How the next nuclear arms race will be different from the last one via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Benjamin Zala

With the exception of North Korea, which is still establishing its first generation of nuclear weapons, all the world’s nuclear-armed states have begun modernizing and upgrading their arsenals. This fact, coupled with the destabilizing effects of new non-nuclear weapons and a particularly bleak outlook for arms control, has led many observers to predict that the world is entering a new nuclear arms race (Gorbachev 2018Gorbachev, M. 2018. “Mikhail Gorbachev: A New Nuclear Arms Race Has Begun.” The New York TimesOctober 25. [Google Scholar]; Tannenwald 2018Tannenwald, N. 2018. “The Vanishing Nuclear Taboo? How Disarmament Fell Apart.” Foreign Affairs 97 (6): 1624.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 24).

In fact, this outcome is not yet inevitable. It would be preferable to avoid a new arms race, which could reverse the three-decade trend toward fewer nuclear weapons worldwide and bring an increased risk of nuclear accidents and conflict escalation, not to mention cost governments enormous sums of money. What we can be certain of is that if we do head into a new nuclear arms race, it will look different from the one we remember.

The dangers of the Cold War arms race were at least somewhat tempered over time by a kind of stability, with two superpowers deterred from attacking one another by the prospect that launching a first strike would inevitably lead to a nuclear retaliation against one’s own country – the doctrine known as mutually assured destruction. Today, while the number of nuclear weapons in the world has fallen from its Cold War peak, there are more nuclear-armed states than ever, nine in total. Moreover, there are now three major competing powers rather than two, even if one of them, China, possesses many fewer nuclear weapons than the United States and Russia. Plus, new weapons technology is rapidly altering the way strategic calculations are made. By developing non-nuclear technologies like ballistic missile defense and anti-satellite weapons, states are attempting to gain qualitative advances over each other without necessarily relying on nuclear weapons. While at first this may seem like a welcome development, it is actually likely to be highly destabilizing given that such weapons do not attract the kind of stigma surrounding their use – what political scientists refer to as the “nuclear taboo” – that nuclear weapons do. These new factors – more players, linked in complex ways, plus new technologies – make a new nuclear arms race not only probable, but also likely to be more dangerous than before.


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