Nuclear Weapons After the Cold War
Carl Kaysen and George W. Rathjens are members of the Defense and Arms Control Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Robert S. McNamara was U.S. Secretary of Defense, 1961-68, and President of the World Bank, 1968-81.See more by Carl KaysenSee more by Robert S. McNamaraSee more by George W. Rathjens
The Cold War had two chief features: the continuing confrontation on the border between the two Germanys that might, possibly without notice, break out into war, and the ideologically driven rivalry throughout the Third World.
Germany is now united within its 1945 boundaries, which have been recognized and accepted by all concerned; the Warsaw Pact has disappeared; and the three countries between the western border of the Soviet Union and the West, no longer in thrall to the Soviet Union, are admiring petitioners to the West. Communism has lost almost all of its appeal outside the borders of the few remaining polities that officially adhere to it-China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Cuba-and it is unlikely that it would survive even a modest easing of pervasive repressive central control in any of them.
Inside the Soviet Union, however, the struggle for change is producing turmoil; the forces of reaction, of reform and of disintegration are in contention, the outcome uncertain. While still possessing formidable inventories of nuclear and conventional weapons, the Soviet state shows no will to use its military power externally, and almost certainly lacks the political coherence to do so. An immediate external threat appears to be the only circumstance that would change that situation, and it is hard to see whence one would arise. Even the failure of perestroika and a retreat from glasnost led by a new military-authoritarian regime would not reconstitute the powerful, ideologically driven opponent supported by East European allies that the United States saw from 1945 through much of the last decade.
Thus the great conflict that marked our lives for most of the twentieth century is over, and hardly more likely to be revived than the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries between Catholics and Protestants in Europe.
With the end of the Cold War, it is hard to construct even a semi-plausible military threat to the United States or to Europe west of the Soviet border in the immediate future. As General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has noted: "I'm running out of demons, I'm running out of villains. I'm down to Castro and Kim Il Sung." If this is so, it is reasonable to ask: What role will military force in general, and nuclear weapons in particular, play in the emerging world order?