In a blog entry on December 3, Brian Auten wrote a substantive critique of my work with the Two Futures Project (2FP), a confessional Christian movement for the global abolition of nuclear weapons. To conclude his post, Auten raised four questions intended to open up the possibility that there are “radically different and yet still Christian perspectives” to that of 2FP. Joe Carter, FT online editor, took up one of Auten’s questions in a subsequent post.
Auten’s and Carter’s posts were both thoughtful, fair, and irenic—modeling civil discourse. Continuing in that vein, Carter has graciously permitted me to write this guest blog entry in response, in which I take Auten’s questions in turn.
#1: “Are nuclear weapons inherently sinful?”
Auten’s first question is the most important of the four, because if there are a host of morally justifiable uses for nuclear weapons, then the rest of his concerns—which deal with the likelihood and conditions of future nuclear proliferation—are necessarily less weighty. This is presumably why Carter’s post took up this question in particular (I respond to Carter below).
In brief, my answer would be “no.” The fundamental sin of nuclear weapons is not the device itself, but its use. Articulated in the language of the Just War tradition, I believe that there is no conceivable use of a nuclear weapon which does not violate the criteria of jus ad bellum (just circumstances for using force; specifically, proportionality) and/or jus in bellum (just means of using force; specifically, discrimination). For the sake of argument, I’ll assume broad agreement among FT readers on the legitimacy of Just War criteria for morally evaluating the employment of force.
It’s worth noting that nuclear abolitionism is not a necessary derivative of this moral claim. For example, I would affirm at least the philosophical plausibility—as per the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter—of a moral appeal in good faith toward holding nuclear weapons for the purpose of deterring nuclear attack.
The problem unique to our post-Cold War, post-9/11 era, however, is that nuclear deterrence has become fatally flawed. I believe—along with people like George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and others—that the mechanisms required to sustain deterrence (nuclear possession) can be expected to result in conditions (proliferation) by which deterrence is unraveled (non-state nuclear actors).
This is what distinguishes 2FP’s commitment to multilateral, verifiable nuclear weapons abolition from outwardly similar positions held by many on the left during the Cold War: ours is not a position born of “emotional baggage,” but rather prudential judgment regarding the best way to prevent the use of a nuclear weapon. The abolition of nuclear weapons is not easy, nor does it guarantee the prevention of nuclear disaster—but it is the only course that leaves open that possibility.
If readers agree with my statements that 1) the use of a nuclear weapon categorically violates Just War principles, and 2) that nuclear deterrence is so fatally flawed as to increase the likelihood of use, then nuclear abolitionism will have derivative moral force.
But what if it’s not so simple?
I’m glad to note that neither Carter nor Auten raises the possibility of a morally justifiable “countervalue” scenario (nuclear attack on a population)—again, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that such would necessarily violate the principle of discrimination.
This doesn’t foreclose, however, on a “counterforce” option (nuclear attack on military facilities) as proposed by Carter. Could that be moral?
Carter’s “all too plausible scenario” is one in which North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il moves to take over South Korea, threatening nuclear attack on the South and Japan if opposed. This leaves Western democracies with “only two options,” according to Carter: cave to Kim’s demands or use tactical nuclear weapons to destroy his missiles in their underground bunkers.
Thus we arrive at the crux of our disagreement about the inherent sinfulness of a nuclear weapon: Carter is attempting to articulate 1) a dire enough scenario (tyranny or nuke) and 2) a device (a small nuclear weapon) in which a nuclear strike could be morally justified.
The problem with such scenarios is that they are inevitably fantastical—and, like the “ticking time bomb” scenario vis a vis the morality of torture, exceptions which are ill-suited toward producing moral norms. Carter’s scenario in particular suffers from what I think are three crippling errors.
1) The urgency of the crisis depends upon its being considered outside of real conditions, including time. North Korea’s present ability to mate warheads to missiles is questionable. The scenario is therefore necessarily future, and it presumes that we have ignored any number of non-nuclear—and admittedly potentially drastic—steps to prevent this development from coming to pass.
2) North Korea doesn’t need nuclear missiles to threaten catastrophic loss of life. In one hour, their mobile artillery could put half a million conventional shells onto Seoul—not to mention American troops near the DMZ—killing millions. In other words, if Kim Jong Il ever decides that reunification is worth threatening the deaths of millions, a lot of people on both sides are going to die, no matter whether we use nuclear weapons or not.
