It is important to note that while the advent of nuclear weapons rendered a dramatic change in the overall strategic context of war from one that was based on “total war” to one that is now based on “limited war” as a result of “mutual assured destruction,” nuclear weapons failed to make war itself “obsolete” and in turn countries do not have full “immunity” from war despite the advent of nuclear weapons, as one scholar argued.
Thus, in the 20th century, nuclear weapons became yet another tool embedded into an array of conventional tools which could be used in warfare. But while nuclear weapons failed to make war obsolete and failed to provide countries with full immunity from war, nuclear weapons have made war much more defensive and much more limited in scope. The ultimate paradox of war is that when there are greater capabilities and technologies for war, the likelihood and scope of war diminishes and reduces. The likelihood of an “all-out war” has significantly diminished because of nuclear weapons, and nuclear weapons serve the role of a deterrent against an attack from an enemy force more than anything else. Nuclear weapons are not part of a “normal exercise of national power” as Hans Morgenthau once argued.
Why Russia has been able to go on the offensive recently against Ukraine and its European backers is because of a “nuclear backbone” which wards off a direct attack against Russia, hence, the deterrence role of nuclear weapons. Also, the combination of Russia going on the offensive with a “nuclear backbone” means that Europe and the United States are now playing defense. And by attacking first, Russia has now set the “limits” or the parameters of the war because Europe and the United States not only “cannot go as far” as Russia has gone or can go, but Europe and the United States were also not prepared for the Russian offensive because of their ‘Flights of Fancy’ in Afghanistan and the Middle East. As long as there is a “correlation of forces” as a result of nuclear weapons, if follows that one can wield the “freedom of action” which enables an offensive strategy which Russia has opted for against Europe and the United States.
But as Joseph Nye noted, both the potency and utility of war and the will to wage war has diminished in the 21st century, in part due to the advent of nuclear and cyber capabilities. Changes and evolutions in capabilities and technology have two major implications, according to Nye. For one, the “Fog of War” has been lifted due to these changes and evolutions, which means that there is a broader and more direct understanding of both what the other side can do and of the deadly and lethal consequences and implications of war. Also, the modernity of weaponry translates into the “rapid attrition” of war, and in turn, the rapid attrition of war means that war costs more than it did in the past.
The ability of one side to wage war against another side has gone “deeper into an enemy’s society” due to nuclear and cyber technologies, and as a result, both the utility of war and the will to fight has diminished in many places. Another paradox is that restraint is now the core element of an offensive strategy because of nuclear weapons, as Thomas Schelling noted. And as Henry Kissinger noted, the overall strategic context of “mutual assured destruction” perhaps serves as “the mechanism of nuclear peace.”
For the United States, the advent of nuclear weapons began with wielding a destructive capability with no clear aim and direction to one that now has a very clear aim and direction, namely, coping with the fear of Russia. As mentioned before, the West’s conflict with Russia has no clear “focal point” by which the war can be brought so that in turn it could serve as a basis or foundation for a resolution. Thus, nuclear weapons are an essential part of a broader strategy in dealing with Russia, namely, a strategy of coping with the fear of Russia, and as a result, nuclear weapons revolve around America’s overall relations with Russia. Hence, the likelihood is that rather than a future of nuclear disarmament, the United States, Russia, and China might pursue a future of nuclear enhancement or even nuclear expansion, especially if military budgets tighten in the United States.