Many academic conferences and government panels have been convened this year to recall the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. This was the most dangerous crisis of the Cold War, and it’s surely worth studying for this reason.
But the Cuban Missile Crisis gets too much attention. Focusing on any single crisis distorts the central problem of the Cold War for the United States. The Cold War was a long-term competition, stretching over five decades.
Looking only at one single crisis is like studying an NFL football game by looking at the highlight play. It’s a five-second video clip. It’s fascinating to watch. But however important it is, it doesn’t obviate the importance of the game plan, creative thinking of coaches and players, and performance on the field in the rest of the game. It doesn’t incorporate blunders (fumbles and blown plays) or good advisers (injured players).
The pattern in the Cold War was not for a straight line development of nuclear dangers, either up or down. There were periodic changes in its intensity. Just recall how the 1970s were built around arms control and stabilizing the nuclear relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter built their foreign policies around détente. But in the 1980s this was followed by the Ronald Reagan build-up, nuclear threats by both sides, accidents like the shooting down of Korean Airliner 007, and serious nuclear mishaps inside the Soviet command and control system.
Today we are in a second nuclear age. There are regional competitions in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. They are long term, and now, they too have a nuclear context.
For example, in the Middle East, Iran seems unlikely to voluntarily give up its atomic program. Israel is restructuring its nuclear deterrent, putting more of it on submarines so that it cannot be taken out by any Islamic country with missiles and the bomb.
In South Asia, Pakistan is rapidly building up its stock of nuclear weapons. It is the fastest-growing nuclear country in the world today. India has deployed a “triad” like the superpowers did 50 years ago. New Delhi is placing nuclear weapons aboard bombers, missiles, and submarines.
In East Asia, North Korea has about a dozen nuclear weapons, a long-range missile program, and a large stock of chemical weapons. China is radically overhauling its own nuclear posture, fielding mobile missiles, stealth aircraft, and anti-satellite weapons. It now has a much more agile nuclear force.
We need to take a step back from these national details to look at the broader picture. The political differences which drive conflict in these three regions show no signs of resolution. But more, they now have a nuclear context. Like the first nuclear age, the second seems positively likely to have ebbs and flows in the intensity of the competition and in the dangers associated that come with this.
Instead of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a metaphor for nuclear dangers, a better one for the second nuclear age is that it’s like the man who dodges cars to cross a busy freeway. He may get away with this once or twice, but if he does it repeatedly he’s bound to get hit. In the second nuclear age, there are three regional freeways, not just one as in the first nuclear age. In the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia, nuclear weapons are deployed out in the open. And the number of countries with the bomb is more likely to increase than it is to decrease.
A good question comes out of this way of framing the problem. Is it even possible to have these regional rivalries stay limited?
They may make it through one crisis. Maybe even two. But if they try it enough times, as in the Cold War or with the metaphor of the man crossing the highway, the odds of the rivalry staying restrained go down sharply. The missile crisis is interesting to analyze, but it misses the key point that in a long-term competition there are likely to be many, repeated crises. We may need a lot more luck to get through the second nuclear age than we needed in the first.
Paul Bracken is professor of management and political science at Yale University and the author of the new book The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics (Times Books).