflicting interpretations of two defining events of the nuclear age, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the end of the Cold War. For some, these events demonstrate that the basic lessons of pre-nuclear security strategy—have more power and resolve—still hold true. But for others these events demonstrate more or less the opposite lesson, that only by recognizing a common peril, and accepting mutual restraints, can security be realized in the nuclear age. Despite the difficulty in definitively answering the nuclear-political question, practical nuclear choices rest inescapably on how these questions are answered.

The debate over the nuclear-political question has passed through three rounds, each quite different in character, which this chapter surveys. This evolution has been propelled in part by actual real-world developments, in both technology and politics, as well as by conceptual impasses and innovations. In the first round, running from about 1945 to 1960, “nuclear one world” ideas about the need for revolutionary transformations in world political order were prevalent and widely debated. In the second and longest-running phase of the debate, the concept of deterrence was central, with vigorous disputes about its stability and prerequisites. In the wake of the unexpected end of the Cold War, and in response to renewed concerns over proliferation, and nuclear terrorism, a third round in the great debate has taken shape. The contemporary nuclear landscape of nuclear controversy is in many ways a break from the main lines of thought during the second Cold War round of the debate, while at the same time returning in some important ways to concerns that were paramount in the first round, but which were marginalized during the second. Most importantly, the confidence in the stabilizing role of deterrence marking the second round of the debate has been significantly weakened. As this has happened, more radical ideas about both using and eliminating nuclear weapons have become increasingly prominent.

23.2 Nuclear One Worldism and Its Conceptual Impasses

The first round of the great debate over the nuclear-political question was dominated by a distinctive set of assumptions, expectations, and aspirations. Overall, the first round was dominated by “nuclear one worldism,” the view that nuclear weapons pose a (p. 336) fundamental challenge to the core security-providing function of the state and state-system, and that only the creation of a world government configured as a state with a centralized monopoly of violence could prevent a civilizational catastrophe. In part, such nuclear one world arguments derived from the widespread assumption and expectation that nuclear world war would occur in the absence of such a reconfigured world political order, and that the time for averting such a disastrous war was very short. It is notable that such apocalyptic thinking predominated in a period before large numbers of nuclear weapons were built and deployed, before thermonuclear weapons were invented, and before the full planetary ecological consequences of a general nuclear war were understood. The basic of the nuclear one world view is nicely encapsulated by Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s September 1945 memorandum to President Truman, where he observed that nuclear explosives constitute “a new control by man over the forces of nature too revolutionary and dangerous to fit into the old concepts.” The development of these new destructive capabilities “caps the climax of the race between man’s growing technical power for destructiveness and his psychological power of self-control and group control—his moral power.” Given this, “our method of approach to the Russians is a question of the most vital importance in the evolution of human progress” and requires an abandonment of “the old custom of secrecy and nationalistic military superiority relying on international caution to proscribe the future use of the weapon” (Stimson and Bundy 1947: 644). In short, nuclear weapons mark a revolutionary change in violence capacity, which in turn necessitates a revolutionary change in world politics.

The most theoretically sophisticated nuclear one world statement on the crisis of the state-system produced by nuclear weapons is found in John Herz’s 1959 book, International Politics in the Atomic Age (Herz 1959).2 His account provides the most extensive attention to the specifics of the material transformation brought about by the introduction of nuclear explosives. He argues that the most basic function of states is providing security through military control of territory, which requires territorial “impermeability.” It is not enough for a state apparatus to aspire to, claim, or even be recognized as having, statehood. The state apparatus must be capable of making good its claim in war with other states. States are driven to consolidate as the technological foundations of military viability show increasing scale effects, a process which has been underway since the dawn of history. With the advent of nuclear weapons, no state can maintain a protective “shell.” Every state has become “permeable,” and therefore another consolidation can be expected. When “not even half the globe remains defensible against the all-out onslaught of the new weapons,” the “power of protection, on which political authority was based in the past, seems to be in jeopardy for any imaginable entity.” Humans inhabit a “planet of limited size,” but “the effect of the means of destruction has become absolute” (Herz 1959: 13). Destructive power has expanded, but the human habitat has not expanded, so the human species now relates to destructive force in an historically unprecedented manner. Nuclear explosives have produced “the most radical change in the nature of power and the characteristics of power units since the beginning of the modern state system,” or perhaps “since the beginnings of mankind.” (p. 337) This development “presages the end of the territorial protective function of state power and territorial sovereignty” and the “chief external function of the modern state therefore seems to have vanished” (Herz 1959: 13).

