Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
A New Paradigm for Nuclear Secruity
by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson
July 2, 2010
(Editor: This is the first in a dialogue series of four contributions on the nuclear posture recently adopted by the Obama administration.)
The purpose of America’s nuclear arsenal should be to ensure that nuclear weapons are never again used, whether by accident or design. As the Executive Summary of the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) states: “It is in the U.S. interest and that of all other nations that the nearly 65-year record of nuclear non-use be extended forever.” But in the post-Cold War era, there is no long-term scenario in which nuclear weapons continue to exist without being used. We must fundamentally rethink our nuclear security paradigm.
The new NPR, with its fivefold policy priorities, is an attempt to do precisely that. It adopts and formalizes the recommendations made by a nonpartisan group of former Cold Warriors: implement immediate nuclear threat-reduction measures which are guided by the long-term vision of a world entirely and verifiably free of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear abolitionists must take seriously the technical and political challenges of attaining this goal. But in our post-Cold War, post-9/11 context, abolition is realpolitik, because the nuclear status quo is leading us into crisis, and the only solution is the pursuit of total elimination.
This is because our era is characterized by multipolarity and asymmetric threats like terrorism. And in this setting, the continued reliance on nuclear weapons by some nations, even to deter, is doubly damaging. First, it incentivizes nuclear development by other countries; second, it inhibits the international cooperation needed to prevent the nuclear club’s expansion. The resulting proliferation will turn regional conflicts into global powder kegs. Worse, it will also increase terrorist access to nuclear material—the one component of a nuclear weapon that a terrorist group cannot build on its own. And once terrorists get bomb material, the risk of nuclear catastrophe approaches 100%, because there is no reliable way either to interdict or to deter such a bomb. This means that deterrence has become fundamentally self-defeating and cannot be indefinitely relied upon for security.
In 1983, an exhaustive Just War analysis of nuclear weapons led the U.S. Catholic bishops to an unequivocal prohibition of nuclear use, and a strictly conditioned acceptance of deterrence as an interim ethic. Because those conditions are expiring, it is time to consider anew the implications of the Just War tradition for the Bomb in the 21st century.
I believe this consideration points to the need for a comprehensive, decades-long effort to delegitimize nuclear weapons, prevent their spread, and verifiably reduce arsenals to zero. This effort will require leadership that only the United States can offer, and the current NPR’s simultaneous focus on threat reduction and abolition represents a pivot in the right direction.
Some may imagine nuclear abolition as a fine ideal, but untenable for those unwilling to sacrifice security on the altar of morality. These critics should remember that the dichotomization of security and ethics is always theologically myopic. The Just War 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. Nuclear abolition is ethically right; its pursuit will also yield justice, peace, and security. Our mandate, then, is to have the faith to begin striving—and the courage to endure it.
—Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, Director
Two Futures Project
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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.”