The more nuclear weapons there are in the world, the greater the risk of a species-ending catastrophe involving them. That’s hardly a controversial statement, at least on the face of it. After all, the grave threat nuclear warfare poses to humanity’s continued survival is the very reason why the world’s major powers have long been committed—in treaty if not always in action—to non-proliferation and eventual disarmament. It’s also why there’s so much international concern about so-called ‘rogue states’ like Iran and North Korea acquiring nuclear arsenals. When it comes to these tools of ultimate destruction, it only takes one slip up and it’s game over for humankind.
All that as it may be, scratch beneath the surface of the idea that the more nuclear weapons there are in the world the less safe it becomes and you find a rather different reality. One, in fact, that is the exact opposite: Rather than make the world less safe nuclear weapons instead maintain the peace. Paradoxically, that too is—or at least should be—an uncontroversial statement. It’s certainly one for which the historical record provides ample support.
Namely, since the advent and spread of nuclear weapons in the middle of the last century, the major players in world politics have not directly engaged each other in open warfare. There’ve been proxy battles, yes, and during the Cold War years in particular the fear of conflict was never far away. However an actual war never materialised. This represents a truly remarkable turnaround, given that in the period immediately preceding the nuclear age there was not one but two world wars—life and death conflicts the world’s great powers determined to fight to the bitter end, no matter what the cost, human or economic. The horrors of the First World War were not enough to prevent another and had the US not dropped two atomic bombs on Imperial Japan the Second World War would have lasted even longer. It was only the use of a nightmarish new weapon, at that time in its technological infancy yet nevertheless still capable of obliterating entire cities in the blink of an eye, that could persuade as belligerent a regime as the Japanese to throw in the towel without the need for a full-scale ground invasion.
The verdict of history is clear then: Nuclear weapons have been a game changer in international relations. The major powers all know any open military confrontation between them would be the end of the world as we know it. There would be no winner and loser, as in conventional warfare. In a nuclear war everyone would lose. That is the very essence of the doctrine of ‘mutually-assured destruction’ to which all the major nuclear powers subscribe. Following a nuclear war what would remain of the human species would be immediately transported back to an altogether more primitive state, left to fight out future conflicts with sticks and stones (to paraphrase Einstein). Only the truly deranged could possibly desire that. And in the world of today perhaps only the most extreme of religious fundamentalists fall into that category, though even some of them may still baulk at the prospect of a return to barbarism.
The unavoidable truth is thus that nuclear weapons preserve the peace by making the consequences of war appealing only to the ideologically insane. No remotely rational person would ever consider it a serious option. Of course, increasing economic, cultural and technological interdependence has also played a role in preventing another world war. So too the disarmament and democratisation of a defeated Germany and Japan post-1945. However it’s hard not to judge that nuclear weapons have played the decisive part. They’ve raised the stakes in a way these other factors simply cannot. Economic disturbances, after all, can be weathered and bounced back from. Penalties and demilitarisation can be subverted and overturned by revanchist governments. However there’s no way back from the apocalyptic consequences of global nuclear war. That’s not something we need to experience to know.
Is it nevertheless an indictment of humanity—or at least the political systems we have constructed to serve us—that it’s taken such a terrifying spectre hanging over our heads to prevent another world war? Perhaps. Yet this Faustian pact, this deal with the devil in which the fear of mutually-assured destruction rather than love for thy neighbour has brought peace, has stood the test of time. It may be ugly. But it’s effective. That perhaps is enough, though in a world where nuclear weapons are both ultimate peril and guardian angel we’re left to grapple with an impossible politico-logical bind.
This bind is that on the one hand we fear and wish to prevent spread of nuclear weapons under the rubric of non-proliferation. Yet on the other fear even more a reduction in capacity in-line with the supposed goal of eventual disarmament, because this would risk upsetting the status quo and returning us to a state where world war was again a real possibility. Therein lies the paradox. An irresolvable quandary that’s an inherent feature of our times, which will persist until the point where social and technological advances render it a redundant feature of a bygone age, of relevance only to scholars of our shared past.