This month in Vatican City, Rome, I was honored to meet Pope Francis and hear him deliver a powerful, historic message. He spoke in the context of a conference on the challenge of nuclear disarmament, with United Nations ambassadors, Nobel laureates, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) representatives and many other scholars and experts. Yes, in person, the pope had that reputed kindness and glow about him. But, on this occasion at least, he spoke with unflinching gravity, visibly bearing a burden of our global tensions and conflicts. In this historic event, he issued a formal, unequivocal condemnation of the sheer possession of nuclear weapons. Even having them is morally depraved. They create “nothing but a false sense of security. They cannot constitute the basis for peaceful coexistence.” In the past, popes and bishops have condemned the use of nukes as intrinsically evil — insofar as they indiscriminately target non-combatants (see “Pacem in Terris” or “The Challenge of Peace”). Under such moral convictions — shared by many other faiths and civil society movements around the globe — many nations have attended to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) for decades. Crucial to this treaty was Article VI, which requires good faith negotiations on nuclear and general disarmament. But diplomatic efforts have grown complacent, the move toward disarmament has plateaued and the arms race is even re-escalating. As for the Church’s teaching, it had ceded a limited acceptance: Nukes may be at best a temporary deterrent on the way to disarmament. But most experts would argue that the nuclear nations, while paying lip service towards such goals, have always regarded their arsenals as permanent policy. This is evident in that nuclear nations have only reduced stockpiles from unimaginable apocalypse to imaginable apocalypse. Meanwhile, the world is moving from the relative “stability” of the bipolar U.S.–Russia tension into a multi-polar world lusting to imitate the nuclear powers. This increases fear, which then further erodes diplomacy in a vicious cycle. We have all thus reverted to the muddy thinking that nuclear deterrence is a cogent, lasting security strategy. Thus, the pope’s amplification: No, even having nuclear weapons is a moral abomination. No more “deterrence” equivocations. We need to move from a “temporary ethic of deterrence” to an unequivocal renunciation of their possession and begin disarming now. We must, of course, arrange how to do so prudentially — but beware, such details turn into excuses. Real, lasting peace must be established through “integral nuclear disarmament:” rigorous application of international treaties, diplomacy, mutual respect, norms and human development. Nukes are not only sapping the world of resources; they are now increasingly destabilizing. They are not the gold standard of security but a dangerous golden calf of mythology. This historic papal declaration has a context. The Vatican conference was a follow-up on several recent United Nations gatherings and a landmark U.N. vote this last July, overwhelmingly rejecting nuclear weapons. This is called the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (or the Ban Treaty). 122 countries voted for it, while the nuclear nations boycotted it. The deputy secretary of NATO, Rose Gottemoeller, argued the Ban Treaty goes too fast and risks overturning the NPT’s gains. While I appreciate her candor and her invitation to continued dialogue with NATO, she did not make a compelling case of exactly how the Ban Treaty invites trouble. I did not hear any exit from the cyclic logic of security-through-instability-isolation-and-threat. I took no consolation in her championing that, after the world’s reduction from tens of thousands of nukes, we now only have less than five thousand nukes actively pointed at each other. But the Ban Treaty’s signers argued, in respectful friction with NATO, that the treaty advances the disarmament already agreed to in the NPT and that nuclear nations are failing to uphold. The Mexican U.N. ambassador used the metaphor of a puzzle to defend the Ban Treaty. The 122 signing countries are the easier pieces; they are placing the edge pieces of the puzzle to create the boundary. This stigmatizes nukes, setting the frame for the other nations to fill in their disarmament pieces. Or, as the Nobel laureate of “ICAN,” Dr. Beatrice Fihn, argued, such ambitious agreements have successfully pressured the weapons possessors in the past. We have already seen this mostly succeed in biological and chemical weapons bans. If you listen to the crackling voice of a Nagasaki survivor’s account, as we did, you cannot fail to grasp the nuclear horror. Speaking as an observer, the most powerful elements of the conference were not simply in being able to shake hands and share a smile with the pope, but these five other themes:
- We must begin by disarming our hearts. From within comes our violence. We must disarm our fear, which takes cover under the claim to self-defense. We must dig to a deeper foundation to where proactive love speaks reason into our fear. All parties in conflicts are tempted to operate out of a sense of existential threat, which becomes a self-fulfilling, dangerous escalation. In the Vatican halls, we heard Buddhists, Christians and Muslims all voice this concern for disarming our hearts as the font of action.
- The pope, along with the vast majority of nations, are clearly declaring what true “realism” is. Do the math, think long term and see how the constant risk and threat of nuclear terror, spending trillions on moral abominations and contaminating our earth — and thinking this will create security — is utopian, dreamy, irrational, short-sighted and idealistic. Lasting peace is built by vigilant diplomatic efforts and human development (on poverty, jobs, energy, sustainability, etc.). This is very difficult work, but it is the realistic way to build. Deterrence is building on sand.
- The possibility of international cooperation is infectious in a room with the pope, passionate ambassadors from around the world and civil servants. In one sense, the multi-national chorus of courageous peace builders was even more thrilling than meeting the pope. For this conference was a scene of escalation in reverse — where we imitate one another’s courage and resolve, not their fears. This helped me see how our nuclear threat today is more the outcome of a diplomatic vacuum of complacency, which is then filled by a contagious fear. The higher realism is dead serious about this contagion and that this must be counteracted by the contagion of dialogue and mutual respect. Our current crises — symbolized in the irresponsible chest thumping between two adults in North Korea and the U.S. and a sad record of drawing down our diplomacy there years ago — are only inviting us into the contagious trance of fear.
- “Everything is connected” was a continued theme. The vast trillions spent on nukes is theft from the poor and our children — as Bishop Robert McElroy declared. Our destruction or safeguarding of nature; our personal and national spending on waste or beneficence; our fear or courage — they all affect our brothers and sisters near and far.
- The pope’s historic condemnation of nuke possession should strike us firmly, as we are living amidst a moral emergency for which we are all co-responsible. Our tax dollars, our votes, our psyches are all wrapped up in this. The analogous dilemma of living in a country with extermination camps comes to mind. The determination and focus of the Nobel laureate, Jody Williams, was telling. When we clapped at her introduction, she urgently waved it off: “No clapping, it’s a waste of time. ... Civil society can, must and will shape our future. It is insane that citizens do not rise up to call this insane.”