In Ukraine the 77-year-old “Nuclear Peace” is threatened as Russian leader Vladimir Putin continues to threaten use of nuclear weapons if NATO-backed Ukraine does not stop defeating Russian forces seeking to conquer Ukraine and failing to hold on to the 18 percent of Ukraine Russia still occupies.
Despite the saber rattling from Russia, the major military powers continue the GNC (Great Nuclear Ceasefire) that began in the 1950s, when Russia got nuclear weapons, and soon realized they could not afford to use them without risking more destruction than past foes like the Nazis, French or Mongols inflicted. As more countries got nukes, the "we can't afford to use them, but they're nice to have" attitude, and the unprecedented truce, persisted. There have been wars, but not between the big players who have the largest and most destructive conventional forces. Because of the GNC a historical record was broken in 1986, as there had never been before, since the modern state system developed in the 16th century, been such a long period without a war between major powers. That is, the kind that could afford, these days, to get nukes. Since the Cold War ended in 1991 there have been fewer wars, at least in the traditional sense, and the GNC holds. Not only have there been fewer wars since the 1950s but there has been a lot less poverty, especially since the Cold War, and so many communist governments, ended in 1990. The communist nations failed economically and most of them rapidly reduced poverty once they had a free market economy. At the end of the Cold War (late 1980s) 40 percent of the world population lived in destitution (extreme poverty) but three decades later that poverty rate is down to ten percent. Most of the remaining extreme poverty occurs in badly governed areas of the Middle East (Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan) and Africa (Libya, Congo, the two Sudans) that are also the scene of wars or general disorder.
The downside is that there are a lot more low-level rebellions and civil wars, but overall, a lot less death, destruction and extreme poverty. Most people are unaware of this situation, because the mass media never made a lot of the GNC as it was something that was just there and not worth reporting. Besides, "nuclear bombs, power plants and medicine are evil" sells if you are in the news business. Calling any incident, with a lot of gunfire and a few dead bodies, a "war" has also been misleading. The fact is, worldwide violence has been declining since the end of the Cold War and the elimination of Russian subsidies and encouragement for pro-communist, or simply pro-Russia or just anti-West, rebels and terrorists. The media also has a hard time keeping score. If you step back and take a look at all the wars going on, a more accurate picture emerges. In light of that, take sensational reporting of the “Chinese threat” with a bit of skepticism.
There was a more recent example of “starving the violence” when Iran had economic sanctions re-imposed in 2018. This led to a reduction in violence because of less Iranian financial support for the foreign wars.
Most current wars are basically uprisings against inefficient, corrupt and oppressive police states or feudal societies which are seen as out-of-step with the modern world. The Internet and widespread adoption of smartphones made most people on the planet aware that a better life was not only a possibility but that many people, especially in the West, had lived the good life for generations.
Many revolutions are led by radicals preaching failed dogmas like Islamic conservatism, Maoism and other forms of radical socialism, that still resonate among people who don't know about, or care, about the dismal track records of these creeds. After 1991 Iran replaced some of the lost Soviet terrorist support effort. Iran keeps Hezbollah, Hamas, and a few smaller groups going, and that's it. Terrorists in general miss the Soviets, who really knew how to treat the bad boys right. No one has yet replaced the Soviets in that respect, an accomplishment even most Russians would rather not dwell on.
Nuclear weapons are good for you. While nearly 2,100 nuclear weapons have been detonated in the last 66 years, only two of these nukes were used in war. That was enough to terrify major nations into avoiding major (but not minor) wars. The continued existence of nuclear weapons has created a new dynamic between the major military powers. This nuclear standoff came to be known as "mutually assured destruction" (MAD) during the Cold War. As a result of MAD, there has not been a war between the Great Powers in Europe since the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945, a peace that has lasted 66 years so far. This is the longest period of major-power peace in Europe since before the fall of Rome 1500 years ago. The second-longest such period of peace among the European Great Powers was the 43 years between the end of the Franco-Prussian War (January 31, 1871) and the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia (July 28, 1914), which signaled the outbreak of the First World War two days later. In effect, since November 5, 1988, every day that the European Great Powers have not been at war with each other has set a new European regional --and pretty much a world-- record for the duration of a peace.
Proposals to get rid of nuclear weapons not only threaten to upset this peacekeeping mechanism, but ignore the fact that nukes are seen by more vulnerable nations as the cheapest, and most certain, way to guarantee their survival against threats from more powerful neighbors. Give a nation a choice between guaranteeing their safety with an international treaty, or some nukes, which option will most choose? After Russia’s 2014 breach of a treaty promising to respect Ukraine’s borders if it gave up its old Soviet nukes, more nations are seeking nukes than are willing to get rid of them.
There is a downside. Nukes are expensive. In the half century after the first nuclear detonation, over a trillion dollars was spent to build over 50,000 nuclear weapons. In the last two decades, most of those have been retired and dismantled. Much of the nuclear material was used to produce electricity. The fact is, there are a lot of people out there who know how nuclear weapons are put together, and taken apart and how they work.