3) This scenario commits the logical fallacy of dichotomizing strategy (caving to Kim’s demands) with tactics (a nuclear response). Why is a tactical nuclear weapon the only way to oppose Kim? Carter’s reasoning here seems, to me, to be constrained by the Cold War axiom that the only way to counter nuclear weapons is other nuclear weapons. I have no independent authority as a war planner, but high explosive, precision munitions dropped on the entrances to the bunkers could also prevent the use of Kim’s (presently non-existent) nuclear missiles.
This is why Carter’s assertion that “by rejecting a legitimate and just means of using force, Wigg-Stevenson appears to be willing to allow others to settle our differences for us” is simply false.
In fact, in the scenario Carter outlines, I believe we would have a moral obligation to resist Kim in the interest of South Korean freedom, though doing so would be unavoidably costly. So, you can only affirm Carter’s claim if you subscribe to the artificially reductionist position that we would ever find ourselves in a position where “fold or nuke” encompassed all conceivable options for resistance.
The second problem with Carter’s scenario is regarding the nuclear device: he assumes that tactical nuclear weapons could be a “legitimate and just means” in a Just War evaluation. This is untrue, given that proposed “bunker buster” nuclear weapons would still result in devastating and uncontrollable fallout—making them morally illegitimate by virtue of their indiscriminacy. (I’m consciously refraining here from engaging the debate over the morality of secondary effects.)
More significant, however, is the fact that Carter limits the Just War tradition’s claims on nuclear weapons to the criteria of just means. I would argue that the situation also demands that we apply the just circumstances criterion of (macro-) proportionality, which says that the benefits of using force must outweigh the inherent harm of doing so.
There is a sixty-four year-old-and-counting global taboo against the use of nuclear weapons in war. Both America and the Soviet Union fought conflicts to unsatisfactory conclusions (Vietnam and Afghanistan) without resorting to their nuclear arsenal. The consequences of introducing nuclear weapons as means of twenty-first century warfare would be nothing short of cataclysmic for geopolitics, radically raising the likelihood that the first new use would not be the last—a variable not acknowledged by the artificial boundaries of Carter’s scenario.
And, though First Things’ more Jesuitical readers might parse the moral difference between counterforce and countervalue targeting, this distinction would be meaningless in preventing or delegitimizing subsequent countervalue uses on the world stage. In other words, if we ever use tactical nuclear weapons, we need to know that doing so will be essentially causal (albeit secondarily so) to raising the likelihood of mass civilian death.
In sum, for someone governed by Just War principles to arrive at a morally justifiable use of nuclear weapons in the 21st century requires the construction of scenarios so absurdly precise that they only work on paper, as problems of moral logic, while disintegrating upon contact with the real world.
I don’t negate out of hand the possibility of constructing a scenario in which a nuclear weapon could be used within the bounds of Just War criteria—though I don’t believe Carter succeeds in doing so. But even if we were able to envision one such case, however, it would hardly justify maintaining an entire class of weaponry which is morally impermissible 99.9% of the time.
Moreover, when it comes to security, the likelihood of such an artificial scenario being born out in reality is dramatically outweighed by the dangerously legion ways in which nuclear weapons can and likely will be immorally used if we do not check their proliferation. And proliferation is impossible to curtail within a two-tier system of nuclear possession—which I’ll address via Auten’s next three questions.
#2: “Why should we privilege the recommendations of the ‘Four Horsemen,’”—the quartet of Shultz, Kissinger, Nunn, and Perry, who have been instrumental in elevating the elimination of nuclear weapons to the realm of serious policy consideration?
Auten raises other voices who disagree with the quartet—most notably Harold Brown and James Schlesinger, two former Secretaries of Defense. I don’t have the space—or, for that matter, the depth of policy expertise—to arbitrate authoritatively between such expert voices.
However, I believe that the weight of expertise is on the quartet’s side. The first of their landmark Wall Street Journal op-eds was co-signed by sixteen top security officials from the Reagan administration. In a second op-ed a year later, they could claim the general support of more than two-thirds of the living former secretaries of state and defense, and national security advisors. Though this percentage was almost certainly diluted by the January, 2009 addition of Condi Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Stephen Hadley to the pool, this is still a persuasive, bipartisan supermajority. And the development of parallel blocs of experts like the international Global Zero Commission, headed by people like former Sen. Chuck Hagel and Ambassador Richard Burt, affirms the quartet’s overall threat analysis and imperative of moving toward complete elimination.
