Yale University Professor Paul Bracken is worried, and he’s impatient.
In Bracken’s new book, The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics (Times Books, 2012), Asia and the Mideast are depicted as zones of extreme hazard where insecure, unstable national actors are gaining prominence. He criticizes Western powers such as the United States as lingering in a sort of sticker-shock state while they view, with almost a sense of unreality, the rapid rise of new nuclear nations. U.S. leaders may not know how to intervene if a crisis threatens to spark a massive regional war, he argues, because they rarely discuss it now.
He rails against the U.S. establishment of politicians, military leaders, academics, and strategists, whom he views as being obsessed with risks that might have been worrisome in the Cold War, but which he says have scant importance today. Officials, he believes, are failing to do contingency planning on how the U.S. could deescalate tensions to deter nations such as North Korea, Pakistan, India, and eventually Iran, from using the Bomb.
Bracken traces his interest in international affairs to his youth in Philadelphia, when he got a gift of a short wave radio and spent hours listening to foreign broadcasts, including propaganda of the early 1960s beamed globally by Radio Moscow. He remembers mailing letters to “Moscow Mailbag,” a daily show that responded to questions about Russian life, and hearing the announcer read his queries on the air.
After studying engineering at Columbia, Bracken in 1974 became an analyst at the New York-based Hudson Institute, working with controversial nuclear strategist Herman Kahn. In the early 1960s, Kahn had prompted international discussion, and much furor, by writing On Thermonuclear War, which declared such a conflict to be winnable and described policies that supposedly could reduce U.S. casualties in World War III. These included more attention to civil defense shelters, readiness to order urban evacuations, and the ability to counter a Soviet nuclear attack with a massive second strike.
Bracken became an authority on nuclear command-and-control issues, analyzing whether the U.S. military could adequately manage its arsenals amid the pandemonium of an actual war (his answer then: possibly not). He earned his Ph.D. in operations research at Yale in 1982. Like Kahn, he’d become adept at “scenario modeling” –participating in the staging of war games that purported to tell the government how to win, or who would win, in many varieties of hypothetical battles. In one such war game in the early 1980s, in a make-believe nuclear fight between the U.S. and the Soviets, Bracken was stunned when at least 1 billion people “died” in a series of imaginary missile exchanges – either immediately, or eventually because of radiation or hunger.
In 1983, Bracken returned to Yale as a professor of political science and international business. Now 64, he characterizes the U.S. need to anticipate regional political crises as a challenge of management, drawing on many of the same lessons he uses to teach MBA students. But unlike commerce, he thinks, a failure to “game” contingencies involving nuclear bombs could leave the U.S. open to surprises — and world regions susceptible to unprecedented levels of death and destruction.
The biggest lesson Bracken has learned from war games he’s taken part in? “A small, insulated group of people, convinced that they are right, plows ahead into a crisis they haven’t anticipated or thought about,” he warns, “one that they are completely unprepared to handle. The result is disaster.”
Bracken talked to NAPF about his new book and his thoughts on the alarming challenges the U.S. could face abroad. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Kazel: Dr. Bracken, in your new book you argue the American public no longer thinks much about nuclear weapons. The exception now is that we do see media attention every day about the threat that Iran poses. You write that taking everything into account, you feel that Israel probably shouldn’t attack Iran’s nuclear facilities because of the danger that it would expand into an unpredictable crisis for the whole region. Do you still feel that way?
Bracken: There’s a couple questions you’ve asked. One is whether the American public is engaged, and I would say it’s not really, compared to the Cold War, when there was a consensus – right or wrong – a widespread support for U.S. [military] policies, at least until the Vietnam War. I don’t feel there’s a real traction or engagement with the public anymore. And I would add to that, there’s not a lot of Congressional interest in nuclear weapons anymore, for understandable reasons. The Cold War’s over. Even in academia, there’s only a handful of specialists who really work these issues anymore.
The second question of whether Israel and/or the United States should launch a military strike on Iran…A military strike on Iran, I think, will produce long-term, enormously negative consequences. Somebody sent me the other day a [hypothetical] “news report” of the first 72 hours of a strike on Iran. My reaction was it was like the first 72 hours of the Vietnam War in 1959. That probably went just fine. It’s just the next 10 or 15 years that I would worry about.[It would be] a long war. The Iranians are not going to give up. In my view, you will be signing a contract for a long conflict that will rival Vietnam and Iraq, which is just very, very dangerous.
