Three quarters of a century ago, a new technology with multiple uses, benign and malign, literally burst on the world scene. The question was how governments could encourage what was viewed as desirable and discourage what was not. This meant trying to limit the number of countries possessing nuclear weapons, negotiating quantitative and qualitative limits on the arsenals of those countries that did, and allowing countries to develop nuclear energy programs for peaceful purposes under conditions meant to provide confidence that they were not a stealth means of producing weapons.
It turns out the challenge has proven to be at least partly manageable. The number of countries with nuclear weapons has been limited to nine and no weapon has been detonated. Building and operating nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants are demanding undertakings that require significant resources, access to technology, advanced manufacturing skills, and space. Only a few governments are capable of doing such things on their own; most require assistance from another government. Nuclear programs (or indications of them) tend to be observable. Confidence is high that attacks using nuclear weapons could be traced back to their origin, something that would invite retaliation and, as a result, discourage an attack in the first place.
Managing the challenge posed by this era’s new technology, cyber, promises to be more difficult. There are now billions of actors, as it takes no more than access to a cell phone or tablet or computer connected to the Internet. The Internet plays an incomparably larger global role in the civilian or commercial economy than does nuclear energy, a reality that make restricting the spread of technologies all but impossible. Not just governments but groups of a few talented individuals can have real impact. Attacks can often be carried out in a manner that disguises those responsible, which makes retaliation and hence deterrence far more difficult.