Ukraine and the Risk of Geopolitical Conflict — Richard Falk on the return of the nuclear question
June 8, 2022
The risk of nuclear escalation in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a subject of considerable debate in the United States among scholars, policy analysts and media commentators. These debates reveal a broad spectrum of views from those who dismiss Russian references to nuclear capabilities as mere saber rattling to those who worry that if Russian President Vladimir Putin finds his back to the wall in Ukraine, he may resort to tactical nuclear strikes. Whatever the assessment of the risks in Ukraine, it is clear that questions of nuclear deterrence are back on the table after nearly a generation in which most American analysts viewed non-proliferation as the sole U.S. foreign policy objective regarding nuclear arsenals.
For those who have continued to press concerns about nuclear disarmament since the end of the Cold War, the return of the nuclear question may be an opportunity to raise awareness among new audiences about the existential threat posed by existing nuclear arsenals. Richard Falk has for decades been an outspoken authority calling for denuclearization. In this interview, Aslı Bâli invites Professor Falk to reflect on whether the Ukraine conflict risks becoming a military confrontation that tips the world into further nuclear escalation or whether there remains an opportunity to move the world away from the nuclear precipice.
Aslı Bâli: To begin our conversation, it would be useful to provide some context as to why nuclear disarmament was largely sidelined as an urgent international question in the post-Cold War period. How might we think about the last two decades in particular, during which the possibility of the development of an Iranian nuclear arsenal was deemed so much more threatening than the existence of extensive nuclear arsenals in the hands of other states?
Richard Falk: I think the last two decades reflect a period in which the nuclear weapons states, particularly the US, have felt comfortable with the nuclear status quo. Their preference was to organize this arrangement—in which they maintain nuclear arsenals and other states forego that option—as a permanent regime anchored in the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) interpreted in such a way as to drop the disarmament requirements of that treaty. Article VI of the NPT contains the good faith nuclear disarmament obligation, which was supposedly the bargain that induced the non-nuclear states to become parties to the treaty. The attempt by nuclear weapons states to drop this element from the treaty arrangement creates an interesting international law situation: There’s a breach of an essential provision of the NPT, yet this is treated by the US and NATO countries as a sort of a great achievement of international law. The NPT is reduced to an arrangement that at least put certain limits on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and kept the control of them and the discretion to develop and threaten to use them, and to determine how they would be used in crisis situations, purely under the national sovereign control of states already in possession of such arsenals.
For example, I participated in a Council on Foreign Relations event about the future of national security, and one of the participants there introduced the idea that Article VI is best understood as ‘a useful fiction.’ That is, Article VI was included in the treaty as a way of satisfying non-nuclear countries that they entered into some sort of equitable bargaining situation. Whereas in fact there was a tacit understanding from the beginning that disarmament was not a realistic, or even a desirable goal, to be pursued by the nuclear weapons states, at least not by the United States.
In considering the broader context that has, as you put it, sidelined the issues of nuclear disarmament, the other thing to be emphasized is that there had crept in a kind of complacency about this weaponry. There are thousands of nuclear weapons, especially in the US and Russia, and very little idea of existing constraints on their threat or use or under what circumstances these arsenals might be introduced into diplomacy or even combat situations. The U.S. in particular, and some other countries like Israel, have been developing combat roles for certain types nuclear weapons—styled as tactical nuclear arms or so-called “mini-nukes”—that suggested they might actually be introduced into regional conflicts. Given the array of bilateral conflicts that have the risk of nuclear escalation including on the Korean peninsula, in India/Pakistan and perhaps Israel’s posture in the Middle East, this possibility has been an increasingly uncomfortable one to which there has been no concerted or consistent international response.
The risks of the overall situation are well-reflected for those who follow the nuclear issue by the fact that the Doomsday clock—maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and often relied upon as an accurate assessment of nuclear danger at a given time—has moved ever closer in this period to midnight. Prior to the Ukraine crisis I think it was already only one hundred second away from midnight. In the words of the editors, “the Clock remains the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse.” The complacency toward this weaponry and the satisfaction with the NPT regime that has allowed powerful states to retain a hierarchical relationship to the non-nuclear states are important dimensions of this doomsday risk. Thus, the situation prior to Ukraine required urgent action to avoid existential dangers, but global complacency and the diversionary focus on containing proliferation threats posed by non-nuclear states rather than addressing the risks of existing arsenals has kept the nuclear agenda from any serious engagement with disarmament as a priority.
Aslı Bâli: Your response raises one further question: why, in your view, have the non-nuclear states acquiesced in the violation of the core bargained-for agreement they had negotiated in the NPT?
