For 200 years, the world has been shaped by Western military dominance. Gunboats were replaced by battleships as agents of national power, which in turn were replaced by cruise missiles and stealth bombers. Until recently, these weapons belonged exclusively to Europeans or North Americans. But this monopoly on advanced military technologies is now ending. Ballistic missiles carrying conventional warheads or weapons of mass destruction (WMD), along with other cutting-edge technologies, are now within reach of as many as ten Asian nations from Israel to North Korea -- a major shift in the world's balance of power.

The rise of Asian military power heralds the beginning of a second nuclear age as different from the first, that of the Cold War, as that contest was from World War II. The world that the West created is being challenged -- not just in military ways but in cultural and philosophical terms as well. Just as Asia began asserting itself economically in the 1960s and 1970s, it now does so militarily, backed by arms that would make Western interference in Asia far more treacherous and costly -- even in peacetime -- than ever before.

Western military power has always been about more than just winning battles against the weaker forces of non-Europeans. It has been a tool for shaping the world along Western lines, a symbol of general supremacy in commerce and technology that separated the developed from the undeveloped. Those who actively opposed the West's vision of the future would inevitably lose, and the West in the early 1990s believed that no one would dare try. But for all the spectacular displays of American armaments in the Persian Gulf war and the former Yugoslavia, other nations have indeed contested the point -- not by trying to close the arms gap but by exploiting disruptive technologies that thwart America's advantages and exploit the Achilles' heel of its military position in Asia.

The dawning of a second nuclear age overturns fundamental strategic assumptions about both the techno-military balance and preserving Western dominance in other areas. For example, the Western agenda today is defined almost exclusively in economic terms. Throughout the 1990s, the echo of "It's the economy, stupid" has had as much influence on foreign as on domestic policy. The integration of the Asian giants into a Western-led economic system has been seen as the era's central task. When should China be allowed into the World Trade Organization? How can India be made to loosen restrictions on foreign investment? How can the next financial crisis be prevented? These questions remain relevant, but the presumption that the West can still set the agenda and determine which hoops Asia must jump through to join the world system is now in serious doubt.


The landing of Vasco da Gama in India in 1498 marked the start of the era of Western dominance, aided by the "high-tech" armament of the day -- the cannon-armed warship. Thus began an age of Western influence and reach that ended only when the colonial powers left Asia after World War II. And Western economic and military predominance lasted longer than this in some areas. The year 1998 marked the 500th anniversary of da Gama's epic feat, which in human and technological terms rivaled Neil Armstrong's landing on the moon. But how many celebrated this event? The West let the date pass in embarrassed silence for fear it would draw unnecessary attention to a history most would now like to forget.

Instead, the West spent the 1990s celebrating its victory in the Cold War. The new, post-Cold War era was said to be one of American military supremacy, which backed Western economic dominance. Moreover, the new epoch marked the spread of a Western form of triumphant globalization, a linking of economies and cultures that ostensibly made national cultures and histories obsolete. American values and norms would spread to countries who would willingly embrace the superior ways that gave America the world's greatest military force as well as the world's richest economy.

But the post-Cold War era never came to Asia. It was a Western conceit. The very term "post-Cold War era" presumes that the U.S.-Soviet struggle was the central event of our time and that its end marked a completely new beginning for the world. In Europe, of course, the Cold War did define the political landscape and produce the first nuclear age, as NATO tried to match Soviet conventional superiority in Europe with thousands of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. To be sure, the Cold War also spread to other parts of the world, but in Asia it produced a different dynamic. When the United States took the preeminent Cold War security institution, NATO, and tried to clone it in Southeast Asia to create the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, the results were catastrophic. The U.S. defeat in Vietnam cost some 50,000 American and untold Vietnamese lives, demonstrating just how elementally dissimilar Asian and European politics were.

The Cold War was not a world war. In Asia, the Cold War was not merely different from that in Europe, it was also less important. The central motor of Asia's history in the twentieth century was postcolonialism, the efforts of China, Vietnam, India, Iran, and others to create viable nation-states after the long period of foreign rule. Their attempts to move into an era of self-rule and industrialization were far more important for the world than anything happening thousands of miles away at the Berlin Wall.

