GENEVA – An argument now widely heard is that Ukraine would not be in the trouble it is in had it retained its substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War. This has dangerous policy implications, and must not go unchallenged.
Despite its superficial plausibility, the argument does not withstand scrutiny against the available evidence about how states behave. Nuclear weapons are simply not the effective deterrent that most people think, whether the context is deterring war between large nuclear-armed powers or protecting weaker states against conventional attack.
The claim that the balance of nuclear terror between the United States and the Soviet Union maintained peace throughout the Cold War – and has been important since in restraining other potential belligerents (including India and Pakistan, India and China, and China and the US) – is not nearly as strong as it seems. There is no evidence that at any time during the Cold War either the Soviet Union or the US wanted to initiate war and was constrained from doing so only by the existence of the other side’s nuclear weapons.
We know that the knowledge of an adversary’s possession of supremely destructive weapons (as with chemical and biological weapons before 1939) has not stopped war between major powers in the past. Nor has the experience or prospect of massive damage to cities and civilian death tolls caused leaders to back down – including after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is now strong historical evidence that the key factor driving Japan to sue for peace was not the nuclear attacks; it was the Soviet Union’s declaration of war later that same week.