The Vatican tries to reduce the revived global threat of nuclear war

By Lawrence J. Korb | December 13, 2017

With the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, many experts felt that the threat of nuclear war had receded. In 1986, US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, at a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, almost agreed to eliminate their nuclear arsenals altogether. Of course, they didn’t. They did, however, agree to eliminate all intermediate-range missiles under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and discussed a possible strategic arms agreement.

Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, concluded the first strategic arms reduction agreement with the Soviets, known as START I, in 1991, and unilaterally dismantled many of the United States’ deployed tactical weapons. In 1993, George H.W. Bush signed START II with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, a treaty that Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, would see through. US President George W. Bush concluded the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) with President Vladimir Putin in 2002, and President Barack Obama not only signed New START with Putin in 2010, but promised to work to eliminate all nuclear weapons and to adopt a no-first-use policy.

These agreements eliminated one entire class of nuclear weapons and also reduced the number of deployed nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia—which together account for 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal—from tens of thousands to approximately 3,000.

However, it is clear that this period of progress has ended. The Russians have begun to violate the INF Treaty. US President Donald Trump rebuffed Putin’s offer to extend New START from 2021 to 2026, and seems alarmed that the United States has reduced its nuclear arsenal significantly over the years. Moreover, in order to get the Senate to ratify New START, Obama had to promise to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad. This will increase its capability and also cost in excess of $1 trillion. And Obama’s own cabinet, composed of members of the Washington establishment rather than the people who helped elect him, resisted his attempts to adopt a no-first-use policy.

Moreover, in the past decade, Iran and North Korea have begun to develop nuclear weapons. While Iran agreed in 2015 to halt its program, Trump has refused to certify that it is complying with the terms of the deal, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said that it is. Meanwhile, Trump’s impulsive and bombastic responses to North Korea’s accelerating program and nuclear tests—including threatening North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never known”—have led many to believe he might launch a nuclear first strike.

Not surprisingly, this new nuclear age has alarmed most of the international community and led 122 non-nuclear states to vote to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which they did in July at the United Nations. The new treaty says that nuclear weapons are not only immoral but an illegal means of warfare. The world body took a similar approach when it outlawed biological and chemical weapons in 1972 and 1997 respectively.

One of the first nations to not only sign but ratify the new treaty was the Vatican. And to focus the world’s attention on the immorality and increasing danger of these weapons and present steps to eliminate them, the Vatican held a conference on disarmament from November 10-11, 2017, which I was privileged to attend. As someone who practiced loading nuclear weapons when I was a US naval flight officer, and who visited both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the 1960s, nuclear arms control has always been important to me.

During the conference some 30 speakers from 20 countries, including Pope Francis, addressed the 300 attendees from around the world. In his remarks, which were the highlight of the conference, the pontiff said that nuclear disarmament is achievable, and condemned possession of nuclear weapons on the basis of the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental impact that using them would cause, as well as because they pose a risk of accidental detonation.

Moreover, the pope argued that these weapons actually do nothing but provide a false sense of security and divert funds from more pressing human needs.

Just as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons represents a dramatic change in the international community’s attitude toward nuclear weapons, the pope’s comments represent a major shift for the Roman Catholic Church. As Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association has pointed out, two of Pope Francis’ predecessors, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, tolerated nuclear deterrence as a morally acceptable step toward nuclear disarmament.

In his remarks, Pope Francis referred to the Hibakusha, survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who can testify to the horrors of nuclear weapons. One of the speakers at the conference, Wada Masako, is a Hibakusha from Nagasaki. She was 22 months old in 1945 when her city was devastated by an atomic bomb. As Masako pointed out, not only did 210,000 people die as a result of the bombing, 90 percent of them civilians, but thousands more continued to suffer for the rest of their lives. Her own mother was in and out of the hospital 28 times before her death.

Obviously, given the US strategic and moral position in the world, much of the commentary at the conference focused on what the United States could and should do. Mohamed ElBaradei, former director-general of the IAEA, noted that prominent US statesmen—among them former Defense Secretaries William Perry and Robert McNamara and former Senator Sam Nunn—have argued that relying on nuclear weapons is increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective. ElBaradei quoted Nunn as saying that “America would be far more secure if no one had nuclear weapons.” He also pointed out that the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), adopted in 1996, has yet to enter into force, and that the proposed Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty is dead in its tracks. ElBaradei concluded by observing that as part of its nuclear modernization program, the United States is increasing the targeting and killing capability of its ballistic missile force.

Not all attendees at the Vatican conference are supporters of the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was not endorsed by any nuclear-armed states. Rose Gottemoeller, the current NATO deputy secretary-general and a former US assistant secretary of state, participated in a debate with diplomats from Mexico and Austria. She argued that while the US nuclear arsenal remains too big, the United States and Russia have reduced their respective deployed warheads significantly (from 6,000 under START I in 1991 to 1,500 under New START). Moreover, she argued, advancing the goal of the new UN treaty at this time could actually jeopardize international peace and security.

The Russian perspective was best summarized by Alexey Arbatov. As well as being head of the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Russia, he is the son of Georgy Arbatov, one-time advisor on relations with America to five secretaries-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In a counter-argument to those who say nuclear deterrence makes the world a safer place, Alexey Arbatov said it cannot be proved that nuclear weapons have saved mankind from a third world war.

Whether or not they have saved us in the past, currently three factors suggest that nuclear weapons will not help prevent regional or global war in the future. F­irst, we face a potential political and strategic confrontation in the Euro-Atlantic zone between the United States and NATO on one side and Russia on the other. Second, more countries—nine—now have nuclear weapons. Third, technological and operational concepts are developing in a way that makes delineation between nuclear and conventional arms meaningless.

While everyone agreed that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will not enter into force in the near term, there are steps Washington can take now to reduce the global danger from nuclear weapons. Mainly, the United States should reduce its nuclear arsenal to 1,000 weapons, as both Obama and the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended; cancel parts of its nuclear modernization program, as Perry and Gen. James Cartwright recommended; and adopt the no-first-use policy Obama had hoped to enact. While this last step may be the most controversial, the fact is the reason the United States did not embrace no-first-use during the Cold War was because the Soviet Union had massive superiority in conventional weapons, a situation that no longer exists. In fact, when the Soviets had conventional superiority, they embraced a no-first-use policy. Moreover, two of the current nuclear states–China and India—have adopted such a policy.

Hopefully the Vatican conference will galvanize the international community to pressure the United States to move in the right direction. While some may think this is a naïve hope, I know from my experience in the Reagan Administration that the voices of Catholic bishops on nuclear issues had an impact on the president. Their efforts led Reagan to say that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” and to try to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

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