Kazel: If you were forecasting what you think will happen, do you think the U.S. can reach a diplomatic solution with Iran?
Bracken: I’m not in the prediction business, but…I would say Israel will not launch a military attack on Iran in the next one to two years, during this early phase. With a little less confidence, I would say the same for the United States.
Kazel: Why with less confidence?
Bracken: I think because the U.S. has the much greater military capability to damage the Iranian program compared to the Israelis. It would cause such mayhem throughout the Middle East for Israel to do it alone. The self-deterrence is too great. The United States has greater wherewithal and would be less likely to be struck back immediately.
Kazel: Another point you raise is that nations are so motivated to develop nuclear weapons because they’re a symbol of prestige and power and can be used in a variety of ways short of war to manipulate neighbors as well as major powers. You write that even a small number of bombs means a country will be taken “more seriously.” When U.S. officials threaten to stop nations from acquiring nuclear weapons, do they understand the motivations for why leaders want the weapons?
Bracken: I think many times they do, but they don’t know how to factor them into a U.S. policy that would prevent them from going nuclear. So they really don’t know what else to do other than to turn to a small number of arguments: It’s dangerous for you, yourself. Of course, those countries turn around and say, “Why did you build 30,000 nuclear weapons during the Cold War? You must not have believed that.” It’s not an unreasonable question.
The U.S. government officials would deploy better arguments if they had them, but they really don’t know what else to do other than to appeal to the self-interest of the country, and to argue that there’s something called the international community embodied in the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], the UN system, and the NPT [Nuclear Proliferation Treaty] regime, which says that you should not do this. They [emerging nuclear powers] would accuse the U.S. of doing this selectively, and overlooking Israel and now India.
I guess the other argument the U.S. uses is, “We will supply this ‘world order’ commodity, which will keep you safe.” I think the other countries simply don’t believe that would exist in the wide range of contingencies that would develop.
Kazel: You also emphasize that from the end of the Second World War to the fall of the Soviet Union, there was restraint, together with fairly conservative strategic doctrines – and that neither the governments nor the populations of the U.S. or the USSR viewed each other with hatred or passion. But you say now the smaller countries with nuclear weapons could be pushed by nationalistic fervor or angry mobs in the streets to use their weapons.
Bracken: The Cold War did have an overarching ideology, whether you call it a liberal regime or democracy, versus Communism…a basis of understanding each other’s views even if they didn’t agree with them.
It was very emotionless, in that while there was anti-Communism hysteria in the United States, and I guess [animosity] in the Soviet Union against America, it really never [dominated] the major institutions of the Executive Branch or the Pentagon or the State Department. Policy was largely insulated from public opinion, because it was controlled by specialists, whether in the military or influential think tanks.
The ideology of the second nuclear age, I think, is nationalism, and I don’t think it’s confined only to the secondary powers. It’s also characteristic of India and China…This is a fundamental different type of ideology that has already displayed tendencies toward mass hysteria, street demonstrations, calling for the blood of the other side, which does influence policy.
Kazel: A big difference between you and someone like Bruce Blair of Global Zero is that you’re not focusing anymore on the risk of nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. You’re focusing on the danger of regional wars. You really downplay the risk of an accidental world war due to something like a technical failure or misunderstanding. Dr. Blair continues to make de-alerting of ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] one of his top recommendations, while you don’t think that’s a pressing issue.
Bracken: The notion of them being “on alert,” does that mean they could be fired on short notice? Not in any meaningful sense of the term. [Protocols concerning] emergency authorization to use nuclear weapons have been all revoked. It is true that ICBMs very likely have targets, but that doesn’t make them ready to go on short notice.
There’s no reason to go on short notice. The idea that Russian nuclear weapons could launch from missile silos where they have never been tested, over trajectories that have never been tested…I cannot imagine a scenario where the Russians would launch a full-scale thermonuclear attack on U.S. missile forces in a disarming first strike.
I don’t think [Russian missiles] are anything close to being on a hair-trigger alert. The trigger is so stiff in both [U.S. and Russian] cases. Given Russian reliability, one of these things would have gone off [already] if they were on a hair-trigger.
Kazel: You think that U.S. weapons aren’t able to be launched quickly?
