In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a growing chorus of voices on the Left are insisting that we grapple with the new reality of competing imperialist powers. Focusing on US empire exclusively, they note, is ill-suited for an era in which Russia attempts a European land grab, China crushes democracy in Hong Kong, India revokes the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, and the fate of Taiwan remains an open question.
The chorus is correct: a multipolar moment requires a multipolar analysis. But there has been much less recognition on the Left that today’s inter-imperialist rivalry is a specifically nuclear rivalry. The omission is particularly striking since the Ukraine war — where one nuclear superpower is the invader, and another is supplying weapons for the invaded country’s defense — has raised the specter of nuclear war like few other events in recent history.
The aggressor states mentioned above — Russia, China, India — are all nuclear-armed powers, as are their main adversaries: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Pakistan. All these countries (along with Israel and North Korea) are updating their nuclear arsenals. Some, like China and the UK, are expanding them. Just this week, the Guardian reported that in the coming years, the total number of nuclear weapons on earth is expected to increase for the first time in decades.
These would be worrisome developments in the best of times — but they are especially disturbing in a world where Cold War–era arms control treaties are rapidly falling apart. With that in mind, I would like to offer three brief notes on the new nuclear present and its implications for left strategy today.
The standoff surrounding Ukraine may be the first in a succession of nuclear flash points.
The invasion of Ukraine provides strong evidence that we have entered a new period of great power competition — which is to say, a world of simmering tensions between nuclear-armed states. The immediate victims, however, are likely to be states like Ukraine that neither have nuclear weapons nor fall under the umbrella of a nuclear-armed power. In Ukraine, nuclear weapons provided Russia with a cover for its aggression and the US with a reason not to intervene, since direct conflict between states that together control 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons would be potentially catastrophic.
So far, Russia has refrained from attacking NATO, and the US has resolved not to send troops to Ukraine. The optimists see this as evidence that nuclear deterrence works, and perhaps it does in some circumstances and under certain conditions. But a succession of flash points will mean a parade of new risks of nuclear confrontation. Some of these flare-ups may be true proxy conflicts. Others may involve a nuclear-armed country using the threat of military action to blackmail a nonnuclear state into capitulation. Inter-imperial standoffs over weapons basing or offensive cyber operations are also possible. Some crises may be completely unforeseen.
In each, the nuclear-armed powers will face a series of unique situations in which the question of what is and is not risky will have to be continually reassessed. Simply “remembering the lessons of the Cold War” will not shepherd us through this new era, especially since policymakers’ understanding of nuclear risks has atrophied in Washington (and arguably in Moscow and Beijing too).
The coming crises will also be morally challenging. The calls to “do something” will be loud and sometimes understandable: Ukraine is fighting for self-determination, after all. But the potential for missteps will be significant, as the misguided push for a no-fly zone in Ukraine clearly demonstrates.
This time the call for escalation lost. Next time it may not.
In our post–Cold War world, every bomb is a capitalist bomb.
During the Cold War, there were clear economic differences between the blocs. The East-West divide even extended to specific weapons — like the neutron bomb, which Soviet leaders and others characterized as a capitalist weapon since it would impact people more than property. The story is silly but illustrative: the power of the Soviet Union cast a long shadow over the period’s nuclear politics. The Left was generally pro-disarmament, but while some groups criticized both blocs for bringing the world to the nuclear brink, others were sympathetic to the idea that Communist states needed a deterrent to prevent capitalist aggression.
No such divisions need exist today. The nuclear-armed countries may represent different forms of capitalism, but they are all capitalist states. (North Korea, the exception that proves the rule, hardly represents a desirable alternative.) There is no long-game socialist actor in today’s great power competition, as much as the Communist Party of China would like to claim that title. The winner in this conflict can only be capitalism.
It is a clarifying observation. The moment calls for a truly independent left free from residual attachment to the interests of great powers.
In response to this economic convergence, we should expect all sides to play up ideological distinctions, even as they become increasingly dubious. Russia, for instance, is using the existence of far-right Ukrainian nationalists to dress up its invasion as an anti-fascist action. In the United States, great-power competition is already being cast as democracy vs. autocracy, even though the country is not a functional democracy and an authoritarian like Donald Trump could lose the popular vote (again) and still win the presidency in 2024. The great powers may not be identical, but, increasingly, they aren’t so different.
If nuclear weapons are at the center of today’s imperialism, nuclear disarmament should be at the center of anti-imperialism.
Since nuclear weapons are enabling new forms of imperial aggression, today’s anti-imperialism should staunchly support nuclear disarmament. Many parts of the Left already do so, at least in theory. But it isn’t enough to express rhetorical support and then bask in the satisfaction of holding the correct position.
A renewed commitment to nuclear disarmament means work — a lot of it. It means educating each other and the broader working class about the role ordinary people played in ending the Cold War arms race. It means reinvigorating legacy disarmament organizations and potentially forming new ones. It means organizing against the industries that profit from the production of catastrophic arms. It means recognizing that nuclear weapons are killing people right now, even as deterrence holds. It means calling out world leaders who heighten nuclear tensions, as well as those who exploit crises to advocate for still more weapons.
It also means operating on different scales. At the international level, the Left should push for more countries to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force last year and whose states-parties will hold their first meeting this month. Relatedly, we should insist that the nuclear-armed states uphold Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which requires them to make a good-faith effort toward disarmament, something they clearly are not doing. International work will be particularly important in NATO states as well as in places like Belarus, which may soon host Russian nuclear weapons.
At the national level, the Left should not shy away from legislative fights over specific policies and weapons programs. These efforts are incremental and sometimes arcane, but they have a real impact and are far more likely to succeed than shouting demands for disarmament into the void. Here in the United States, we should support a “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons and work to reform launch authority, which until recently rested solely with Donald Trump. We should aid legislative efforts to block tactical or “low-yield” nuclear weapons that lower the threshold for use. We should also favor phasing out ground-based ICBMs, which compress presidential decision time and heighten the chances of a mistaken launch.
Disarmament is a goal, yes, but it is also a process — one we can help restart.
Last year, Air Force Magazine reported that the United States’ new nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile — formerly the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, now called Sentinel — is intended to be a seventy-year system. Think about that: seventy more years of the nuclear age. Seventy more years when the world will be at the mercy of a mere nine countries. Seventy more years of pushing our luck.
The situation is not sustainable, certainly not in an era where war between the great powers (proxy or otherwise) is a real possibility. Even a single detonation would be a disaster; full-scale nuclear war would threaten civilization itself.
At its best, the Left provides everyday people with hope that a better future is possible. We should bring that sense of possibility to the struggle for nuclear disarmament. Nuclear weapons are a lot like capitalism, in fact — they’re seen as eternal, inevitable, even natural. But there is an alternative. Everyone deserves a safe and secure future free from the threat of nuclear war. Let’s go build it.