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Understanding the New Nuclear Age

2016–Present

Understanding the New Nuclear Age is a new initiative, chaired by Professor Robert Legvold, which will explore and address the greatest challenges that the current nuclear age presents.

This study builds upon the premise that the foundations and principles that defined the nuclear order after WWII and during the Cold War have shifted and continue to evolve, presenting new challenges as they do so.

The legitimacy of existing, institutions such as the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and the Arms Control architecture is rapidly eroding because of the inability of these institutions to respond effectively to the nuclear challenges of today.

The Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty has been designed in such a way that its gatherings do not allow for honest and effective cooperation among the member-states. In addition, the vagueness of some of its language continues to offer reasons for opportunistic interpretation and disputes among its members-states.

Progress in nuclear arms control has also dramatically stalled and if possible even reversed. As nuclear powers continue to invest heavily in the maintenance and modernization of their nuclear forces, the nuclear postures of both small and large states have recently become far more bellicose than those of the Cold War era. Some nuclear weapons states seem willing to revise their defense postures to accommodate a more explicit use of nuclear weapons in warfare. And both established and emerging countries increasingly see a direct role for nuclear weapons in controlled, limited, and short-term warfare.

In addition new security challenges like the ones posed by non-state actors demand innovative solutions. Finally, the consensus over the norms and values that traditionally underpinned the relations among nuclear weapons states and between nuclear weapons states and the rest of the international community is rapidly deteriorating.

These multi-faceted challenge demand a multi-lateral and inter-disciplinary approach that takes into account the changing global landscape, the technological developments in the nuclear field as well as in other related areas such as in the cyber and in the space domain.

Project at a Glance

This new study will explore the dimensions, factors, challenges, and opportunities of the current nuclear age, focusing on three main dimensions of the nuclear problem:

  1. How the geostrategic relationships between the nuclear powers have shifted since the first nuclear age, and the impact of those changes;
  2. How technological innovations (in the space and cyber-realm in particular, although not exclusively) are affecting existing nuclear arrangements (including the extended deterrence architecture and strategic stability); and
  3. How the changes in the current global nuclear order affect the prospects for nuclear arms control, recognizing that the framework in which we are operating has changed and continues to evolve.

Project Activities

This project, as it is currently conceived, is a 3-year-long initiative that will explore and address the greatest challenges that the current nuclear age presents. In the first phase, the project will focus on developing the conceptual framework by which the many different dimensions of this new nuclear era can be understood in integral form. A working group composed of policy-makers and young and established scholars will convene twice at the House of the Academy to begin hammering out this framework. Between the two plenary meetings, additional smaller working groups and commissioned papers will be organized to probe key aspects. In the second phase, the Academy will publish the main findings and ideas, including ways by which the challenges of this new nuclear age might be addressed, that have emerged from the working group discussions in a special issue of Dædalus as well as one or more briefing papers for a policy audience. Finally in the third phase, the project will engage in extensive policy outreach, domestically and internationally, to involve audiences and stakeholders in nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ new project on Understanding the New Nuclear Age will host the first meeting of its working group on September 18-19, 2016. The group will discuss a set of commissioned papers and develop an agenda for engaging with policy-makers and the public. The meeting will begin with a screening of the new documentary, Command and Control: The unknown story of the day our luck almost ran out, in advance of its local theatrical release and PBS broadcast, followed by a discussion with nuclear experts. The screening and discussion are open to Academy members and the public; to register, click here.

Project Leadership

Project Chair

  • Robert Legvold
    Columbia University

Working Group

  • James Acton
    Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Mark Bell
    University of Minnesota
  • Ambassador Linton Brooks
    Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
  • Des Browne
    Nuclear Threat Initiative
  • Christopher Chyba
    Princeton University
  • M. Taylor Fravel
    MIT
  • Frank Gavin
    MIT
  • Michael Krepon
    Stimson Center
  • Hans Kristensen
    Federation of American Scientists
  • Jessica Tuchman Mathews
    Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Nicholas Miller
    Brown University
  • Steven E. Miller
    Harvard Kennedy School
  • Vipin Narang
    MIT
  • Janne Nolan
    The George Washington University
  • George Perkovich
    Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Ambassador Steven Pifer
    Brookings Institution
  • William Potter
    James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey
  • Mira Rapp-Hooper
    Center for a New American Security (CNAS)
  • Scott Sagan
    Stanford University
  • Michael Swaine
    Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Nina Tannenwald
    Brown University
  • Jane Vaynman
    Temple University

Project Staff

  • Francesca Giovannini
  • Kathryn Moffat

Project Chair

Robert Legvold, Columbia University

Learn More About this Project