[Disclaimer - this is a bleak one, and is best thought of as a companion piece to this article. If you've read that, and still feel like delving into revisionist pre-apocalypse nuclear policy, read on. If not, it's perfectly understandable, and one day I'll blog about kittens and how awesome sunsets are.]
I don't know how quickly the connection was made between September 11th, 2001 and a new era in nuclear policy, but we're sitting six years after the fact, and sixty two years after nuclear weapons came into existence. Increasingly, the end of the Cold War seems to be an interlude and a reorganizing, and less of an end to nuclear fear. Surely, the fears are different, but we've moved from mutually assured destruction to random acts of extremists. If one fears things on a personal level (and most people tend to), the fact that one random nuclear strike would not be nearly as devastating as a full launch of a nuclear arsenal is not a comfort. Extremists are random if weak; nations can be strong but are usually more predictable. And, as fear works, the one random strike is just as likely to kill kid A on the street as the full launch would be. If any statement better epitomized the disconnect between rational brain and the fearful brain, it was when John Kerry said that someday terrorism will only be a nuisance. No one thinks in terms of nuisance's - they will see themselves as victims, and random crime will inevitably hit home.
I don't see nuclear war in the future; the remote possibilities of Pakistan/India or Israel/Iran are still present, but will be as localized as nuclear war can be, and will only devastate earth in bits and pieces. The more likely scenario, the new scenario, is that some nukes will be used. A few, here and there, with devastation that nations can survive. The perpetrators will not long survive these things, but that won't matter - given the current population, people are incredibly cheap and delivery systems are expensive. Weapons themselves are expensive, but a whole cadre of nations will exist that can look favorably at a world where they lose nuclear weapons and their enemies suffer terrorist attacks. These won't, almost as a rule, be democratic or wealthy countries. They will be run by elites, those who see power as a game and apply Machiavellian insight to the usage of the most powerful weapon ever created.
Realpolitik hasn't been practiced lately because it's a zero sum game, and everyone is afraid of upsetting the balance and getting less. At some point, people without anything are going to be willing to go to lengths to increase their worth. A stable dictatorship, if oppressive, will look much better than an impotent republic or a formerly opulent empire. This changes the zero sum game, where no new values are put in, but some are lessened. Nothing looks a lot better when everyone else is sitting on negative values.
This isn't the way it has to go, and it's far too abstracted to have much relevance on how things will be. It's a possibility, though, and its one that lines up more with a Bush Doctrine view of the world. This view holds that terrorists act, if not at the behest, than with the explicit consent of sponsor states. These people are opposed to the United States, it's wealth and values, and the whole of the Western world. For the United States to do nothing, in this world view, is folly, and as a corollary, diplomacy is inaction. This doctrine holds that it is not safe to refrain from using power, and that any state capable and willing to sponsor terrorism must be forcibly prevented from doing so. This is why weapons of mass destruction were the reason given for invading Iraq, and why the invasion has failed by its own tenets.
Pakistan, as the article discussed, is a state much more likely to provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, and so Pakistan was either to be courted or attacked. The United States, being sensible, decided that bringing Pakistan into line ('courting' is too weak a phrase for the policy) made more sense than invading the foremost nuclear Muslim state. In this process, the Bush Doctrine admitted a fatal error: it allowed Pakistan to come on board and keep it's nukes. Alliance through disarmament may have been too much to ask for, but it was essential for this policy to work. Losing the alliance with Pakistan, after having helped them disarm, would have been disappointing but not globally destabilizing. Losing a nuclear Pakistan is terrifying. Expediency, as in most military affairs, was a flaw, and a consequence is the current political situation in Pakistan. The pro-US dictator is holding onto power, and more or less has to if Pakistan's nuclear capability is not to be let loose piecemeal. Piecemeal nukes are terrifying.
This isn't a good thing, and I can't ignore the decent person voice that says that the democracy protesters are right, that this dictator is bad, and that the general will of the people comes before preserving unfair power structures. This isn't good, and the whole affair is too rough a thing, too unjust a thing to let slow change fix. But this is what it demands. Ideology inevitably gives way to realpolitik, and to justify it I'd have to extend this social contract to the whole human community.
I'm not doing that. I'm not forgiving oppression. But it's a bleak day, a bleak era, and while it isn't 1939 all over again, it feels a good deal like January 1936.