One friend of mine laughs when he remembers the nuclear “drills” of his childhood that involved crouching under the desks in his school classroom. Another friend has a vivid memory of a lesson featuring photographs of mushroom clouds. On older buildings in some U.S. cities, one can still see faded yellow-and-black “fallout shelter” signs. Nowadays they look almost quaint, adding character to a street the way an old-fashioned gas lamp would.
In politics, the discussion of nuclear weapons has for the most part faded into the world of high theory. We do talk about “nuclear proliferation” as a bad thing, and periodically U.S. presidents offer utopian visions of a world free of nukes altogether. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the time we in the West—not just the United States but Germany, France, and Britain, too—act as if nuclear weapons don’t exist and aren’t important. Except, of course, that they do and they are. They also continue to shape international politics in fundamental ways we don’t often acknowledge.
The current Russian war in Ukraine is an excellent example. On the surface, it does seem perplexing that NATO, the largest, most powerful military alliance in the world, with access to all of the most advanced U.S. technology, cannot aid Ukraine, a country in NATO’s backyard—by which I mean that it is unable even to lend a few anti-tank weapons to a would-be democracy that is defending itself against a kleptocratic authoritarian state.
But even though we have helped other countries defend themselves in the past, we can’t seem to help Ukraine. None of the excuses quite makes sense. The German chancellor keeps repeating that there is “no military solution” to this conflict, when there most evidently is. The American president keeps trying to downplay the Russian-Ukrainian war as a minor “regional” problem, when it most evidently is not.
No one wants to acknowledge the truth: We won’t sell even defensive weapons to Ukraine because Russia is a nuclear power, and because Russia keeps reminding us of that fact. Last month, the Russian government declared it had put nuclear-capable missiles near the city of Kaliningrad, in striking range of Warsaw, Stockholm, and possibly Berlin. To underline the point, they also put a few more missiles in Crimea. During the last NATO summit, Russia suddenly decided to get out its nuclear weapons and “practice” loading them. During its 2009 military exercises, Russia also “practiced” a nuclear strike on Warsaw. Of course these are bluffs and threats, designed to make everyone nervous. But because there is a sliver of a chance that Putin is crazy enough to kill millions of people, they work.
Bluffs and threats have also worked well for Iran, which hasn’t acquired nuclear weapons yet but keeps threatening to do so. In truth, the Iranian regime poses multiple, critical dangers to its own citizens, one of whom was recently sentenced to death for “insulting the prophet,” as well as to its neighbors. Without Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian crisis might have been resolved long before ISIS ever appeared; Iranian support has long kept Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations in business, and by some accounts, Iraq will soon be an Iranian satellite state, too. Nevertheless, Western diplomacy toward Iran has for a long time been sharply and almost exclusively focused on—one might even say distorted by—nuclear weapons. Because there is a sliver of a chance the Islamic republic is crazy enough not only to acquire nukes but also to use them to kill millions of people, this tactic works.
It’s a curious reversal of roles: In the 1980s, the Soviet leadership was terrified that a cowboy in the White House—someone who was so nutty he made jokes about signing “legislation that will outlaw Russia forever”—might just flip a switch and send a missile. Nowadays, it’s we who fear the madmen in foreign capitals, while our own large nuclear arsenal goes unmentioned and unacknowledged by a Western political class that is frankly embarrassed that it still exists.
And this, paradoxically, is extremely dangerous. If we truly want ourselves and our allies to be safe, we might occasionally have to drop a mention of NATO’s nuclear weapons into the conversation. There is no need to resurrect the Cold War, but the resurrection of the word deterrence might not be such a bad idea, if only to make the madmen think twice before they carry out nuclear exercises or secretly enrich some plutonium. Ninety-nine percent of nuclear strategy is a stupid psychological game, which no one plays with enthusiasm. But if you refuse to play it at all, then you lose.