The arguments of the classical nuclear one worlders are easily and often confused with types of “idealism,” due to their optimism that needed changes in world politics could be readily achieved, and because the world state solution had long been advocated by self-consciously idealist writers. However, the nuclear one world argument is fundamentally “realist” because it holds that power, and particularly material capacities of violence, determine political outcomes, and set the parameters for viable security-providing units. To the degree that early nuclear one worldism and statism was utopian, it was fundamentally a “realist” utopia, yet another state to mediate between survival goals and violence capabilities. Unfortunately, the thinking of the nuclear one worlders, despite all their rhetoric about “fundamentally new ways of thinking,” is at its core very traditional and unimaginative, because they essentially envision the adjustment of world politics to nuclear weapons taking a time-worn pattern of extending the scale of the security-providing unit to match the spatial scale at which technology permits security to be provided. In essence the nuclear one worlders proclaimed: “The states are dead, long live the state!”

The nuclear one worlders conceptualized a world government as a world state with a monopoly of violence capacity and authority with universal, planet-wide scope. Although they disagreed about other attributes of a world state, they agreed that a world state required at least the deep disarmament of the existing states, and the establishment of a worldwide centralized military apparatus capable of coercing all other actors. In sum, nuclear one world theorists thought the state had been fatally compromised in its ability to provide security by the emergence of nuclear weapons, and that a worldwide state was necessary.

With these two basic ideas framing their thinking, nuclear one world theorists engaged in a far-reaching debate about how such an entity might be created, as well as how it could be prevented from becoming a comprehensively oppressive world tyranny. The basic puzzle is laid out by Hans Morgenthau, who, despite his widespread reputation as a “founder of realism” (at least in the United States), held strong nuclear one world views: “How can the atomic power be transferred to the control of supranational institutions that will prevent its use on behalf of a particular national interest without submerging the autonomous life of individual nations in a universal tyranny?” (Morgenthau 1960: 171).3

There are four main variants of nuclear one worldism, each offering a different answer to this puzzle: (1) the imperial world statism of James Burnham; (2) the maximal world federalism of the Chicago Committee to Frame a World Constitution; (3) the tragic nuclear one worldism of Hans Morgenthau; and (4) minimal world federalism (Deudney 2007). Could a non-repressive world state be created? Burnham argued that nuclear weapons made a world state inevitable in the near future, and therefore the United States should take the lead in establishing it by whatever means necessary (Burnham 1947).4 The Maximalists argued that the preconditions of world community to support (p. 338) a non-repressive world state were present or imminent. Morgenthau responded that a crucial precondition for the creation of a non-repressive world state was a strong sense of world community, and that national communities would remain strong for the foreseeable future. The Minimalists replied that a world security state, or what they referred to as a “minimalist state,” could and should be established immediately, without the existence of a world community. This debate, which has largely disappeared from the attention of international theorists, is of continuing interest because it clearly put the topic of political tyranny at the center of the debate over the nuclear-political question. This debate casts the peril facing humanity in the nuclear world as having two faces, the crash of a general nuclear war, and the crush of comprehensive despotism.

Overall, these classical nuclear one worldist images of a world government as a world state as the remedy to the nuclear security problem reached something of a conceptual impasse. Recognizing that the move from world anarchy to world hierarchy entails grave security risks, they attempted to envision a variety of internal restraints on hierarchy, from concessions stimulated by fear of revolt to world community, but none of their remedies seem particularly feasible within the time frame they anticipated was necessary. Despite the widespread recognition that nuclear weapons pose a fundamental threat, there has been no discernable trend toward the creation and empowerment of a world government with state-like capabilities and authorities. No state or popular anti-nuclear movement, has been willing to trade the perils of nuclear anarchy for the perils of nuclear hierarchy, to “leap from the (nuclear) frying pan, into the (world state) fire.” This conceptual impasse is rooted in the “over-stated” character of the nuclear one worlders’ conceptualization of a worldwide security arrangement appropriate to the nuclear problem. Solutions to this impasse are most likely to be found in a more careful analysis of the material dimensions of the nuclear revolution, and in architectures of mutual restraint that are alien to the statist and realist conceptualization of political order.

