The Cold War Is Long Gone, but the Nuclear Threat Is Still Here

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America's nuclear strategy hasn't changed much since the Soviet Union fell, but the world's nuclear dangers have

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A 1999 parade in Lahore, Pakistan, displays a model of a Pakistani-made surface-to-surface missile Shaheen, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead / AP

This post is part of a 12-part series exploring how the U.S.-Russia relationship has shaped the world since the December 1991 end of the Soviet Union. Read the full series here.

In the two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the nuclear challenges facing the United States have changed radically. American nuclear strategy has not.

American nuclear forces are largely designed to deter a superpower that no longer exists. Meanwhile, nuclear and missile technology is more widely available than ever to outlier states like Iran and North Korea, and Americans continue to worry about a nuclear weapon winding up in the hands of a terrorist.

American nuclear strategy has three main goals in the 21st century. First, ensure that nuclear weapons are not used against the United States or its allies. Nuclear deterrence still plays a key role in the modern world. Second, convince or compel other states not to acquire nuclear weapons. Third, secure nuclear weapons and dangerous nuclear materials against theft or diversion to terrorist groups.

Current strategy is heavily geared towards the first goal of deterring nuclear weapons, a legacy of the Cold War arms race. Efforts towards the second and third goals have been incomplete.

During the Cold War, the rival superpowers threatened one another with large numbers of nuclear weapons. Most were far more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These weapons helped to maintain a shaky peace between the United States and the Soviet Union. Many of the weapons on both sides were available for almost immediate use to deter a massive surprise attack, potentially involving thousands of nuclear weapons, from the other.

This basic posture, with large numbers of weapons capable of destroying an entire city available for rapid use, continues today, even though the U.S. military no longer fears a large-scale Russian attack. No other nation in the world has sufficient nuclear forces to even attempt a disabling nuclear first strike on the United States.

The size of the American nuclear arsenal has shrunk considerably, and both Republican and Democratic presidents have recognized that the United States can effectively protect itself and deter attack with fewer nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War world. Treaties mandating parallel U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenal cuts have enabled these necessary reductions to take place.

These reductions went hand in hand with a bilateral verification regime that gave U.S. inspectors on-site access to the Russian nuclear arsenal. The New Strategic Arms Reduction (New START) treaty, ratified with bipartisan support in December 2010, continues this process and helps to maintain strategic stability.

The large and capable nuclear arsenal that the United States retains under New START continues to play a role in protecting the United States and reassuring allies that depend on the American nuclear umbrella. The arsenal cannot, however, help the United States to accomplish the vast majority of its other national security goals, including the struggle against terrorism.

America's nuclear arsenal is only one aspect of American nuclear strategy in the 21st century. The United States has taken the lead in creating institutions and agreements, including the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, under which the vast majority of nations have agreed to forgo nuclear weapons.

Many observers fear that the global nonproliferation regime is fraying. Iran is a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty but the country's activities, which include a uranium enrichment program, have led to fears that the country is on the verge of a nuclear weapons capability. Institutions like the Nonproliferation Treaty clearly must be strengthened and updated.

Investments in technologies such as ballistic missile defense also have a role to play in managing nuclear threats. Ballistic missiles, a traditional delivery method for nuclear weapons, have continued to proliferate in some of the world's most unstable regions. Ballistic missile defense is increasingly being developed and deployed on a cooperative basis, including with Russia, a country that has protested American missile defense plans for decades.

The salience of efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism has greatly increased since the end of the Cold War, and especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Cooperative Threat Reduction programs to protect nuclear weapons and materials in former Soviet states have been a major post-Cold War American foreign policy success.

The United States has had other successes in this area, including the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit. Building relationships to secure nuclear materials with countries in unstable regions has proven difficult, however, and concerns about nuclear terrorism persist. 

The United States has choices to make about its nuclear strategy. In a constrained budget environment, the United States will need to make the investments to combat today's nuclear threats, rather than the threats of past decades.

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Eric Auner is a policy analyst on nuclear security.

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