Why are nuclear weapons so hard to get rid of? Because they’re tied up in nuclear countries’ sense of right and wrong
Every five years, the nearly 200 member states of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons meet to review their progress – or lack thereof. After being postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the monthlong conference is now meeting in New York and opened with a stark warning.
The world is “just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Aug. 1, 2022, citing growing conflicts and weakening “guardrails” against escalation.
The treaty has three core missions: preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to states that do not have them, ensuring civil nuclear energy programs do not turn into weapons programs, and facilitating nuclear disarmament. The last review conference, held in 2015, was widely regarded as a nonproliferation success but a disarmament failure, with the five members that possess nuclear weapons failing to make progress toward eliminating their nuclear arsenals, as promised in previous conferences.
At the heart of this dispute are states’ motivations for keeping nuclear weapons – often perceived as rooted in hard-nosed security strategy, by which morality is irrelevant or even self-defeating.
As a nuclear ethicist, though, I see these explanations as incomplete. To understand leaders’ motives – and therefore effectively negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons – other scholars and I argue we must acknowledge that policymakers express underlying moral concerns as strategic concerns. History shows that such moral concerns often form the foundations of nuclear strategy, even if they’re deeply buried.
It is easier for many people to see how the nuclear abolitionist argument is fundamentally based in morality. The fear of nuclear winter – or even a less severe “nuclear autumn” – is rooted in the immorality of killing millions of innocent people and devastating the environment in long-lasting ways.
By contrast, a realistic and strategic approach to the value of nuclear weapons has dominated security discourse since the early Cold War era. This approach argues that the primary purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter adversaries from attacking vital national security interests. If an attack does occur, then nuclear weapons can be used to punish aggression in a proportional way and caution other adversaries, restoring nuclear deterrence.
Even so, according to political scientist Joseph Nye, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs under President Bill Clinton, a strategist may pose as a moral skeptic but “tends to smuggle his preferred values into foreign policy, often in the form of narrow nationalism.”
Nationalism asserts the moral priority of one’s own nation over others. Communities’ deep-held beliefs are intimately woven into ideas about nationhood, security and prestige.
In the United States, for example, the moral underpinnings of American identity are deeply rooted in the idea of being “a city on a hill”: an example the rest of the world is watching. Americans are anxious about losing their way, and many feel that their country was once a force for good in the world, but no longer. Thus, national survival is embraced as a moral value, and deterring or defending against aggression has strategic, political and moral overtones.
Regardless of whether someone thinks these concerns are justified, it is important to recognize that, in their defenders’ view, they go beyond strategy or sheer survival. They reflect societies’ foundational ideas about what is wrong and right – their sense of morality.
So how are these moral concerns applied to the questions of nuclear weapons and their role in security strategy?
It is worth remembering what motivated President Franklin D. Roosevelt to authorize the development of the atomic bomb: the genocidal evil of Nazi German aggression in World War II and the knowledge that Adolf Hitler had begun an atomic bomb program.
And when Nazi Germany had been defeated, the U.S. justifications for using atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki centered on two kinds of moral concerns. The most frequently invoked was utilitarian: preventing a greater number of deaths in a land invasion of Japan. The second, not expressed as explicitly, viewed the atomic bombing as a kind of moral punishment for the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor and the brutal treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
In short, the motivations for the original atomic bomb program and its uses could not be described in solely “hard-nosed” strategic terms. As political philosopher Michael Walzer has argued, both morality and strategy are about justification: Both tell us what we should do or should not do, based on some set of values. And strategy is often used for decision-makers’ moral aims, such as their goal to defeat a genocidal regime.
Along with other scholars, I have argued that moral concerns also motivated the central role of nuclear deterrence policy during the Cold War. American policymakers portrayed Soviet communism, like Nazism, as a politics of brute force that had no regard for law or morals. Once the Soviet Union and China had acquired nuclear weapons, American analysts came to believe that communism represented an existential threat not only to U.S. security, but to liberal democracy in general.
Walzer described such situations as “supreme emergency conditions,” in which ordinary moral prohibitions against mass destruction are suspended to ensure what political leaders see as the highest value: national survival.
This is self-preservation – but people often think about that, too, as a moral concern. Social norms against suicide, for example, imply that people have a moral duty to preserve their lives except under certain conditions, reflecting a belief that human life has intrinsic moral value.
Walzer did not claim that using nuclear weapons, or even threatening their use, was morally justified. However, he suggested they might be necessary for national security, and therefore become morally excusable in supreme emergency situations. His argument has been very influential in government and academic circles.
Many critics claim that it is always immoral to use nuclear weapons, since they cannot discriminate between soldiers and innocent civilians, including children, the elderly and the infirm. Moreover, the use of nuclear weapons cannot but bring social and environmental catastrophe, the kind that our darkest dystopian novels and films depict. And if it is immoral to use nuclear weapons, it is immoral to threaten to use them.
But it is unsurprising that the leaders of the nuclear-weapon states are ultimately committed to the survival of their countries and peoples, even if others must pay an ultimate price. To fully appreciate nuclear motivations, we must understand the role of this kind of moral concern in their decision-making.
Thomas E. Doyle, II does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.