23.3 The Cold War Trinity: Deterrence, Strategy, and Arms Control

The great debate over the nuclear-political question entered its second round during the middle and late Cold War. The landscape of thinking in this round came to be centered around the concept of nuclear deterrence, the notion that nuclear forces, if properly configured, would render the initiation of a nuclear war suicidal, and thus very unlikely. If adversaries had the capability to retaliate after a first strike, nuclear war would not be a “rational” act of statecraft, and therefore no state would start one. Although this vision of a solution to the problem of nuclear security had been clearly articulated by Bernard Brodie and others during the late 1940s, it came to occupy the center of thinking about the nuclear problem only during the late 1950s and 1960s (Brodie 1946). Within a deterrence-centered framework for thinking about nuclear security, there remained a (p. 339) set of basic disagreements centered around the question of how many nuclear weapons, prepared for which missions, were needed to achieve deterrence.

On this question, there were sharp divides that coalesced into three fairly distinct schools of theory and practice, simple deterrence, war strategism, and arms control. Together these three schools of thought about the nuclear revolution made up a sort of theoretical trinity, sharing a very broad set of common assumptions within which this round of the great debate was conducted. The simple deterrence school viewed nuclear deterrence as extremely robust, almost an automatic consequence of the presence of a minimum number of nuclear weapons, but both the war strategists and arms controllers saw it as potentially fragile and in need of augmentation—but in opposite ways.

At the center of the trinity was the simple or minimum deterrence school, perhaps best represented by the theorists Robert Jervis and Kenneth Waltz, which held that simply achieving a capacity for mounting a secure second strike was sufficient, because the level of destruction that even a small handful of nuclear weapons could produce was so great.5 On both flanks of this simple deterrence view were variants of deterrence thinking that were sharply at odds with each other. Disagreements between these two wings of the nuclear theoretical trinity played out in theory and practice at virtually every turn during the Cold War.

On one side there were the war strategists, such as Herman Kahn and Colin Gray, who held that achieving deterrence required the deployment of large numbers of nuclear weapons prepared for prompt use for a wide range of missions and scenarios. Although holding that nuclear war could and should be avoided through deterrence, the war strategists held that the demands of achieving deterrence were dauntingly high, and that only by preparing for an extremely wide range of nuclear use contingencies could use actually be avoided. War strategists were largely suspicious of arms control, seeing it as “impossible when necessary, and unnecessary when possible,” and as a flimsy “house of cards” lacking resilience (Gray 1992).

On the other side, there were the arms controllers, such as Thomas Schelling, Hedley Bull, and the members of the Harvard Arms Control School and the Princeton Deep Arms Control School. They held that mutual restraints on nuclear forces were desirable to avoid situations in which states would find themselves in predicaments where it was circumstantially rational to do things that were irrational in relation to their more basic security interests.6 Arms controllers also emphasized that it was desirable to “lengthen the fuse” by slowing down the tempo of likely nuclear use scenarios, in order to reduce the dangers stemming from the dauntingly complex and tightly coupled force structures that had emerged in the rapid arms build-ups of the 1950s and 1960s.7 Arms controllers viewed their project as making for a less “fail deadly” form of deterrence, rather than as leading to a significant alteration of the international anarchical system, and they emphasized that they were aiming to reform and moderate, not substantially replace the interstate system. A telling indicator of the grip that deterrence had on this wide spectrum of thinking about the nuclear-political question during the Cold War, was that even Jonathan Schell, whose work raised such radical questions about prevalent nuclear policies and thinking, cast his nuclear alternative, laid out in his book The (p. 340) Abolition (1984), as a way to have the maximally safe version of deterrence possible, in effect allowing the world to “have its cake and eat it too.”8

Despite their great differences, members of the war strategist and arms control schools were united in the centrality they attached to deterrence. All three schools also converged in being largely indifferent to the internal regime attributes of nuclear states, and the problem of despotism and freedom is never in play. The Soviet Union was viewed with deep suspicion and hostility by most Western nuclear analysts, but its despotic government was never viewed as an obstacle to “rational” deterrence. Although a world security order based on nuclear deterrence has come to be normalized, particularly by realist international theorists, it entails a radical departure in the relationships among military power, interstate anarchy, and security prevalent before the nuclear era. In the deterrence world, interstate anarchy has been pacified, and the dynamics of anarchy that, at least according to realists, contributed to the chronic condition of interstate war have been largely neutered. This view of deterrence as the source of a secure world order, while largely conservative in practical terms, is quite radical conceptually. While the nuclear one worlders advanced a conceptually conservative way of thinking about world nuclear politics with revolutionary practical implications, the deterrence schools advance a conceptually revolutionary approach that is deeply conservative in its practical implications.

