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One bomb is one too many

by
08 April 2022

The war in Ukraine has revealed flaws in the concept of nuclear deterrence, argues Christopher Cocksworth

Alamy

Ballistic nuclear rockets take part in a military parade in the streets of Moscow in 2009

Ballistic nuclear rockets take part in a military parade in the streets of Moscow in 2009

THE LAST time I spoke in public about nuclear weapons, I felt myself having to justify giving so much attention to a subject which many regarded as a non-issue. Today, the nuclear threat is staring us in the face: Russia, in its invasion of Ukraine, has escalated its nuclear readiness.

For decades, the West has taken the value of nuclear weapons for granted: deployed as a credible deterrent, with missiles on high alert perpetually pointed at each other, nuclear weapons were believed to guarantee peace because the fear of mutual destruction is too great. We relied on “responsible” nuclear-weapons states led by reliable leaders constantly working to counter any potential risks or escalations.

President Putin now says that any country that “tries to stand in our way” would be met with consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history”. We might therefore say that deterrence has worked — Putin’s aggressive signalling is holding us back from a confrontation with Russia in support of Ukraine, just as much as it could be holding Putin back from expanding his conflict into the NATO Baltic states.

But ultimately, nuclear weapons have allowed Putin to act with impunity against a smaller and more vulnerable nation. Deterrence is only succeeding to uphold peace for some — us in the West — at the expense of peace for others — Ukraine.

That is no peace at all. Worse still, sooner or later, deterrence between nuclear powers themselves will fail. We are closer to this catastrophe today. I therefore long for a world without nuclear weapons, and without the nuclear “deterrence” that simply does not work the way we might like it to.

Here are four observations. First, the world is full of power imbalances, a world of Ukraines — and Taiwans — living in the shadow of nuclear-armed neighbours who can act with impunity under the cover of their deterrents.

Second, we know with certainty that the deterrence which prevents all-out war between nuclear powers is bound to fail. One day, an error of judgement, or a miscalculation, will get the better of us. Nuclear deterrence is built upon extremely shaky foundations and obscure psychological processes. In our present situation, a catastrophic miscalculation or inadvertent escalation could simply be the result of a Russian bomb accidentally falling on Poland or Hungary.

Third, the link between the existence of nuclear weapons and their deployment solely as a deterrent is at risk of breaking. While the “responsible” nuclear powers do their best to uphold deterrence, others are actively working to dismantle deterrence altogether by seeking to use nuclear weapons tactically in a war.

Russian nuclear doctrine, it pains me to say, leaves plenty of room for this kind of “limited” or “battlefield” nuclear-weapons use, and a desperate Putin might be tempted to pursue this. President Trump pursued similar objectives.

But my fourth and final observation is that there is nevertheless something deeply morally unjust about deterrence, even if it can be seen, by some, as a way of making the best of a bad situation.

We say that it is immoral to threaten what it is immoral to do. In other words, there is no point making an artificial distinction between possessing nuclear weapons because you’d like to use them “for real”, and possessing them for use as a deterrent. Simply being prepared to use them, and being prepared to inflict an outrageous degree of suffering, is bad enough.

No human individual should ever be able to lay claim to the power essentially to unmake humanity, let alone follow through on the threat. This makes a mockery of our dignity as humans, treating us as dispensable, and makes a mockery of God, the giver of life.

AlamyThe nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine Prince Oleg seen outside Severodvinsk in northern Russia last October

My experience in Coventry has informed and enriched my determination on this moral point. Coventry, in the aftermath of its destruction in the Second World War, rejected revenge. The then Provost of the ruined Cathedral, Dick Howard, chose reconciliation instead. It’s for this reason that nuclear deterrence, which is built upon a rigid determination to retaliate — to say, if you attack us, we’ll attack you back — is so repulsive to many of us in Coventry.

We endeavour, instead, as Coventrians and many of us as Christians, to reflect upon our shared experiences of suffering and, indeed, our shared capacity to inflict suffering upon each other. It’s no surprise that people often talk about Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki in the same sentence. To do so is to reflect upon our indiscriminate potential as humans to do awful deeds to each other, especially, in the context of war.

This framing of war in humanitarian terms is therefore important. It is also instinctive. It means that we offer assistance to Ukrainians as we should aspire to do for any population in a state of despair — Syrians, Afghans; indeed, Russians.

This humanitarian frame matters because nuclear scientists have concluded that if nuclear weapons were to be used, the destruction — the blast, the fires, the environmental degradation, the radiation — would mean that there would be nothing left, including the basic transportation and communications infrastructure that we would require to offer even basic humanitarian support.

Therefore, in 2013, 127 states and 70 NGOs at a conference in Oslo pioneered what became known as the Humanitarian Initiative. They highlighted nuclear weapons as a global system problem, the humanitarian consequences of which are much graver, more complex and more global in scope than previously understood.

This initiative, together with frustration at the slow progress on disarmament, eventually resulted in the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This ground-breaking treaty, which commands the support of 122 countries — none of which possesses nuclear weapons — stigmatises the very possession of such weapons and provides a legal mechanism for their abolition.

These are states which, understandably, feel vulnerable in the shadow of nuclear weapons powers which are modernising — even expanding — their arsenals. For now, they see this imbalanced situation as a reason for total abolition. But in the longer term, it is a situation which could just as easily lead to nuclear proliferation.

One nuclear weapon is therefore one too many. “Non-proliferation” is not good enough — we must pursue total elimination. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons seeks this goal with utter clarity.

In the present environment, a world without nuclear weapons might seem like the most distant of possibilities, not least because it would involve Russia itself having to give up its stockpiles. But when the dust has settled, it may be our only hope in preventing an even darker future. Coventry and its cathedral are a reminder to all of us that peace does not merely exist, it must be made.

Let us therefore commit actively to making peace in the aftermath of war, and to decisively tackle the nuclear weapons and doctrines which would stand in our way, once and for all.

Dr Christopher Cocksworth is the Bishop of Coventry. He was speaking at a public meeting on the nuclear threat, organised by the Lord Mayor of Coventry’s Committee for Peace and Reconciliation, last month.

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