A poster from demonstrations against the United States and Soviet Union nuclear arms race, 1980 © National Museum of American History
So what might follow upon the end of the Russian war in Ukraine? The utter vanquishing of one side or another, as happened in World Wars I and II, is exceedingly unlikely to conclude the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv, so those prior outcomes may seem to lack pointed relevance as exact points of comparisons to what lies ahead. The strategic parity between the USSR and the U.S. at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and what that parity soon enabled, does offer some possible correspondence to the conditions that may prevail as the hurting stalemate in Ukraine draws to some sort of truce. But the immediate aftermath of this war, too, can offer a rare opening to fresh clarity, revised priorities, and unprecedented choices. For our purposes, the main note of a negotiated end to hostilities, whenever and however it comes, will be one of what did not happen.
As Henry Stimson glimpsed the apocalypse in the bombs he ordered dropped on Japan, and as John F. Kennedy felt an apocalyptic chill overshadowing the decisions facing him over Cuba—so, in 2022, a broad population confronted directly, if only for a time, the transcendent peril represented by the fate of the earth having fallen into the hands of a Vladimir Putin. For all of what Ukraine has suffered and will continue to suffer, that must stand as the permanent measure of this war’s meaning.
The word apocalypse most commonly suggests a world-ending calamity, but its Greek meaning is simply “unveiling,” which is why the last book of the Bible, Apocalypse, is also called Revelation.
As I have already described, the war in Ukraine has offered a clarifying number of unveilings, bringing to the fore what can seem—to this aging anti-war activist, at least—like new or neglected presuppositions. Valiant Ukrainian fighters laid bare the truth that institutions of liberal democracy are worth dying for, even as they fought, less abstractly, to protect vulnerable women, children, and old people. The Ukrainians made clear that violence in defense of democratic principles can be warranted. For two generations of Westerners soured by wars of choice in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, that was not self-evident before this year.
In an unveiling of another order, the progression of the war upended assumptions about any nuclear use being inevitably tied to doomsday, the Balance of Terror that served as the key mechanism of great power reciprocity—and restraint—since early in the Cold War. That is so because the contemporary Russian dogma of “escalate to de-escalate” implies that using theater nuclear weapons need not automatically lead to armageddon. The theory has not been tested, of course, but this possible move to so-called “usable nukes,” implied by Russian rhetoric and by quiet adjustments in Pentagon war planning, must be reckoned as a possible game changer. Whether it will, in fact, mark the civilizational game over after all no one knows.
But let’s say the era of usable nukes is dawning. What, in the absence of the threat of suicidal levels of destruction, would form the structure of verifiable mutual restraint? The Ukraine war has revealed, that is, that the single stoutest pillar of the current strategic “balance” is off kilter—a dangerously leaning tower, as it were, of peace.
And in an unveiling of still another order, the war in Ukraine certainly overturned barriers on the road toward nuclear proliferation, barriers which had kept the number of nuclear “haves” at the remarkably low number of nine.
But a multitude of nuclear “have nots” have surely drawn one large lesson from Ukraine’s having given up its nuclear weapons in 1994. After all, would Putin have so attacked a nation that could incinerate Moscow? As so-called “threshold states,” nations on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons, and then others, step across the acquisition line, a cascade of nuclear proliferation can be expected to follow from Russia’s brutal aggression. The context for this all but inevitable surge, of course, is the fact that the systems and structures of arms control are all but dead. This unleashing marks the end of the movement to abolish nuclear weapons. Indeed, it would be naïve to think that a fiercely escalated nuclear arms race, involving multiple nations, has not already begun.
And yet: the case for leaving nuclear weapons behind, at least through “prohibition,” if not outright “elimination,” has never been stronger. This striking epiphany deserves emphasis: that the human future found itself fully in the grip of a sociopath like the nuclear overlord Vladimir Putin is an absolute exclamation point on the nuclear age.
Obviously, as “revelations,” these two propositions stand in radical opposition. More nukes! No nukes! Each claims to be the one and only instance of an urgent truth. Each claims the mandate of history, if not of heaven. This is not a paradox. It is a contradiction.