Most Asian states used the Cold War not to advance the worldview of either superpower but to milk that competition to advance their own development. Of course, China, India, and others played roles in the Cold War drama -- but not those assigned to them by the Western powers. Postcolonial Asia was, by and large, so economically and militarily weak that it had little voice in world affairs and often had to display a certain loyalty to the Western system. By the 1990s, that dynamic had changed. Seen more broadly, what the world was actually entering was not a post-Cold War era but a post-Vasco da Gama era -- a period wherein the final trappings of Western military superiority fell away as Asia's industrialization and wealth supported a military effort that could not be easily defeated by a more modern outside power.


Seen in this light, 1998 was a more historically significant year than 1989, during which the Berlin Wall fell. For not only did 1998 mark the 500th anniversary of the West's landing in Asia, it also saw the detonation of five Indian atomic bombs. Pakistan quickly followed India's example. North Korea fired a rocket that overflew Japan. Iran, India, and Pakistan tested intermediate-range ballistic missiles. China began deploying short-range missiles aimed at Taiwan and appeared to step up additional longer-range missile deployments that would threaten most U.S. military bases in East Asia. Iraq continued its obstinate attempts to get its hands on comparable weapons and, even worse, a germ-warfare arsenal.

These things were not supposed to happen. Westerners assumed that as Asia liberalized economically it would also absorb a larger Western ethos that stigmatized WMD and ballistic missiles. Yet while China and India opened up their economies and absorbed increasing amounts of both foreign investment and cultural influence, and even Iran retreated from extremism, these Asian countries were also building their arms capabilities.

Just as seeing the Cold War as the ordering event of world politics was thoroughly Western, so too is the drive for universal nonproliferation. Both are Western models imposed on Asia, continuing a long tradition of projecting Western views there. Thus what is now perceived in the West as a breakdown in nonproliferation policy is seen in the East as a push for national security. Asia sees no reason to accept a non-Asian monopoly on the military instruments needed to ensure order, and it projects a growing sense that reasonably wealthy countries must defend their own interests.

The rise of Asian military power also touches on the way America sees the world. America's capacity to respond intelligently to changes in international affairs is badly constrained by doctrinaire attitudes that cannot grasp the complex situations facing Washington. Policy choices in the post-Cold War world are often said to resemble three-dimensional chess: decisions so intricate (especially compared to those of the Cold War) that only a careful fine-tuning of policies can adequately address them. But while the world is getting more confusing, American foreign policy is getting oversimplified. Consider our China policy, which is usually cast in terms of engagement versus containment, or global commerce, where free trade is set against protectionism. Even the most complicated issues are mapped onto crude dichotomies.

Such binary thinking often leads to hasty judgments -- even when they produce absurd conclusions. Thus India, the world's largest democracy, is punished for testing nuclear weapons, while China, hardly a democracy, is courted as a strategic partner. America's apparent reasoning is that India broke certain nonproliferation norms -- but these are norms codified in U.S., not Indian, law. This hardly looks like three-dimensional chess. Rather, it reveals a foreign policy built in terms of rigid polar alternatives and a disdain for the middle ground. The United States refused to help India craft a nonproliferation agreement tailored to that region, but instead demanded the acceptance of an all-or-nothing, American-led global nonproliferation regime. Today Asian states can express their interests and worldviews and back them up with a daunting new ability to inflict costs and damages on outside powers who wish to thwart their rise.


Given the attention lavished on atomic bombs and missiles, it is easy to miss the larger trend manifested in the past few years: the side with the best technology does not always win. This is not because American technology does not work -- the wars in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans proved that it does. Nor is it because of larger issues of organization and strategy, important as they are. Rather, it is because of a fundamental distinction between technologies that sustain advantage and those that disrupt it. The failure to distinguish between the two has caused countless upsets in business and war. Institutions with a tremendous technological lead are often beaten by upstarts. "Who's ahead in technology?" is almost always the wrong question. Asking it frequently drives leading companies -- and countries -- to emphasize their strengths, while ignoring rivals who are creating different and threatening technologies.1

To take an example from business, consider the way Microsoft knocked IBM out of the box in the personal computer (PC) business. Personal computers became a commodity, whereas the software that made them run became a branded good. Software became the high-value part of the marketplace. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, no company could have displaced IBM in the PC world by making better hardware. The IBM research empire was too vast and deep, and IBM managers knew how to keep hardware startups out of the game -- for example, by introducing PCs with new features every few months. But Microsoft chose an entirely different approach. It changed the basis of competition from hardware and circuits to software and bits. In software, IBM's vaunted competencies were much thinner. Moreover, IBM managers were less sure of how to outcompete a software firm. In fact, IBM's lead in technology actually prevented it from perceiving the new basis of competition. In this sense, IBM's advantage worked against it, serving to channel corporate energies into varying existing hardware while not even recognizing the new danger until it was too late.