Richard Falk: I think the non-nuclear weapons states, too, have adapted to this complacent atmosphere when it comes to nuclear weapons. This may reflect their sense that they lack leverage over global nuclear policy in a post-Cold War context. During the Cold War, there had been some willingness on the part of the Soviet Union and then China to engage in a disarmament process and the non-nuclear states had followed their lead on negotiating arsenal reductions. But in the post-Cold War period, the U.S. shifted away from even the pretense of disarmament priorities and there has been an absence of powerful states pushing back against this trajectory. That said, I do think there is now emerging a critical outlook on the part of the Global South that may alter course back in manner more favorable to the views of disarmament advocates. This has been most clearly expressed in a new treaty, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which was signed in 2017 and came into force with over sixty ratifications in 2021. The treaty itself was originally supported by as many as 120 countries, though it has only garnered signatures from about two thirds of that number and been ratified by a little more than half.
Another indication of renewed Global South resistance to demoting the nuclear weapons states disarmament obligations is evident in the twice delayed review conference called for by the NPT. Such a review conference is supposed to take place every five years and the pivotal Tenth Review Conference was scheduled for 2020. Originally postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was supposed to be rescheduled for 2021 and was postponed again to 2022 and may now take place in August of this year. But in addition to pandemic-related reasons, it is understood that the deferrals have been prompted by the concern among nuclear weapons states that there may encounter friction with the Global South over disarmament.
In short, even prior to Ukraine there was reason to think that there is a new international mood at the intergovernmental level concerning the threat posed by existing nuclear arsenals. I think the Ukraine events have now added momentum to this shift by reawakening at the civil society level palpable concern over the threat or use of nuclear weapons. So this is a time when I think there may be a revival of pressure from below to put nuclear disarmament back on the global policy agenda.
There is sort of a free-floating anxiety about the possibility that nuclear weapons use might occur on the European continent and this may have a galvanizing effect…
Aslı Bâli: Some have characterized the Ukraine conflict as illustrating the degree to which global powers might stumble blindly into a nuclear confrontation. Is it your sense that there are opportunities to contain this risk today whether through intergovernmental diplomacy or global civil society mobilization?
Richard Falk: Well, I think at the civil society level there is a definite concern though it is not too well-focused at this point. There is sort of a free-floating anxiety about the possibility that nuclear weapons use might occur on the European continent and this may have a galvanizing effect that leads to forms of domestic pressure in some European states to take action to offset such a risk. I also think that some in the Biden administration have changed their views of the Ukraine conflict as the potential nuclear dimensions of the conflict have come into clearer focus. At an earlier stage of the Ukraine war, it seemed as if Biden officials didn’t consider very seriously the nuclear risk, though they were always in some sense sensitive to the wider war dangers of escalation. This sensitivity was evident, for example, in Biden’s resistance to calls, especially from Congress and right-wing think tanks, to establish a no-fly zone in Ukraine, and originally in his hesitance to supply offensive weaponry to the Ukrainians. Similarly, the early posture of not interfering with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s efforts at seeking some sort of negotiated compromise indicated that the Biden administration was wary of escalation, and willing to allow Ukraine to control its own future.
But in a second phase of the conflict, when the Ukrainian resistance turned out to be more successful than anticipated, and strategic defeat or weakening of Russia seemed possible and strategically attractive, the Biden administration’s priorities visibly shifted and they manifestly treated the Ukraine war as an opportunity to teach Russia a lesson and to signal China that if they tried anything similar with Taiwan, they would face an even worse outcome. This latter point was provocatively underscored by Biden during his recent trip to Asia that featured a strong public statement committing the US to the defense of Taiwan.
With respect to the Ukraine conflict I have drawn a distinction between two levels. First, there is the Russia-Ukraine confrontation over issues that pertain to their bilateral conflict. But secondly, there is the geopolitical level of interaction between the US and Russia, which entails a confrontation whose stakes exceed the question of Ukraine. Here, escalation was stimulated by what I view as the quite irresponsible rhetoric from the Biden administration that demonized Putin. To be sure, Putin is not a particularly attractive political leader, but even during the Cold War American leaders sensibly refrained from demonizing Stalin or other Soviet leaders. Some public officials, congresspeople, did demonize Soviet officials and policies but leaders in the executive branch refrained from that because it would create such an evident obstacle to keeping open necessary diplomatic channels between the US and the Soviets.
