Can Nuclear Deterrence Survive the Global Resurgence of Religion?

Vienna, Hoffburg Palace – Gerard Powers reminded us in September that disarmament cannot be forgotten. To the young, in which I easily include myself, deterrence theory, mutually assured destruction, and nuclear balance of power are relics of a by-gone era. Even when we teach or learn about nuclear weapons it has a feeling of something archaic, something that was, not something that is. Not things, not machines, that still squat in warehouses, coil in soils, and ride under oceans on launch ready alert.

But they remain. As a guest of the Nuclear Threat Initiative over the past several days we’ve explored transformations in war (‘unconventional war’) that make weapons of mass destruction less useful, breakages in the logic of deterrence from a bi-polar to a multi-polar world, and even – somewhat terrifyingly – the truth that the nuclear weapons we’re most in danger of have usually been our own.

A front runner in these conversations has been the Catholic Church, long opponent of the use of nuclear weapons, and now articulate spokespersons for the morality of even their mere possession. Religious sentiment has long been rallied against the use of nuclear weapons, but a shift seems to be coming, at least in the tone, from the Vatican and from senior Vatican officials at this conference, that even possession of nuclear weapons is an affront to the dignity of human kind. We are squandering the world’s wealth, lamented Pope Francis in a written address to the Vienna conference, on these arsenals. Estimates run that merely upgrading the weapons of the United States of America, crucially necessary because of the danger posed by dated nuclear technology, could run into the trillions. The cost of disarming and disposing of the same weapons runs to nearly the same, if not higher. Either way, a phenomenal bill is coming due on America’s – and the world’s – nuclear arsenal.

How to make this decision? It cannot be done trapped in the ‘iron cage’ of Realist deterrence, say the conference organizers. We must have what Pope Francis calls an ethic of solidarity. Pope Benedict XVI said in Caritas in Veritate that globalization makes us neighbours, but it does not make us brothers. The nuclear conversation, in the words of Hugh Gusterson, leaves the modern logic of rationalism and technological efficiency “impaled on itself.” We must have a new order, a new conversation, new moral sources that tell us why these weapons exist, why we have made them, and what we are going to do next. Next year is the 70-th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The impasse is real.

That conversation, crucially, must also include inter-religious voices. Vatican officials this morning noted that a key player in any dialogue is the Russian Orthodox Church – cutting off talk of a new cold war before it starts. “The Church,” said the same official, “must shoot high, because if we don’t do it, no one will.”

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Robert Joustra

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