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.

Rather than stoking nuclear alarmism, the Cold War record should inspire confidence that nuclear accidents are rare and manageable, even in otherwise chaotic situations.

There were also a handful of crises between the superpowers before they achieved relative nuclear parity in the mid-1960s, but after that point, such crises became fewer and markedly less intense. The most serious nuclear confrontation was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States and the Soviet Union found themselves eyeball to eyeball after the Soviet Union surreptitiously based nuclear missiles in Cuba. But as subsequent accounts by participants on both sides make clear, it was precisely the realization of what nuclear war entailed that led both President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev to blink and scramble for a negotiated settlement. Even President Trump, who publicly tweets about responding to North Korea with “fire and fury,” seems to be placing far more emphasis on diplomacy, particularly with China, as the only realistic option.


A THIRD element leading Pope Francis to issue his condemnation of even the possession of nuclear weapons is his frustration that little progress has been made toward nuclear disarmament. Previous popes were willing to sanction nuclear deterrence as a temporary evil with the understanding that the international system’s eventual trajectory would lead to disarmament. But today we are still living under the thermonuclear Sword of Damocles, with new actors threatening to join the nuclear club. In view of this prospect, the pope’s patience has apparently run out, leading to his demand for nuclear disarmament.

Francis’s frustration, however, misses the mark in two respects. To begin with, there has been significant reduction in the world’s nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, from a high point of 65,000 nuclear warheads in 1985, the total number in the world’s arsenals is estimated to be around 10,000 today. An 85-percent reduction is certainly a big deal, even if the remaining arsenals could still wreak unimaginable damage on the earth.

By the way, these reductions came about thanks to the easing of great-power tensions after the end of the Cold War. Nuclear weapons are acquired as a result of conflict among states; they are not the cause of such conflict. Consequently, eliminating nuclear weapons will not bring about relationships of mutual trust and love. Nevertheless, the Holy See rejected this logic in 2014, arguing that “reliance on a strategy of nuclear deterrence has created a less secure world.”

The Holy Father and other critics also worry about new states joining the ranks of the nuclear powers. Of course, concern about the next nuclear power has been long-standing. In the early 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union fretted about Mao’s China pushing for membership in the nuclear club, even conniving to use military force to “strangle the baby in the cradle.” Soviet and American hysteria about the Red Guards getting the go-codes seems quaint now that the Middle Kingdom has become a model nuclear citizen, maintaining only a small nuclear force designed exclusively to deter nuclear use against it. 

And the fact that only nine countries have crossed the nuclear threshold, when many more could do so if they so desired, suggests that what is surprising is not that there are a handful of proliferators but rather the existence of a much larger number of abstainers. At least twenty-three other countries have mastered the nuclear-fuel cycle and perhaps some forty others could if they wanted to. Almost as many states have walked away from weaponized programs (South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, and Argentina) as have run toward them in recent years.

But what is novel and most dubious about Pope Francis’s approach to nuclear disarmament is his holistic view of the problems nuclear weapons cause. Not only do they threaten to cause mass casualties and grievous environmental damage, but such weapons also perpetuate poverty, underdevelopment, and non-nuclear conflict across the globe. The Holy Father’s embrace of what he calls “integral” nuclear disarmament follows from the concept of Integral Human Development, first articulated by Pope Paul VI in his 1967 encyclical Populorum progressio. Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Vatican’s new Dicastery for Integral Human Development, defined the concept concisely as the notion that “everything is connected.”

Integral nuclear disarmers maintain that it will take disarmament to bring about the peace they envision as the basis for integral human development. But even if the nuclear powers were to scrap their weapons tomorrow, as the Holy See and the other 121 countries who voted in favor of the Nuclear Weapons Treaty fervently pray, it is doubtful that they would save all that much money. U.S. nuclear forces take up around 15 percent of the U.S. defense budget. And there is no guarantee that they would divert even modest savings to foreign aid. Even before the Trump administration took office, the American public had been notoriously stingy about overseas handouts. While the church has been consistently critical of high levels of defense spending around the world, reducing expenditures on conventional weapons and personnel—a far greater share of global military expenditures—has proved even more elusive than downsizing nuclear stockpiles.

Nor would such a capacious framework provide much analytical insight into the world’s other serious problems. Given that the church has long been in the forefront of dealing with poverty and injustice, I doubt the notion of nuclear disarmament as a silver bullet is widely shared among clergy and laity, who have grappled with these issues for years. In other words, it is hard to see clear connections between the nuclear programs of nine countries (most of which are shrinking or already pretty small) and the grave political, economic, and social problems plaguing the developing world. 

The more serious problem the church faces is that in taking such an unrealistic stance on nuclear disarmament, it risks marginalizing its moral voice in important policy debates. The problems of underdevelopment and instability in the Global South are real and worthy of sustained attention from the international community. Continuing leadership from the Vatican is essential. But by linking these problems to the persistence of nuclear deterrence, as Francis did pointedly in 2014 when he maintained that “the poor and the weak living on the margins of society pay the price” for the money “squandered” on nuclear weapons, he both misses the real causes of poverty and instability (they are a lot more complex) and undermines the church’s credibility as a source of moral and intellectual leadership. 

