Since the end of the Cold War, many Americans have come to the conclusion we don't need nuclear weapons anymore and ought to focus on reduction of stockpiles as quickly as possible. The problem, according to Yale professor Paul Bracken, is that the other countries that have nuclear weapons view them very differently.
That's not to say that any of them plans to start a nuclear war anytime soon, but that possession of the bomb forces their adversaries and their friends to change their calculations. And there is another profound difference since the days of "duck and cover": Previously, all decisions involving mushroom clouds ran through Washington and Moscow. Today there are nuclear triggers in Islamabad and New Delhi, Pyongyang and Beijing, in Tel Aviv, and maybe someday soon, Tehran.
NPR's Neal Conan talks with Bracken, author of The Second Nuclear Age, about the new rules of politics and nuclear weapons in the 21st century.
On how the second nuclear age differs from the first
"It was true in the first nuclear age that the early part of it, the late '40s and early 1950s, were by far the most dangerous because conventions about how far you could go were not established. We're in exactly the same situation today, but it's different because we don't have just two nuclear powers; we have Pakistan, India, North Korea, China, etc., and so each side is sort of discovering these things along the way, just as the superpowers did in the early part of the Cold War.
"But another difference I would point out is that the superpowers were extremely conservative on anything that came to do with nuclear weapons ... in the sense that don't take too many risks, do not rock the boat. It's not at all clear that if you look at a nuclear Iran and Israel or Pakistan and India or this semi-insane regime in North Korea that they'll be anything like as conservative as the superpowers."
On where Bracken believes the danger lies
"Frankly, it's hard for me to conceive of a scenario where the U.S. and Russia or China and India go full-bore in a nuclear war with each other. But boy is that not true; boy can I imagine if Iran gets nuclear weapons, and Israel already has them, you could have a quote, 'Cuban missile crisis' between the two of them, and nobody's really exploring what that's like. Same for North Korea, same with India and Pakistan.
"So the risks, the dangers have really shifted to the regions, it seems to me. And then ... nuclear weapons are [still] there among the major powers, but I don't particularly worry about it compared to the regions. That's the big shift."
On the potential for worldwide nuclear disarmament
"The United States has supported anti-nuclear policies since the end of the Cold War and before with an intensity that is rare in American policy on any subject. These anti-nuclear policies have been more forceful than anything in American history, more so than the Monroe Doctrine, more than a liberal international regime, even more than containment. The problem is they just didn't work. They did not convince Pakistan, North Korea, China, Russia; they did not convince Israel. So the United States still advocates this sort of view that we should get rid of nuclear weapons, something I personally support — I wish all countries would disarm — but I think we have to recognize that it's not going to happen anytime soon.
"And we need to think about what it's like to manage in this world because we're not able to eliminate the bomb altogether. That would be preferable. But we're going to have to get to a management of these crises, which will have transcendent impacts, and I think we're also going to have to face up to the question somebody might actually use these things.
"Back in the Cold War, it's my view that there was never a time when either side seriously considered a calculated strike on the other. All of them had plans — and you could find colonels and one-star generals who thought about these things — but at the top of the government, both sides backed down. That's not going to be true in the case of North Korea. It's not going to be true in South Asia with Pakistan and India, nor is it going to be true in the Middle East.
"Look at the Israeli nuclear program. The way I would describe it is that it's gradually coming out of the closet. For many years we didn't believe Israel had nuclear weapons. But now they're signaling every which way because they want to make Iran and other countries back down. So while it's ... better to prevent the kind of things I'm talking about, sometimes it's like a hurricane and you better prepare for managing it."