Posts tagged with: nuclear weapons

It’s worth noting that the original context of engagement of the ecumenical movement by figures like Paul Ramsey and Ernest Lefever (two voices that figure prominently in my book, Ecumenical Babel) had much to do with foreign policy and the Cold War, and specifically the question of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Last week marked the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and today is the anniversary of the Nagasaki detonation. As ENI reports (full story after the break), the ecumenical advocacy against nuclear weapons has not abated since the 1960s.

The question of nuclear weapons is a complex one, that involves distinctions between ius ad bellum and ius in bello, strategic and tactical nuclear devices, and combatants and non-combatants. Kishore Jayabalan has also made the case that we also need to distinguish between different kinds of regimes.

It may well be that the question of nuclear weapons is analogous to the question of capital punishment: the government might well have the theoretical right to prosecute it, but given the practical limitations of human fallibility, there may be no morally-sound way to practically implement it.

As Paul Ramsey wrote of the nuclear question in 1967, however, the position that it is acceptable to possess the weapons only on the condition that they never be used is incoherent:

The actuality of deterrence depends upon a credible belief, mutually shared, that one might use a nuclear weapon. If the government of one of the great powers were persuaded by the churches never to be willing to use any nuclear weapon under any circumstances, and this were known, there would be instantly no deterrence and therefore no practical problem of finding a way out. Likewise, the morality of deterrence depends upon it not being wholly immoral for a government ever to use an atomic weapon under any circumstances.


As a former disarmament policy analyst for the Holy See in New York and in Vatican City, I was recently asked to comment on its position on nuclear disarmament by the National Catholic Register; the article can be found here. The reason for raising the issue now was a Nobel laureates’ peace conference in Rome hosted by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The article describes the Holy See’s views as mainly expressed by Canadian Senator Douglas Roche, who also served on the Holy See delegation to several United Nations disarmament meetings. I would like to use this post, however, to expand on some aspects that the article only mentions briefly.

While the Holy See has the official status of a state, it does not pretend to be a state like any other; its status is primarily meant to protect the religious freedom and independence of the pope. So it cannot be said that the Holy See has any kind of political expertise in the disarmament field. After all, it hasn’t had to disarm itself and Vatican City is protected by Italian, NATO and US forces in the area. The Holy See’s mission here is to serve as a moral conscience, not as a political example to other states.

The Holy See seeks to exercise its moral authority in matters of war and peace, offering, over the centuries, its good offices to mediate a peaceful resolution of conflicts between states. But the Holy See’s position is not “pacifist”, i.e. avoiding war at all costs. For the most part, it recognizes the larger moral and strategic aspects of international relations while trying to avoid unnecessary slaughter and destruction.

The NCR article correctly notes that in 1982, Pope John Paul II linked the moral acceptability of deterrence to progress towards nuclear disarmament; this linkage is also the basis for the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Yet the background for this linkage – the real possibility of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union – is neglected. In fact, most observers (Gorbachev included) now admit that the nuclear arms race contributed to or accelerated the demise of the Soviet Union, and hence the passing of the threat of a nuclear war between two ideological foes.

When John Paul II granted some moral acceptability to nuclear deterrence, he did so in the face of extreme opposition from European and American pacifists, including some Church leaders who thought the US, UK and France should disarm unilaterally. Incredible as it may seem, the possession of nuclear arms by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was considered a greater threat to peace. Vatican officials, however, were more sensible and aware of the menace posed by the USSR.

The Soviet Union is no more. As a result, the US and Russia did agree to greatly reduce their nuclear arsenals. September 11, 2001 changed strategic calculations, and especially nuclear proliferation concerns. North Korea and Iran are the most worrying of these, but there are many others, including the spread of nuclear materials to terrorist groups. But, once again, the no-nukes movement has decided to make the US the focus of its disarmament rally.

Perhaps this is because most of the nuclear abolitionists live in societies that allow them to criticize their governments openly and freely. There are no North Korean or Iranian equivalents of Senator Roche. In fact, the nature of the political regime should be more worrying than the possession of nuclear weapons. To think about the nature of such regimes is not to automatically praise one’s own over others; rather it is the beginning of political wisdom.