The pope admits that “a world free of deadly instruments of aggression” would be “utopia,” but he is not daunted by an impossible goal. However, the case of a former nuclear-disarmament visionary should give the pope pause. In 2009 President Barack Obama began his administration taking an antinuclear stance similar to Francis’s to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” only to change course by 2016, proposing the $1.2 trillion dollar nuclear modernization program that his successor Donald Trump has since fulsomely embraced. Obama’s about-face was the result of his lofty ideals giving way to the harsh reality of world politics, in which nuclear disarmament would be a recipe for blackmail by rogue states or even renewed great-power conflict. Given that we still live in such a world, integral nuclear disarmament is not only infeasible—it could also make the world safe for major war yet again.

Michael C. Desch is professor of Political Science and director of the University of Notre Dame International Security Center.

Hiroshima after the first atomic bomb (Everett Collection Historical / Alamy stock photo)

Gerard F. Powers

The pope’s November statement condemning not only the use but also the possession of nuclear weapons has met with expected praise from Nobel Peace Laureates, church leaders, antinuclear activists, and nations that signed the nuclear-ban treaty this past July. Michael Desch’s article is a cogent example of the expected realist critique: that the pope’s statement is naïve and utopian, and risks marginalizing the Holy See on this urgent issue.

On two important points I agree with Desch. First, he correctly notes that the pope’s condemnation of the use and even possession of nuclear weapons is not a radical departure, as some have claimed. This claim deserves some elaboration. Since Hiroshima, the Holy See has sought to marginalize and delegitimize nuclear weapons, and has insisted on the need for progress toward nuclear disarmament. As part of that broader agenda, in 1982 Pope John Paul II articulated an “interim ethic” on the specific issue of nuclear deterrence. “In current conditions,” the pope said, “‘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” [italics added]. Pope Francis has now made a prudential judgment, based on his reading of today’s very different signs of the nuclear times, that the strict conditions for the moral acceptability of deterrence are not being met. He has not abandoned his predecessor’s formula but has applied it to current conditions and come to a different prudential judgment.

Francis’s statement is significant because he is the first pope explicitly to condemn nuclear use and possession, but his statement is not a significant departure from previous statements of the Holy See. In the 2006 World Day of Peace Message, Pope Benedict said that the view that states need nuclear weapons for their security is “not only baneful but also completely fallacious.” In a talk at Georgetown University in 2010, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the UN, concluded that “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” [italics in original]. In a similar vein, a 2014 Study Document released by the Vatican argued that since the disarmament condition for the moral acceptability of deterrence was not being met, “the very possession of nuclear weapons, even for purposes of deterrence, is morally problematic.” These and many other official Vatican statements have long made it clear that the nuclear powers could take no more comfort in the Vatican’s position on nuclear weapons before the pope’s statement than they can now.

Second, Desch rightly notes that counterforce targeting is not morally superior to countervalue targeting, or city-busting. Deterrence poses a fundamental challenge to Catholic morality because most theories assume that a credible deterrent requires a threat (i.e. conditional intent) to do that which it would be immoral to do. Targeting policies based on Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) exemplify this moral paradox. Desch rightly rejects the contention that this moral conundrum is largely resolved by the fact that U.S. nuclear doctrine is now based on “discriminate” targeting of military assets rather than cities. Even with counterforce targeting, any use of nuclear weapons would likely be indiscriminate and disproportionate and would seem to make the world safe for nuclear war.

I would quibble, however, with Desch’s suggestion that the Holy See does not acknowledge the fact that U.S. targeting policy has changed from MAD to counterforce targeting. The Holy See has not offered a detailed analysis of the varieties of deterrence, but some Holy See statements do seem to assume that nuclear deterrence is invariably based on threats of indiscriminate and disproportionate use. While U.S. policy might not be based on such threats, the Holy See is addressing the policies of all nuclear powers, some of which still rely on MAD. The seminal church document on U.S. policy—the U.S. bishops’ 1983 peace pastoral—did consider deterrence in detail, including counterforce targeting. The bishops came to the same conclusions as Desch: that even counterforce targeting raised serious concerns about discrimination and proportionality given the sheer number of military targets, including in cities, the destructive power and radiation risks associated with the use of even the smallest nuclear weapons, and the risk of escalation.