Auten calls Schlesinger and Brown “less sanguine” about the viability of abolition. I’d be remiss not to note here that nobody—not the quartet, not Global Zero, and not the Two Futures Project—is “sanguine” about the likelihood of a world free of nuclear weapons. Anyone with any sense who supports elimination does so not because it will be easy or quickly attained, but because we believe it offers the only way to avoid nuclear. And, though doing so means punching way above my weight class, I would argue that opponents of abolition like Schlesinger and Brown are far too sanguine about our ability to navigate successfully proliferation in the 21st century.
#3: “How durable are present world conditions?”
Given the significance of nuclear terrorism to my mistrust in the long-term viability of nuclear deterrence—and the resulting moral claims—Auten questions whether this danger will not be replaced in decades to come by a threat that must and can be deterred by nuclear weapons.
Possibly. But in the meanwhile, we have to deal with the devil we know, which is the causal connection between nuclear possession, proliferation, and non-state actor acquisition. Non-state nuclear actors do not have to be the “primary” threat to be an unacceptable one.
If some future threat arose that required a nuclear deterrent—and if, unlike in our present situation, the likelihood of deterrence functioning outweighed its significant risks, making it therefore morally plausible—then we could envision reconstituting a nuclear force. Auten raises the question of our “capability and speed” to do so, but we’d certainly never require longer than the Manhattan Project.
The time that we require to reconstitute a nuclear force—a concept called a “virtual arsenal”—is a question that we can answer for ourselves on the road to Zero. Nuclear abolition is not the impossible pretension of uninventing the Bomb. Rather, it is 1) the technological capacity to control, with a high degree of certainty, a technology that requires a massive industrial effort to build, and 2) the collective effort to delegitimize the technology as we have done with other weapons of mass destruction.
Further, while we cannot know the future, it seems to me that whatever conflicts the coming decades bring, nuclear weapons will be about as useful in dealing with them as a chainsaw is in peeling a peach. The world has been free of industrialized war between major states for more than a half-century. Many attribute this situation to the deterrent value of nuclear weapons—but even if we grant this, nuclear weapons are not required to sustain it, because this ostensible peace has allowed the construction of a globalized economy in which the financial interdependence of the major powers is far more of a deterrent to open conflict than is any nuclear arsenal. In addition to the human cost of nuclear weapons, the financial fallout that would occur if they were used—whether as instruments of state-power war or terrorism—would be unimaginable, affecting the entire world.
With the perspective of our post-Cold War era, I think we should realize that nuclear weapons are the apotheosis of a fundamentally obsolete means of conflict. This is not to say that we are headed into utopia, but that the Bomb is increasingly unsuited to address the problems of our day.
#4: “On what methodological grounds are we able to assert that ‘nuclear have-not’ countries choose to pursue nuclear arsenals solely or primarily because of the actions of ‘nuclear haves’?”
We aren’t. The relationship between nuclear haves and have-nots is not a simple response to hypocrisy (and, in my defense, I don’t think I use “nuclear apartheid” as much as Auten says I do!). There is, as Auten suggests, a complex and varied set of reasons that drives proliferation, including regional rivalries, national pride, etc.
Instead, rather than a simple cause (hypocrisy) and effect (proliferation), I see our two-tier system incentivizing nuclear proliferation in three main ways.
First, it enshrines the notion that a nuclear arsenal elevates a country to the elite club of nations—like the first five nuclear powers, who were, not coincidentally, the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Biological and chemical weapons are easier to build and also threaten mass destruction, but by virtue of the universal taboo against them, neither confers the same international prestige as the Bomb.
Second, the two-tier system incentivizes proliferation among the most dangerous of nations. The worst tinpot dictator need only compare the fate of the nuclear-armed Kim Jong Il to that of the merely odious Saddam Hussein in order to realize that the Bomb confers immunity—and that it can be a legitimate goal, given the system of prestige outlined above, however controversial and costly.
Third, without the goal of complete elimination, the nuclear powers are left with the untenable argument that nuclear weapons offer unique and irreplaceable security benefits—but that only a few should have them. If coercion could be relied upon to prevent all further proliferation, the moral calculus would be different, but it can’t, so it isn’t. The bargain of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was that the nuclear powers would eventually disarm and that the non-nuclear powers would refrain from going atomic. The goal of a nuclear weapons-free world is the glue that holds the NPT together—and it cannot be maintained without a good faith effort by the nuclear powers to uphold their end of the bargain.