“Mutually Assured Destruction” has been the MO of the world’s nuclear powers for decades. If Russia points a giant nuclear warhead toward the U.S., we would gear up to point an even more massive missile their way, and then, in theory, Russia shrugs its shoulders and says, “Eh, not worth it.” They would be completely “deterred” from advancing a nuclear attack based on the reality that doing this would mean the entire country, continent, and ultimately, the entire world, would become obliterated as we know it; the cost and the risk greatly outweigh any benefit. According to this thesis, the existence of nuclear weapons makes the cost of war seem frighteningly high and thus “discourage[s] states from starting any wars that might lead to the use of such weapons” (Kenneth Waltz, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Better,”) The idea that nuclear weapons make conventional war safer is a widely used as a framing for why we need nukes at all, with one specific reason being framing that nuclear weapons can still be the equalizer against superior conventional forces.
The official NATO website was updated as recently as a few days ago (May 17, 2022), and reads in its header, “NATO is committed to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, but as long as nuclear weapons exist, it will remain a nuclear alliance (emphasis my own).” What happens to the theories of “Deterrence” and “Mutually Assured Destruction” when we take a closer look? What is the possibility for NATO ever disbanding because a nuclear alliance is no longer needed? If all of the over 12,000 nuclear warheads in the world somehow magically disappear, would we be better off? Or would these theories prove correct, and would World War III start imminently with conventional weapons (or sticks and stones, as the saying goes)?
A recent (May 23, 2022) headline reads, “‘Destroy whole UK in two minutes!’ Russia MP threatens nuclear strike in on-air outburst” with a summary below, “A RUSSIAN MP has boasted during a TV interview that a nuclear strike could “destroy the whole UK in two minutes” amid mounting hostility between London and Moscow.”
This article certainly doesn’t seem to bode well for the theory that nuclear weapons make conventional war safer. On the contrary, Putin has been able to escalate war with Ukraine because of Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal, not despite it. Although the risk of this conflict actually going nuclear is low, the question is undeniably raised (again, for most, for the first time since the 19050s and ’60s) if future wars could escalate beyond the nuclear threshold.