Kazel: So if the President gave the launch order, there would be something stopping them from launching within a few minutes?
Bracken: Yes – just a couple of examples would be the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Kazel: Well, I think Dr. Blair’s view isn’t that there is much danger of a massive launch of U.S. missiles because they’re on alert, but that one or a small number might be launched due to a technical error –that if we de-alerted, the error could be spotted early.
Bracken: Look, if anyone comes to me and says they want to lower the chance of an accidental war, who’s going to oppose that? I don’t think it’s the right problem. The right problem is what do we do if China starts transferring targeting information to Pakistan? What do we do if there’s a nuclear alert between Iran and Israel, where there are serious problems of accidental war?
Focusing on the U.S. and accidental launch probability is a non-problem. I know a lot about the system, and I think the chance is as approaching zero as we’re ever likely to make it. We can’t ever hit absolute zero because we just don’t understand enough.
Kazel: So do you see any value anymore in dramatic de-alerting, for example removing warheads from missiles – things that would require the U.S. to take hours or days to launch missiles?
Bracken: I would need more time to think about that, because of the immediate political and strategic consequences, of a diplomatic character, on countries like Japan and conceivably Israel. But would we suffer militarily? I don’t think we would at all. I wouldn’t have any problem with it.
I mean, the contingencies for firing the Minuteman missiles – at what are we going to fire these things? I just find it so inconceivable. It would be like saying the Pentagon must not draw up plans for an invasion of Canada…If you force the rule on me, I wouldn’t be giving anything up.
Kazel: Some analysts advocate that the U.S. could go to a totally submarine-based nuclear defense system and eliminate our ICBMs so that our cities would not be destroyed because they’re near military targets. Is that something you could support?
Bracken: In principle I could support it. But I don’t know how to even think about what the size and structure of U.S. nuclear forces should be in a world where the chance of a Russian attack or a Chinese attack on us is so remote.
What strikes me is people use this “nuclear balance” measurement from 1975 to measure arms-control stability, when it seems to me it’s defined for a two-player game and doesn’t take into account the spread of nuclear weapons to Israel, North Korea, Iran, India, and Pakistan, or China, and the complex interactions that could develop between them.
So, I don’t have anything against the particular policy you just enunciated, but what does it solve? It solves that the Russians won’t hit us with a surprise attack on land-based missiles and the fallout won’t drift into Chicago and New York…It might have been a good policy by the late ‘70s. I’m not sure. But for the 21st century, it seems to me not very creative.
Kazel: Some scientists argue that when we think about risk, we should factor into the equation how destructive the negative event would be, relatively. So while the chance of a world nuclear war might be small today, if the consequence could be something like a billion deaths, this remains a tremendous risk that should merit a lot of attention and study, as compared to regional wars.
Bracken: My argument is we already have, by making sure these things are not going to go off easily – U.S. nuclear forces. And I believe the Russians have done the same thing. The problems lie in other places.
Kazel: You’ve said that you think world disarmament could happen some day, but you can only imagine it resulting from a disaster such as a regional nuclear war. The major powers could then come in and more easily be able to disarm other nations or restrict their weapons. Do you see any other context where the major powers could use their influence to restrict the development of nuclear arms?
Bracken: Well, of course, they already have – in the NPT, and in the agreements of the [nuclear] suppliers club not to sell certain technologies to certain countries. There may be imperfections in these agreements, but as I argue in the book, this isn’t any reason to throw out, say, the NPT or several of the other [agreements].
Kazel: In your writing there seems to be a real sense of pessimism. You say that it’s “positively likely” that a nation such as Pakistan or North Korea might make “calculated” plans to attack another nation with nuclear weapons, and that in this sense the dangers are greater than during the Cold War. You criticize nuclear abolitionists in your book as being overly idealistic. But is it ironic that their views may be similar to yours in that they’re the ones highlighting the catastrophic dangers of these weapons?
Bracken: I don’t find it ironic…There’s not a lot in there about the nuclear abolitionists, who, first of all, share the same goal that I do — at least to a degree. I would commend them for tackling a very difficult problem. Just putting it on the agenda is something I would commend them for. Even if I might disagree with some of the things that they might argue, they are at least looking under the right street lamp, so to speak.
It’s up to other people, including me, to invent better arguments for their case. Their arguments about the destructive potential of these weapons are quite right. I didn’t want to write this book as a broadside against naïve thinking because I don’t really think it is, in important ways, naïve.
