While the invasion of Ukraine is a body blow to worldwide hopes for peace, it is still an opportunity to reassess establishment thinking about nuclear deterrence.
You might say: odd time to bring this up, when possibly the only thing keeping Mr. Putin in check is the nuclear arsenals of the West, just as the only thing keeping us from giving even more military aid to Ukraine is Russia’s nuclear arsenals.
The major powers are still firmly wed to the paradigm that it is nuclear deterrence that will prevent catastrophe rather than cause it. They see the risk of fundamental change as unacceptable—even as the potential of nuclear war between Russia and the West may be rising to the Cuban Missile Crisis level.
Deterrence apologists argue that it has prevented world war for 70 years. So far, so good. But we have also been almost miraculously fortunate. How long will our planetary luck hold? The world simply cannot continue forever with the instability of we-build/they-build arms races.
The nuclear powers obviously see change beyond deterrence as containing even greater risks than maintaining the status quo—an odd blindness to the reality that the avoidance of nuclear war is a vital (!) interest for each country shared by all—a universal fear of annihilation.
We have not worked hard enough to emphasize this shared interest as the basis for moving beyond the fatalism of deterrence by means of verifiable, reciprocal disarmament protocols. Yes, super-challenging. But are we trying hard enough? No, because it’s so much easier just to rely passively on how well deterrence works—until it doesn’t.
Unfortunately, the eventual breakdown of deterrence is downright inevitable due to the complexity of command and control in combination with human misunderstanding and error at moments of high tension. We are 60 years beyond the Cuban crisis without having faced this challenge as an international community.
Now we must add to the mix an isolated and deluded autocrat who has run into major unexpected obstacles with his cruel campaign to subdue another sovereign nation. Without knowing what Putin might do, President Biden and his NATO allies must walk the fine line between aiding Ukraine and slipping into World War III.
The ”idealism” of putting in place robust international institutions to pursue nuclear disarmament conforms more closely to the real choices the planet faces than the “realism” of the present paradigm. Our biggest problems, like the climate emergency, transcend the borders of nations. They require the resources and creativity presently being sucked into the rathole of war, attempted deterrence of war, and preparation for further war.
All nations, nuclear and non-nuclear, share a common interest in not being annihilated, and in reducing, ideally to zero, the possibility of a nuclear war that would have no winners and potentially affect everyone, either by nuclear winter or radiation carried by the wind. What sounds like a stick is really a carrot; with reciprocal nuclear disarmament, everyone wins. Who knows, it is even possible that some nuclear powers, even a pariah state like North Korea, might feel relief in letting go a terrible drain on their limited resources.
Given the global community’s vulnerability to the unilateral acts of dictators like Putin, we are all watching to see if the sanctions put in place so far might set some limits on his behavior. While sanctions failed to prevent war in Ukraine, in an increasingly interdependent global economic system, sanctions may have the potential in themselves to become an effective deterrent, even eventually replacing the unworkable nuclear deterrence system at the same time deterring nuclear violations. Sanctions are a potentially powerful stick.
Here the 60 nations, small as many of them are, that have signed and ratified the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons may have some leverage upon other nations who have not signed or ratified the treaty. They can publicize and advocate for the treaty, as NGOs like the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons have done, creating an educational tool to mobilize civil society worldwide.
Each small incremental step toward the final goal is valuable, building confidence that further steps are possible, even unilateral ones. Ex-Secretary of Defense William Perry has suggested that the United States could abandon its entire land-based ballistic missile system with no loss of security.
Even as we admire Ukrainian courage, try to help, and mourn their losses with them, it is not too early to address and overcome the fatalism which has allowed the nine nuclear powers to rely on the tenuous instability of nuclear deterrence for so many decades. Our lives depend upon it.