Nuclear disarmament seems distant as world faces new uncertainties

Demonstrators in Washington gather around an inflatable nuke to protest nuclear weapons while world leaders were in the U.S. capital for the Nuclear Security Summit in April. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

Demonstrators in Washington gather around an inflatable nuke to protest nuclear weapons while world leaders were in the U.S. capital for the Nuclear Security Summit in April. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

Prospects for a new round of nuclear disarmament worldwide are bleaker than just a few years ago because governments have lost the willingness to shrink their arsenals in the face of rising security threats.

Heightening tensions between the United States and Russia, North Korea’s drive to develop intercontinental missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads, and a growing desire among non-nuclear states to build their own lethal weapons were cited as roadblocks to deeper reductions in the world’s nuclear arsenals during a May 17 webinar sponsored by the Pax Christi International Washington Working Group.

Presenters Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, an author and speaker, Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, distinguished professor of ethics and global development at Georgetown University, and Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, painted a grim picture of the prospects for nuclear disarmament and urged viewers to step up their activism if they want to change the scenario.

Offering a moral vision for disarmament, Sister Joan said that the world has lost sight of the God of peace and the life of a savior in Jesus, who brings the fullness of God to the human spirit.

Sister Joan said the world has turned away from seeking true peace, instead finding its “security” in its dependence on sophisticated and dangerous weaponry. She recalled the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, in which civilians became the primary victims, exposing how “the immorality of war was clear for everyone to see.”

Since World War II nuclear politics has threatened all life on earth, she said, “either by mass murder or conscious suicide” and has even “replaced democracy” because “nobody asked us to vote on this because they’d (the country’s leaders) be afraid of what we’d say.”

From there, Kimball offered a pessimistic view of prospects for disarmament despite the course toward that goal set by President Barack Obama in a 2009 speech in Prague, and multiple comments from the Vatican questioning the morality of possessing nuclear weapons.

Although Obama and the Pentagon have said the U.S. could unilaterally reduce its nuclear arsenal by one-third and maintain an effective deterrence from a foreign attack, Kimball explained that the current political environment makes such a reality difficult to achieve.

In addition, the U.S. is pursuing a $348 billion, decade-long upgrade of its nuclear weapons network rather than pursuing a new round of arms negotiations with Russia, Kimball said.

Without the U.S. and Russia — which possess 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons — leading the way, it’s unlikely other countries will commence their own plans to disarm, he said.

U.S. uncertainty over Russia’s intentions, especially because the country has backed insurgents in Ukraine and occupied the Crimean peninsula, makes any near-term arms reduction agreement difficult to achieve, the arms control expert said. The countries remain guided by the New START agreement of 2010 that calls for reductions in their strategic arsenals — weapons deployed on long-range missiles, bombers and submarines — to 1,550 each.

It will take “courageous political and moral leadership,” greater public awareness and meaningful international dialogue to head off another arms race, Kimball said.

“We are currently losing the debate,” he said, “and need public education to turn the tide.”

Father Christiansen outlined how popes and other Vatican officials for decades have questioned “the guise of security” that nuclear weapons provide, and more recently have cited the immorality of such weapons systems because they strip money from human needs.

For 20 years, popes have called for the abolition of such weapons, he said, and in 2013, the Vatican took a new turn in calling for an end to the policy of nuclear deterrence that has guided military planning since the Cold War.

The Vatican remains just as concerned about political stability in some nations that could open the door to extremist groups obtaining nuclear material or even a nuclear weapon.

Evident in all three presentations was a concern that the world is headed toward renewed nuclear proliferation, a dilemma that humanity can ill afford.

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