Regrettably, in the second phase of the current conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. became a source of escalation. American influence was directed also at more or less discouraging President Zelensky from further seeking a negotiated ending of the war on the ground. Instead, the U.S. position seemed to harden around pursuit of strategic victory. This was made explicit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin who commented on the opportunity to weaken Russia. I think that now we are entering a third phase of the Ukraine conflict where there is some recognition in Washington and elsewhere that the Biden administration went too far in an escalatory direction. But the worry is that those earlier actions have created a momentum that will be difficult to reverse, and the tragic result will be a prolonged war in Ukraine, with terrible adverse consequences, for the world economy, and especially the countries dependent on affordable access to food and energy, widely imperiled by the impact of the war on Ukraine and the sanctions on Russia.
Aslı Bâli: Given your analysis of the U.S. role in escalating the conflict in Ukraine, what in your view is the current risk of either nuclear confrontation or further erosions of the possibility of promoting U.S.-Russian arms control and nuclear disarmament?
Richard Falk: The discouraging thing in this third phase is that the Biden administration still hasn’t clearly opened the door to a diplomatic resolution or emphasized the importance of a cease fire that might stop the immediate killing and enable de-escalation. What this suggests is that there will be one of two bad scenarios unfolding as the Ukraine Crisis continues: the first is that the risk and costs of a long war in Ukraine results in the U.S. further escalating in order to try to bring the war to a faster conclusion by making Moscow give in, or withdraw, or do something that allows Ukraine and the US to claim victory. That approach really would put maximum pressure on Putin who, in turn, might determine that facing such a serious existential danger to Russian security justifies a robust response that includes the threat and possibly even the use of tactical nuclear weapons as a way, and maybe the only way, to avoid strategic defeat.
The second scenario is that the U.S. might be prepared to live with a prolonged war and hope that at some point Moscow will tire of the experience, the way the Soviets did in Afghanistan and that the US did in Vietnam. But recent experience suggests just how destructive this course would be for Ukraine and the world. It took the U.S. twenty years to extricate itself from Afghanistan, leaving that country in ruins, millions permanently displaced, facing famine, and untold hundreds of thousands of Afghanis maimed or worse. Equally depressing, as others have pointed out, the likely outcome from the Ukrainian point of view will be the same, whether the war is ended next week or ten years from now except that a longer war will result in more casualties and greater devastation.
Aslı Bâli: Could you say more about what you would expect at the end of the Ukraine conflict whether it happens through early negotiations or at the end of a protracted war?
Richard Falk: Well, I expect that the most likely scenario for an end to the conflict will entail some concessions by Ukraine in relation to the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, together with a pledge of neutrality for the country as a whole, and non-membership in NATO. In exchange for such concessions, Russia would likely be expected to pledge in turn that it would respect the sovereign rights and political independence of the Ukraine. In all likelihood the question of Crimea will not be addressed in the course of ending the current conflict. The contours of such a negotiated end to the conflict had already emerged in talks between the Russian and Ukrainian sides in March and there is little reason to think these parameters will change substantially. In other words, this outcome could have been achieved earlier, certainly in the first phase of the conflict if not prior to the Russian attack, before early Ukrainian victories led to the second geopolitical phase of escalation.
Asli Bali: Given this assessment, what opportunities, if any, do you see for reviving calls for nuclear disarmament in response to the nuclear risks made evident by the Ukraine conflict?
Richard Falk: Of course there is a very dark form of opportunity that might emerge if there is indeed a nuclear confrontation and the use of tactical or other nuclear weapons. Such a development would certainly generate a widespread call for disarmament—one hopes that doesn’t occur, of course. Beyond this apocalyptic scenario, it is a little unpredictable whether there will emerge a recognition that the pursuit of permanent stability via the non-proliferation approach should be superseded by a new effort at nuclear disarmament. I think it would be very globally popular thing to try to explore that possibility, and I would imagine the Chinese at least would be quite open to that.
In the background of such speculation is the question of whether the US is prepared to live in a multipolar world. Certainly, the post-Cold War period afforded the U.S. the opportunity to nurture illusions that the collapse of the Soviet Union might usher in a durable era in which it was the only global geopolitical actor. In a sense this is what Secretary Blinken presumably meant when he says in speeches that the idea of spheres of influence should have been relegated to the dustbin of history. The thought is that after WWII, or at the very least following the Cold War, the U.S. prefers to preside over a system in which its own influence is confined by no sphere and extends in truly global fashion. Of course, had the US adopted this posture in the immediate aftermath of WWII, as Secretary Blinken suggests, it would have amounted to a declaration of a third world war. This is because ruling out spheres of influence would have mean blocking Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe, whether in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Moreover, what Blinken is suggesting today is not a world without spheres of influence but rather a kind of Monroe doctrine for the world in which the US regards the global order as its sphere of influence alone. And, of course, the Monroe doctrine in the narrower conventional sense is also alive and well as the US continues to assert its prerogative to dictate policies to countries in this hemisphere from Cuba to Venezuela to Nicaragua and beyond.
