Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in the US State Department, Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, and author of Renewal: From Crisis to Transformation in Our Lives, Work, and Politics.

Susi Snyder is Financial Sector Coordinator of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

The events of the past three months in Ukraine — like Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine in 2014, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the long proxy war in Syria — have given the lie to the claim that nuclear weapons prevent war. Nuclear deterrence might stop nuclear-armed countries from directly engaging in war with each other, just as it might stop proxy wars from escalating and spreading to the North Atlantic or the Pacific. But it is equally possible that nuclear deterrence has caused war and enabled national leaders to act with impunity.

Nuclear weapons have certainly not stopped Russia from waging aggressive war against Ukraine. On the contrary, President Vladimir Putin is using nuclear threats as a shield behind which to commit flagrant, grave, and systematic war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity.

States that possess nuclear weapons have frequently gone to war with states that lack them. The erroneous belief that Iraq had developed nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons led the United States and its allies to invade the country against the will of the United Nations Security Council, triggering a humanitarian catastrophe and two decades of insecurity in the region and beyond. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), by suggesting that the status quo of nuclear haves and have-nots should be maintained at all costs, has provided some cover for these actions, as well as for attacks on suspected nuclear facilities in Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

Some argue that the existence of nuclear weapons has prevented conflict among the great powers, thereby averting World War III. But that ignores the countless proxy wars fought in Africa, Asia, and Latin America throughout the Cold War and since, when the Soviet Union (and later Russia) or China armed one side and the US or its allies the other.

Laos, whose farmers are only now able to use their fields again, after decades of suffering the lethal effects of unexploded ordnance from the Vietnam War era, was unable to avoid great-power conflict. For Guatemalans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans struggling to create a community free from terrifying violence, the absence of great-power war simply meant delegated death and destruction.

Moreover, the definition of a great power is fuzzy. Political scientists and foreign policy experts have long debated the best measures of national power. According to US News & World Report, the world’s most powerful countries “are the ones that consistently dominate news headlines, preoccupy policymakers, and shape global economic patterns.” Using this metric, the publication’s top ten powers are, in descending order: the US, China, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It is worth noting that a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE (supported by the US) is actively fighting Iran-backed forces in Yemen right now.

Although the NPT entered into force in 1970, four more countries — India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel — have succeeded in acquiring nuclear weapons, and others have continued to try. That is why, in 2007, former US Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former US Senator Sam Nunn wrote a commentary in the Wall Street Journal calling for “a world free of nuclear weapons.” Nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War, they warned of a world of 30 or more nuclear powers and concluded that relying on nuclear weapons to deter war was becoming “increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.”

In 2013, the Norwegian government hosted a conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons — the first intergovernmental meeting that looked at what these weapons do to people and the planet. Speakers described the second- and third-generation effects of nuclear weapons detonations, which not only forced people to live through the experience of a thousand exploding suns but also shattered their efforts to start a family, rebuild their lives, and live with dignity and some sense of normalcy after suffering from nuclear weapons use or testing.

Subsequent humanitarian conferences in Mexico and Austria brought home the ways that nuclear deterrence also destroys lives. (A similar gathering is scheduled to take place in Vienna in June.) Nuclear deterrence requires demonstrations of nuclear capabilities, which have had devastating consequences for the affected people and communities in Australia, the Pacific Islands, the Central Asian steppe, the US, North Africa, and China’s Taklamakan Desert.

Nuclear weapons, like all weapons of mass destruction, can never be used within the bounds of the laws of war. Fortunately, the same determined efforts that almost completely ended the deployment of landmines and cluster munitions resulted in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entering into effect in January 2021.

The TPNW —  the only treaty that makes the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons illegal — was brought about by all those countries whose security was shattered through decades of proxy wars between nuclear-armed powers. Adopted by 122 countries, it constitutes a recognition that the laws of war apply equally to all states, no matter what is in their national arsenal.

Weapons designed to mass murder civilians, terrorize the world, and enable impunity for war crimes can no longer be relied on to ‘prevent war’. Another legacy of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and his willingness to brandish the threat of nuclear weapons will be a renewed drive to rid the world of them.

Anne-Marie Slaughter

Susi Snyder

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