But instead of leading to mere bafflement, which always shores up the status quo, such confrontation with a seemingly unworkable pair of antitheses has at times been the precondition of an all-changing breakthrough.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed, “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” The ability to function, in this context, means moving from the paralysis of contradiction to the resolution of action. When the way is blocked, go around.
That has happened before, as we saw with our examination of previous post-war moments, other instances of radical polarity. As was true in 1918 and 1945, the war in Ukraine will draw to its conclusion at a fork in the road. One direction leads to more of the same, the other to something different. On matters of nuclear weapons policy, strategy, accumulation, and ultimate use, human beings will go one way or the other:toward more nukes and ultimately their use, or toward fewer—and ultimately none.
It is possible—perhaps likely—that future-shaping choices will continue to be exclusively made by national security elites, with their corporate underwriters, but perhaps not. With the stakes so high, the place of this divergence, as it comes into view, needs to be considered, contemplated, thought about by everyone who can imagine a time yet to come. That has been the purpose of this argument.
For a brief time—because this is what sometimes happens in the aftermath of brutal wars or fearful near wars—habits of denial and complacency can be put aside. Imagine if Trump were Vladimir Putin’s opposite number in power during this war. Who then would be detached? Who then would be exempt from responsibility?
But no imaginary scenario can compete with Putin’s having made actual the prospect of a spasm of world-destroying explosions and radiation from thousands of ICBMs and intercontinental bombers. That it has not yet come to such an outcome results in part from the Russian leader’s own mysterious choices, as well as from just-wise-enough refusals by adversaries, centered in NATO, to press him to the breaking point.
But the worst will also have been avoided, if that continues to be so, by “plain dumb luck,” the phrase Dean Acheson used to describe the successful outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Knowledge of this most recent hair’s breadth escape can form the ground of a new societal and political wisdom—but only if it is upheld in councils of state and at kitchen tables alike.
Choosing is what makes humans human, and wars, by stripping away what makes complacency possible, do nothing more powerfully than force decisions. The nuclear dilemma has reached the point, so to speak, of its own critical mass. The question now is: will the renewed chain reaction of self-perpetuating arms accumulation be allowed to run on to the point of explosion?
Retaining the ability to function in the face of radical contradiction is how Fitzgerald defined virtue, but then he went on to define what he meant by that: “One should, for example,” he wrote, “be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
As the guns of war in Ukraine—God willing—fall silent, the catastrophe for the Ukrainian people will be monumental, and the security challenges for Europe, NATO and therefore the U.S. Defense Establishment will be all-consuming. Refugees, rebuilding, economic recovery, war-caused global famine, the new diplomatic landscape, the adjudication of war crimes, shoring up Ukraine’s cultural integrity, reknitting Moscow into the global economy, the Russian people—into the human family. All of that will dominate discourse.
But still looming over everything will be the nuclear shadow. As before, we humans will try to avoid facing such peril directly. Even when the war in Ukraine dragged on toward stalemate, dropping from the top of the news, the fear of armageddon receded. Pundits stopped writing about the possibility. The default position of a nuclear status quo, heading off into an indefinite accumulation of new systems, technologies, and capacities, is always at the ready, to keep things going as they have been for 70 years.
When the war in Ukraine is finally over, the danger of nuclear catastrophe may seem to have passed. But will it have?
That we humans have proven ourselves, since 1945, mostly incapable of taking the prospect of mass annihilation seriously enough to really challenge it, may amount to our most grievous contemporary flaw. Single factor analyses are normally to be avoided, but the near-miss apocalypse of the fuse Putin lit in Ukraine is a radically singular factor, worthy in the war’s aftermath of an all-excluding preoccupation. Perhaps the time has come for us to confront this problem head on, instead of aslant.
Such a reckoning would begin with a direct unpacking of the still sacrosanct doctrine of nuclear deterrence. Since that accommodation was put in place as the ground of great power stability, especially after the peak anguish of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a certain relaxation of worry defined public attitudes. No more air raid drills, with children crouching under desks. No more fallout shelter signage in subways. No more grim warnings from world leaders. That relaxation, grounded in disingenuous political rhetoric promising an “eventual” elimination of nuclear weapons, enabled the world’s public to turn away from what was actually happening with nuclear arsenals from the sixties on. Yes, with that 1963 Test Ban Treaty, Kennedy set the arms control momentum moving, but the arms race continued: by 1985, there were 63.632 nuclear weapons on the planet. That explosive growth took place under the newly invented rubric of “mutual assured destruction.” With MAD, deterrence had its own special acronym. And as acronyms did so often in Washington, this one, even dripping with irony, obscured the real meaning of what was at stake. Robert McNamara, MAD’s architect, had made it explicit though: “Deterrence of nuclear aggression . . . means the certainty of suicide.” Mutual suicide for the aggressor and the retaliator alike. Yet life on that knife’s edge—life under that sword of Damocles—could seem peaceful enough, and, over time, not so threatening.
In one sense, nuclear deterrence has obviously worked—so far. But in addition to apparently giving nuclear armed nations a reason not to launch, the dogmas around nuclear deterrence have underwritten the financial benefit of vast corporate interests, the privilege of a national security aristocracy, and the power systems of political elites—in Russia, in China, and of course in the United States.
Thoroughly woven into the fabric of defense policy, and the broader population’s economic and political way of life, the cult of nuclear deterrence has been self-justifying and self-sustaining. Even after the end of the Cold War, its generating context, nuclear deterrence has repeatedly thrown back all attempts to question it.
But the doctrine has always depended on the primal fact of that general human reluctance to really face its essential truth—that nuclear deterrence depends on the immediate readiness to instantly kill millions of innocent human beings. Even writing such a sentence takes away its gravity. It bears repeating: nuclear deterrence depends on the immediate readiness to instantly kill millions of innocent human beings.
That is what those very human beings find impossible to actually contemplate, much less justify, which is why deterrence theory survives its every challenge. Citizens happily leave thinking about the unthinkable to those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Despite my claims to anti-war consistency, I fell into that complacency myself, but Putin, frankly, frightened me out of it. I cannot speak for other people, some of whom also seemed jerked into a new nuclear anxiety, but over the months over the war’s unfolding, most worry about the Russian’s aggression seemed dissipated in a range of nettlesome particulars—from the war’s effect on oil prices, the global food supply, and inflation on one hand, to authentic empathy for the suffering of innocents and refugees on the other. But for me, even as I shared such concerns, Putin’s nuclear bluster—“This is not a bluff!”—cut through everything else, forcing me into this unwanted act of rational computation—thinking the unthinkable again in a sustained way for the first time in years.
Others were blasé about the nuclear danger, including some who called for much more aggressive interventions from NATO—to the point of open warfare with Moscow. Such impulses struck me as rooted in a vast ignorance of twentieth-century history, how close the world had come to nuclear catastrophe, and what that would have meant.
That peril never really passed. Without ignoring the range of other tragedies coming in the wake of Putin’s war, I do believe that this all-surpassing revelation—the immediacy of a transcendent threat—is one that ought to be widely shared, simply because the unthinkable unthought-of can kill us all. Omnicide.
Putin prompted a direct look into the dark well of absolute evil—not so much his own, but the evil of the mere existence of the nuclear arsenal itself, for which the Russian leader might have served only as a fuse lighter. But to stare into such an abyss, as Nietzsche warned, is to risk having the abyss stare back, and what you see then “is a reflection of your own inner evil.”