Against this backdrop, it is worth noting that the ongoing US effort at global supremacy does put it at a massive asymmetric advantage over all other actors in exerting influence without bounds. With some 800 foreign bases—and a context in which 97% of all foreign bases globally are American—and troops stationed in every continent the US has extended its influence globally and naval commands in every ocean. Meanwhile, of course, alongside this enormous investment in militarism is profound disinvestment in the infrastructure and social services needed to sustain its own population domestically. In short, the US effort to prevent a multipolar order from challenging its own claim to global supremacy is coming at an enormous cost at home and is currently faltering abroad. The risk is that this approach is increasingly tied to an investment in ensuring strategic weakness for the Russians in Ukraine, which, in turn, feeds nuclear brinksmanship.
In this episode of the Global Governance Podcast, Augusto Lopez-Claros and Richard Falk discuss why international cooperation is vital today, COVID-19, and the future of global governance.
Aslı Bâli: There is something distressing about the way in which the Ukraine conflict has reset the domestic debate, which at the end of the Trump years and in the 2020 presidential election had begun to converge around the idea of restraining American militarism and ending endless wars. Today, bipartisan consensus around an enhanced defense budget and massive military aid to Ukraine may be eclipsing those earlier commitments. Do you consider the Ukraine conflict as providing a new lease on life for the project of American primacy?
Richard Falk: I’m afraid that might be right. Biden was so committed to unifying the country as part of his presidential campaign—the image of himself as someone who is able to “cross the aisle” and generate bipartisan consensus. In fact, however, that project failed miserably with the Republican side converging around Trump’s constituencies. The Ukraine war has somewhat reshuffled the deck and Biden seems keen to embrace this opportunity to forge bipartisan consensus around war. His popularity level remains surprisingly low, but the surge of Cold War bipartisanship in relation to appropriating billions of dollars for Ukraine is undeniable. From a global perspective, however, this great show of empathy for Ukrainian suffering and civilian damage and refugees, and so on, sets a stark contrast to the ways in which the US and the West responded to other humanitarian crises. Thus one price of unity at home may be an increasingly divided world in which US standing declines further. The specific comparisons between the Western response to Ukraine and their indifference and callous disregard for the plight of Palestinians, the consequences of the Iraq War, and the displacement generated by the Syrian conflict is difficult to explain without conceding an element of racism. This reality has hardly escaped the attention of governments and communities in the Global South.
Aslı Bâli: Returning to the nuclear question, you have suggested that the Ukraine war has awakened a new generation to the real risks of the nuclear arsenals retained by global powers. Do you believe that this awareness alongside concerns about the double standards attached to American hegemony might mobilize new global social movements calling for disarmament and a more equitable international order?
Richard Falk: I certainly hope that might be the case. I think it would be premature to expect the Ukraine conflict alone to rekindle a vibrant anti-nuclear movement at this point. But there may be further developments that do have such a galvanizing effect, something that unfortunately cannot be discounted as the Russians engage in nuclear drills to remind Western states of the risks of escalation in Ukraine. There are also other nuclear dangers that are looming in the world. I think the Israel-Iran relationship is very unstable and may produce some renewed awareness of nuclear risk; the same is also true of the conflicts in India-Pakistan and the Korean peninsula. So new generations may come to understand that the idea of achieving stability with nuclear weapons is a kind of false utopia. This brings me back to the cynical idea that I encountered at the Council on Foreign Relations about disarmament being a useful fiction to appease publics in the Global South. At the time, and there was no real pushback against that assertion. The response of the audience was to simply acknowledge that this is how realist elites talks about national security. It is this kind of acquiescence and complacency that poses the greatest obstacle to global social organizing around disarmament and, thus, the greatest risk that we may stumble into an existential crisis. I hope that the threats that are now manifest in Ukraine and beyond might spark new forms of awareness amongst the now mobilized younger generations leading social movements for environmental and racial justice. Nuclear arsenals pose an existential threat to our planet alongside the reckless climate policies, massive wealth disparities and the virulent structural racism that plague the global order. There is much work to do to address all of these challenges, but we would well begin by recognizing nuclear abolition as an urgent priority.
Richard Falk is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law and Practice Emeritus at Princeton University and Chair of Global Law at Queen Mary University London, Faculty of Law. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books, and editor or co-editor of numerous others. A collection of his selected writings on nuclear disarmament was published in an edited volume from Cambridge University Press titled On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019). Aslı Bâli is Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law and Founding Faculty Director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights. She interviewed Falk in May 2022.