Nuclear Deterrence: a Bridge Not Yet Crossed

Archbishop ChullikattAs part of its training for those who man the silos that launch nuclear-armed missiles, reports Jason Leopold at Truthout, until recently the U.S. Air Force forced them to sit through a PowerPoint presentation that used passages from the New Testament to convince them that launching a nuclear weapon is ethical. Included was a quote by Wernher von Braun. You remember him: he was the Nazi rocket scientist brought into the United States under the infamous Operation Paperclip whose work turned out to be critical to the U.S. space program.

As Leopold reports, after surrendering to American forces in May 1945, von Braun said, “We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon [missiles, apparently. – RW] to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.” [Emphasis Leopold's.]

Apparently it was lost on those repeating the quote that von Braun was obviously ingratiating himself with the United States at a time when by all rights it should have been trying him for war crimes. As Leopold reminds us, he “used Jews imprisoned in concentration camps and captured French anti-Nazi partisans and civilians to help build the V-2 rocket, a weapon responsible for the death of thousands of British civilians.”

Meanwhile, it’s not as if nuclear weapons and deterrence haven’t been given the imprimatur of organized religions, though usually reluctantly. But organized religion is at its best when it joins the fight for disarmament since nuclear weapons is, at heart, an ethical issue. (As in: doesn’t the deaths of millions on each side stretch the meaning of Saint Augustine’s Just War theory just a hair?)

On July 1, Archbishhop Francis Chullikatt, the permanent observer of the Holy See (the Church’s central government in the Vatican) to the United Nations, addressed the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. As a former Catholic, I take care not to stand downwind of anything emanating from the Church, lest I contract hives. But sometimes you have to give the devil its due.

In fact, Archbishop Chullikatt and the Holy See’s speech is as inspiring to read as it must have been to witness live. Its purpose:

With new efforts now being made to build a global legal ban on nuclear weapons, this is a good moment to review the Church’s teachings on weapons of mass destruction.

The church’s main objections seems to be that “the current modernization of nuclear forces and their technical infrastructure are casting doubt on” the good faith required to abide by nuclear treaties because the modernization makes “difficult or impossible a negotiated achievement on global nuclear disarmament.” Some background.

Catholic teaching on nuclear deterrence is found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and in subsequent statements by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Indeed, we can see that the indiscriminate use and devastating effects of nuclear weapons have led the Church to abhor any use of nuclear weapons.

However, in keeping with the times,

… the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council … seemed to have rather reluctantly accepted the strategy of nuclear deterrence. … Pope John Paul II restated the Catholic position on nuclear deterrence … at the height of the Cold War: In current conditions, ‘deterrence’ based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step along the way towards a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable. …

This statement made clear that nuclear deterrence during the Cold War years could only be acceptable if it led to progressive disarmament. What is intended therefore is not nuclear deterrence as a single, permanent policy. … the Church’s moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence was always conditioned on progress toward their [sic] elimination.

To the defense establishment, deterrence is as an enduring strategy. Viewing it as a bridge may be particular to the Church and a few others (it was new to me). Archbishhop Chullikatt continues.

As the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Cold war came to a close, great hope was ignited that the world could move decisively and expeditiously with nuclear disarmament. … Unfortunately, the nuclear-weapon states engaged in a reinvestment in their nuclear weapons complexes, pouring tens of billions of dollars into new technologies. …

As the Cold War receded and a new century dawned, the international community continued to press the nuclear-weapon states for concrete movement on fulfilling their obligations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals as called for under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Church’s efforts in this area increased, and became focused on challenging what we came to see as the institutionalization of deterrence. [Emphasis added.]

As if that’s not clear enough

… With development needs across the globe far outpacing the resources being devoted to address them, the thought of pouring hundreds of billions of additional dollars into the world’s nuclear arsenals is nothing short of sinful.

Furthermore

The nuclear-weapon states must abide by their obligations to negotiate the total elimination of their own arsenals if they are to have any authenticity in holding the non-nuclear-weapon states to their commitments not to pursue nuclear weapons.

Then Archbishhop Chullikatt reminds that disarmament was infused with a boost in “1996, fifteen years ago this very month [when] the International Court of Justice issued its landmark decision on [signatories] to the NPT. The Court said that negotiations for elimination must be concluded,” not just promised.

Yet the comprehensive negotiations called for the International Court of Justice have not even started. The bilateral START treaty between the US and Russia only makes small reductions and leaves intact a vast nuclear arsenal on both sides, with many nuclear weapons held on constant alert status.

Besides supporting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Five-Point Plan for Nuclear Disarmament, Archbishhop Chullikat issues a call for safeguards for workers at both nuclear weapons facilities and nuclear energy facilities such as Fukushima. In the end, he and the Church declare

The simple truth about the use of nuclear weapons is that, being weapons of mass destruction by their very nature, they cannot comply with fundamental rules of international humanitarian law forbidding the infliction of indiscriminate and disproportionate harm. Nor can their use meet the rigorous standards of the Just War principles’ moral assessment of the use of force.