University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Gerard F. Powers

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Catholic bishops and other religious leaders have given much greater attention to the moral imperative of nuclear disarmament. But a gap exists in the ethical analysis needed to sustain this moral imperative. The quality of reflection on the ethics of nuclear use and deterrence needs to be matched by the development of an equally sophisticated ethics of disarmament.

Three issues exemplify this nuclear ethics gap.

First, an ethics of deterrence must be married to an ethics of disarmament. In their 1983 pastoral, The Challenge of Peace, the bishops proposed an “interim ethic” whereby nuclear deterrence could be morally acceptable if it is limited to deterring the use of nuclear weapons, is not based on achieving nuclear superiority, and is used as a step toward progressive disarmament. In 2013, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican foreign minister, seemed to question this conditional moral acceptance of deterrence, saying that the “chief obstacle to starting this work [on nuclear disarmament] is continued adherence to the doctrine of nuclear deterrence.”[1]

Archbishop Mamberti’s prudential judgment that nuclear disarmament requires discarding doctrines of deterrence raises questions that deserve further ethical analysis. The existing systems of nuclear deterrence might not meet the conditions of the “interim ethic,” but would different forms of nuclear deterrence pass moral muster because they are, indeed, a step toward nuclear disarmament? Since global zero would likely make nuclear weapons even more valuable, more usable, and more destabilizing given the risk of nuclear break out, what forms of deterrence would be morally acceptable then? “Existential deterrence,” based on the mere fact that a country possesses or can quickly rebuild its nuclear arsenal? Strengthened conventional forces, perhaps combined with shared missile defenses? Or would new forms of deterrence and defense have to be complemented by a doctrine of disarmament intervention?

Second, an ethics of disarmament must be married to an ethics of peacebuilding. Nuclear abolition is a long-term objective that ultimately is as much about peacebuilding as it is about deterrence and disarmament. Nuclear abolition does not require an end to war. It does require the development of a political ethic of cooperative security and peacebuilding that offers effective alternatives to the present reliance on nuclear weaponry and can complement new, morally acceptable forms of deterrence. Nations will not agree to or comply with a global ban if they do not have a high degree of confidence that alternative means are available for resolving the conflicts that make nuclear weapons so attractive to some. Moreover, the United States and other nuclear powers will bear a special burden to forgo doctrines of national security rooted in military, political, and economic dominance, as well as the double standard that now characterizes the relationship between the nuclear “haves” and the nuclear “have nots.”

Third, an ethics of disarmament and an ethics of peacebuilding must be married to a revised ethics of sovereignty. All nations will have to give up some of their rights of sovereignty with respect to the sacrosanct area of national security and grant greater authority to international institutions. They will have to accept more intrusive inspections and other measures to verify and enforce compliance with a ban, and missile defenses might have to be shared or put under an international authority.

Just as they did with the moral dilemmas of deterrence, Catholic ethicists need to address in a systematic way the moral and strategic challenges involved in going to zero. A more sophisticated moral case for nonproliferation and disarmament is essential if the new mainstream support for disarmament is to be sustained over the decades most think necessary for it to become a reality.

Gerard Powers is director of Catholic peacebuilding studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame.

[1] Intervention by Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for the Holy See’s Relations with States, 68th Session of the UN General Assembly, High-level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament, September 26, 2013.