This same dynamic is now found in business after business. The world is often described in terms of "head-to-head" competition. But such competition is rare. Instead, businesses focus on areas where powerful foes lack the skills, perception, and management to respond easily. Often this produces the same pattern as with IBM and Microsoft: dangers are not even recognized as the more powerful player dismisses the weaknesses of what appears to be a puny upstart.

As with companies, so too with countries. U.S. military forces have proven themselves unbeatable so long as conflict can be kept within certain geographic and technical boundaries. Any nation that takes on the American military in an area the rough size of Kuwait or Korea, uses only conventional weapons, and does not attack the base structures that support this splendid force is certain to lose. But a country that builds its military program around eliminating these very American advantages would have a much better chance -- both in fighting and, more important, in deterring an attack in the first place. The United States has used arms control to prevent such a war: keeping WMD out of the hands of other states preserves the lopsided U.S. conventional advantage.

Yet instead of competing for better tanks and airplanes -- the sustaining technologies of the West -- Asia is shifting toward WMD and the ballistic missiles to deliver them. Asia's disruptive technologies are appearing right before Western eyes, but remain unnoticed as the West concentrates on its overall lead. Focusing on electronic surveillance systems, aircraft, and mechanized land power is like IBM focusing on PC architecture as Microsoft wrapped up the software market.

This is not a case of one or two "rogue states" going against the grain. If developing ballistic missiles and WMD makes a state a rogue, there are now at least eight such rogues in Asia. Israel, Syria, Iraq (if it ever escapes U.N. sanctions), Iran, Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea are all reorienting their militaries from infantry to disruptive technologies. Some countries pursue chemical or biological weapons; some build atomic weapons; some build all of them. But what is common is the ballistic missile.

Saddam Hussein's 1991 Scud missile attacks against Israeli cities and U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia did little material damage. But they did underscore America's overwhelming military dependence on forward bases. The same dependence was seen in the recent Kosovo air campaign, in which the United States relied on air bases in Italy and other nearby countries. Without these bases, the United States cannot mass its forces. It must either launch long-distance attacks, such as cruise missile raids, or rely on the navy and long-range bombers.

In the public mind, both Operation Desert Storm and the air war against Serbia demonstrated the extraordinary technology of the United States, which can land pinpoint attacks that demolish targets with little collateral damage. War is turned into a video game. Targets are chosen, buttons pushed, and another bull's-eye marked up. Despite occasional failures -- like the destruction of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade -- the American public thinks that this is what war is all about.

Inside the U.S. armed forces, the picture is quite different. To the military professional, the enduring image of modern war is not a cruise missile surgically taking out enemy headquarters, but the huge supplies of equipment America needs to fight: ammunition stocks, air bases, maintenance equipment, and housing. In the Gulf War, Saudi Arabia's Dhahran airfield was the site of an iron mountain of supplies. Photographs of this base, packed with supplies, haunt military planners because one WMD-tipped ballistic missile could have disrupted its operations. The spread of WMD in Asia makes such bases even more vulnerable.

Fixed bases are the Achilles' heel of the American military presence in Asia. Imagine fighting Desert Storm without staging grounds in Saudi Arabia or Turkey. In Vietnam, U.S. bases were harassed but never openly challenged. In neither the Korean nor the Gulf War was there any danger that supplies from the American homeland could not land safely. Were today's bases to vanish or be rendered unusable, the vast flow of supplies would have nowhere to park safely in preparation for battle. What were once the visible symbols of U.S. power are becoming hostages to missile attack.

The world's attention naturally focuses on individual "events" of weapons proliferation, and Washington is not terribly good at stepping back from dramatic individual episodes like the Indian nuclear tests. Slow-motion evolution, although less noticeable than rapid change, is the only proper focus for intelligent judgments about strategic power. It reveals that a historic transformation is taking place. Asia's military technologies target not American strengths but American weaknesses. Asia's ballistic missiles and WMD trump the West's technological lead, making technology an increasingly irrelevant measure of actual military capacity.


It is easy to overlook just how vulnerable America's military position in Asia is. The 1990s were described as America's era, but America -- the "sole superpower" -- was more of a "superpower lite." The United States faced virtually no challengers; Soviet power had collapsed, and Asia's disruptive technologies had not yet been fielded.

