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The war in Ukraine could portend the end of the “long peace”

The decline of major conflict helped support decades of prosperity, but that future is now in doubt.

Photo of soldiers in Kyiv outside a building damaged by a missile
Ukrainian police officers outside a building in Kyiv damaged by a Russian missile, on February 25, 2022.
Pierre Crom/Getty Images
Bryan Walsh is the editor of Vox’s Future Perfect section, which covers the policies, people, and forces that could make the future a better place for everyone. He worked at Time magazine for 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia, a climate writer, and an international editor — and wrote a book on existential risk.

As I walk my 4-year-old son to day care each morning, we often pass by one of Brooklyn’s many old apartment buildings. Just visible near the stairs leading to the basement is a sign, faded with age, of three yellow triangles against a black circle, poised above two words: “fallout shelter.”

Such signs used to adorn tens of thousands of buildings around the US, a legacy of President John F. Kennedy’s effort during the height of the Cold War to identify structures that could plausibly provide some protection from the radioactive fallout of a nuclear strike.

These spaces were eventually meant to be equipped with essentials like water and medical kits designed to last two weeks, by which time it was hoped that the worst of the radioactivity would have dispersed and survivors could emerge to whatever was left.

But most of the equipment was never moved into place, and by the early 1970s funding for the program had dried up, leaving little more than the signs as a reminder of a period when the threat of nuclear holocaust was real enough to prepare for — however futile those preparations would have been.

The end of the long peace

Those abandoned fallout shelters were on my mind on Wednesday night as I watched Russia overturn decades of seemingly settled international policy with an invasion of Ukraine that was as premeditated as it was shocking. What sets this action apart from the countless conflicts, large and small, that have unfolded over recent decades, is the specter of nuclear weapons.

That was implicit in Russia’s decision to exercise its strategic nuclear forces in the leadup to the invasion, in Putin’s absurd casus belli claim that Ukraine was going to develop its own nuclear weapons, in his threat that countries that interfered with Russian actions would face “consequences you have never seen.” As Roger Cohen pointed out in the New York Times, Putin’s speech “seemed to come closer to threatening nuclear war than any statement from a major world leader in recent decades.”

The irony is that one of the reasons Ukraine was vulnerable to a Russian invasion is that it does not possess nuclear weapons. It agreed in 1994 to give up Soviet nukes that had been left in its territory after the USSR’s breakup in exchange for an agreement that the US, the UK, and Russia would guarantee its security. And one of the reasons that Putin could invade knowing that international opposition would be largely limited to diplomatic and financial tools was that Russia still possesses the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

It has also retained strategic ambiguity about just when and why it would use those weapons, including the possibility it would threaten a nuclear strike if it were on the losing side of a conventional conflict with NATO.

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp writes, what we’re seeing is an illustration of the “stability-instability paradox” of nuclear weapons. As the chance of nuclear conflict declines, the theory holds, the risk of conventional war increases, and as the likelihood of nuclear conflict increases, the risk of conventional war declines. That in turn helps explain another paradox: why the decades following the introduction of nuclear weapons — weapons that, in their most maximalist effect, could conceivably bring an end to human civilization — also saw a historic fall in the number of war-related deaths around the world.

Chart of battle deaths 1945-2016 Our World in Data

These decades go by another name: “the long peace.” The name can be a bit misleading — for much of the world, these years have been anything but peaceful, with the number of discrete conflicts beginning to rise in the 1960s and staying high ever since.

These ranged from large conflicts like America’s decade in Vietnam and the 1980s Iran-Iraq war to countless small skirmishes, often conflicts within countries, that barely penetrated the international media. But compared to the blood-stained decades that marked the first half of the 20th century — which saw more than 100 million deaths in World Wars I and II combined — let alone humanity’s tremendously violent past, these years have indeed been a holiday from history.

And if the invasion of Ukraine marks a decisive end to that holiday, as some experts have suggested, we risk losing far more than peace.

The wages of peace

When Future Perfect was launched in 2018, Vox’s Dylan Matthews laid out a founding question: “What topics would we write about if our only instruction was to write about the most important stuff in the world?”

The years that followed provided some of the answers: the battle against global poverty and the common diseases that still kill too many of the world’s poorest; the growth of effective altruism and the rigorous movement to do the most good per dollar; the expansion of moral concern from tribe and nation to all of humanity and even non-human species; and yes, occasionally, the existential threat of superintelligent AI.

What these topics have in common is that they all flourish best in peace.

The last half-century or more hasn’t just seen a historic reduction in the casualties of war. It’s also witnessed an unprecedented expansion in human prosperity, as measured in health, wealth, and education. It’s an expansion that is far from perfect and far from complete, but one that has opened the door, even just a crack, to a future that truly could be perfect.

That progress, I would argue, depends on peace. Unchecked war is the great destroyer of human value. One estimate from 2019 put the economic impact of violence and conflict at $14.4 trillion that year, equivalent to more than 10 percent of gross global GDP.

But dollar figures are only one way of counting the destruction. A world where borders can once again be remade with force, where countries and their citizens no longer feel secure from better-armed neighbors, is one where the broader goals Future Perfect covers (and values) will be harder to achieve, where the circle of moral concern could shrink rather than grow. It is a return to barbarity.

Fighting back

Understanding the value of peace doesn’t mean the world should do nothing as Russian troops and arms pour into Ukraine — far from it. A Russian takeover of Ukraine at the point of a gun doesn’t merely destabilize its European neighbors; it potentially opens the door for other increasingly authoritarian countries to take what they can by force. Today Kyiv, tomorrow Taipei.

Even if the chain of events doesn’t end in World War III — and as Dylan Matthews wrote recently, we have far too little data about great-power conflicts to know when major wars will begin or how to stop them — the political and even psychological foundations of the long peace would begin to erode.

Just what can be done to stop this is far from clear. The effective altruism community has recently become more interested in the goal of preventing great-power conflict, but promoting direct cash giving or distributing malaria bed nets looks a lot more tractable than preventing a major war, thanks in part to the stability-instability paradox. How hard can we push back before we risk solving that paradox in the worst possible way, a solution that ends in those dusty fallout shelters?

At Future Perfect, we pride ourselves on covering the issues that will truly matter for humanity’s long term, not just the news of the day. But this is a rare moment when the news of the day may well prove decisive for just what shape that long term will take.

A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!

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