Now to my main discomfort with Desch’s article. First, his criticism of the Holy See’s approach to deterrence overestimates its efficacy. According to Desch, the Vatican has failed to recognize that “nuclear deterrence is not a theory of nuclear war, but rather of nuclear peace.” Its purpose is to avoid nuclear use and a Third World War—and, as the Cold War demonstrates, it succeeded. And it succeeded, he argues, even in managing, sometimes amid chaos, the “rare” nuclear accidents. Whether it was nuclear strategy, the safety of nuclear systems, political restraint, pure luck, or a combination of these and other factors that kept the Cold War (mostly) cold, the best that can be said for it is that it was a highly unstable “peace of a sort.” Today, the risk of global nuclear war is far lower than during the Cold War, but the risk of nuclear use is higher. North Korea and 9/11 are emblematic. According to the 2014 Vatican Study Document, “the structure of nuclear deterrence is less stable and more worrisome than at the height of the Cold War” due to continued nuclear proliferation, the increased risk of nuclear use by terrorists and unstable states, and the fact that deterrence is less effective against these actors. Even if the risk of use is not greater than during the Cold War, it is naïve to rely on, in the words of the Study Document, “a precarious ethics focused narrowly on the technical instruments of war.” A peace based on nuclear deterrence risks catastrophe. It depends on the rather idealistic hope that the “logic” of deterrence, “fail-safe” systems, and “rational” actors will always overcome human frailty, ignorance, miscalculation, and sinfulness. As they say on Wall Street, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” The bottom line: the Holy See does not share Desch’s confidence in the stability of a negative peace based on deterrence and realpolitik. 

The Holy See does not share Desch’s confidence in the stability of a negative peace based on deterrence and realpolitik. 

Two other aspects of Desch’s criticism of the pope’s statement deserve a response. First is the “all-things-are-connected” argument, especially the linkage Desch finds most dubious: between “integral nuclear disarmament” and “integral human development.” Desch acknowledges that the church is in the forefront of addressing poverty and conflict throughout the world, but asserts that the pope misunderstands the complex nature of these problems. Even a cursory review of papal pronouncements and Catholic social teaching shows that the church’s approach to conflict and development is anything but simplistic. Obviously, disarmament does not automatically lead to development, but the two are related. South Sudan is a failed state for many reasons, but one is that it wasted its oil resources on weapons and war instead of development. When the pope talks about “squandering” money on nuclear weapons, he is referring to real opportunity costs—and they are not just tradeoffs for the poorest of the nuclear club: North Korea, Pakistan, and India. The $1.2 trillion or so the United States is currently spending on modernizing its nuclear arsenal is being paid for by deficit spending, as well as cuts in development aid and domestic antipoverty programs. If, as Desch claims, the church loses some moral credibility by highlighting these guns-versus-butter trade-offs, that will not be a reflection on its moral leadership. It will be further evidence of the moral myopia associated with an unbending commitment to nuclear superiority (not to mention the power of the military-industrial complex).

Second, Desch is impatient with the pope’s impatience with the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament. Desch is right to note the deep cuts in nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War, a moral achievement that, like the end of the Cold War, could not have been imagined three decades ago. He’s also correct about the overall effectiveness of the non-proliferation regime. But his impatience is rooted in his realist perspective, which is quite different from the church’s cosmopolitanism. The Holy See has welcomed the progress that has been made, but is convinced that the nuclear powers have not done enough to deliver the “peace dividend” that should have come with the end of the Cold War. The stalled arms-control agenda, the massive nuclear-modernization programs, and other failures have led the Holy See to conclude that nuclear deterrence has not been used, as John Paul II’s 1982 statement insisted it should be, as a step toward disarmament. Rather, it has become an end in itself, a principal impediment to disarmament. 

The  Holy See will never be satisfied with Desch’s “harsh reality of world politics” in which integral nuclear disarmament is “not only infeasible...[but] could also make the world safe for major war again.” Without being naïve (and with the end of the Cold War now as Exhibit A), the Holy See has always had a more positive vision of what is possible in international affairs. Even if Desch is correct about the efficacy of the nuclear status quo, the Holy See would not be content with a negative peace based on deterrence. It might take a generation—or several—but the Holy See has long argued that nuclear weapons need not always be with us. This vision has gone mainstream, now promoted by a global chorus of prominent military and political figures, led by former nuclear “hawks” such as George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn. The nuclear-ban treaty is about delegitimizing nuclear weapons. It will have to be followed by a long series of arms-control measures that will ultimately lead to a verifiable and enforceable global treaty on nuclear disarmament. But much more will be needed. Desch is absolutely correct that nuclear disarmament is a function of politics. That is why the Holy See’s disarmament appeals are always married to a much more ambitious agenda of developing a new system of cooperative security grounded in a global ethic of solidarity.

And this is where Desch’s critique should be taken as a call for further reflection. On nuclear issues, the church is what political scientists call a “norm entrepreneur”: reframing the narrative to ensure that morality is not an uninvited guest at an exclusive party dominated by realists. The pope’s recent statement at a high-profile Vatican conference is part of a strategy to contribute to the momentum generated by the nuclear ban treaty and its long-standing efforts to delegitimize nuclear weapons. The continued success of this strategy will depend on filling a two-pronged ethical gap. Further reflection is needed on the policy and pastoral implications of the church’s non-nuclear ethic, as well as the new moral challenges that will arise if the world moves toward global zero. But that is for another article. 

Gerard F. Powers is director of Catholic Peacebuilding Studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

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Published in the February 23, 2018 issue: View Contents
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