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

A World Free From Nuclear Weapons

Herman Keizer, Jr.


September 9, 2011
by Herman Keizer, Jr.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, as a nation we began learning how to live as the only world superpower. What do you do with all the foreign policy issues designed to address possible and probable scenarios developed for a bipolar world— a world that no longer existed? How do you alter defense policy to determine how to use military force?  How do you manage the use of nuclear weapons, with the possibility of expanding proliferation of nuclear weapons in a multipolar world?

In August of 1990, John J. Mearsheimer wrote an article in The Atlantic titled “Why We Will Soon Miss The Cold War.” The summary of the article read, “The conditions that have made for decades of peace in the West are fast disappearing, as Europe prepares to return to the multi-polar system that, between 1648 and 1945, bred one destructive conflict after the other.” He notes his agreement with John Lewis Gaddis’s comment that we might someday look back on these years and call them the Long Peace rather than the Cold War. Now that is some altered thinking—a result of the observation that the distribution and character of military power among states are the root causes of war and peace. In the bipolar world, peace emerged because there was a bpolar distribution of power in the world and a rough balance between two militaries in capability and size. In addition, both of the super powers were armed with large nuclear weapons capable of incredibly destructive power.

Only incrementally have we been able to shed some of the Cold War mental images, language, strategies and tactics. We are still trying to break out of the Cold War mind-set with our Nuclear Policy. The Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons envisions the end of all nuclear weapons, a process begun by Russia and the United States after President Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev turned the arms race on its head at Reykjavik. How can we re-kindle Reagan’s and Gorbachev’s vision?

Many of the leaders who lived through the Cold War and worked on these nuclear issues now clearly state that while nuclear weapons were an effective deterrent during the Cold War, they now have the potential to make us much more vulnerable to nuclear attack.

One of the main lines of reasoning used against a world free from nuclear weapons distinguishes prudential arguments from moral ones. Even the former Secretaries of State and Defense in arguing for a nuclear free world draw from a more prudential view: the weapons were stock piled and worked as a deterrent against the Soviet Union, today they do not deter, especially given the role of rouge states, fissile material, and terrorists. Another prudential argument raises the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons between states like Pakistan and India. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Bishops argue from a moral position based on the Just War criteria. Hence, they declare the weapons intrinsically immoral.

The prudential arguments carry little or no moral weight, while the moral argument leads to an obligation to declare the use immoral. The problem with distinguishing these two lines of reasoning is that the prudential view keeps Just War Tradition thinkers from declaring that nuclear weapons are intrinsically immoral and should be destroyed (Jus contra bellum). Instead, the prudential view forces nations to retain nuclear weapons, knowing that using them will cause a tremendous loss of life and render a portion of our world uninhabitable. This view places our ultimate security in the possesion of nuclear weapons (which these weapons have never been able to provide) and the decision to use these weapons in an emergency.

Most of these arguments center on the use of nuclear weapons in an extreme emergency, where the moral choice leads either to moral tragedy or where acting prudentially becomes a struggle for survival. This is usually stated as the paradoxical nature of the arguments associated with nuclear weapons.

Brian Orend sums up this position very well. “You don’t have the right to do wrong, nor the duty to violate duty: If you do wrong, you do wrong, even under the pressure of supreme emergency conditions. From the prudential point of view, a supreme emergency is a desperate, Hobbesian struggle for survival, and as a matter of fact any country subjected to it will do whatever it can to prevail.” We as a nation should agree to do the right and not the prudential.

—Chaplain (COL) Herman Keizer, Jr, served for 34 years as a US Army Chaplain, including service at the Department of the Army, Department of Defense and as special advisor to the Ambassador -at-large for International Religious Freedom at the State Department. Last year he was Honorary Chair of a Truth Commission on Conscience and War.

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