The Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock reads two minutes to midnight. Anti-nuclear voices include the 122 nations who endorsed a United Nations treaty last July to classify nuclear weapons as illegal, indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction. Illustration by Ena Goquiolay

Doomsday clock ticking on nuclear threat

  • February 17, 2018

Is the world moving closer to nuclear war? 

An American $1.2 trillion investment in new nuclear weapons systems, plans for tactical use of nuclear bombs on battlefields, threats of responding to cyberattacks with a nuclear strike and rejection of international efforts — including pleas by Pope Francis — to encourage disarmament have people worried.

“Not to sound alarmist, it’s a wonder people aren’t running for cover,” said Project Ploughshares executive director Cesar Jaramillo. “Very authoritative observers and stakeholders have said there is a real chance of thermonuclear war in 2018. Maybe it sounds too close to science fiction to be taken as seriously as it should.”

Jaramillo and his colleagues at Canada’s ecumenical Christian peace and disarmament think tank don’t base their worries on science fiction. On Jan. 25 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, the closest it has been to Armageddon since 1953. On Feb. 2 the United States issued its quadrennial “Nuclear Posture Review,” proposing a complete overhaul of the U.S. nuclear triad and setting out justifications for breaking existing arms control treaties. On Feb. 5 the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty came into full effect without any new nuclear talks planned before the Russia-U.S. agreement runs out in 2021.

“Of course, President (Donald) Trump has upended the traditional understanding of American foreign policy with a high degree of unpredictability, volatility, recklessness. Through a nuclear lens, those are very alarming red flags,” said Jaramillo. “If one looks at the details of the (Nuclear) Posture Review, coupled with other recent comments by Trump in the State of the Union address, it’s really an affirmation from that perspective of the validity and legitimacy of nuclear weapons possession.”

This isn’t something happening just south of the border. Canada’s defence policy is tied to NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization of 29 allies reliant on America’s nuclear umbrella. NATO has no plans for how it will operate or what it could be without nuclear weapons.

“Efforts for nuclear disarmament need to take into account the realities of the threats and challenges we face,” a NATO spokesperson told The Catholic Register by email. “As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO must and will remain a nuclear alliance.”

Anti-nuclear voices include the 122 nations who endorsed a United Nations treaty last July to classify nuclear weapons as illegal, indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction. And Pope Francis unequivocally stated possession of nuclear arms is gravely immoral at a Vatican conference on disarmament Nov. 10.

“At best, it (the UN’s Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty) is ineffective and will do nothing to stop regimes — such as North Korea — from developing their nuclear programs. At worst, it is counter-productive in that it risks undermining years of steady progress under the Non-Proliferation Treaty,” said the NATO spokesperson.

“The fact of the matter is that all the nuclear weapons states are in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” said Douglas Roche, former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament and disarmament advisor to the Holy See.

Under Article VI of the 1968 treaty, the five nuclear powers who signed on are obliged to gradually, verifiably reduce their nuclear weapons stocks with the goal of nuclear disarmament. While the number of warheads has gone down, the practical nuclear threat has either increased or remained steady as the sophistication of nuclear weapons systems has increased.

“A new nuclear weapons race has already started,” said Roche. “It’s extremely disconcerting to be fed this bilge by the NATO press department that they’re doing everything they can to move forward. It’s hogwash.”

Fr. John Perry, Jesuit senior scholar at the University of Manitoba’s St. Paul College, rejects the charge that Pope Francis has changed the Vatican’s tune on nuclear deterrence. 

It isn’t Catholic teaching that has changed, rather the military doctrine of deterrence which has shifted over the last two generations, said Perry.

“The concept of deterrence is a very questionable moral position. It’s based on the right to self-defence, of course. But, of late, there are those who would say that deterrence includes a pre-emptive strike,” he said. “They’ve managed to change the idea of deterrence in such a way that we can no longer talk about it as something we can embrace as a viable moral option.”

Perry has no patience with the mental gymnastics of just war theory applied to weapons that can wipe out entire cities full of non-combatants and whose long-term effects include broken DNA, birth defects and disease into the next generation.

“The theory of just war is not Christian in any proper sense of the word. It has no biblical, theological or canonical foundation,” he said. “Even using it, you can’t justify nuclear deterrence.”

The Church isn’t living in a Care Bears movie, demanding a global group hug to dissolve fears fuelling weapons programs in North Korea and the United States.

“We’re not naive,” USCCB Office of International Justice and Peace director Stephen Colecchi told The Catholic Register. “We know and Pope Francis knows — he has said this in a statement last year — that this will be a long-term process. But we’ve got to take a step down that road.”

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is a step in the opposite direction, Colecchi said.

“We had hoped that the weapons would be taken off launch-on-warning status to avoid a catastrophic accident. We had hoped that instead of investing hundreds of billions of dollars in modernizing nuclear weapons we would be investing in diplomacy to reduce the nuclear weapons threat,” he said.

Rather than operating out of fear, we should be investing in the science and the rational diplomacy, said Colecchi.

“Peace is something that if you ask most Americans, it’s what they desire. The question is, how do we get there? It’s whether we will allow fear to dominate our decisions or whether we will allow hope to dominate our decisions. As people of faith, we are always people of hope,” he said.

In October the 25 member denominations of the Canadian Council of Churches wrote to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland asking Ottawa to use its diplomatic muscle at NATO and the UN to nudge the needle toward disarmament.

“We find it disconcerting that Canada’s position on nuclear disarmament aligns with that of states with nuclear weapons,” said the letter signed by Justice and Peace Commission chair Rev. Paul Gehrs.

So far, there’s been no reply from Freeland’s office.

Canada has taken a leading role in preparing for negotiations of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, which would starve the bomb-makers of material to make bombs. Roche calls it an empty gesture with no likely result.

“No negotiations have even started. In the discussions, all they’re talking about is cutting off future production. It says nothing about existing stocks,” said Roche. 

Rather than making nuclear disarmament all about politicians, Roche craves a conversation in Catholic parishes, schools and universities, led by bishops who are concerned about their flock locally and globally. He calls on Canada’s bishops to spark that conversation.

“We need to back the Pope,” he said. “The Canadian bishops should be issuing a statement to back Pope Francis when he firmly condemned the very possession of nuclear weapons. Everybody ought to wake up and listen to those words.”

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