You can't eliminate nukes unless you eliminate the knowledge of how to produce nuclear weapons. That cannot be done, because the basic principles of nuclear weapons construction have proliferated beyond the power of anyone to destroy that knowledge. With that knowledge, any industrialized nation can quickly build nuclear weapons and devices.
And then there are the unintended consequences. If you were to succeed in creating an international treaty that really eliminated all nukes, this would provide more incentive to create more powerful chemical and biological weapons. What many people don't want to admit is that the genie is out of the bottle, and you can't put it back.
Since no one has died from nuclear weapons in over 65 years, and you want to eliminate a weapon of mass destruction that has killed lots of people, why not go after the private automobile, which killed more people since 1945 than all wars in the same period. In the United States alone, over three million people were killed by automobiles. What have private automobiles done for peace? Nuclear power also produces power with far less pollution, and hardly any fatalities, compared to coal, gas or oil fueled plants. Despite its virtues, all things nuclear have been demonized for several generations. But that's another story, and this can be written off as another example of how good deeds don't go unpunished.
In the 21sr century threats of war are coming from a new alliance. Led by Russia and China this “Axis of Outcasts” also contains such troubled stakes as North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Venezuela and anyone else who is an outcast in the international community. This is eerily similar to the 20th century coalitions that, in the two World Wars, were the enemy, as in the side that lost. This 20th century axis of outcasts had at its core Germany and Austria, plus Turkey and Bulgaria during World War I and, during World War II Italy joined what was called the “Axis” along with Japan and several smaller nations. Turkey wisely decided to sit out World War II and what was left of the Austrian Empire was absorbed into Germany before the war began.
Then as now, the axis began with a vibrant new economic superpower (Germany then, China now) looking for more respect, territory and a “place in the sun.” The 20th century axis also had a declining empire (Austria-Hungary) playing the part of the hapless sidekick during World War I while Italy assumed that role in World War II. These days the loser sidekick is Russia, an empire no more but still eager to recapture past glories at any cost. Both China and Russia have collected allies in the form of outcast nations who do business with China and Russia because these two dictatorships have long had a policy of dealing with anyone who could pay, no matter how nasty and dysfunctional the customer was.
What is different in the 21st century is that the two major players in the axis are also rivals. While Germany was definitely the dominant power in the axis alliance for both World Wars, in the 21st century both China and Russia are trying to create and lead coalitions and are often competing. Neither are as successful at it as Germany was in the early 20th century but both Russia and China keep at it.
In the early 1990s, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed by Russia. The CIS was sort of a successor of the Soviet Union. But after the 1990s, the CIS began to fall apart. Some members, especially Armenia, Ukraine, Georgia and Turkmenistan, drifted away. Or at least tried to. Apparently you could join the CIS, but not leave it and those frictions turned the CIS into a powerless fiction by the 21st century.
China has been more successful, but not by much, with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This is a regional security forum founded in Shanghai in 2001 by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and China. The main purpose of the SCO was originally fighting Islamic terrorism. Russia, however, hoped to build the SCO into a counterbalance against NATO. SCO members conduct joint military exercises, mostly for show. They also share intel on terrorists, which is often useful. Iran, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Turkey also want to join the SCO. These nations are allowed to send observers to meetings. China has put more emphasis on economic cooperation because greater Chinese economic power means that China is replacing Russia as the principal investor and trading partner throughout Eurasia, especially areas long considered “Russian” like Central Asia. Russia does not like to dwell on this, because it means China is expanding its economic and political power at Russian expense.
On paper China is now the dominant military power in Eurasia, a fact that Russia prefers to downplay. Many Russians fear that the aggression China is demonstrating with India and everyone bordering the South China Sea will eventually be turned towards Russia as well. What may be delaying this is another big difference between the 20th and 21st century coalitions. Today all the major powers have nukes. For the second half of the 20th century the nuclear weapons discouraged outright wars between the major powers. But both China and Russia are pushing the limits on the unwritten peace deal and there is growing fear that the nuclear peace may be coming to an end. China sees the Russian defeat in Ukraine as weakening Russia in the long term and leaving China to be the only major power threat to peace.
The SCO also, unofficially, exists to keep the peace between China and Russia over economic rivalries in Central Asia. At the moment, China is winning the race to develop large oil and gas fields in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and become the major investor and exporter in Central Asia. China needs the energy, and is willing to pay whatever it takes. With a much larger economy than Russia, China is better able to invest and export. Since the Central Asian nations are run by corrupt leaders, often dictators, the Chinese have an easy, if expensive, way to gaining control of natural resources and markets.
The 21st Century Axis is less stable than the 20th century ones although in both centuries the major nations in the coalition managed to independently start wars that then merged into one vast conflagration. This was especially true during World War II when Germany got several wars going in Europe while Japan set East Asia on fire. Today we have Russia threatening to set East Europe ablaze while China threatens most of its neighbors. Given the dependence of both countries on exports (oil and gas for Russia, manufactured goods for China) for internal stability, triggering a major war is a very risky business. Russia discovered this in 2022. The exports and economy angle were less of a factor in the 20th century but was still there and was swept away by risk-taking leaders who were willing to gamble big and lose everything. That is an old story, repeated endlessly throughout thousands of years of recorded history. And here it is again for all to see in Ukraine.