Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Can a Nuclear State be a Just State?

Robert J. Joustra


By Robert J. Joustra

December 15, 2014


Nuclear weapons are a scourge, but so far the position of western Christian social and political thought has been largely to default on their possession as a necessary evil. They’re the kind of thing in a perfect world we’d all rather be without, but in this one we may just need. That was the refrain from the P5 states that showed up to the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons last week: we all share a vision for a world free from nuclear terror, but in the interim, “minimum credible deterrence” combined with a “no first use” policy provides an environment of international security and stability.

This is a powerful and persuasive position, one which rejects absolutely the use of nuclear weapons, but provisionally accepts their existence and possession as deterrents and stabilizers. I am, however, increasingly convinced it is wrong on two counts. First, practically and politically, this is a dated and dangerous doctrine in the new multi-polar world of God’s Century. Second, normatively, the use but perhaps even possession of such weapons basically violates the covenant of public justice fundamental to any political society.

For the moment, let’s presume that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction did indeed cause a peaceful détente between the great powers (though the “Cold War” was a hot time to be alive in the many proxy wars of these peaceful giants). This not the world we live in now.

India and Pakistan are a common counter example given to show that a large-scale conflict is less likely because they are now nuclear armed. However, India and Pakistan have fought at least three conventional wars. Pakistan is a nuclear state, but emphasis on “nuclear” and provisional qualification of “state.” Both countries are building their arsenals up. A new report from the Council on Foreign Relations warns that while traditional P5 powers reduce their stockpiles, emergent states in Asia – Pakistan and India among them – are in a new arms race. Holding fast to our faith in the logic of deterrence amidst this multi-polar escalation is a terrifying gamble.

But even as presumed possession remains a cornerstone of American and NATO security, political theologians have raised a second problem: the use of nuclear weapons automatically invalidates the conditions of public justice.

Christians have long rejected the use of nuclear weapons as a just possibility, even in war. There are the school yard debates on the moral quandary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: drop the bomb, or prolong the war? In Just War, the ends do not justify the means. Jus in bello names some conduct, including mass and indiscriminate civilian casualties, as a profound evil. Nuclear weapons, in other words, can never be used.

Can they, however, be possessed as a deterrent? The Catholic Church, for example, granted a kind of conditional acceptance that nuclear weapons may be possessed for the purpose of deterrence. But the Vatican is signalling a change in that position, arguing that the international security environment now is different than when it granted conditional acceptance of possession. There are no longer two great nuclear powers deterring global conflict, but a wide and increasing range of nuclear players, under which the conditions of deterrence become woollier, if not downright dangerous.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson takes this position even further. He argues that a rejection of even possessing nuclear weapons is not just a prudent response to changing geopolitical environments, but fundamental to a Christian political theory of the state and its basic normative task of public justice. Dominant liberal theory may suggest that the state can do whatever it likes provided it has the legitimacy conferred by its people, but that’s not true according to Christian political theology. The voice of the people, pointedly, is not the voice of God, and the exercise of political authority is judged not based on contract but justice. The irony of the possession of nuclear weapons is that their release by a political authority would invalidate the very purpose for which political authority is called into being: the doing of public justice.

The conclusion of the Catholic Church on all of this appears to be that for changes of global security and fact of theology, even the possession of nuclear weapons should be called into question by Christians. Global political leaders, to their credit, talk long about a world without nuclear weapons, about building the trust necessary to reduce and limit these arms. And it is not all bad news-- since the Cold War, there has been a breathtaking reduction in nuclear arms. Soviet nuclear materials now burn peacefully in American reactors. That is real progress, incremental as it may be.

Nuclear weapons are the only force in the world powerful enough to stop and reverse globalization. Almost every tradition agrees they must never be used. The question, then, is how best to secure non-use, either by state or non-state actors. The answer, painfully sloganized and recited at the Vienna conference, was limit, reduce, abolish. The real debate is not whether, but how to get there.


-  Robert J. Joustra is assistant professor of International Studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs. He is a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice.


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