To some, as the war in Ukraine unfolded, the doctrine of mutual assured destruction seemed to work again, with the delicate East–West Balance of Terror having been maintained after all. True—as of this writing at least, six months into the war—the worst did not happen. The United States and Russia came to the edge of a horrible collision, but neither nation had recourse to nuclear weapons. Putin has been given ample reason to keep the ultimate sword in its scabbard, and leaders in the U.S. and NATO have done likewise. Isn’t that shared restraint a result of the deterrence posture embedded in MAD? Perhaps so. The Balance of Terror balanced, as it were, by the balance of interests. But whatever apparent transactional efficacy seems so far to have justified the quite explicit threat to annihilate millions of innocent people, the ground on which this strategy stands is simply evil, radical evil, evil itself.
Even short of the launching of a nuclear holocaust, the national security strategy based on mutual assured destruction requires and assumes—a priori—the disciplined readiness of nations to bring about the staggering outcome. Yet even to threaten such mayhem is somehow already to be guilty of it. This must be what Nietzsche meant by “your own inner evil”—the evil precondition that preexists the evil act. The moral corruption of mutual assured destruction, which alone justifies the United States and others in the ongoing possession of their arsenals, is comprehensive, immediate, and unequivocal.
Yet the deterrence status quo, even as the war pounds on in Ukraine, seems stronger than ever. It is underwriting China’s brand new crash construction of hundreds of nuclear missile silos; the deterrence status quo is fueling North Korea’s rapidly advancing testing program of missiles that can directly target the U.S.; the deterrence status quo is allowing the Iran nuclear agreement to be sidelined instead of revived, even as Iran brazenly advances its nuclear weapons program; and the deterrence status quo is incentivizing multiple non-nuclear nations—those “threshold nations”—to exploit the arms control void and develop a nuclear deterrence posture of their own. Ukraine is the starter’s gun for the last leg of an ever more crowded nuclear arms race—the finish of which may be the finish of all.
Nuclear deterrence underwrites all of this. As the foundational source of global security, Ukraine lays it bare as a delusional myth. Nuclear deterrence, for all of its academic, diplomatic, martial, and cultural respectability, is the ultimate amorality. That is the great unveiling.
The point of this reflection is not that Putin has been in any way deterred from doing even worse in Ukraine or elsewhere by the threat of what the U.S. nuclear “triad” would do if he crossed the fabled line. For our revelation’s sake, it does not matter that, as of this writing, the Russian has stepped back from breaking the nuclear taboo, any more than it matters that Donald Trump closed out his term in the White House without actually having “pressed the button” that his military chiefs, through open vows of disobedience, were desperately trying to defuse. In both cases, the revelation was the same: the locus of transcendent nuclear risk lies not with the impossible complexities of military command, control, and communication; not with the dangers of hair-trigger launches or false warnings; not with the degradation of arsenal safeguards or so-called “loose nukes”; not with provocative force postures or nihilistic non-state actors. No, the transcendent nuclear risk lives in the mind, heart, soul, and will of the individual who has the legal authority and power of command to start a nuclear war.
Today, that power resides provisionally in nine persons (the heads of state of the nine nuclear powers), but it resides absolutely in two—the leaders of Russia and the United States. Given the torrent of consequences liable to follow on any order to use a nuclear weapon, no human being—and every human being is deeply flawed—should be allowed to possess such ascendancy. Even in democratic states, this dominance dwarfs any claim to supremacy ever made in olden times by divine right kings, who, at their worst, could only murder by the thousands, not the billions.
My point here, unlike points made above, is less moral and practical than political. The logic of MAD places an absolute power over life and death in the hands of one person, which contradicts every political aspiration for egalitarian self-determination. The bomb, simply by its still justified existence, is like a hidden viral infection eating away at four centuries’ worth of post-Enlightenment progress toward liberal democracy. Isn’t it possible that the contemporary tilt toward autocracy showing up in nations everywhere, including the United States, is tied to the undeclared despotism that is universally essential to nuclear weapons?
It is here that the contradiction between the two possible outcomes to the war in Ukraine becomes salient—and, because of the categorical character of this epiphany, resolvable in favor of one, not the other. All highly reasoned canons of deterrence and all protocols of fail-safe restraint notwithstanding, the mere existence of nuclear weapons inevitably undermines human security of all kinds. That is the case I am making, even as I acknowledge that my argument is, even now, far from uncomplicated. This well marked fork in the road, though, with the diverging paths clearly perceived, makes the case better than I can.
