North Korea's launch of a long-range missile last month was followed by a flurry of global condemnation that was almost comical in its predictability and impotence. But the launch underscored a larger reality that cannot be ignored: the world has entered a second nuclear age. This larger pattern needs to be understood if it is to be managed.
The contours are still taking shape. But the next few years will be especially perilous, because newness itself creates dangers as rules and red lines are redefined.
In the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia, old rivalries now unfold in a nuclear context. This has already changed military postures across the Middle East. Part of the Israeli nuclear arsenal is being shifted to sea, to prevent their being targeted in a surprise attack. Israel is also launching a new generation of satellites to provide early warning of preparations for missile strikes. If Iran's mobile missiles disperse, Israel wants to know about it immediately.
Thus, the old problem of Arab-Israeli peace is now seen in the new context of an Iranian nuclear threat. The two problems are linked. How would Israel respond to rocket attacks from Gaza if it faced the threat of nuclear attack by Iran?
Pakistan has doubled the size of its nuclear arsenal in the past five years. In East Asia, North Korea is set to add a whole new class of uranium bombs to its arsenal. China, too, is shifting its nuclear forces to mobile missiles and submarines. These weapons can be put on alert in a way that would be highly visible to US satellites and the global media. Thus, the Chinese can easily "nuclearise" a crisis, alerting adversaries to the dangers of a showdown. Russia has staged the largest nuclear exercises in decades to remind everyone it remains a serious player, too.
These developments cannot be understood in isolation from the larger multipolar system of major powers. This is a nuclear multipolar system: possessing nuclear weapons contributes to a country's global status as a major power.
To see this, consider when was the last time the US or anyone else seriously proposed that India sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? Given America's economic problems and growing Chinese power, there is no longer even a remote possibility that this demand will be made. India has become an accepted, legitimate member of the nuclear club.
The most urgent problem stems from the breakdown of major countries' one-time nuclear monopoly and the empowerment of smaller countries. A new set of rules for diplomacy, military strategy and arms control is needed to stabilise this emerging nuclear order. Pretending that it does not exist is not a strategy.
Paul Bracken, a professor of management and political science at Yale University, is the author of The Second Nuclear Age. Copyright: Project Syndicate