Are Nuclear Weapons Responsible For A New Era Of Peace?
The advent of nuclear weapons accompanied a remarkable and somewhat unprecedented decline in large interstate conflicts. There has not been a direct conflict since two ‘great powers’ since the Korean War. Total War of the type experienced during the First and Second World Wars seems to be a relic of the past for those owning nuclear weapons.
Some would say that the greatest factor underpinning this decline in large-scale interstate conflicts is the positive de-escalatory effects of nuclear deterrence. This argument, generally coined nuclear deterrence theory, is a concept that has resonated throughout international relations since nuclear weapons were developed in the 1940s.
Nuclear deterrence theory relies on basic game theory, arguing any party involved within nuclear war games would want to maximise their utility within the given constraints. Since domestic nuclear annihilation is quite clearly the worst-case scenario, all nations would be very strongly disincentivised from executing military action with the potential to provoke a nuclear response. This would manifest itself in two ways – a general reduction in conflict as well as, in cases of conflict, limits to the scale and ferocity with which wars are fought.
This theoretical impact of reducing large-scale conflict is supported by the temporal course of history. Throughout the Cold War, the fear of nuclear holocaust quite clearly influenced how both the Soviet Union and the United States acted and may have been responsible for its failure to manifest into a ‘hot’ war. NATO’s flexibility to choose between conventional and nuclear responses to conflicts was thought by many contemporaries as perhaps the greatest factor deterring a communist invasion. When military tensions did escalate, the potential for nuclear war was quite clearly in the minds of both Soviet and Western leaders and often did have a de-escalatory effect. At the crux of the cold war, the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was likely the anathema of nuclear war which encouraged the de-escalation of conflict – without this spectre, Khrushchev would have had little incentive to heed American requests and withdraw missiles from Cuba.
A similar de-escalatory effect to that of the Cold War can be observed within the Indo-Pakistani conflicts which have emerged since the development of both states’ nuclear programs. The threat of nuclear war does have a strong deterrent and de-escalatory effect. Among other factors, such as decreased public desire and strategic utility to war and increasingly strong multilateral de-escalatory institutions, the effect of nuclear deterrence is considered a primary reason for the decline of large-scale interstate conflicts between ‘great powers’.
However, it would be erroneous to characterise the effect of nuclear weapons as bringing about a ‘new era of peace’. For them to have brought about such an era, they would need to continue to have the same de-escalatory effect which they have historically had. This is far from guaranteed.
Nuclear weapons, if they are used, demolish any facade of peace within their conflict where they occur. Whilst we cannot know for certain, as there has never been a bilateral nuclear conflict, a first nuclear strike would likely warrant an equal response, if opponents had the capabilities. This could lead to the maximalist escalation of war into total annihilation. It is little exaggeration to suggest nuclear weapons have the potential to lead to a conflict that eradicates humanity. Therefore, if a nuclear strike were to actually occur, it would likely have cataclysmic consequences which would be extraordinarily contrary to peace would far outweigh any past deterrent or de-escalatory benefits which nuclear weapons bring towards world peace.
It is far from clear that nuclear weapons will never be used and act only as deterrents within the future. Deterrence theory and its accompanying game theory within nuclear war-games rely upon individual actors acting rationally with their countries’ interest at heart. This is far from guaranteed. A mentally ill leader in a state without adequate checks on nuclear launches, such as a waning North Korean or even American leader could very easily irrationally launch a nuclear strike which leads to war. An ailing leader or one about to be removed from power would have little personal incentive to avoid to use of nuclear weapons. With nine states suspected to have nuclear weapons, and the potential for many more to develop them, an unwarranted irrational future strike cannot simply be dismissed. Even the slightest risk of either happening broadly undermines the idea that nuclear weapons have brought about a ‘new age of peace’.
There is also the further threat that terrorist organisations may get their hands on nuclear weapons in the future. Whilst currently all nuclear sites fortunately currently appear to be quite well protected, future instability and the potential future proliferation of nuclear weapons to other nations which might be less able to adequately secure nuclear sites means that this is a possibility which, again, must be strongly considered.
Most importantly undermining the argument of nuclear deterrence, however, is the fact that the nuclear peace which has been historically secured was fragile at best. There are numerous instances within the Cold War where peace was secured by little more than sheer luck. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, different leadership at the helm of America or the Soviet Union could have potentially led to nuclear war. In 1962, the discretion of a single nuclear submarine officer, Vasili Arkhipov, prevented the firing of a nuclear torpedo which could have sparked the beginning of a nuclear conflict. In 1983, when a Soviet missile detection system erroneously detected several nuclear missiles had been launched, the discretion of soviet officer Stanislav Petrov was responsible for not reporting the need for a Soviet response. Luck cannot simply be expected to continue to work in favour of peace in the coming years.
It is easy to take a deterministic view, suggesting that nuclear weapons historically stopped conflict and will continue to do so. In reality, the picture is much more nuanced. Whilst, under our historical course of events, nuclear weapons have been a strong deterrent and de-escalatory force, they equally carry the very real possibility of escalating a future war into a nuclear war. While nuclear weapons have thusfar had a peacemaking effect, there is little concrete reason to believe they will continue to do so.