The argument for the morality of nuclear deterrence has always been a fragile one. It is a consequentialist argument, made on the grounds that the destruction caused by a nuclear war would be so horrifying that preventing it might justify making threats that also seem horrifying – since the very threats promise to bring some measure of stability. However, the justifications for deterrence have always been temporary – an “interim ethic” which could only be judged to be moral under strict conditions. In 1982 Pope John Paul II clearly regarded deterrence as unsustainable. In a message to the UN Special Session on Disarmament, he wrote, “in current conditions ‘deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable. Nonetheless, in order to ensure peace, it is indispensable not to be satisfied with this minimum which is always susceptible to the real danger of explosion” (Pope John Paul II, Message to U.N. Special Session on Disarmament, #8, June 1982, cited in The Challenge of Peace).
The Pope was right about the real danger of explosion that always accompanied the strategy of deterrence. Effective deterrence depended upon the ability to strike quickly, before one’s own forces were eliminated. This hair-trigger situation led to many nuclear “close calls”, as Eric Schloesser has shown dramatically in his 2013 book Command and Control. In many of these incidents, the world was saved from a nuclear war simply by dumb luck or by the courage of an individual like Stanislav Petrov. But this danger was seen as worth risking as long as the overall strategy of deterrence allowed for stability in relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Today, deterrence can no longer be justified in the same terms as it was by Pope John Paul II in 1982. There are two reasons for this: first, deterrence was conditionally justified as “a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament,” but this disarmament is not taking place in a serious way. As Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the then-Vatican representative at the UN, said in a lecture in 2010, “It is evident that nuclear deterrence is preventing genuine nuclear disarmament. Consequently, the conditions that prevailed during the Cold War, which gave a basis for the Church’s limited toleration of nuclear deterrence, no longer apply.” Second, deterrence was justified on the basis of its utility, and that strategic utility is now being called into serious question by the strategists themselves. In a dramatic series of op-eds over several years, former cold warriors from both political parties have called instead for complete nuclear disarmament, or “Going to Zero”. The so called “Gang of Four” – Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn – have argued that:
The accelerating spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how and nuclear material has brought us to a nuclear tipping point. We face a very real possibility that the deadliest weapons ever invented could fall into dangerous hands. The steps we are taking now to address these threats are not adequate to the danger. With nuclear weapons more widely available, deterrence is decreasingly effective and increasingly hazardous.
The proliferation of nuclear weapons destabilizes a deterrence system that emerged in a bipolar world. The possibilities of cyberwarfare and nuclear terrorism pose unique threats: how, exactly, does one “deter” terrorists who do not fear their own destruction and do not present a clear target that can be struck in retaliation?
In an effort to build momentum around these arguments, Secretaries Schultz and Perry recent hosted a Colloquium on Revitalizing Catholic Engagement on Nuclear Disarmament at Stanford University, which I was privileged to attend. The policy suggestions flew hard and fast, as did the ethical questions. One might have expected the mood of the colloquium to be somewhat subdued, given that U.S.-Russian relations are at their tensest point since the fall of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the tense relations pose a challenge for efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not to mention the efforts to bring an end to the war in Syria. But even though the situation in Ukraine has raised significant tensions, the situation nevertheless reveals the fading utility of deterrence strategy. The fact that the U.S. possesses nuclear weapons did not deter Russia from annexing Crimea, nor is it likely to prevent further Russian claims on Ukrainian territory.
Even if the threat were closer to home, it is still implausible to think that the U.S. would violate the nuclear taboo. If we can learn anything from the recent cheating scandal among nuclear officers in the Navy and Air Force, it is this: the very soldiers charged with potentially firing nuclear weapons saw such little likelihood that they would ever receive that command that they saw no need to prepare by actually studying for their tests. One former Air Force officer stated explicitly that the events of 9-11 made him believe that America’s nuclear deterrent was now useless – and such conclusions by him and his colleagues have clearly contributed to the morale problems revealed by the scandal.
Despite their lack of moral clarity on the cheating issue, many of these soldiers have arrived at a remarkable degree of clarity on deterrence: there is no longer a role for it. That means that it is time to rid ourselves of nuclear weapons, unilaterally if need be. If anything, the current tensions with Russia provide even more reason for the U.S. to move away from having nuclear weapons on high alert, to begin reducing our nuclear arsenal further, and to promote non-proliferation by ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Russia has already ratified that treaty, but some fear that it could pull out if the U.S continues to put off ratification, despite President Obama’s statement in Prague that he will aggressively seek it.
“Going to zero” on nuclear weapons poses its own strategic and ethical problems, and some argue that it may create further instability in the international system. But the time has come for serious movement in that direction; the status quo of deterrence is no longer morally acceptable and is rapidly dissolving anyway.
Though written fifty years ago, the words of Gaudium et Spes remain apt to describe today’s situation:
For unless enmities and hatred are put away and firm, honest agreements concerning world peace are reached in the future, humanity, which already is in the middle of a grave crisis, even though it is endowed with remarkable knowledge, will perhaps be brought to that dismal hour in which it will experience no peace other than the dreadful peace of death. But, while we say this, the Church of Christ, present in the midst of the anxiety of this age, does not cease to hope most firmly. She intends to propose to our age over and over again, in season and out of season, this apostolic message: “Behold, now is the acceptable time for a change of heart; behold! now is the day of salvation.”
While Henry Kissinger isn’t usually regarded as the bearer of an apostolic message, the fact that he and Gaudium et Spes are in agreement on this one surely means that the rest of us need to stand up and take notice.
Laurie Johnston is Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Emmanuel College in Boston, Massachusetts. Her scholarship and teaching focuses on Christian social ethics, particularly question of war and peacemaking. She has been published in Political Theology, as well as the Journal of Catholic Social Thought, the Journal of Catholic Moral Theology, and Asian Horizons: Dharmaram Joural of Theology.