Second, the fight over Ukraine significantly increases the likelihood of a nuclear war. Many experts claimed that Russia would not invade Ukraine, but it did, highlighting the very real risk that Russian President Vladimir Putin could still use nuclear weapons, particularly if Moscow continues to lose the war. President Joe Biden recently urged Putin not to use nuclear weapons, a move that would end an invaluable 77-year taboo and alter the course of history, with potentially terrible costs.
Third, the idea that nuclear deterrence simply enables conventional aggression is not how most people think nuclear deterrence works, nor how it should work. Most observers understand deterrence to be based on the terrifying threat of nuclear annihilation, the ever-present risk of imminent death. Most would like the system to be Out of placebut they had become insensitive to risk.
Ukraine changed that. At first, almost 70 percent of American adults he feared that the invasion would lead to nuclear war, a reasonable and terrifying fear. It turns out that nuclear weapons do not “keep the peace.” On the contrary, they allow for conventional conflicts in which escalation to the “ultimate weapon” is quite possible.
Deterrence works. Russian nuclear capabilities and threats are deterring the United States. even the pentagon delayed flight test of a nuclear-armed missile, concerned that it might escalate tensions. This is the strongest argument for nuclear deterrence: it prevents larger conflicts like the two world wars that killed tens of millions.
But at what risk? The war in Ukraine shows that nuclear deterrence does not work as most imagined, and the world is now a much more dangerous place than we thought. The risk of a nuclear war causing hundreds of millions of deaths is at its highest point in decades.
This fact could and should stimulate a change in thinking about the value of nuclear weapons.
With that in mind, there are four paths the world could take.
The first, and unfortunately the most likely, is to continue with the status quo, but that would be deeply unsatisfying. Before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia, China, and the United States were already upgrading or expanding their nuclear arsenals. Now some US politicians argue that the US needs more nuclear weapons, though their justification is weak and self-defeating. The United States already has the most capable nuclear arsenal in the world, but that did not stop Russia from invading Ukraine. how could plus help with weapons?
Another path could see countries like Brazil, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Turkey acquire nuclear weapons, leading to the collapse of the international non-proliferation regime and more countries doing the same. With more countries armed, a nuclear war would happen sooner rather than later, with disastrous consequences.
A third option is to try to rid the world of “problem states” that possess nuclear weapons. Supporters of this approach would promote regime change in China, North Korea, and Russia to avoid wars like the one in Ukraine. That too would be a recipe for disaster. Despite Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, many nations have not joined the West in condemning it. Meanwhile, China is integrated into the global economy and North Korea is paranoid and on alert. It is not feasible to eliminate any of these governments.
That leaves a fourth possibility, the most promising and the safest. Recognize that nuclear weapons are the problem, and instead of creating a world with more nuclear weapons or overthrowing rogue governments that have nuclear weapons, the world needs to eliminate nuclear weapons. It will not happen quickly, and the world would have to develop a truly stabilizing new security regime to replace the current system based on nuclear deterrence, but that effort must be the focus of international efforts moving forward.
One place to start should be to reform the United Nations Security Council, where currently the original five nuclear-armed countries – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – have permanent veto power over efforts to put end conflicts around the world. There can’t be a new security system until that deal is done.
One second is back to gun control. That includes reaching bilateral agreements between the United States and Russia to reduce nuclear arsenals (which will need to include limits on long-range missile defenses, among other challenges); conclude two international agreements, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (two steps that would severely hamper China’s nuclear program); and building support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the only emerging success story in the nuclear field.
Seventy-seven years ago, just two nuclear bombs ended World War II, but today nuclear-armed countries have more than 12,000 weapons, most of them far more destructive than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is now clear that the risk of continued reliance on nuclear weapons for security is even more dangerous than anyone imagined. It is time to go beyond nuclear deterrence. That is the best hope for the future of humanity.