The Russian invasion of Ukraine has an eerie resonance; it was almost two decades ago that another superpower brazenly invaded the sovereign territory of a state on a pretense to devastating effect, deposing its leader and destroying its government, plunging the country into political, economic, and social chaos that persists even today.
One small difference. In the days after September 11, when the US waged war on Iraq—Is it still necessary to point out that none of the 9/11 attackers was from Iraq? Or that Iraq had zero weapons of mass destruction?—because we could and because we wanted to, we had no interest in annexing that country.
But that doesn’t erase the fact that we launched an unprovoked invasion of another country, wiping away the international norms that forbade such an action as though they were mere dust on the coffee table.
This is not to excuse Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, or his earlier invasion of Crimea, or before that Georgia or before that Chechnya. None of this is acceptable. It’s wrong when he does it and it’s wrong when we do it and it’s wrong when anyone does it.
But as should be crystal clear by now, the consequences go beyond the immediate conflict regardless of the success or failure of the military campaign. The erosion of international norms that demand respect for boundaries has devastating and far-reaching consequences.
And the erosion of some international norms inevitably undermines the holding power of other international norms.
Which is why, as we all stare in shock and deep dismay at the current war in Ukraine, I am bringing up nuclear weapons. The current crisis should remind us of two terribly important truths about these weapons that have the power to destroy all human and most animal life on Earth.
The first truth is that nuclear weapons enable Vladimir Putin to act with impunity and they are useless to prevent such action. That’s what it means to be a nuclear armed state—the weapons convey great power when their offensive use is threatened, and they are utterly impotent as defensive weapons or counter-offensive threats.
Do you believe Putin would make good on his veiled threat to use nuclear weapons if someone tried to stop his plans for Ukraine? If not, what norms do you think constrain him? Do you think he has, deep down inside, some moral line he will not cross, this man who has poisoned his adversaries and had journalists murdered?
And if it is true that he might, now or later, use his nuclear weapons, who will stop him and at what cost? Would the US or some European country launch a counter-attack, triggering a full scale nuclear war, knowing it would mean the immediate death of hundreds of millions of people, and the slow starvation and radiation poisoning of billions during the decade long nuclear winter to follow, culminating in the end of life on the planet as we know it?
If that gives you pause, and I surely hope it does, the second truth should stop you dead in your tracks. The norms preventing the use of nuclear weapons are as fragile as any other global norm. They are a binding moral agreement between nations that is in effect right up until the moment when it isn’t.
That moment could be any moment. At least half of the nuclear armed states, including the United States, have been presided over by unstable leaders who have ignored global norms or have indicated they would use their nuclear forces if backed into a corner. Some are right now.
A number of nuclear armed states have provided security assurances to countries that are under their “nuclear umbrella.” Those assurances seal a deal: “We’ve got you covered. You don’t build nuclear weapons, and if you ever come under attack, we’ll handle it.” It’s a guarantee that if a nuclear weapon is used against them, we’ll respond in kind.
That means it doesn’t even take two crazy leaders to make a nuclear war; it just takes one. And it means it wouldn’t take an attack against the United States to cause us to go nuclear—the attack could be half a world away.
To start with. After the first launch, all bets are off. But if you insist on betting, go ahead and put all your money on escalation to a global catastrophe. You won’t need the money anyway—there won’t be anywhere left to spend it if you are one of the unlucky ones who survive.
Nuclear armed states have been engaged in any number of wars and conflicts in the last seventy years, and none of them have resorted to using their nuclear weapons to win. Even when they ended up losing. That sounds like a strong global norm.
Yet many studies that have asked how we have survived so long in the nuclear age conclude the same thing: We’ve been very lucky.
And the luck of the past doesn’t necessarily apply in the present, and certainly not in the future. More nations have joined the nuclear club—there were five when the Nonproliferation Treaty entered into force in 1970; the number has doubled since, then dropped back to nine when South Africa disarmed.
But at least a dozen other nations could launch nuclear weapons programs—they have the capacity, the brainpower, the money, the technology, and access to materials. What is there to give them confidence that the international norms will hold, that defending themselves in the event of an invasion will never be necessary?
The refusal of the nuclear armed states to engage the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and their success in keeping their allies from joining the Treaty, does not provide confidence that the weapons states have any intention to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their defense posture or the numbers of warheads in their stockpiles.
To the contrary, we are currently in a new global nuclear arms race, with spending increasing dramatically as nations “modernize” their nuclear armaments, building new bomb plants and designing new and ever more perilous warheads and delivery systems.
It was the US that launched this new arms race, and we are outspending the competition four and five to one. In less than a decade, the US is planning (at a cost of tens of billions of dollars) to build new nuclear bombs plants and to expand production capacity to 80 new bombs or warheads every year, enough to replace our entire active stockpile every twenty years.
So, yes, we must take to the streets now, to decry the stupendous violence in Ukraine and the outlaw arrogance of Russia. The peace movement must once again find its voice and use it.
But please, please, please, don’t think it will make much difference—or at least not enough difference. Protests now, even if they are effective, are only stop-gap measures.
What we need, if we want to live in a different world, are concrete steps to re-set the table. Universal adoption and implementation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons would create an entirely different political world. The Putins of the world would no longer have the ultimate threat behind them should they decide to embark on military escapades.
And if they did still launch invasions and attacks, they could be opposed and stopped without the risk of ending all life on the planet. Accountability would be individualized; the consequences of one state’s actions could not be spread across the entire globe.
This, of course, is why the nuclear armed states are not inclined to give up their weapons. And this, just as surely, is why we must compel them to do it. Our future and the future of the Earth depend on it.