Is Nuclear Deterrence Still Moral?
Twenty years ago, the Doomsday Clock, a well-known barometer of how close the world was to nuclear holocaust, stood at three minutes before the fateful midnight hour. The nuclear arms race was in full force. The fear of nuclear war was palpable. We held our collective breath and prayed mightily that God would stay the hands that held the power to launch the unthinkable.
In the midst of this charged climate, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued their landmark document, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response (1983), commonly referred to as their peace pastoral. The bishops asserted the full weight of their moral authority, boldly declaring their opposition to the use of nuclear weapons as they cited the massive and indiscriminate destruction they would inflict. In the words of our Holy Father, they wrote, we need a moral about-face.’ The whole world must summon the moral courage and technical means to say no’ to nuclear conflict and no’ to the moral danger of a nuclear age which places before humankind indefensible choices of constant terror or surrender.
The bishops left no doubt that they stood in firm opposition to the nuclear arms race. At the same time, they were mindful of and influenced by the polarized climate of the cold war era. They wrestled long and hard with the concept of nuclear deterrence and concluded that the possession of nuclear weapons to deter another country from launching a nuclear attack was morally acceptable. They cautioned, however, that they could uphold deterrence only as an interim measure, which could not be considered adequate as a long-term basis for peace. Theirs was a strictly conditioned moral acceptance, insisting that nuclear deterrence was to be used not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament.
Ten years afterthe publication of their pastoral letter, the world had become a different place. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The cold war was a thing of the past. The Doomsday Clock hummed the world’s relief as it stretched its hands to a more comfortable 17 minutes before midnight.
In this dramatically changed world, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued in 1993 The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace, a statement marking the 10th anniversary of the peace pastoral. The bishops acknowledged the unimaginable global changes of the past decade, including the vast changes in the nuclear landscape. The threat of global nuclear war has been replaced by a threat of global nuclear proliferation, they wrote. The bishops sounded a clear call for progressive nuclear disarmament with a goal of nuclear abolition.
Even though the world had changed dramatically, the bishops reaffirmed the morality of nuclear deterrence. We believe our judgment of 1983 that nuclear deterrence is morally acceptable only under certain strict conditions remains a useful guide for evaluating the continued moral status of nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War world, they wrote, claiming that greater progress in arms control and disarmament served as the only basis for the continued moral legitimacy of deterrence.
As the U.S. bishops were reaffirming conditional acceptance of nuclear deterrence, some Vatican officials were moving beyond it. In 1993 Archbishop Renato Martino, who was then the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, stated: The most perilous of all cold war assumptions carried into the new age is the belief that the strategy of nuclear deterrence is essential to a nation’s security. Nuclear deterrence prevents genuine nuclear disarmament. The world must move to the abolition of nuclear weapons through a universal, non-discriminatory ban with intensive inspection by a universal authority.
Ten years later, the world has become a more dangerous place. We now talk of a pre- and post-Sept. 11 world, and our nuclear fears are deeply influenced by terrorism. Our president warns of the danger of rogue nations getting their hands on nuclear weapons and vows to prevent this from happening. Both the United States and North Korea have withdrawn from longstanding nuclear treaties to pursue new nuclear weapons agendas. And the Doomsday Clock has shifted its nervous hands to seven minutes before midnight.
Ten years after the Vatican and the bishops agreed that progressive nuclear disarmament must be the way of the future, we find instead a series of steps carefully taken to assure a future increasingly reliant upon nuclear weapons.
In 1996, the same year that the International Court of Justice declared the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons to be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed at the United Nations. This important agreement brought together commitments from all five declared nuclear weapon states to end explosive nuclear tests forever. But this treaty, signed by President Clinton, has never been ratified by the U.S. Congress. It therefore exercises no legal authority over the largest nuclear weapons producer on the planet.
The following year, the Clinton administration issued a directive that placed nuclear weapons as the cornerstone of U.S. strategic defense. This action expanded the role of nuclear weapons to include deterring chemical and biological attacks by third world non-nuclear weapons states and supported the creation of a Stockpile Stewardship Management Program. This vast program, designed to modernize the nuclear weapons arsenal, authorized continued research, development and nonexplosive laboratory testing of new nuclear weapons through the year 2065.
Since its shaky arrival, the Bush administration has moved our nation away from the goal of nuclear disarmament with a brazenness that is shocking. In May 2001, President Bush abandoned the 29-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to pursue its goal of a missile defense system. This treaty, which barred nuclear states from developing defense systems to shoot down incoming nuclear weapons, was put in place to prevent a new type of arms race. Since the U.S. withdrawal from this treaty, Japan and India have both asked for U.S. assistance in developing missile defense systems against their nuclear neighbors. So intent is the Bush administration on developing a missile defense system of its own that the Defense Department’s budget proposal for 2004 included a request for a waiver permitting it to skip operational testing of some parts of this system, claiming that deployment does not require that the system work perfectly.
