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The New Nuclear Era

For many years, scholars and officials have believed that the nuclear problem was a relic of the Cold War. To the contrary, the world is moving closer to a new era that could be defined even more sharply by nuclear weapons, as Vladimir Putin’s threats against Ukraine demonstrate.

NEW YORK – Nuclear weapons have been a feature of international relations since August 1945, when the United States dropped two of them on Japan to hasten the end of World War II. None has been used since then, and they arguably helped keep the Cold War cold by forcing a degree of caution on both sides of the confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union. Moreover, arms-control negotiations succeeded in limiting both countries’ nuclear arsenals and stopped or slowed nuclear proliferation. Today, only seven other countries (the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea) possess nuclear weapons.

The question now is whether we are on the cusp of a new era of expanding nuclear arsenals, a more prominent role for them in geopolitics, and efforts by more countries to acquire them. Adding to the danger is the sense that the nuclear taboo against possessing or even using nuclear weapons is fading, owing to the passage of time and to the emergence of a new generation of so-called tactical nuclear weapons that imply less catastrophic results and therefore may seem more usable.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has made the arrival of this new era more likely in several ways. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine surrendered the nuclear weapons that remained on its territory in exchange for security assurances. Since then, Russia has invaded twice, an outcome that might persuade others that giving up nuclear weapons decreases a country’s security.