Throughout the long decades of the Cold War, it was widely assumed that this great conflict was an effectively permanent feature of world politics that might be managed, but never eliminated. The unexpected, and unexpectedly peaceful, end of this conflict in the late 1980s, followed shortly by the collapse of Communist Party rule and the Soviet Union itself, was, like the end of other major wars among great powers, marked by an elaborate negotiated settlement. The Cold War settlement was largely centered on a set of far-reaching reductions in nuclear forces. Although no one had anticipated this outcome, each of the three schools rushed to claim at least partial credit, each claiming that the implementation of its favored policies had steered the world to this positive outcome. Another completely unexpected development of considerable importance was the convergence of the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union on a general understanding of the grave threat posed by nuclear war that in its sweeping nature and urgency harkened back to “nuclear one world” view which had otherwise so completely disappeared from elite nuclear policy debates. Despite his vigorous anti-Communism, and long support of increased military spending, US President Ronald Reagan also strongly believed in completely eliminating nuclear weapons, as did Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.9

The unexpected end of the Cold War is not the only major development over the nuclear era that was unanticipated. Most surprising are the underlying physical bases for nuclear weapons: a rare element—uranium—can be coaxed into releasing, pound per pound, a millions times more energy than chemical high explosives, and then the thermonuclear processes fueling the sun and stars could also be harnessed to produce explosions thousands of times larger than the one that obliterated Hiroshima. Also unexpected were the discoveries that a full-scale nuclear war would possibly render extinct all the higher life forms on the planet—including humans—by destroying the thin layer of ozone in the stratosphere blocking potent solar radiations, and that the (p. 341) soot from many burning cities could plunge the planet into a “nuclear winter” in which agricultural production would be severely curtailed for years (Schell 1981; Ehrlich et al. 1984). Although now taken for granted, it is surely surprising that the Soviet Union and the United States could deploy tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in a vast global-spanning network of bases and mobile platforms over several decades without a single weapon ever being detonated.

Despite the great reduction in nuclear arsenals at the end of the Cold War, these changes did not move the anarchical interstate system any closer to a world government as a world state along the lines envisioned by the nuclear one world theorists. To grasp the actual trajectory of institutional change produced by arms control and potentially resulting from the realization of deep arms control, a “modified nuclear one worldism” is necessary. Instead of seeing the development of nuclear weapons (and space weapons, most notably ballistic missiles) as requiring an expansion in the scale of the state to universal dimensions, it is more accurate to see them as rendering obsolete the dominant security practices of the pre-nuclear era, which together compose the “real-state mode of protection.” Security practices produce, and are supported by, the emergence of security structures (understood as configurations of legitimate authority), and real-state practices generate hierarchical structures at the unit-level and anarchic structures at the system level. The body of theory and practice known as “realism” is essentially the “operating manual” for the key actors of the real-state mode of protection and its attendant hierarchical and anarchical structures. Such a mode of protection is viable in a material context marked by limited violence volume and limited violence velocity because the core real-state practices of mobilization, concentration, and employment are suited to solving security problems in such contexts. But their pursuit in material situations of violence abundance and high violence velocity, such as characterize the nuclear era, produce dysfunctional over-mobilization and hyper-concentration.

In contrast, the practices (and attendant political structures) of a “republican-federal mode of protection” are suited to provide security in situations of high violence volume and velocity, because they slow, de-mobilize, and de-couple. Such approaches were historically marginal in pre-nuclear times because they did what was not needed and could not do what was needed. The practices of this alternative mode of protection are present in the emergent arms control efforts of the nuclear era. Over time, their pursuit produces political structures that are not anarchical or hierarchical. Instead, the resulting political structures are “negarchical,” in the sense that they are a set of mutual restraints, and amount to a type of world confederate republic, not a world hierarchical state. This way of viewing the revolutionary security challenge posed by the development of nuclear weapons provides an image of the world political order that would be produced by the realization of the full arms control project.10

