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

The Odious Necessity in a Nuclear Age

Marc LiVecche


July 30, 2010
by Marc LiVecche

(Editor: This is the final in a dialogue series of four contributions on the nuclear posture recently adopted by the Obama administration.)

The executive summary of the Obama administration’s “Nuclear Posture Review” (NPR) begins with the President’s vision to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Given that we have already tested and found wanting the premise that a nuclear-free world is peaceful and secure, it’s a mildly unsettling way to begin.

A continuation of the level of butchery of the early (nuclear-free) 20th century is something the nuclear age helped avoid. Nuclear deterrence has factored not only in preventing war between the nuclear powers but in preventing wars as such. A world without the bomb would likely be a world of amplified conventional or bio-technological carnage. Nuclear dread limits conflict. The qualifying details of the NPR suggest the administration grasps Walzer’s adage that we must sometimes threaten evil in order not to do it. Subsequent policy will reveal whether the administration understands that for the threat to have teeth our adversaries need to believe we have the capacity to carry it out.

The NPR argues that fundamental changes in the international security environment, particularly U.S. conventional military dominance, have substantially reduced our reliance on nuclear weapons. But our conventional preeminence also fuels proliferation as others seek to balance our strength. With the bomb as the best equalizer in the game, the notion that our adversaries dream of a nuclear-free world is doubtful.

Our allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific have long depended on the global security provided by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. They may be disheartened by administration rhetoric narrowing the role of U.S. nuclear weapons, and may question the continued credibility of our security guarantees. Ironically, while our pursuit of a nuclear free world won’t compel our adversaries to end their atomic ambitions, it may encourage proliferation amongst our allies.

Another concern is the transfer of nuclear materials to terrorists. Given the difficulty of interdiction, preventing such an exchange in the first place remains our best option. Again, the threat of nuclear punishment may well be a means to deter a nuclear-capable rogue nation from becoming a supply-state.

In the capable essay inaugurating this series, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson argued for the theological soundness of nuclear abolition. “The Just War,” he writes, “is, after all, a tradition grounded in the conviction that because God is eternally both good and sovereign, the moral good wins in the end.” Such a conviction legitimately emboldens all Judeo-Christian ethical endeavors. It does not, however, characterize the essential convictions funding just war thinking. As an interim framework intended to help us measure our ideals against reality, the tradition is necessarily grounded in the assumption that within history the best we can responsibly hope to attain is an approximation of ultimate good. Moral good will win in the eschaton, no doubt. But its triumph in the present moment is not self-evident.

Meanwhile, moral outrage must answer violations against the innocent; obligation must be accepted to deter or remove such violations whenever possible; and we must acknowledge the sober, if somber, fact that military force or the threat of force might be the only viable means. When the threat is such that all alternative methods of defense are inadequate, nuclear deterrence remains the best, most credible means for attaining within history an approximation of justice, peace, security, and order among nations. That I hate this fact is irrelevant, because in the present moment it seems that on just war grounds nuclear abolition is not ethically right, but is probably detrimental to ethics. It risks losing even the approximate goods we, our allies, and even our adversaries now possess.

--Marc LiVecche is a PhD student in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”