But here’s a question: If nuclear deterrence is radically evil, as I argue, why do so many highly intelligent and morally serious people not see it? A transnational nuclear elite—military, academic, political, scientific, corporate—blithely uphold this strategic order. How so?
In fact, many such experts understand the dangers of deterrence better than anyone, but apparently see its near-term alternatives as more fraught, even if they worry that the long-term trajectory ultimately depends—again and always—on “plain dumb luck.” Many nuclear experts do see that. They balance their perceptions on the knife edge of risk. If they have a deadly blind spot, as I presumptuously propose, it is still bracketed by goodwill and courage.
So who am I to stand against such people? I am nobody, but I am a nobody who sees through the eyes of a shell-shocked general’s son, and who, during the war in Ukraine, has seen the nuclear peril with a clarity that requires me to make this case: a Leviathan creature of death is at large in the land; first it blinds its would-be keepers to its own true character, projecting necessity and even beauty; and then, at a time of its choosing, it depopulates the planetary realm.
This is the epiphany, the unveiling, a nobody’s apocalypse—the old one: nuclear weapons must be eliminated.
Or abolished. Or outlawed. What? Am I back to where I started?
Early in this set of reflections I asked, “Was I wrong?” Was I wrong to have centered the moral imagination of my adulthood on the anti-war project? But clearly, that project has failed in its most important purpose, and now I see part of why. Reckoning with the failures of my kind to make the anti-nuclear case persuasively enough to spark second thoughts if not in the nuclear elite, then in the broad population of citizens, requires another look at where we critics have gone wrong. Earlier, I revisited my own falling short—that self-important finger wagging of mine—but a look at the larger movement’s misses is necessary, too.
Broad denunciations of “militarism” have fallen on legions of deaf ears. Even through the decades of the plainly misbegotten wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, little or nothing came of the anti-war Left’s scattershot screeds against all the ways the U.S. gets it wrong. Consider what was unchanged by those soapbox harangues: national security planning based on worst case expectations; interservice rivalry as an engine of weapons redundancy; the Pentagon’s indifference to civilian casualties; the weaponization of outer space; the exponential growth of U.S. military bases overseas; the militarization of police forces in American cities; the corporate arms trade abroad; the cult of guns at home; video game violence; toxic masculinity tied to, and underlying, all of these phenomena.
Nuclear weapons danger has indeed been lifted up across the years by the anti-war Left, but its warning flag has been lost in the field of multiple rote chastisements. Apart from the exceptional times when unjust wars have been blazingly manifest as such—say, when the pre-Iraq invasion lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were exposed—the vast population of U.S. citizens simply and understandably rolls its collective eyeballs at broad-brush anti-war ranting. That is why—with the exception of objections tied to that WMD deceit scandal in Iraq—the obviously failed American interventions in the Middle East drew so little authentic criticism from either political party or from mainstream media figures across the full 20 years of the martial foundering.
Speaking generally, the American anti-war movement, operating out of the best of intentions, has tended to take as willful pro-war complicity an understandable failure by most citizens to recognize what is hidden in the abstractions of national security doctrine—abstractions, whose obscurity is carefully and deliberately crafted by a vast enterprise of corporate investment, political lobbying, and campaign finance manipulations. When that citizenry is then implicitly, or even explicitly, denounced by peaceniks as dull-witted collaborators in the making of unjust wars, the cause of peace goes nowhere. Instead, there is a permanent absence of political pressure—of constituent pressure—that might force Congress to change U.S. military policy. These are the barbed wires that forever fence off the inexorably rising Pentagon budget. The anti-war Left famously denounces that budget, but is not wholly innocent of what allows it.
But these movement failures are not the whole story. There have been instances when a large American population, taking cues from war objectors, has embraced the cause of peace, leading to unlikely victories over entrenched interests of corporate military power, and dramatically altering the nation’s fate. I think of two instances in particular.