23.4 The Third Round: Bombs Away?

Beginning around 1990 with the end of the Cold War and extending to the present, a third round of the great debate over the nuclear-political question has emerged. Like the (p. 342) previous two rounds, the third is marked by sharp disagreements, and is driven by real-world developments. And like the first two rounds, the third has been defined by a set of assumptions and parameters that give it an overall unity. This round of the debate has been centered on the problems of proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear “terrorism” by non-state actors (Paul 1999; Ikle 2006; Bracken 2012). The new debate has several important similarities with the first: the assumption that the probability of nuclear use is fairly high, a limited faith in deterrence, and the recognition that the internal features of polities, as well as the prospects for political freedom, are at stake in choices about nuclear weapons.

Historical eras rarely have sharp beginnings and ends, but for the third round of the great debate on the nuclear-political question, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, now known forever simply as “9/11,” come close to playing such a role. These attacks are a marker not so much for what they were, but for what they implied lay ahead. Like a bolt of lightning in a dark night, these attacks illuminated an ominous new landscape of security threat. The attacks and the “anthrax letters” that followed in their wake seemed to many observers to indicate that non-state actors, perhaps backed by revisionist or “rogue” states, had both the capability and the intent to inflict major damage on the civil populations of even the most powerful states.11 A perilous new landscape has been glimpsed, but what are the contours of the new terrain, and what must be done to be secure in it? It is these questions that the third round of the great debate seeks to answer.

The single most important feature of arguments in the third round of the nuclear-political debate is a widespread sense that deterrence, the central anchor of nuclear thinking in the second round, has been significantly compromised as the foundation of nuclear non-use. This diminished confidence in deterrence has several sources. As nuclear capability spreads, or “proliferates” into the possession of more states, and as it “leaks” into the hands of non-state actors, the assumptions of classical nuclear deterrence are seen as no longer operating as robustly as they did during the Soviet-American Cold War. New nuclear states are not as likely to possess the many ancillary technical and institutional features that marked the nuclear force structures of the United States and USSR. A truly nuclear multipolar system would potentially be subject to the dynamics of complexity and unintended consequences that have historically marked multipolar systems.12 Anti-missile defenses, slowly but surely maturing technologically, raise anxieties about the ability of “second strike” forces to retaliate effectively.13 Incremental improvements in the accuracy of ballistic missiles, combined with the waning of “oceanic opacity” (which has allowed submarine-based nuclear weapons to be a secure second strike basing mode), have created new fears about the possibilities for successful preemptive first strikes (Kristensen et al. 2017). At the same time, technological developments in missile accuracy are leading some strategists to believe that advanced “conventional” (i.e. non-nuclear) munitions can achieve disarming first strikes with minimal “collateral damage,” thus making a range of counterforce options not only again “thinkable,” but even attractive (Lieber and Press 2006). Confidence in nuclear deterrence is also being undermined by a growing realization that cyber-attacks may undermine the capacity of states to reliably direct their nuclear forces (Gatzke and Lindsay 2017).

(p. 343) Perhaps most importantly, non-state actors, such as cults and religious extremist groups, are widely seen as much less subject to deterrence than states, because they do not have territory against which to retaliate, and because they may be able to keep their role as an attacker hidden, thus creating a problem of “attribution” never present during the Soviet-American rivalry (Weitz 2011). The attempt by the Japanese cult Aum Shrinikyo to acquire nuclear weapons, and the marketing of nuclear “starter kits” by the Pakistani nuclear official A. Q. Khan also provided ominous indications that both proliferation and leakage were growing features of the world security landscape.14 For all these reasons, the third round of the great debate is, if not post-deterrence, then certainly “deterrence-challenged.”

As the stabilizing weight of the deterrence anchor of the Cold War trinity has weakened in its restraining and unifying role, there has been a partial liberation, and a partial radicalizing, of both the two subordinate wings of the Cold War deterrence trinity, war strategism and arms control. Each of these schools of nuclear thinking has taken on new practical relevance and has been rapidly innovating in their policy agendas, but in radically opposite directions.