The opposite tendency is to deny all political responsibility and cede such authority to tyrants and terrorists. International relations would then be a field for “realist experts” who shun moral reflection and argue that “anything goes” in war. It would also describe mainstream foreign policy thought in the West.

In our age of moral relativism, it is tempting to say no regime is better any other, but it is also nonsensical. Instead, we need more reflection on what makes a good society and how a good society should carry out its foreign relations. No country can live in splendid isolation from today’s threats, just as no country can ignore today’s globalized economy. In international relations as in other human endeavors, the challenge is carrying out our moral responsibilities without losing our soul.

One of the more lively and illuminating discussions at last week’s Advanced Studies in Freedom seminar revolved around the question whether and how classical liberalism is applicable to foreign policy, specifically with regard to questions of war. In the New York Times earlier this week, Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, wrote a lengthy op-ed that bears on the relevant questions, “An American Foreign Policy That Both Realists and Idealists Should Fall in Love With.”

Wright argues, “It’s now possible to build a foreign policy paradigm that comes close to squaring the circle — reconciling the humanitarian aims of idealists with the powerful logic of realists.” He calls this paradigm “progressive realism” and the remainder of the essay outlines the planks of such a platform. Wright’s alternative is rife with important observations and useful principles.

For example, he writes that “the national interest can be served by constraints on America’s behavior when they constrain other nations as well. This logic covers the spectrum of international governance, from global warming (we’ll cut carbon dioxide emissions if you will) to war (we’ll refrain from it if you will).” Even so, the problem beyond the mere curtailment of absolute national sovereignty is the ability of mutual enforcement. America doesn’t want to get stuck being the only one who plays by the rules.

Wright also observes that “domestic security depends increasingly on popular sentiment abroad makes it important for America to be seen as a good global citizen — respecting international laws and norms and sensing the needs of neighbors…. Much of the war on terror isn’t military.” There’s a sense in which what Wright is arguing for is a system of international affairs that will foster some sort of solidarity, an end that advocates of globalization and increasing free trade recognize. Thus Wright says, “A correlation of fortunes — being in the same boat with other nations in matters of economics, environment, security — is what makes international governance serve national interest. It is also what makes enlightened self-interest de facto humanitarian.”

During the discussions last week about classical liberalism and war, my reaction was not to first ask the question: “What is a classical liberal approach to war?” I’m not so concerned with simply finding and articulating a classical liberal position, but instead am focused on finging the right position.

To this end, I contend that we ought to begin with just war theory, an approach that predates by millennia the rise of classical liberal thought and which is officially advocated by the Roman Catholic Church, among others. We then might apply classical liberal principles and see to what extent the two are compatible, and there may be reason to adjust the conclusions of one or the other on the basis of an insight that one of the perspectives provides. It does strike me that on many levels, however, Wright’s “progressive realism” is an approach that has significant cross-over appeal for classical liberalism.

These are questions, of course, of the utmost relevance for today. A worthy post at the Belmont Club (HT: No Left Turns) raises the question of collateral damage and the loss of civilian life in military campaigns. This is an issue that stands at the heart of just war theory.

Detroit News editor Nolan Finley raised the question of our policy toward rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea: “Why don’t we just nuke ‘em?” You can gauge the response to this question from the survey of letters to the editor here. But even so, Finley’s column raises an important and real difficulty with regard to nuclear weapons: “We know as well as our enemies do that we’ll never push the button.”

As one of the faculty observed at the seminar last week, the question of whether it is immoral to possess nuclear weapons is different than the question of whether it is moral to use nuclear weapons, and the two may not be entirely compatible. There is the potential for a paradox, which is what Finley is getting at I think, in that it may well be moral to have nuclear weapons as a deterrent, in the style of mutually-assured destruction, but that it would always violate just war principles to use them. Even Finley’s emphasis on tactical and smart weapons is overwrought, I think, given that even conventional smart weapons almost always result in some sort of collateral damage to civilians. We have seen this most remarkably in the events between Lebanon and Israel in the last few days.