The near-future is comprised of three parts: 90% of it is just like the present, 9% is new but foreseeable developments and innovations, and 1% is utterly bizarre and unexpected.
(Oh, and we're living in 2001's near future, just like 2001 was the near future of 1991. It's a recursive function, in other words.)
However, sometimes bits of the present go away. Ask yourself when you last used a slide rule — or a pocket calculator, as opposed to the calculator app on your phone or laptop, let alone trig tables. That's a technological example. Cultural aspects die off over time, as well. And I'm currently pondering what it is that people aren't afraid of any more. Like witchcraft, or imminent thermonuclear annihilation.
Yes, I know witchcraft accusations are a major problem in some parts of the world even today: and there's a 1950s cold war replay between India and Pakistan, with hundreds of H-bombs on each side and a hot line between New Delhi and Islamabad. But witch hunting is passé in New England and Scotland and the Germanies, and nobody really expects Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama to start playing nuclear chicken like it's 1974.
So what happened?
Peel back the obvious explanation ("the cold war ended!") and there's an interesting technological rupture underneath.
Nuclear weapons have mesmerized military planners (and politicians and the public) for seventy years now, but they've only been used as offensive weapons during a single military campaign.
They have been used as weapons of intimidation frequently, but, uniquely, by being detonated on the territory of the aggressor (for example, in 1998). The perceived risks of retaliation are too serious to make them a useful battlefield tool: even if a nuclear power is facing a non-nuclear one, the perceived diplomatic and economic consequences of being first-to-use give an aggressor cause for restraint.
So why do so many governments seem to want them?
Rewind to the birth of modern military aviation in 1914-18: among the innovations of the first world war were tanks, poison gas — and, of course, the bomber. General Giulio Douhet's pernicious theory of aerial strategy, published in 1921, opined that [per wikipedia] "air power was revolutionary because it operated in the third dimension. Aircraft could fly over surface forces, relegating them to secondary importance. The vastness of the sky made defense almost impossible, so the essence of air power was the offensive. The only defense was a good offense. The air force that could achieve command of the air by bombing the enemy air arm into extinction would doom its enemy to perpetual bombardment."
There were several weaknesses with this theory, as originally proposed, and they became glaringly obvious when aviation strategists tried to put it into use during the second world war. While early deployments (by Italy in Ethiopia, by the Luftwaffe in Spain) worked quite well, Douhet had been writing prior to the development of radar: the RAF's integrated air defense network broke the Luftwaffe's offensive teeth during the Battle of Britain because fighter aircraft could find the offensive bomber forces in the vastness of the sky, and ripped the shit out of them. Then the British discovered in turn (and to their dismay) that night bombing was hopelessly inaccurate: the circular error probability for Bomber Command aircraft during the early days of the RAF bombing campaign over Europe was on the order of five miles. (The CEP is the radius around a target within which 50% of munitions fall. When your target is a factory and you're using 250Kg bombs, a CEP of anything much over a hundred metres means that you're going to miss it.)
A secondary idea was that civilian populations would be terrorized and their morale crushed by the damage inflicted by bombs; that tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians would die in the first few hours of a bombing campaign, and the pressure to surrender exerted on their leadership would be irresistible. This is the principle that was named "shock and awe" by one Donald Rumsfeld in 2002.
Well, it turns out that mass unaimed bombing is rubbish and doesn't hit the target, and you can inflict hundreds of thousands or millions of deaths from above without wrecking civilian morale sufficiently to bring down a government (much less a ruthless and bloody-handed dictatorship). The post-1943 allied bombing of the Third Reich did achieve some goals — but it typically took a 500-1000 bomber raid to knock out a single factory, with losses running between 0.5% and 3% of the attacking force during time over target. In any other military speciality, a tactic that involves losing your own forces at a rate of 1% per hour would not be considered a viable one ...
So, if massed area bombing didn't work, what was to be done?
The A-bomb was the obvious second world war answer to the problem: drop really big bombs, mind-bogglingly big bombs. One bomber could do as much damage as a thousand bomber raid! It could flatten a factory on its own! (Not to mention the nearby town the factory workers lived in.) The H-bomb took the logic a step further: flatten the entire city the enemy lived in, wrecking multiple factories and military bases in one go.