The war strategism of the Cold War round of the great debate has evolved into an agenda of coercive counter-proliferation. No longer confident that new actors with nuclear weapons will be subject to the restraining logic of nuclear deterrence, nuclear-possessing states have increasingly turned to military pre-emption and preventive war to forestall the diffusion of nuclear capabilities into the hands of others (Lavoy et al. 2000). This turn to coercive counter-proliferation has been most visible in the actions of Israel, in its attack on Iraqi and then Syrian nuclear reactors, and in the advocacy by its prime minister of an American attack on the nuclear facilities of Iran. This way of dealing with the problem of proliferation and leakage was also evident in the approach of the United States to Iraq in the wake of the terrorist attacks of late 2001.

Arms control has also been extended and radicalized as deterrence has come to be seen as less robustly reliable. This can be seen in the “Zero Nuclear” movement which has been endorsed by several retired leading public officials in the United States from the late Cold War era and the recent UN treaty banning all nuclear weapons.15 It is also visible in the revived interest in the comprehensive control of all fissionable material and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) (Feiveson et al 2014). Because all nuclear weapons depend on fissionable uranium or plutonium, a worldwide regime to halt the production of such specialized and readily identifiable material would simultaneously advance the goals of interstate disarmament, nonproliferation, and anti-terrorism.

American policy has lurched between these two new approaches, but with little success in either direction. The Bush–Cheney administration embraced the radicalized war strategist agenda of counter-proliferation in Iraq, only to discover that Iraq did not have a significant nuclear weapons program.16 In contrast, the Obama administration sought with only modest success to advance the deeper arms control agenda, by reviving American–Russian arms control and moving toward deep reductions, by rounding up the fissionable material that is dispersed around the world in research reactors, and by its declaratory embrace of a nuclear-free world.

(p. 344) Despite their obvious differences, both these schools of thought have an important point of convergence, a focus on the materials to make nuclear weapons as well as the systems to “deliver” them. Both also see the current international nuclear order as unstable, and they advance measures and policies which, if implemented, would result in significant changes in the international system.

Both the radicalized war strategists and the deep arms controllers also attach great importance to the internal political features of states, in contrast to the general indifference of the Cold War schools on this topic, thus returning to a concern that played a pivotal role in the first round of the debate. More specifically, political freedom and despotism have returned as outcomes at stake in the third round of the nuclear-political debate. For strategists, many committed to “neo-conservative” ideas about the deep superiority of liberal democracy and the need to expand it by force of arms, the fact that many emerging nuclear states are authoritarian means they cannot be reliably deterred, making more “forward leaning” measures necessary. At the same time, the absence of state capacity and authority, present in many “failed states” and “smashed states” (such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya) is seen as a threat to powerful, orderly, and prosperous states, because such areas provide opportunities for transnational terrorist networks to operate.

For the deepened and radicalized versions of the arms control arguments that have emerged over the course of the third round of the nuclear debate, political freedom and despotism are also at stake. The key point is that counter-terrorism strengthens state security apparatuses at the expense of individual liberty and political democracy. The long record of modern counter-terrorism, which emerged in the later nineteenth century in response to the new threat of “dynamite terrorism,” demonstrates that when states are compelled to fight terrorists, liberty and democracy are diminished proportionately. For the United States, 9/11 produced the “Patriot Act.”17 A “nuclear 9/11,” the detonation of a nuclear weapon in a major city, would produce pressures for an even more intrusive and powerful state, and a “super Patriot Act.” This means that the survival of liberal constitutional democracy now increasingly hinges on the successful completion of the nuclear arms control project (Deudney 2010). To the extent that this is the case, the problem of freedom and despotism, exiled from the debates on the nuclear political–political question since the intellectual collapse of nuclear one worldism and its world state agenda, is now back in play at the center of the debate.

23.5 Avoiding the Ultimate Failure

Humanity’s final exam is not easy. Expert answers to the nuclear-political question remain in sharp disagreement; events are ambiguous; and the unanticipated repeatedly happens. Given the stakes in getting the right answers and pursuing the right course, this conceptual uncertainty should be deeply unsettling, and should evoke special (p. 345) caution and deep humility. As the horizon of the future fills with other catastrophic and existential threats such as climate change, designer plagues, and runaway artificial intelligence, it is becoming increasingly evident that the overall modern project of advancing the human estate by harnessing science and technology is producing a cornucopia of increasingly potent “double-edged swords” and that nuclear war is not alone in posing a “final exam” for humanity. Despite all the dispute and complexity of these increasingly numerous and ominous technological possibilities, it seems safe to assume that the deeply ingrained pattern of rapidly weaponizing new technologies, usually in secret, is, sooner or later, a sure path to unprecedented catastrophe for modern civilization and humanity.