But Washington was lulled into complacency. Saddam's Scuds could not destroy the U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia, but large numbers of better short- and intermediate-range missiles could. Iraq had only a few of these, which it used only with conventional warheads. Moreover, following the Gulf War, Israel, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea all stepped up their efforts to build cutting-edge ballistic missiles -- a major and ominous change for the United States, which must move its forces over vast distances and deploy them at an increasingly vulnerable handful of bases to make them useful.

Washington's proposed solution to this quandary is antiballistic missiles that can shoot down incoming warheads. The current U.S. strategy is to hang onto its bases at all costs but protect them from enemy missiles with an impermeable shield. But this vast and expensive plan has not received anywhere near the discussion it deserves.

The technological barriers to shooting down missiles racing over relatively short distances are daunting. Whereas intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS) fired from Russia at the United States had a 30-minute flight time, flight times within the Middle East are on the order of 10 minutes. Of course, American technology is not to be underestimated and might rise to the challenge. But the relatively benign threat environment that most U.S. bases enjoyed in the 1990s is gone. No new theater-missile-defense system can restore the unchallenged supremacy of American power; no new arms control agreement can preserve the uncontested viability of American bases. Can anyone seriously imagine China, Iran, or India scrapping

its ballistic missiles? Giving them up would permanently lock in the Western advantages of the 1990s, turning history back to Vasco da Gama. It is only a matter of time before a state ensures the fielding of a U.S. antimissile system, and the death of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, by providing a threat great enough to change America's mind on national defense.

Consider, too, the actual behavior of countries confronted with an American missile shield. Several Asian states have already expanded their production of missiles. Deployment of a U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense system is likely to speed proliferation of missiles as Asia churns out greater numbers to offset U.S. defenses and changes tactics to make its attacks more effective.

Finally, the theater missile debate misses the intimate connection between U.S. national missile defense and smaller theater systems. Washington will never protect South Korea, Japan, or Saudi Arabia without also protecting the United States. Hence, a theater missile defense deployed to protect Asian allies will mean national missile defense for the United States.

These trends herald the end of the era of "superpower lite." The tens of billions of dollars needed for missile defense, the new platforms needed to carry them, the satellites to make them work -- all mark the end of an epoch when the United States could remain unchallenged while cutting its defense budget. Global supremacy is an irresistible temptation when it comes on the cheap -- but the price of global power is rising. Aside from Japan, no Asian country has mounted a technological military challenge to the West. But in the future, such challenges will be commonplace.


Although similarities exist between the second nuclear age and the first (command and control problems, for example), there are also some striking differences. The single biggest one is the role of nationalism. The Cold War was a struggle waged with the icy rationality and cool logic that characterized the two superpowers' approach to nuclear weapons. There was no place for hysteria; indeed, one striking feature of even the most dangerous nuclear issues was that the two sides never really got angry at each other.

But the second nuclear age is driven by national insecurities incomprehensible to outsiders whose security is no longer endangered. In the West, the politics of rage had no role in foreign policy. This cannot be said for disputes in Asia between Pakistan and India, the two Koreas, or the Arab states and Israel. Having such emotional dynamics linked to the brandishing or use of ballistic missiles and WMD is something to be anticipated -- and dreaded. Despite the economic opening of Asia and Western claims that globalization will somehow render national identity obsolete, nationalism is a rising force in Asia, where it broke the colonial grip. Nationalism is not viewed kindly in the West these days, where it is automatically associated with ethnic cleansing, extremism, and xenophobia. Though this association is often untrue, nationalism will undoubtedly complicate the second nuclear age.

Nationalism is less likely to be directed against the United States than against Asian countries' immediate neighbors. The distance between the United States and Asia is still a buffer, but for the first time in the modern era, continental Asian nations can target one another using the modern technologies of disruption.

Before the second nuclear age, Asia's civilizations were not active in shaping world affairs. Instead, the Western powers were the shapers, mapmakers, and architects of the global system. Asian technology was too backward to compete. But today, not only must the West integrate new powers into an old order, it must revise its self-conception to become less doctrinaire. The West must accept that the long era when Asia was controlled by outside powers -- when the greatest military power in Asia was not Asian -- is quickly ending.

1 See Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 1997.

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  • Paul Bracken is Professor of Political Science and of Management at Yale University. He is the author of Fire in the East: The Rise of Asian Military Power and the Second Nuclear Age, from which this essay is adapted.
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