Michael C. Desch
Speaking to attendees of the Vatican’s November conference on “Perspectives for a World Free from Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Development,” Pope Francis “firmly condemned” even “the very possession” of nuclear weapons. In short, he judged not just nuclear war but also nuclear deterrence anathema. Supporters of his view hailed the pope’s statement as “historic” and a “big hit” to the efforts of nuclear powers such as the United States to stop the global momentum swelling behind last summer’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. With 122 votes in support of the treaty in the United Nations, and the pope’s imprimatur, are we at last on the eve of the postnuclear millennium?
Despite the overwhelming enthusiasm for the repudiation of nuclear deterrence among other conference participants, which included Nobel Peace Prize laureates such as Jody Williams (who has campaigned against landmines and cluster munitions), Mohamed ElBaradei (former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency), and Beatrice Fihn (of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), I came away from the event skeptical that the pope’s condemnation will change the international nuclear game.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with deploring the state of a world in which the best we can hope for is a cold peace based on nuclear deterrence. But the hope that we can change this through what Francis calls “integral” nuclear disarmament will not get us out of our nuclear predicament or solve the world’s other problems. Indeed, it is not clear to me that a non-nuclear world would be a more peaceful or just one.
I do not offer these criticisms as another dubia posed to this reformist pontiff by an unreconstructed Cold Warrior. Most proponents of nuclear deterrence, like me, share his view that the actual use of nuclear weapons raises serious just-war concerns given the horrific human and ecological consequences of even limited nuclear war. The use of nuclear weapons can hardly be discriminate, and it is hard to imagine scenarios in which attacks on civilians could be a proportionate response.
Pope Francis’s recent statement was actually not a radical departure from what previous popes have said. In his 1963 encyclical Pacem in terris, Pope John XXIII noted “that true and lasting peace among nations cannot consist in the possession of an equal supply of armaments but only in mutual trust.” He further concluded that “nuclear weapons must be banned.” While subsequent pontiffs varied in their sense of urgency about how quickly nuclear weapons should be abolished, all shared the view that they were an unmitigated evil, and that deterrence based on fear needed to be replaced by a new mode of relations among states based on “mutual trust.”
Despite the church’s more than half-century of consistent antinuclear sentiment, from Pacem in terris through the U.S. bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter on war and peace, we still live in a world of nuclear weapons. Why haven’t the nuclear or near-nuclear powers heeded the call to abolish the balance of nuclear terror?
There are a number of reasons. Beginning with Pacem in terris, the Vatican has conflated nuclear deterrence and mutual assured destruction (MAD) with actual nuclear use. The moral rationale for this conflation was articulated more than thirty years ago by John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, and Germain Grisez, who called into question the notion that you could, in good conscience, threaten to use nuclear weapons to retaliate against an enemy’s civilian population, given that to actually do so would clearly be immoral. But Finnis, Boyle, and Grisez made two errors in their influential critique of nuclear deterrence.
First, nuclear deterrence is not a theory of nuclear war, but rather of nuclear peace. It is not about the use but rather the purposive non-use of nuclear weapons. It operates less in the realm of jus in bello (how to wage war justly) and more in the realm of jus ad bellum (when it is right to wage war). And in this latter realm, deterrence theory is not at all far from the church’s increasingly pacifist position: it aims to prevent rather than wage war. Which is why the French bishops rightly observed that “the threat of force is not the use of force. It is the basis of deterrence, and this is often forgotten when the same moral qualification is attributed to the threat as to the use of force.”
In 1946, nuclear strategist Bernard Brodie famously limned the central feature of great power politics in the nuclear age. For much of history, in his view, military force had been a useful instrument of statecraft. But with the advent of nuclear weapons, only the threat of force remained available to statesmen, because the actual use of nuclear weapons by two nuclear-armed states would be mutually catastrophic. “Thus far, the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars,” he explained, but “from now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.”
Brodie’s prediction about the impact of the nuclear revolution on the relations among nuclear powers seems to have been borne out by history. Twenty million people lost their lives in World War I. In World War II, deaths exceeded 60 million. Remarkably, the nuclear age has suffered no World War III, and there were very few deaths associated with nuclear weapons once the two superpowers reached parity. The long peace of the Cold War may have been overdetermined, but the mutual realization that the next great-power war would likely be the last one is surely a big part of the non-story of the Third World War.
Second, critics of deterrence misunderstood U.S. nuclear doctrine, supposing that MAD and countervalue targeting was the guiding principle of American nuclear-war plans. But as historians have shown convincingly, since the 1950s the United States has never targeted civilians in the way MAD would advocate. Rather, U.S. strategy has always been some version of counterforce, damage-limitation targeting. Few strategists could promise that there would be no civilian collateral damage in such strikes. But defenders of the morality of contemporary U.S. nuclear doctrine, such as Kennedy-era Defense official Alain Enthoven, were at least on firm ground in disclaiming the “city-swapping” that critics of MAD deplored. From Kennedy’s “Flexible Response” through Carter’s PD-59, which enshrined the “countervailing strategy” of nuclear counter-force doctrine, MAD has simply never guided U.S. nuclear-war planning. Indeed, for a variety of reasons, both moral and strategic, the U.S. military has been loath to embrace the sort of attacks on civilians that Finnis, Boyle, and Grisez rightly deplore.
Other Catholic critics of nuclear deterrence dismiss it, as Bishop Oscar Cantú does, on the grounds that to be credible “one has to intend to do what is morally reprehensible.” But this mischaracterizes what makes nuclear deterrence credible. As Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling famously observed, deterrent threats “do not need to depend on a willingness to commit suicide in the face of a challenge.” Rather, the unintended risk of escalation reinforces mutual deterrence between two nuclear powers.
THE NOTION that the mere possession of nuclear weapons makes their use inevitable is another staple of the antinuclear camp, from the secular Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock to John the XXIII’s fear that a nuclear “conflagration could be started by some chance and unforeseen circumstance.”
Admittedly, the Cold War was replete with horrifying accidents and other crises that understandably stoked fears of atomic Armageddon, prompting anti-nuclear sentiments not only in Rome but throughout the world. These near-misses have been widely recounted but no one has done a better job of cataloging them than Stanford University political scientist Scott Sagan. His book The Limits of Safety is a cautionary tale about the fragility of even “high reliability organizations,” in which efforts to ensure that no accidents occur occasionally fail spectacularly; sometimes, these failures are even caused or compounded by steps taken to prevent them.
I recall attending a seminar Sagan gave early in this project in the mid-1990s. The first or second nuclear accidents he described really scared me. But as he recounted more and more near-misses, my attention gradually shifted from the “near” to the “miss.” We had lots of accidents but no catastrophe. Of course, even one accident could be potentially catastrophic. But the more accidents that occurred without spinning out of control, the greater my confidence became that nuclear control and safety were more robust than I had imagined.
The relative safety of nuclear systems is not just an American characteristic; other nuclear states—Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution and the Soviet Union during its disintegration—weathered serious internal instability and near civil war without nuclear accidents or unauthorized use. Rather than stoking nuclear alarmism, the Cold War record should inspire confidence that nuclear accidents are rare and manageable, even in otherwise chaotic situations.
Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.