Although nuclear war is the oldest of these technogenic threats to civilization and human survival, and although important steps to restraint, particularly at the end of the Cold War, have been achieved, the nuclear world is increasingly changing in major ways, and in almost entirely dangerous directions. The third “bombs away” phase of the great debate on the nuclear-political question is more consequentially divided than in the first two phases. Even more ominously, most of the momentum lies with the forces that are pulling states toward nuclear-use, and with the radical actors bent on inflicting catastrophic damage on the leading states in the international system, particularly the United States. In contrast, the arms control project, although intellectually vibrant, is largely in retreat on the world political stage. The arms control settlement of the Cold War is unraveling, and the world public is more divided and distracted than ever. With the recent election of President Donald Trump, the United States, which has played such a dominant role in nuclear politics since its scientists invented these fiendish engines, now has an impulsive and uninformed leader, boding ill for nuclear restraint and effective crisis management.

Given current trends, it is prudent to assume that sooner or later, and probably sooner, nuclear weapons will again be the used in war. But this bad news may contain a “silver lining” of good news. Unlike a general nuclear war that might have occurred during the Cold War, such a nuclear event now would probably not mark the end of civilization (or of humanity), due to the great reductions in nuclear forces achieved at the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, politics on “the day after” could have immense potential for positive change. The survivors would not be likely to envy the dead, but would surely have a greatly renewed resolution for “never again.” Such an event, completely unpredictable in its particulars, would unambiguously put the nuclear-political question back at the top of the world political agenda. It would unmistakeably remind leading states of their vulnerability It might also trigger more robust efforts to achieve the global regulation of nuclear capability. Like the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that did so much to catalyze the elevated concern for nuclear security in the early Cold War, and like the experience “at the brink” in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the now bubbling nuclear caldron holds the possibility of inaugurating a major period of institutional innovation and adjustment toward a fully “bombs away” future.


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(1.) For the theory-based origins of different understandings of the nuclear revolution, see Connelly (2012).

(2.) For Herz and other public intellectuals from the 1950s, see van Munster and Sylvest (2016).

(3.) Morgenthau, 1960, 171. For Morgenthau’s tortured thinking on nuclear weapons, see Craig (2004).

(4.) For scenarios of US nuclear use, see Quester (2000).

(5.) This view seems to be approximately realized in the force structures of the secondary nuclear states. See Goldstein (2000).

(6.) The logic of arms control is laid out in Schelling and Halperin (1961) and Bull (1961).

(7.) For “lengthening the fuse” see, Feiveson et al. (1999). For complexity and tight coupling, see Perrow (1984). For nuclear applications, see Sagan (1993).

(8.) One peculiarity of Schell’s work was his attack on “arms control,” when his preferred agenda of “abolition” was really just the furthest stage of arms control. Like other arms controllers, the appeal of the abolitionist program is held by Schell to rest upon “lengthening the fuse.” See Schell (1998 and 2000).

(9.) For Reagan’s abolitionism and its origins, see Lettow (2005) and Mann (2009). For Gorbachev, see Shenfeld (1987) and Zubok (2007).

(10.) For further discussion, see Deudney (2000a, 2000b, and 2007).

(11.) For synoptic evaluations, see Allison (2004), Ferguson and Potter (2006), and Flannery (2016).

(12.) The stability of a genuinely multipolar nuclear great power system is remarkably underexplored. For some recent pessimistic observations, see Sokolski (2015).

(13.) The system destabilizing potentials of the deployment of anti-missile capabilities are explored in Wirtz and Larssen (2001).

(14.) For the Aum cult, see Kaplan and Marshall (1996) and Lifton (1999). For the Khan network, see Correra (2006), Langewiesche (2007), and Montgomery (2005).

(15.) For Zero Nuclear, see Schultz and Goodby (2015) and Perkovitch and Acton (2008). For the UN Treaty, see Fihn (2017).

(16.) For the many puzzles of the Iraq case, see Jervis (2005).

(17.) For the ways in which the “Global War on Terrorism” triggered by 9/11 has produced a global cascade of anti-constitutional measures, see Scheppele (2004 and 2006). For US impacts, see Crotty (2004).