Of course, the anti-war movement in the Vietnam era stands out. Some now downplay the effect of that youth-based resistance, attributing the conscientious objection more to cynical self-interest of the draft eligible than selfless idealism—as if the former undercuts the latter. Others dismiss the peace movement as fickle, pointing out, for example, that demonstrations and protests peaked in the tumultuous years of 1969 and 1970, as if the violence of riots and killings on the American homefront frightened war objectors off, allowing the war to run on for years more. The movement may have dethroned Lyndon B. Johnson, these critics say, but it also unleashed Richard Nixon, under whom tens of thousands more U.S. casualties were suffered, not to mention the hundreds of thousands more Vietnamese.
Nixon’s war was in every way a political betrayal and moral outrage. But such calculus always misses the main event—the main triumph of the peace movement. Its inflection point was indeed President Johnson’s resignation—from the war and from politics. When, in March of 1968, LBJ ordered both a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam and the start of peace negotiations, he lifted the order out of the realm of self-serving calculation with the simultaneous announcement of his own withdrawal from the campaign for reelection as president. With that radical act of renunciation, the until-then supremely self-interested politician put a dead stop to the ever upward momentum of military escalation, which was certainly headed toward a larger war. Seeing the prospect of their present course as a road to defeat, some inside the Pentagon had been earnestly proposing the use of nuclear weapons. That course might well have been pursued.
Pressed by the anti-war movement, which, influencing Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, had transformed the political debate in that election year, Johnson finally had a counterweight to the hawks from whom he had until then taken guidance. He firmly accepted the impossibility of a U.S. victory in Vietnam, so much so that not even his successor as president, the warmonger Richard Nixon, could reverse the decision. Stalemate was the most America could hope for. Johnson’s order was an all-defining acknowledgment of error, and it obliterated the moral basis for the war, even if Nixon’s ruthless campaign ran for four more years. By then, not even stalemate was possible. The war’s end in an American defeat in 1973 was precast in stone by the anti-war movement that supposedly “peaked” in 1969.
It is true that the U.S. humiliation in Vietnam still eats at the nation’s sense of self-worth—think of that ubiquitous black POW/MIA flag flying mournfully everywhere—and many have blamed the traumatic social wound on those who took to the streets to oppose the war, but that is wrong. By accepting defeat in Vietnam, instead of pursuing a victory of ashes, reducing the Asian nation to rubble, America salvaged a shred of its honor, and saved most of its soul. The anti-war movement did that. The nation’s unresolved grievance, with its unfinished urge to scapegoat, obscures the moral reckoning that did, in fact, take place.
An equally potent popular movement took to the streets in the early 1980s, one that registers only faintly in American memory. It goes by the name of the “Nuclear Freeze,” and was sharply focused on the era’s newly felt danger of nuclear war. Driven in part by fears, beginning in 1980, of the new Reagan administration’s nuclear brinkmanship, as well as by global protests against U.S. nuclear deployments abroad, especially in Europe, together with anxiety sparked by Moscow’s version of the same nuclear belligerence, ordinary people everywhere felt a fresh rush of nuclear dread. A raft of doomsday-themed films and television shows reflected the anxiety.
Beginning in 1979 with a graduate student’s manifesto—a one page “Call to Halt the Arms Race,” popularly known as the “Freeze Resolution”—a grassroots campaign, calling for freezing in place the number of nuclear weapons, took off. With elegant simplicity, the movement demanded only an end of the upward momentum of the arms race, which by then had seen the accumulation of more than fifty thousand nuclear warheads and bombs. Soon hundreds of thousands of citizens—organized across the nation in local government bodies, as well as professional, academic, social, and community groups—had embraced the Freeze.
A culminating protest demonstration took place on June 12, 1982, when a million people showed up in New York as the United Nations Second Special Session on Disarmament was meeting. Soon, both houses of the U.S. Congress endorsed the Freeze, and the entire context of nuclear strategizing was transformed.
