it is probably the most common argument used in favour of nuclear weapons to say that they have ‘kept the peace’ since 1945. This argument claims that the nuclear weapons of the US (and to a lesser extent those of the UK and/or France), prevented a Soviet invasion of western Europe during the Cold War and prevented that war from becoming ‘hot’ and turning into WWIII.
The more universalist claim of this argument is that the possession of nuclear weapons, not just by the UK, France and the US but also by Russia and China, has somehow created a ‘stable’ situation in Europe and the world and prevented war between the major powers from breaking out.
‘Be careful above all things not to let go of the atomic weapon until you are sure and more than sure that other means of preserving peace are in your hands,’ said Winston Churchill.
This has been the mantra of US Presidents and British Prime Ministers ever since. If nuclear weapons are the reason we have had a period of relative and sustained peace since WWII, why would anyone wish to destabilise such an arrangement?
Let us look at the historical record. Has it actually worked or hasn’t it? Do we have irrefutable evidence to back up either claim? And if so, what are the implications of this?
- Let us suppose that the Soviet Union during the Cold War was determined to invade and occupy Western Europe and/or North America, and was only prevented from doing so by the existence of (American) nuclear weapons. In that case, why were not the countries of Western Europe and North America that were not protected by the American nuclear umbrella (i.e. Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, and until 1982, Spain) invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union?
2 Let us imagine that after the invention of the nuclear weapon, the world has been much more peaceful than it was before. That would be evidence that nuclear weapons have ‘kept the peace’ since 1945. Even in Europe, however, there have been wars since WWII in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Cyprus; invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, coups in Poland, Greece and Spain. Prior to WWI, Europe enjoyed a period of almost 100 years of relative peace, broken by the Crimean War and other smaller spats between France and Prussia, etc. It is not historically accurate to suggest that the world – or Europe – has been in any sense more peaceful since 1945 than it was before then.
3 What else has changed in the world since 1945 that might account for some of the ‘peace’ that has been achieved since then? Is the existence of nuclear weapons the only explanation for why there has not been a World War III?
- The United Nations and with it the universal commitment to avoid war
- The Geneva Conventions and treaties regulating certain weapons and behaviours in wartime
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Amnesty International
- IMF, World Bank and thousands of development agencies
- UN peacekeeping missions, the OSCE, African Union
- Development of mediation, conflict resolution and other peacemaking tools
- Growth and spread of democracy and civilian control of military forces
- European Union and growing economic interdependence of all countries
- air travel, television, mobile phones, computers, the internet