Mike Moore reminded me a while back of this verse from William Butler Yeats’ classic poem, “The Second Coming“:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Mike was thinking of domestic U.S. politics, but Yeats’ lines, penned after the carnage of World War I, still have global reach. The Soviet Union, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria have all imploded with weapons of mass destruction. Company men in the Kremlin and strongmen in the Arab world have had their appointments, as Yeats wrote, with the “rough beast, its hour come round at last.” They were swept away amidst anarchy and the blood-dimmed tide, their padded stockpiles of WMD of no practical use. Still standing: Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea, plagued with internal rot. Too big to fail? Works for banks and for Wall Street, but not for poorly governed states with WMD.

Now, as the Assad franchise ends, we seek word amidst the chaos of its undeclared stocks of chemical weapons. Saddam used these weapons against the Kurds and against a neighboring state. Will Bashar al-Assad add this to his résumé, as well? Or will his CW stocks fall into even worse hands? The most remarkable common element of the demise of these four regimes is that their WMD stocks have not – yet – been loosed upon the world when things fall apart and when the center cannot hold.

One aspect of the duality that comes with the Bomb is the divide between states’ decreasing and increasing their reliance on nuclear weapons. (For now, let’s avoid a discussion about states whose possession of the Bomb is mostly an artifact of Cold War history, even though they can’t or won’t acknowledge it.) In general, states that are well off are reducing their attachment to nuclear weapons. States that are deeply troubled are becoming more attached. China is the big question mark: will Beijing become increasingly attached to the Bomb as it becomes better off? The answer to this question will tell us much about our nuclear future.

We worry, with good reason, about the breakdown of deterrence in dangerous neighborhoods, about onward proliferation, nuclear terrorism, failures in command and control, and accidents. Based on ample empirical evidence over the past quarter-century, the most likely yet least studied threats have come from an entirely different category: the failure of states possessing WMD.