The New Nuclear Age

This week: conversations with Joseph Cirincione, Elaine Scarry, and Serhii Plokhy about the war in Ukraine and threats of nuclear destruction. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our site.

The Russian attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor complex in Ukraine, along with earlier moves directed by Vladimir Putin, brought the fear of nuclear destruction to post-Cold War generations. The attack introduced something else, too: a new kind of nuclear war. Joseph Cirincione, former president of the Ploughshares Fund and a fellow with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, tells us this week, “This has never happened in the history of nuclear energy. No country, no group has ever attacked a nuclear power plant.”

The attack on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

We’re all learning more about terrible nuclear dangers, in other words. And the world has also had to confront faulty logic behind older principles of nuclear deterrence. Says Cirincione:

For years, we’ve been told that nuclear weapons would protect us, that nuclear weapons have kept the peace in Europe. That this is why there hasn’t been a conventional war in Europe since the end of World War II. And when people propound this theory, they tend to ignore everything else: the strength of the NATO alliance, the economic interconnections, the desire of the people themselves to avoid any war.

Joseph Cirincione.

And they bestow this sort of magical quality on nuclear weapons as keeping the peace. And there is some truth to that. But now we’re seeing the flip side. Once conventional conflict does start, nuclear weapons aren’t a shield for us. They’re a sword. This is aimed at us. And so trying to stop Putin now, even by simple things like sending combat aircraft to Ukraine, something the U.S. is now talking about. Putin says that that would be considered a threat. He would consider that engaging in combat activities and that by itself risks Russian attacks on a conventional level, possibly on a nuclear level. So no, nuclear deterrence is not protecting us. Nuclear weapons are not our greatest security. They’re our greatest threat.

Elaine Scarry, literary scholar at Harvard, points out this week the fundamentally anti-democratic, monarchical nature of nuclear weapons.

Elaine Scarry.

Notice in all of this, all the uncertainty that we kind of feel disenfranchized. See the preposterousness and the obscenity of the situation, that you have a world that stands in danger of being subjected to a nuclear war. And yet no one really knows exactly how close we are or under what circumstances we would change from being merely nervous about it to actually suffering the immediate strikes.

Serhii Plokhy is a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard and author of Nuclear Folly, a new book on the Cuban Missile Crisis. He traces for us one of the most frightening characteristics of this new nuclear moment: the absence of frightened leaders.

Serhii Plokhy.

They had enough power to destroy the entire world. And that was part of their thinking, part of their calculation. And despite all the mistakes that I record, that I chronicle in the book, the world escaped the worst case scenario because there was that fear in the minds of the leaders of the political leaders. And that fear is not there anymore in the minds of the political leaders of today.

Come and See

In Elem Klimov’s Come and See (streaming over on the Criterion Channel) set in Belarus during WWII, you see war’s horrifying departures from other experience—what could have been idyllic rural locations become something closer to the world of nightmare; a mundane village becomes the site of mass killing; people themselves contort, scream, and die in a dying world. From Scott Tobias:

Produced to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Russia’s triumph over the Germans in WWII, Elem Klimov’s searing Come And See paints a real historical event as an expressionist nightmare, full of abstract horrors and heightened surrealism . . . His impressions are unforgettable: the screaming cacophony of a bombing run broken up by the faint sound of a Mozart fugue, a dark, arid field suddenly lit up by eerily beautiful orange flares, German troops appearing like ghosts out of the heavy morning fog. A product of the glasnost era, Come And See is far from a patriotic memorial of Russia’s hard-won victory. Instead, it’s a chilling reminder of that victory’s terrible costs.

This week’s ephemeral library

Stephen Kotkin with David Remnick on “The Weakness of the Despot.” On COVID and economic inequality’s “vicious cycle.” Dominik Leusder on “The Art of Monetary War.” At Responsible Statecraft, the online magazine of the Quincy Institute, read about the pause in the Iran nuclear talks.




An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.

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