Finally, Ronald Reagan—ever sensitive to the actor’s nightmare of losing his audience—understood that the ground of politics had shifted under him. He saw that, for a vast population of his fellow Americans, he had become the thing to fear. But Reagan was nothing if not a man desperate to be well liked. Ignoring his most hawkish advisors and falling back on his trustworthy instinct for rhetorical flourish, he went the Freeze one better, claiming that the demand did not go far enough. He called not just for a halt in the arms race, but for its reversal.
Reagan may have been trying for a preemptive sleight-of-hand, but if so, his bluff was called by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose coming to power in Moscow just then transformed the global political moment. He gave substance to Reagan’s flourish, and together they moved “arms limitation” to “arms reduction”—the negotiations regime from Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) to Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START). In 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev jointly signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF); the first time the two powers agreed to eliminate an entire category of weapons systems, an accord that allowed for the heretofore inconceivable system of mutual firsthand verification of compliance. (Under Donald Trump, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the INF Treaty in 2019). The Nuclear Freeze Movement, that is, prepared Reagan to say yes to Gorbachev, and by doing so laid the groundwork for the astounding set of arms reduction agreements that enabled the two leaders to bring about the nonviolent end of the Cold War.
Reagan and Gorbachev made their astounding turn toward nuclear arms reduction by attaching to it an explicit aim of nuclear arms elimination. When Gorbachev, in a letter written in 1986, proposed the year 2000 as a date for that elimination, Reagan replied, “Why wait until the year 2000?” Their ultimate impulse, of course, was unfulfilled, whether because of their own disingenuousness, the mirror-like radical opposition of their inner circles, or the rank impracticality of the idea. It should not be forgotten, however, that two figures at twin pinnacles of world power ever agreed, if only between themselves, to such a purpose. The peace movement helped that to happen.
Ever since Hiroshima, the numerous campaigns to abolish nuclear weapons, even including those waged by formerly senior members of the nuclear establishment, have mainly run aground on two vexing problems: the ideas that enforcement of a universal prohibition on the possession or creation of nuclear weapons would require an intolerably tyrannical world authority, and that the elimination of nuclear weapons could only be achieved by the elimination of war itself—“general and complete disarmament” as a means of resolving disputes.
The former idea implies the nightmare realm of Orwell’s Big Brother, while the latter points to the impossibly utopian dreamscape, in which humans, being what we are, would have no place. Either way, such fanciful alternatives to a world balanced on the threat of its own destruction pose—so the pro-nuke objectors say—even greater real-world dangers than the status quo of nuclear deterrence. The armageddon threat may stand on a pinpoint—but it stands.
Other objections to the elimination of nuclear weapons abound. There is no getting rid of the knowledge of how to construct a bomb, which means a disarmed world would be at the mercy of any nation or non-state actor who defied the proscription and managed—as in a James Bond film—to construct a nuclear weapon. Nuclear reactors are a feature of the energy landscape, and an inevitable source of weapons-grade materials. Foolproof verification of compliance is impossible. Absent nuclear deterrence, conventional wars could be expected to ignite more easily, and more destructively. Without the regime of nuclear deterrence, the use of other weapons of mass destruction—biological, chemical, those coming in the era of artificial intelligence—would be more likely. Above all, nuclear haves will not surrender the political power enhancement the weapon provides, while increasing numbers of non-nuclear states will find the pull toward such power enhancement irresistible.
All of these objections to the re-embracing of the goal of a nuclear free world are significant. I have already reckoned with the naïveté of my own earlier embrace of nuclear abolition, finding it in hindsight to have been irresponsibly inadequate to the real requirements of such change. I wanted the international order as it is, but with nukes magically removed. the world as it is, but without nukes. Is that where I am now?
Not quite. I see far more clearly that distinctions must be drawn when considering what the wish for a world without nuclear weapons actually implies. But my main assertion here is that the war in Ukraine has so brightly illuminated the danger of the nuclear status quo that previously insurmountable objections to a change in that status quo can be met.
