Nuclear Deterrence. An Ethical Perspective


A wasted opportunity

Nuclear weapons have silently faded from mainstream social debate. In the past 25 years, this unforeseen eff ect of the Soviets Union’s demise has not helped solve the question of disarmament and non-proliferation. Th is comes as a surprise. Even though circumstances became seemingly so much more favorable for progress toward nuclear disarmament, no substantive advance toward this goal has been achieved over this period. On the contrary, states have not ceased upgrading their nuclear arsenals, and in light of today’s multi-polar context for nuclear deterrence – no longer dominated overwhelmingly by two great powers – the security landscape seems increasingly more perilous. We still have a trove of nuclear weaponry capable of destroying human life on earth. While this window of opportunity was wasted, the world decidedly shifted to become multi-polar. Both Russia and the US are seeing their previous dominance over the rest of the world falter. Nowadays, no nuclear power dominates international relationships as was the case during the Cold War. Th e Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT-1970) was intended to reduce the risk of nuclear war. Th e treaty had three goals: to limit the number of countries that would have access to nuclear weapons; to limit the growth of existing nuclear arsenals and to progress toward general nuclear disarmament; to preserve the right of peaceful use of the nuclear energy. At the root of the treaty’s grand bargain, was the proposition that non-nuclear states would renounce any acquisition of nuclear weapons if the nuclear powers would agree to stop the nuclear arms race and actively engage in progressive disarmament. Th e Treaty did impose controls and restricted access to the technology leading to nuclear weapons upon non-nuclear states. But it left to future negotiations both the question of inspections of nuclear arsenals by third parties and the whole disarmament process of nuclear powers.

The failure of the NPT

The NPT has failed. Not only because of double standards regarding who could be allowed to have nuclear weapons, but also and mainly because the nuclear powers never seriously complied with their part of the bargain and have used the NPT as a form of covert control over the nuclear ambitions of the non-nuclear states. To agree on reciprocally binding rules but with no real intent to adhere to these rules oneself is not 6 Nuclear Deterrence a sound base for a Treaty. Little surprise then that successive NPT review conferences have been unable to reach agreements and to implement them in good faith! In this context, an initiative was launched in Oslo (2013) by like-minded states, among them the Holy See, to revise the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. Two follow-up conferences took place in Mexico (Nayarit, February 2014) and Austria (Vienna, December 2014). Th e last one was attended by more than 140 countries and the question of the abolition of nuclear weapons came to the forefront. Th e Catholic Church resolutely engaged on this path with Pope Francis addressing the conference in his usual strong and clear language: “It is time for abolition.”

A new initiative

This Working Paper of Caritas in Veritate Foundation comes as a contribution to this renewed diplomatic eff ort to move beyond the nuclear age. For a while, deterrence was seen by the Church as a practical but non-permanent fi xture that would allow time for the responsible parties to engage in disarmament. “A peace of sorts” but not true and long-lasting peace; a dangerous path because the equilibrium of deterrence by Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) would always be fragile and tend, by its own logic of suspicion and fear, to promote a race for dominance. However, deterrence was never applied by the nuclear powers as a temporary means for allowing time for nuclear disarmament. It is an essential feature of their security policy – a feature that they show little willingness to forgo. Th erefore deterrence no longer functions as an instrument that allows for disarmament; rather it has become an obstacle toward achieving that goal.

Deterrence is not morally sustainable

The doctrine of nuclear deterrence holds that nuclear weapons are possessed, not for direct use on the battlefi eld, but solely as a means to dissuade, by threat of retaliation, a would-be enemy from mounting a fi rst strike. But this doctrine is not morally sustainable, for several reasons: (a) Th ese weapons have no military use that would not trigger wide civilian casualties. Th e hovering threat of accruing tremendous loss will never be proportionate to the perceived military advantage these weapons may give; (b) Th e deterrence threat created by these weapons is vulnerable to actors who don’t share the “rational fear” of annihilation and death; (c) Th ese weapons maintain a dangerous frozen state of total war rather than peace since the omen of a nuclear holocaust is always on the horizon. For these and many other reasons the moral legitimacy of the possession of nuclear weapons is gone. Th is working paper makes the case that the only moral, realistic, prudential and wise path is the one that seeks an international ban on all nuclear weapons and calls for nuclear disarmament.

Read the full text of the Working Paper here