Kazel: You mean disarmament?
Bracken: Yeah. I would say we need a lot more creative thought on disarmament. I don’t believe we’re on the cusp of abolishing nuclear weapons, but on the dangers of these things I would be right on board. I think there’s a contract or pledge you can sign through Global Zero. I would be happy to sign it. I think major political figures have signed it, to give up nuclear weapons as a goal. The devil is in the details. But I wanted to focus my thinking on the management aspects of living in a second nuclear age, and if that’s pessimism, I guess it is.
Kazel: In your career, have you ever felt the time was ripe for the world to disarm — for example, right after the fall of the Soviet Union?
Bracken: I did. Maybe not with the conviction of some in the disarmament community, but in the early-to-mid ‘90s my view was that although global disarmament wouldn’t work, it was a very good time to advocate it for official policy and through non-governmental organizations. I have been more pessimistic than the “extreme disarmers,” but it was still worth a shot. I support it today. I would be the first to give up U.S. nuclear weapons, all of them – every single one – if other countries would do so.
Kazel: There are actually commonalties between certain things you recommend and what many nuclear abolitionists advocate. For example, abolitionists often support a no-first-use nuclear policy by the United States. Why do you think that would be a positive step?
Bracken: It would show the United States takes the existence of nuclear weapons in nine countries, and counting, seriously. It’s also something we could do without international negotiation or a treaty. I think arms control has gone about as far as it can go at present because of the complexities involved in the multilateral negotiations to get all these countries to sign on.
Another reason is it would force the bureaucracies in the United States to think through what our nuclear weapons should be used for, how many there should be, and it would get away from this “disarmament by atrophy,” a consequence of a lack of thinking about these things. My view is that most of [our arsenal] is nuclear junk in the attic; it’s totally unusable for technical reasons. The yields are too big. We don’t really know how they would perform. There’s not much thinking about them in the military.
I would say no-first-use introduces a dimension of morality, political and moral considerations, that are absent from the narrow calculation of the self-interest of the United States. When I talk to [military] people in Washington, generally they do not favor no-first-use because the view is, “Why should we give up something for nothing?” I think that’s a very wrong way to look at international policy, because the United States has obligations that extend beyond the national interests of the United States.
Kazel: On the topic of disarmament, Bruce Blair, as well as your colleague at Yale, Jonathan Schell, and other nuclear abolitionists, argue that the exact details of the road to disarmament are hard to imagine now, especially the final stages. But they strongly feel that the declaration of the final goal should come first. Then, lesser steps that would precede it could be taken more confidently. Does that make sense to you?
Bracken: I guess where I may differ from that is that I think there will be such significant problems along any path that we should start thinking about them: preparing for what we would do if North Korea or Pakistan or India used the Bomb. What would we do? I’m writing about a world in which these [challenges] are probably going to exist for 50 years. There’s going to be shocks to the system the way there were in the Cold War. If we don’t manage those shocks, it doesn’t matter what the long-term goal [of disarmament] is.
Kazel: So do you see a role for nuclear abolition groups in today’s world?
Bracken: They certainly have a role. I would say emphatically yes. The role is to point out to people in governments around the world that these weapons are not like any others, to come up for ideas on how you can reduce their numbers even if you don’t have a path to get to absolute zero, to reinforce the tendency that exists in the United States and Russia to cut the size of their arsenals.
Just the mere fact that they’re thinking about the nuclear problem is a good thing, because so many people in government and the think tanks are not thinking about it.
Kazel: You do seem to have real impatience over the current level of debate over nuclear weapons —
Bracken: Well, that’s true.
Kazel: — both in academia and government, and in the military. When you refer to “level of debate,” do you mean that people just aren’t educated on it the way they were in the last generation?
Bracken: I think the level of discussion of these issues has gone down. I hardly think that the previous generation in the Cold War was some golden age where these things were well understood. I lived through that, and I didn’t feel that way at the time.
Looking back, I was right. The U.S. gave so much attention to the [potential Soviet] “bolt-from-the-blue-surprise attack” on Minuteman missiles, and overspent so much money, while ignoring so many much-more-likely routes to nuclear war.
Robert Kazel is a Chicago-based freelance writer and was a participant in the 2012 NAPF Peace Leadership Workshop.