Return to the successful international agreement that clamped firm restrictions on biological and chemical weapons. The diabolically destructive poisons have been outlawed, as we saw, since the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which received a monumental ratification when the otherwise savage belligerents in World War II refrained from the use of such weapons. The Protocol has been reinforced again and again—even to Colombia accession in 2015. That the legal prohibition has not entirely stopped the development and even secret deployment of these systems does not make the Geneva Protocol less salient as a model for the prohibition of nuclear weapons—not at some far distant point in the future, but soon.
Indeed, the overwhelming success of the Geneva Protocol as an established principle of international law suggests the way a comparable legal “prohibition” of nuclear weapons could serve as a practical and realistic step toward nuclear “elimination.” A worldwide, time-tested measure of condemnation has shown itself to have tremendous moral force. And when it comes to altering attitudes on a scale required to change political and legal structures, a treaty-based appeal to the conscience of the world could be the first step toward transformation.
But the Geneva Protocol has proven to be a practical success as well. By demonstrating across most of a hundred years the viability of a transnational upholding of the prohibition of an entire class of weapons, it has shown that international norms can be enforced without resort to a tyrannical world government (even if, so far, the enforcement of the ban is not absolute), suggesting that, as it turns out, the fear of Big Brother is overblown. Indeed, since George Orwell dramatized the fear in the late forties, the United Nations, with its comprehensive collection of nearly twenty specialized agencies with global reach—handling everything from world health to international banking to famine and refugee relief to peacekeeping roles—has demonstrated that cooperative forms of cross border governance are not only possible but essential in an increasingly wired world. The fact that the UN has famously fallen short in crucial areas—not least in that of arms control—points not to the end of the story, but to the need for a new beginning.
The war in Ukraine has made that plain, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said so on the day after atrocities were committed by Russian forces in the town of Bucha. That was when, speaking via Zoom, he addressed the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member. He put the moment’s challenge directly: “Where is the security that the Security Council needs to guarantee? It’s not there. Where is the peace? Where are those guarantees that the United Nations needs to guarantee? Are you ready to close the UN? Do you think that the time of international law is gone?” he asked. “If your answer is no, then you need to act immediately.”
When it came to arms control, the UN had been unceremoniously shunted aside by the United States and the Soviet Union, which, when post-Cuba events forced the subject to ripen in the sixties, pursued the limitation and reduction of nuclear stockpiles in a strictly bilateral fashion. The exclusivity of that dual-track channeling of negotiations, and treaties resulted over the decades in the firm protection of the superpower dominance of the two nations, but also in the final unassailability of their two consistently excessive arsenals. More than thirty years after the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia still maintain between them an admitted stockpile of 11,807 nuclear weapons. How does that make sense?
Meanwhile, that two-track arms control regime effectively gave a pass to China, which not only has grown its own arsenal substantially, but has felt free to swat aside all suggestions that it, too, should be part of any international arms control initiative.
That is what the unassailed doctrine of nuclear deterrence has sanctified, and the power illusion attached to such malign prodigality is why across-the-board arms control is effectively dead. So no matter what else defines the present moment with its Ukrainian unveiling, the ascendance of a multipolar world—including a newly militant Europe and a hegemonic China, not to mention dozens of potential new nuclear powers, as post-Ukraine proliferation begins to spread—declares that the time for self-protecting Washington–Moscow bilateralism is over. That would be so even if the war in Ukraine did not make the prospect of that bilateralism’s near-term resumption unimaginable.Have I fallen back into the locked box of the unassailable structure of nuclear deterrence? Not quite. By the strange alchemy of an indefatigable human self-surpassing, the war’s end in Ukraine, when it comes, can provide a way out of this apparent dead end. As happened before in the aftermath of two savage wars, history’s door may be swinging open for an entirely reimagined structure of international concord. A much broader one. A truly global one. The very structure that the moment requires. As a practical matter of the rescue of civilization, the United Nations’ moment may have arrived. Again.
James Carroll is the author, most recently, of The Truth at the Heart of the Lie.