Farewell to Arms

On the eve of President Obama’s trip to Prague to sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, and after a busy day rolling out the administration’s new Nuclear Posture Review, the president invited a few guests for a White House movie night. The guest list included three Republican former secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and Colin Powell, as well as the Democrats Sam Nunn and Bill Perry.

The featured film was the new documentary “Nuclear Tipping Point,” in which the former defense “hawks” argue that the increasing prospect of nuclear terrorism requires that we eliminate nuclear weapons now or face disaster. (The film is available at www.nucleartippingpoint.org). Henry Kissinger notes: “We have stolen fire from the gods. Let us hope we can contain it before it consumes us.”


Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican observer at the United Nations, agrees that the nuclear status quo is untenable and only progress toward genuine disarmament will bring greater security for all. President Obama agrees.

The Catholic Church has long advocated what the administration now proposes: a world free of nuclear weapons, deep cuts in nuclear arsenals, ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and “new efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the world.” The U.S. Catholic bishops made these arguments over 27 years ago in their historic pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace.” Criticized at the time for being naïve, the bishops instead were prescient, seeing that another world was both possible and necessary. The world is now catching up to what the bishops have been urging all along. The ethics of nuclear policy will be discussed in a conference on April 26 at the Catholic University of America (http://ipr.cua.edu/events/symp-obama-nuclear.cfm).

But while the moral guidance of “The Challenge of Peace” still applies, it is not sufficient to the moral challenges globalization now brings to nuclear issues. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty assumes that the governments of states alone are the source of nuclear proliferation. This is no longer the case. Today private sector nuclear proliferation networks peddle nuclear materials for a profit. A. Q. Khan, widely esteemed in Pakistan as the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, was also the world’s worst private purveyor of nuclear technologies, selling to North Korea, Iran, Syria, Libya and unknown others. He was placed under house arrest in 2004. But with the change of government in Pakistan, he is now a free man (with a Web site, http://www.draqkhan.com.pk). As Pope Benedict XVI noted in his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” we live in a world of global markets and non-state actors not governed by shared norms.

Global climate change also brings challenges related to the spread of nuclear capability. Today there is a race in the Middle East to acquire nuclear energy. Many of these countries are politically unstable, which leads to concern that this nuclear race could result in the creation of more Pakistans, unstable states with nuclear capabilities that could fall into the hands of extremist non-state actors.

Recognizing this, President Obama notes that “for the first time, preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism is now at the top of America’s nuclear agenda.” Heads of state from 47 countries are meeting in Washington for a historic nuclear security summit, working to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials in the next four years. The United States and Russia have agreed to convert 68 tons of plutonium (enough for 17,000 nuclear bombs) from decommissioned weapons into energy.

These are tough political battles with uncertain outcomes. The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty require a two-thirds vote in the Senate for ratification, and businesses and other countries must cooperate to control nuclear materials. For the first time in decades Catholics have a partner in the White House on nuclear issues, but we must work hard through education, advocacy, networking and other creative means to help build peace and avoid nuclear peril. As “The Challenge of Peace” and “Caritas in Veritate” both note, this is not the government’s job alone. We all have moral responsibilities to build peace.

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C Walter Mattingly
8 years 8 months ago

While President Obama's continuing emphasis on nuclear non-proliferation is welcome to virtually all of us, Ms Love unfortunately makes a blanket generalization that does not ring true to this reader, namely, "For the first time in decades Catholics have a partner in the White House on nuclear issues...."  In 2002 President Bush signed the Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty with Mr. Putin which drastically reduced deployed nuclear weapons.  Overall the US committed to reduce such weapons by over 2/3 by 2012 and is largely on schedule. There is nothing like such drastic cuts in numbers in this current agenda (a prudent thing, perhaps).  I suspect this immense reduction was very much in line with Catholic thinking generally.

I do however question a few parts of the current president's positions. Under the limitations he has proposed, a country could commit an anthrax attack on  US cities, causing a few hundred thousand or so civilian casualties, all the while knowing the US would not use a nuclear weapon against them in defense or retaliation or, perhaps most important, deterrence. While that scenario is unlikely, why provide such comfort to a potential enemy?

On the other hand, President Obama has committed 10 billion or so in support of building nuclear energy power plants in the US. The absence of this industry has caused much unnecessary pollution of our air and water and huge increases in imported fuels by fossil-fuel powered plants that could have been avoided over the past 30 years. President Obama, to his credit, has broken through this disastrous moratorium, something President Bush failed to do.


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