On the mornings of July 16, 1945 and August 29, 1949, the world was permanently changed forever. On these dates, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR, became official nuclear powers, and the possibility of a war more devastating, destructive, and deadly than ever before witnessed by human civilization became a very real, and very frightening reality.
Over the almost five decade span of the Cold War, through various incidents, accidents, and pure misunderstandings, the world had teetered on the brink of destruction on more than one occasion. But whether it be through clear thinking, pure luck, or the grace of God Himself, the keys never turned, the missiles never flew, and a second sun never bathed the planet in atomic light.
Just as a global thermonuclear war has never occured, neither has a conventional war between the various superpowers, regional powers, and alliances of the world. One can praise the creation of nuclear weapons or hate them, but one can never deny the fact that the only reason massive conventional wars haven’t taken place is precisely because of the creation of the nuclear deterrent. To understand this better , the concept of what being a nuclear power must be fully understood.
When a country acquires nuclear weapons for the first time, it does so out of a very accurate assessment of the fact that possessing nukes fundamentally and irreversibly changes the relationships between other powers and our New Nuclear Power (NPP).
Simply put, if a war is to ever break out between another nuclear power and our newborn NPP, the NPP can never be truly beaten. They can be defeated in that certain goals and ambitions can be prevented from being realized by the NPP, but they will never have foreign tanks rolling through the streets of their capital and a flag of a foreign invader planted above their capitol building (Berlin May 1945).
This is simply because of the fact that before any of this can happen, the foreign enemy would be destroyed by nuclear attack first. A potential enemy will know and understand that, and as such, will never push our theoretical NPP to the point where the NPP believes they will be beaten. This effectively sets a hard limit on how far a conflict can go, and many states simply find it too enticing and irresistible to turn down.
However, only after acquiring deployable nuclear devices, does the NPP come to the realization that nuclear weapons are so immensely destructive that a country can be utterly destroyed by their use. Although the NPP cannot be beaten by an enemy (this will always remain true) it can be destroyed by that enemy. A beaten country can pick itself up and recover after the conflict; a country devastated by nuclear weapons cannot.
It is virtually impossible. Whereas via a conventional conflict, a society’s culture can remain and even thrive after the war ( look at European powers), a society that has been obliterated in a nuclear exchange, will, for all intents and purposes, have been erased from existence. Not because there won’t be any survivors (there will be plenty of survivors), but because the post-exchange society will have absolutely nothing in common with the pre-exchange society.
Once this simple fact is realized by our NPP, the fundamental understanding that absolutely every move it makes from this point onwards is influenced by this fact is made. If the NPP does effectively nothing, it is essentially invincible – impervious to outside military influence. But if the NPP does do something, the risk that it can kick off a chain of events leading to a nuclear holocaust is very real, and very dangerous.
So this raises the question: what the hell are nuclear weapons good for? On the surface, they seem as more of a liability than an advantageous asset. To a certain extent, that is true. However the all-important fact still remains – they do limit conflict. As long as they are in place and are functional, they are an insurance policy against a nation getting beaten. If a nation is going to get beaten, the nuclear assets MUST be neutralized first and foremost. It also means that once these assets are gone (whether destroyed by a preemptive attack or used against an enemy), so is this metaphorical insurance policy. Therefore, the threat posed by nuclear weapons is more effective than the actual yield of the bombs. With this, is the genesis of perhaps the most misunderstood term of the 20th and 21st century in warfare: M.A.D – Mutually Assured Destruction. In layman’s terms, MAD is not an official policy, it is the collective result and effect of the combination of implemented nuclear policies (if someone ever starts speaking about the US policy of MAD, immediately disregard everything that comes out of their mouth – they don’t know what they’re talking about.)
A gross oversimplification that many hold of MAD is that the idea suggests that both sides are 100% completely wide open to unrestricted thermonuclear warfare and unlimited destruction. It could not be farther from the truth; what the term really means is that both sides have enough nuclear firepower to destroy the other, and that the firepower in question is configured and set up in such a way that renders it invulnerable to a preemptive strike from either side.
With the concept of MAD explained, the examples of how nuclear weapons keep a (relatively) peaceful world almost present themselves. Gone are the days of massive wars on industrial scales, gone are the days of opposing industrialized powers meeting each other in a head-to-head scenario on the battlefield, and most of all, gone are the days of conventional world wars. To exhibit the most recent example of this, let’s go back to autumn 2017.
President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were openly denouncing one another, with Kim Jong Un vowing the destruction of America and her allies if North Korea’s toes were stepped on. As small of a country North Korea is, and as small as their nuclear arsenal is, it is still a functioning nuclear arsenal with working delivery systems, and the mere possibility of a ~25 kiloton device detonating over Seoul, Tokyo, or in a worst case scenario San Francisco / Los Angeles is too high of a price to pay to remove a fanatical dictator.
As backwards as North Korea may seem, they are a very relevant, regional power because of this, and they know it better than anyone. They know how the game is played, and they are sticking to the rules for the foreseeable future.
Another fantastic example of this is the dynamic between India and Pakistan, with both nuclear powers having roughly 120 warheads in their arsenals each. Much like the Soviet Union and America during the Cold War, India and Pakistan both commonly trade fiery rhetoric between each other, but with little to no action between the two.
Both sides work very hard to make all actions abundantly clear to the other so that no action can be misconstrued as threatening. In 2004, when Pakistan tested a new model of nuclear capable missile, they actually invited Indian government officials to observe the test to cool diplomatic relations between the two countries. The test also doubled as a message to the other nuclear powers of the world that, in essence, said, “Don’t worry, we know the rules of the game.”
It is because of the incredibly destructive nature of nuclear weapons and the readily available means of deploying them to any target in the world that we have not seen the massively devastating wars of the 20th century in the 21st century. The major warring powers of the past century are now the most prominent nuclear states of the 21st century.
With these nuclear arsenals, came a mutual understanding between all nuclear nations of the globe that war in the 21st century would be more horrible than ever, and that it is simply best to keep the arguments to a minimum.