The golden age of deterrence has reached its end. Nuclear weapons, once a star player on the international stage, no longer enjoy a place in the limelight.
To be sure, some policy makers still ascribe to nuclear weapons the same prestige that, during the Cold War, they gained because of their unmatched destructive power and the leverage they provided nuclear weapon states in the international arena. But the Cold War environment, in which nuclear weapons in the hands of two superpowers played a vital role in maintaining strategic stability, doesn’t exist anymore. Nor is it likely to be replicated in the future—despite certain parallels between US-Soviet relations during the Cold War and present-day US-Russia relations. Meanwhile, it is painfully obvious that nuclear deterrence is useless against apocalyptic terrorist organizations motivated by religious extremism. If such a group acquired and used a nuclear weapon, there would be no “return address” toward which retaliation could be directed. And apocalyptic terrorists probably don’t fear destruction in the first place.
Now that the golden age of deterrence has reached its end, banning nuclear weapons has become achievable—as long as the values that policy makers ascribe to them can be undermined. Now is the time to strip away the handsome mask that hid nuclear weapons’ ugly face throughout the Cold War. It’s time for the world to treat nuclear weapons just like chemical and biological weapons—those other weapons of mass destruction—as mere slaughtering weapons, undeserving of prestige. It is time to ban nuclear weapons—just as biological and chemical weapons were banned through the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention.