For most of the next twenty years, the US enjoyed this primacy and the advantages it brought in ensuring that the Soviet Union didn't get any ideas about using its conventional military superiority in eastern Europe to invade western Europe. However, by the early 1960s, the paradigm was swiftly changing as the era of mutual assured destruction began. MAD simply meant that with the Soviets having reached a level of parity with the US, it was no longer possible for the US to successfully wipe out the Soviet nuclear arsenal in a first strike. Whoever fired first could not do so with impunity, as the other side would then fire back and the consequences for the attacker would be equally catastrophic.
Up through the end of communism and the end of the twentieth century, MAD has dominated... until now.
In the March/April 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press present in the article The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy the evidence behind their assertion that MAD is now a thing of the past and that the US has regained its nuclear primacy after forty-five years. Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian nuclear arsenal has completely crumbled. At the same time, the People's Republic of China has done little to improve the quality of its nuclear weapons or their platforms for launch. Meanwhile, the US has slowly but surely improved and modernized its nuclear forces. The result, according to Lieber and Press, is that even in a conservative scenario, at this point in time, the United States could launch a nuclear first strike against either Russia or the PRC and completely wipe out either's nuclear arsenal.
The authors then at the end examine the implications of this change in the world order.
Ultimately, the wisdom of pursuing nuclear primacy must be evaluated in the context of the United States' foreign policy goals. The United States is now seeking to maintain its global preeminence, which the Bush administration defines as the ability to stave off the emergence of a peer competitor and prevent weaker countries from being able to challenge the United States in critical regions such as the Persian Gulf. If Washington continues to believe such preeminence is necessary for its security, then the benefits of nuclear primacy might exceed the risks. But if the United States adopts a more restrained foreign policy -- for example, one premised on greater skepticism of the wisdom of forcibly exporting democracy, launching military strikes to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and aggressively checking rising challengers -- then the benefits of nuclear primacy will be trumped by the dangers.
After getting this far in the post last night, I stopped to consider just what the Holy See might do with this new situation and what I would personally recommend. I talked about this topic with a reader of this blog and summarized my thoughts in two instant messages to him. I would go on all day in overanalyzing, so I'll just quote my IMs and then explain a bit more after. They've been sanitized (bad spelling, grammar, etc.)
Jacob: Nuclear weapons aren't going away. The Vatican can either accept the fact that the ability to wipe out the Chinese [PRC] or Russian arsenals in a first strike lies in the safe hands of the US and proceed from there or it can continue the usual position of full disarmament, even though jihadists, communists [and others, the explanation below] won't care one bit about such things.
Online friend: So what do you think? Personally, I can understand that the Vatican has to be officially pacifist in pretty much every position it takes.
Jacob: The Vatican isn't exactly a stranger to realpolitik. I would personally recomend that it ignore the US capability and concentrate on non-proliferation and keeping nukes out of the hands of terrorists and rogue states.
Places like India, Pakistan, the People's Republic of China and Iran are not going to give up their nuclear capabilities if everyone ask nicely. Nuclear weapons are a reality and wishful thinking will never do away with them. We have the United States on the other hand that for better or for worse has emerged as the hyperpower of the twenty-first century. One day, Bush will be gone and perhaps a cooler administration will come into power, but regardless of who is in the White House, the world will still look to the US to be the police and manage the international stage to keep things from getting out of hand. If the US can effectively wipe out any large-scale nuclear threat (loose nukes, suitcase nukes are another matter), so much the better.
A policy of letting the US be and using its world-wide influence to limit the spread of nuclear weapons into the hands of those who are empirically less responsible than the US would be a worthy goal of the Holy See. That's been pretty much the status quo up to the present anyway. So there's no reason to really change now.