Since their use invites devastating retaliation, many strategists today imagine that nuclear weapons can never be used to good effect and are therefore essentially worthless. This perception doesn’t just shape American thoughts about our own arsenal; it impels American leaders to underestimate the difficulties of nonproliferation because they don’t fully grasp the size of the gains that nonnuclear powers can achieve in joining the Bomb Club. Our strategists, says Mr. Bracken, are in a state of denial: “An older generation wants to make the nuclear nightmare go away by inoculating the young with protective ideas. Nuclear weapons are useless and we should get rid of them. Strengthen the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty]. Get rid of ballistic missiles. Deterrence will work.”
These ideas, very much at the heart of the present administration’s strategic thought, are fantasies, Mr. Bracken believes. His central contention is that we are in a second nuclear age. While there were several nuclear powers in the previous one, the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union overshadowed the others. The dynamics then were largely bipolar. We live in a multipolar nuclear world. And there are nine nuclear powers today: the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. More will likely emerge.