Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J.
Counselor on International Affairs
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
July 23, 2002
It is a privilege to be invited here today to address the moral dimensions of this important treaty. I speak on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has addressed the ethical dimensions of U.S. nuclear policy many times and in considerable detail in the past three decades. I also speak as an ethicist who has studied, taught and written about the ethics of war and peace for many years.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops welcomes the new treaty on strategic nuclear weapons, and prays that will not be seen as an end but as one of many steps that must be taken if we are to achieve the goal of a mutual, verifiable global ban on nuclear weapons.
Morality and Nuclear Weapons
Our perspective on this treaty is derived from our moral analysis of the nuclear predicament which the world has faced for more than half a century. This moral assessment begins with a judgment that nuclear weapons—their use and threatened use—pose unique moral challenges, particularly to the just war tradition's norms of discrimination (or non-combatant immunity) and proportionality. While we have not condemned every conceivable use of nuclear weapons a priori, we have categorically condemned counter-population attacks, and have opposed doctrines that are based on fighting and winning a "limited" nuclear war and those that entail the first use of nuclear weapons. In short, we have strongly objected to policies and practices that would blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons or would erode the fragile barrier against their use. In fact, in 1993, the bishops stated: "We abhor any use of nuclear weapons." (NCCB, The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace, p. 13).
Given the moral problems associated with the use of nuclear weapons, the bishops offered a "strictly conditioned moral acceptance of deterrence" in their 1983 pastoral letter on the subject (NCCB, The Challenge of Peace #186). The bishops judged that nuclear deterrence may be morally acceptable as long as it is limited to deterring nuclear use by others; sufficiency, not nuclear superiority, is its goal; and it is used as a step on the way toward progressive disarmament.
This basic two-fold judgment — moral opposition to most every conceivable use of nuclear weapons and a strictly conditioned moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence—shapes our perspective on the two issues I want to address briefly here: the changing nature of the nuclear question in a post-Cold War world, and the Moscow Treaty and its implications for U.S. nuclear policy.
Today, the threat of global nuclear war may seem more remote than at any time in the nuclear age, but we face a different but still dangerous period in which the use of nuclear weapons remains a significant threat. The end of the Cold War has changed the nuclear question in three ways. First, nuclear weapons are still an integral component of U.S. security policies, but they are no longer—and should not be—at the center of these policies or of international relations. During the Cold War, a dominant concern was the ethics of nuclear weapons. Today, this concern, while still critically important, must be considered in the context of a more fundamental question of the ethical foundations of political order: How do we achieve a just and stable political order, so that nations will no longer rely on nuclear weapons for their security?
Second, our nation and other nuclear powers have new opportunities to take steps toward progressive nuclear disarmament. If during the Cold War the first task was to stop the growth of already bloated nuclear arsenals; today, the moral task is to proceed with deep cuts and ultimately to ban these weapons entirely.
Third, the threat of global nuclear war now seems remote, but the use of nuclear weapons—by accident, by terrorists or in a regional conflict—remains a significant threat. Mutual restraint, international cooperation, and leadership by example, are particularly important if the United States is to address effectively the very real threat that nuclear weapons still represent. Just as the nuclear powers must prevent nuclear war, so also they, with the rest of the international community, bear a heavy moral responsibility to stop the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
The Moscow Treaty and Its Implications for U.S. Nuclear Policy
The Moscow Treaty is a welcome step insofar as it reflects, and is a product of, these changes. It takes place in the context of significantly improved relations between Russia and the United States and is an example of the mutually reinforcing connection between progress in political relationships and progress in arms control. It makes deep cuts in existing nuclear arsenals after years of stalled negotiations—an example of the useful role that independent initiatives (i.e., the U.S. commitment to unilateral cuts last year) can play in moving forward the arms reduction process. Finally, it is—and should be—part of an effort to address concerns about accidental use and proliferation by helping Russia dismantle and make more secure its nuclear weapons complex.
While we welcome the new treaty and the President's stated commitment to seek ways to escape Mutual Assured Destruction, we are concerned that U.S. planning and policies keep pace with the dramatic changes in world politics since the end of the Cold War, and move away from reliance on nuclear weapons as a central part of our nation's military doctrine. The following issues are of particular importance:
Further cuts in nuclear weapons: We disagree with those who claim that this agreement represents the lowest level our nation can or should go in reducing its nuclear stockpiles. Even when this agreement is fully implemented ten years from now, Russia and the United States will still have thousands of deployed nuclear weapons and thousands more held in reserve for possible future use. Much deeper, more irreversible cuts, in both strategic and tactical weapons, are both possible and necessary. As the bishops said in their 1993 statement, The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace, "The eventual elimination of nuclear weapons is more than a moral ideal; it should be a policy goal." More dramatic progress in arms control and disarmament is the only basis for the continued moral legitimacy of deterrence.
The use of nuclear weapons: Given our moral assessment of nuclear weapons, we oppose the continued readiness of the United States to use nuclear weapons, especially against non-nuclear threats, and the potential development of new weapons for this purpose. As I mentioned earlier, we have long held that a minimal nuclear deterrent may be justified only to deter the use of nuclear weapons. It is long past time for the United States to commit itself never to use nuclear weapons first, to reject unequivocally proposals to use nuclear weapons to deter non-nuclear threats, and to reinforce the fragile barrier against nuclear use.
Ratification of the test ban treaty: We urge the President to support the ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty. An end to nuclear testing is one essential step in escaping the moral predicament posed by nuclear deterrence. Moreover, the United States cannot credibly urge other nations to forego these weapons if it is not even willing to ratify a treaty to stop testing its own nuclear weapons.
Threat reduction: More must be done to assist nuclear nations, particularly Russia, in dismantling and safeguarding their weapons and nuclear materials. The thousands of tactical nuclear weapons that are not covered by existing agreements are of particular concern. Finally, this treaty and U.S. nuclear policy generally must be connected to the special responsibility of the United States and other nuclear powers to use their influence and resources to lead in the construction of a more just and stable international order. An essential part of this international order must be a cooperative security framework that reverses the proliferation of nuclear weapons, guarantees the security of non-nuclear states, and seeks to develop and employ alternatives to war. The United States and other nations should take the necessary measures to help ensure the development of stable, democratic governments in nations which have nuclear weapons or might seek to obtain them. Our nation should lead in the challenging task of envisioning a future rooted in peace, with new global structures of mediation and conflict-resolution, and with a world order that has moved beyond nuclear weapons.