In 2002, the United States and Russia signed the Treaty of Moscow, which called for the reduction of both nations’ nuclear arsenals by two-thirds by 2012. But because there is no explicit timetable for these reductions, they do not have to occur until the year that the treaty expires. Furthermore, the treaty allows both countries to place warheads withdrawn from operational deployment in an arsenal that can be placed back in operation at a future time. It is a treaty not of nuclear reduction but of nuclear reshuffling.
The same year in which President Bush signed this treaty with Russia, he took steps to expand our nation’s longstanding defensive nuclear posture to include first-strike use. In its 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, the Bush administration rejected our nation’s decades-long commitment not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. This document provides an opening for the resumption of underground nuclear testing and calls for the development of new types of nuclear weapons, known as bunker busters and mini-nukes, designed to explode underground bunkers where chemical and biological weapons might be stored. During the recent war against Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that any weapon in any stage of development in the U.S. arsenal was being considered for possible use. Although not used in Iraq, the first-strike card has not been discarded from Bush’s nuclear deck.
The U.S. military trouncing of Iraq confirmed much of what the world suspected. By thumbing their noses at U.N. resistance, our government leaders claimed the authority to attack pre-emptively nations they believe to pose a threat in the future. And no nation stands a chance when engaged in a war of conventional weapons against the world’s only remaining superpower. Proposed U.S. military spending for 2004 is $399.1 billion, more than six times the entire military budget of Russia, the world’s second largest military spender, and more than the military spending of the world’s next 20 nations combined.
How can any of the world’s Davids expect to withstand such a Goliath? Our nation’s actions in Iraq and its ongoing doctrine of pre-emptive war against potential threats may well prove to be the fertilizer that fuels a new nuclear arms race, as non-nuclear nations decide that nuclear weapons offer their only hope of survival against the U.S. military machine.
But nuclear deterrence in a world of pre-emptive war against potential threats is a whole new ballgame. Deterrence can work only when there is reasonable assurance that a nation’s leader would not launch a nuclear strike first. How can there be such assurance when the first-strike use of nuclear weapons is on its way to becoming U.S. policy? How can there be such assurance in a world of increasing anti-U.S. sentiment partnered with expanded efforts by nondemocratic nations to obtain nuclear weapons?
By 1998, long before the aggressive nuclear agenda of the Bush administration, 94 Catholic bishops were able to read the writing on the wall. In The Morality of Nuclear Deterrence: An Evaluation by Pax Christi Bishops in the United States, these bishops evaluated U.S. nuclear weapons policy and practice in light of the conditions they had set forth in 1983 and 1993. Their evaluation led them to reject nuclear deterrence. This conclusion was based on three moral considerations.
First among these was the belief that the policy of nuclear deterrence was being institutionalized. [Nuclear deterrence] is no longer considered an interim policy, but rather has become the very long-term basis for peace’ that we rejected in 1983, they wrote. Second, they noted the expansion of the role of nuclear deterrence. The role to be played now by nuclear weapons includes a whole range of contingencies on a global scale, including countering biological and chemical weapons and the protection of vital national interests abroad. Lastly, they claimed that the United States had no intention of eliminating nuclear weapons entirely, stating, the U.S. intends to retain its nuclear deterrent into the indefinite future.
These prophetic words are even more pertinent today. Instead of nuclear weapons being used as an interim measure on the way to nuclear disarmament, as the bishops insisted 20 years ago, our nation has taken deliberate strategic steps to assure a long future of reliance on nuclear weapons. Instead of committing itself never to use nuclear weapons first, as the bishops advised 10 years ago, our government is crafting a strategy of pre-emptive battle that includes the first-strike use of nuclear weapons. Not only has the unimaginable become imaginable; it is close to becoming policy.
Clearly, the progressive disarmament that the bishops claimed to be the only basis for the continued moral legitimacy of deterrence 10 years ago has not come about. Instead, the nuclear course being charted today is steering us farther from the shores of nuclear abolition. It seems that the prophecy of Archbishop Martino has come true. Not only has nuclear deterrence prevented nuclear disarmament; it has been an accomplice to nuclear proliferation.
In this 20th anniversary year, the U.S. Catholic bishops have an ethical responsibility to evaluate U.S. nuclear policy and practice in light of the criteria they have established. If their overall assessment of the last 20 years reveals that our nation’s policies have failed to live up to the strict conditions that they set, what basis would the bishops have for morally defending anything other than a rejection of nuclear deterrence?
Now is the time for moral leadership by the U.S. bishops on this issue. There are 30,000 intact nuclear warheads throughout our world. The number of countries striving to increase that number is growing. And the Doomsday Clock is ticking.