Be they social scientists or political pundits, academics and analysts are forever dividing history into epochs and eras that too often impart a false sense of clarity to the muddy course of human events. So it is with some modesty that we declare the United States and the world are on the verge of a "Third Atomic Age."
The first atomic age began with the Manhattan Project and the American invention of "The Bomb" and ran through the Cold War, that bipolar balance of nuclear terror between the United States and the Soviet Union. We have been living in a second atomic age in the post-Cold War years, largely attempting to undo what was done during the previous 50 years under the assumption that the "unipolar moment" of American preeminence was a self-evident, natural condition. Thus the future prospect is indeed quite different: a proliferated, multipolar, ambiguous and dangerous world where the global nuclear balance is increasingly complex and potentially unstable. If J. Robert Oppenheimer described the United States and Soviet Union as "two scorpions in a bottle" whose one sting would be lethal to both, we can forecast a world where the scorpions have multiplied but the bottle is no bigger. The arrival of a third atomic age is no happy dawn.
As this suggests, we define "atomic ages" both by the presence of nuclear weapons and the larger geopolitical framework that gives them their meaning. Today, the larger realm of international politics appears as complex and volatile as the nuclear microcosm, and the looming nuclear uncertainties are a reflection of geopolitical ones. Allies, adversaries and the American government itself increasingly speak of American decline. At the same time, the basic purposes of American strategy remain fundamentally unaltered: the United States in fact remains the preeminent global power, strategically invested in and morally committed to preserving and enhancing a liberal international order. So, too, are our persistent strategic habits unchanged: The United States seeks to secure the freedom of the "commons"– the oceans, the skies, space and "cyberspace" – and the "liberties," as our Whiggish ancestors would have expressed it,of the continents. Overall, even while the fashion for ―American decline‖ rages, we work for a balance of power that favors freedom.
Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow and Director of the Center for Defense Studies at AEI.