For many of us, Feb. 24, 2022, was a typical Thursday — until it wasn’t. While some had been following the complex political situation in the region, the immediacy of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shocked us all. This was soon accompanied by the cancelation of my Russian language class in observance of the tragedy, messages of confusion and surprise, and protests across campus in support of Ukraine. For the first time in my life, the possibility of war and nuclear weapons became very real. This continues to be the case as President Vladimir Putin threatens the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine and shows little intention of slowing down or heeding international critics.
Nuclear weapons have only been used twice in combat — both times decades ago by the United States on foreign soil and never within its borders. Since the end of the Cold War, we have never lived on the brink of nuclear war. We certainly didn’t think of it as a tangible possibility. This disconnect has shaped my generation and conditioned us to ignore the threat of nuclear weapons by dismissing them as relics of the past. This means nuclear scares, both in the recent past and in the current nuclear moment, have taken us by surprise and caused us to question our entire understanding of nuclear security.
CREATING AN UNDERSTANDING OF THE COLD WAR
Like many my age, I was first introduced to the world of nuclear security through the Cold War in a high school class. As we discussed the history of the war, considered its causes and effects, and dissected the potential consequences of a nuclear attack, the entire concept of nuclear warfare segmented itself into my mind as something of the past that was no more — a threat that supposedly ended with the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union. We were told that this post-Cold War world was more peaceful and devoid of nuclear threats. After all, treaties and agreements were made to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, and we were slowly inching closer to a denuclearized world.
The reality, however, is different — and our optimism is misplaced.
We, the American youth, must take initiative to address the threat nuclear weapons pose to the world so that we can avert nuclear war and prevent another situation mirroring the horrors of what we see in Ukraine.
I was able to delve deeper into the field of nuclear security as a Girl Security fellow, a program designed to prepare girls, young women, and gender minorities for careers in national security. I quickly came to realize that this classification of the Cold War as “over” was just as false as the notion that nuclear weapons were a relic of the past and no longer a threat to the world. As has been made painfully clear in recent years, the effects of the Cold War are still very present, even if the conflict itself has ended. These effects have manifested themselves in the current relationship between the US and Russia, and throughout the world, and take on two forms. One is of conflict and instability leftover from proxy wars waged by both in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa while the other is in the discourse around nuclear weapons and nuclear modernization that continues today. Even Cold War thinking maintains a prominent role in high-level foreign policy, perpetuated by leaders who were shaped by the war period and have carried their outdated ways of thought into whatever position of power they now hold.
THE POWER OF COLLECTIVE MEMORY
The disconnect between what actually constitutes a real threat of the 21st century and what my generation perceives as a threat is deeply rooted in our collective memory and the reality in which we were raised. We are part of a generation that grew up in the post-9/11 world and has been shaped by issues like terrorism, gun violence, climate change, racial injustice, and now COVID-19. An America-centric education system and our subsequent lack of awareness about conflicts beyond our borders have further contributed to our understanding of the world. As a result, nuclear weapons often occupy little space in perceived notions of modern-day threats. Rather, they are frequently understood as abstract threats existing only in the past and in video games, movies, and other forms of entertainment, and not as real, persisting threats that have enormous implications.
This comes in stark contrast to the world that our parents and grandparents were raised in: A world in which the threat of nuclear war was genuine. They were part of a generation that lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis rather than reading about it in a textbook. Their generation watched as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed. My grandparents have told me that many of them have never truly forgotten the reality of nuclear war.
The field of nuclear security is extraordinarily elitist and hard to break into. In the same way, easily understandable information free of complex jargon and assumed knowledge is rarely available to the youth. The available information is often complicated, lacks context, and is overly convoluted in its explanation of nuclear policy. Without a decent foundation of knowledge in this field, we cannot adequately interpret the information essential for us to understand the current nuclear moment and the full extent of the threat posed by nuclear weapons.
When this is paired with our upbringing in a post-Cold War world, we lack a tangible understanding of nuclear weapons and their consequences. We can’t even begin to visualize the effects of nuclear attacks or the human toll they would cause. Without this understanding, we lose all context necessary to assess the threat of nuclear weapons properly. This is likely a contributing factor to why younger generations frequently rank nuclear weapons low on lists of national security threats. It also helps explain why recent events caught many off-guard.
The field of nuclear security is extraordinarily elitist and hard to break into. In the same way, easily understandable information free of complex jargon and assumed knowledge is rarely available to the youth.
Social media, however, has had an important and lasting impact on our perception of nuclear weapons. Social media spreads news and information easily, which has increased my awareness of international issues like nuclear weapons. While disinformation and misinformation continue to be an issue, it is undeniable that this more digestible form of media has created a generation of youth who are more aware of what’s happening in the world than they would be otherwise. Additionally, the casual threats and flaunting of nuclear power during the Trump administration toward North Korea and the 2018 Hawaii false missile alert were awakening experiences for many who had never before considered nuclear weapons a primary threat. Now as Russia and China continue to look toward increasing and modernizing their nuclear arsenals, it is clear the threat is far from over and will continue to occupy space on the international stage and in the media.
CARING ABOUT TODAY’S NUCLEAR MOMENT
At the present moment, we see Russia becoming increasingly aggressive toward Ukraine and infringing upon its territorial sovereignty and identity as a nation. We see a dictator pursuing his self-interested nationalistic policies at the expense of regional stability and lives — both Ukrainian and Russian — to achieve a semblance of Russia’s previous glory. It certainly alludes to the days of the Cold War and the Soviet Union. As many of us remember from our history textbooks, ideas of mutually assured destruction suggest that the outbreak of nuclear war is unlikely. However, there are many flaws in this theory. First, it ignores the development of nuclear weapons themselves. Today’s nuclear weapons come in a variety, and nuclear-weapon states boast about having low-yield weapons, which theoretically will not result in mutual destruction. Second, it assumes that there is no political will to use a nuclear weapon. Yet, Putin’s rhetoric about his invasion of Ukraine is indicating otherwise.
How should we feel about Putin’s threats regarding the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine? Should we be concerned? Worried? I am both. I am still in shock and processing what has transpired over the last few months. While I remain optimistic about the future and hope to see a denuclearized world with more protections in place, I recognize that we are living in a dangerous, unpredictable moment. We, the American youth, must take initiative to address the threat nuclear weapons pose to the world so that we can avert nuclear war and prevent another situation mirroring the horrors of what we see in Ukraine. We need to elevate the issues of nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and No First Use to the defining issues of our lifetime. Nuclear weapons have life-altering potential and enough force to destroy the world as we know it. And today’s nukes would surely cause irreparable damage that we can not return from.
So, what Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has taught me is that whether or not the Cold War is over is beside the point. What we need to work toward is a world free of nuclear weapons.
Kristie Moore is a student at the University of California, Berkeley studying Global Studies with a concentration in Peace & Conflict in Europe/Russia. She is also a former Girl Security Fellow.
This piece is published in collaboration with Outrider Foundation, a nonprofit media group that publishes commentary on security issues, public policy, and social justice.