Should we learn to stop worrying and love the bomb?

Craig Perry has written his fifth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece looks at the Cold War and issues surrounding the atomic bomb. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

“There’s no such thing as a winnable war, it’s a lie we don’t believe anymore.” – Sting, “Russians”

The Cold War was a scary time for citizens on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The United States and the Soviet Union each wielded massive nuclear arsenals with the capacity to destroy the world many times over—and they came perilously close to unleashing these awful weapons on more than one occasion. Yet for all the anxiety this decades-long standoff entailed, it fostered an uneasy peace between the superpowers.

Once the United States demonstrated the terrible potential of the atom bomb at the end of World War II, it was only a matter of time before the Soviet Union and other would-be great powers sought to acquire their own nukes. By the 1960s, the two superpowers had so many warheads—deliverable by a triad of airborne, land-based, and submarine platforms managed by robust command-and-control systems—that neither side could launch first without precipitating a devastating counterattack. The era of mutually assured destruction had begun.

While such strategic deterrence has produced a degree of stability in international affairs, it also creates perverse disincentives for arms control. Any developments that might undermine this suicide pact—for example, by defeating incoming weapons (anti-ballistic missile systems), overwhelming missile defenses (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles), or making limited regional nuclear exchanges more plausible (intermediate-range nuclear forces)—are seen by the other side as dangerously provocative. Even the dramatic cutbacks of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the follow-on New START left Moscow and Washington with more than enough firepower to obliterate each other. In the nuclear arms race, at least, Russia remains every bit as powerful as its American rival.

Yet while mutually assured destruction makes large-scale wars between nuclear powers less likely, it paradoxically permits them to engage in smaller conflicts without fear of escalation. During the Cold War, U.S. nuclear strategy quickly evolved to deemphasize massive retaliation in favor of more flexible responses as the superpowers found themselves embroiled in numerous proxy conflicts. This stability-instability paradox also encourages nuclear proliferation among lesser powers seeking to guarantee their own regime survival. Although small nuclear stockpiles with limited delivery means may deter regional rivals (e.g. India/Pakistan), they offer no guarantee against a determined great power—and a rogue regime’s pursuit of the bomb can just as easily provoke crippling sanctions and preemptive war.

While the end of the Cold War reduced the risk of global thermonuclear war, it hasn’t done much to curb the enthusiasm of great powers to maintain and enhance their strategic forces. Shortly after the Pentagon released its 2018 nuclear posture review calling for new low-yield warheads and sea-launched cruise missiles, the Russian president publicly revealed several other weapons under development. Meanwhile, China continues to modernize its much smaller but quite capable triad as a hedge against first-use by its great-power rivals—and has likely reconsidered its previous, destabilizing support for Pakistani and North Korean nuclear ambitions.

Not surprisingly, efforts to ban the bomb—including the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—enjoy almost no support among nuclear powers and America’s NATO allies. Still, with the majority of the world’s states, the ocean floor, and even outer space now legally designated nuclear-weapons-free zones, there is a growing international consensus that nuclear warfare is beyond the pale. Despite some backsliding in recent years, the great powers are generally committed to arms control and nonproliferation as a means of preserving strategic stability—and even junior members of the nuclear club have existential incentives to behave responsibly. But whether or not you love the bomb, there’s not much point worrying about what’s become a necessary evil in our anarchic international system, which will continue deterring great-power conflict for the foreseeable future.

© Craig Perry 2018