Fortunately for us, this didn't happen (after August 1945). By the time the cold war had grown icy enough for proponents of nuclear war like General MacArthur and Curtis LeMay to gain a following, Stalin had acquired a bomb of his own. At this point, a nuclear stand-off began, and we all survived because nobody wanted to die. Or see their families, friends, and homes incinerated even if they were safe in a Strangelovian bunker. Dropping the bomb became unthinkable, although its possession paradoxically marked the nation that had it out as one that could reasonably claim a place at the top table in military negotiations.
So, if nuclear bombing wasn't politically practical, what was to be done?
The first inkling came during the Vietnam war, with the use of laser guided bombs by the USAF to strike at North Vietnamese bridges and other difficult targets.
Putting a single unguided bomb onto a target is very difficult, but illuminating a target with a laser beam is somewhat easier. Laser guided bombs simply home in on the dot of light reflected from a target that's being illuminated by a laser. Early LGBs were expensive, balky, and took two aircraft per mission — one to aim the laser and one to drop the bomb. Nevertheless, a single LGB could often hit a target that had survived fifty or a hundred previous unguided bombing missions. "It was determined that 48 percent of Paveways [LGBs] dropped during 1972-73 around Hanoi and Haiphong achieved direct hits, compared with only 5.5 percent of unguided bombs dropped on the same area a few years earlier. The average Paveway landed within 23 feet of its target, as opposed to 447 feet for gravity bombs."
But LGBs are still somewhat expensive. A cheaper solution came to hand from the mid-1990s onwards, with GPS guided bombs for attacking stationary targets. JDAM kits, fitted to second world war era "iron" bombs, enable them to be dialled in on a target with CEP of under 10 metres: "B-2s launched 651 JDAMs with 96% reliability and hit 87% of intended targets" during the 2002 bombing of Serbia.
JDAM kits are ridiculously cheap compared to the cost of even the fuel and maintenance of a single bomber flying a single mission; so much so that it's cost-effective to replace unguided bombs with JDAMs in almost all missions. And with an accuracy multiplier like JDAM instead of a force multiplier like an A-bomb, it again becomes possible for a single bomber to inflict massive structural damage on an enemy nation — but this time with minimal collateral damage.
So here's my point:
Nukes were politically unacceptable, weapons that had no practical utility in the arsenal, because they threatened mass civilian casualties on an unthinkable scale. Smart bombs offer the possibility of achieving the same level of strategic damage as nuclear weapons without causing huge collateral damage. And indeed, the history of western air power in the 21st century has been of an increasing willingness on the part of politicians to bomb the crap out of developing world targets, because they know they're not going to lose aircrews of kill tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians in the process.
There's one group of people who might still want to acquire nukes for a practical purpose: "terrorists". (Scare quotes intentional.) But I think this is a paper tiger. Terrorism isn't an existential state, it's a tactic. People employ it in order to achieve political ends. Nuclear weapons are difficult to make because they require extremely exotic materials that the existing manufacturers keep under armed guard. As the Hamburg Cell of Al Qaida demonstrated on 11/9/2001, you can achieve equivalent damage using much simpler tactics. The collapse of the World Trade Centre buildings released about as much gravitational potential energy as a one kiloton nuke, and killed roughly as many people. But the 9/11 atrocities also demonstrated the limits of the terrorist spectacle: like Douhet's mass bombardment of cities from the air, terrorism doesn't make the target population quake in their boots and plead for surrender, it mostly pisses them off and stiffens their spines.
I'm not saying that some terrorist group won't, at some point during the 21st century, get their hands on or build — and then detonate — a nuclear weapon. I am saying that if they do so their surviving friends will end up cursing their names, and the scheme will backfire spectacularly. This is the 21st century, and the way we commit atrocities in the 21st century is with home-made GPS-guided stealthed cruise missiles. Nuclear weapons belong on the scrap heap of history because they're crude, blunt instruments, stupid and impossible to use with any subtlety.