The Hawk Shall Nest with the Dove

by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson for PRISM Magazine (in the upcoming Mar/Apr 2010 issue)

With the recent resurgence of nuclear weapons into newspaper headlines, politicians and citizens alike are beginning to talk again about a topic that has been mostly ignored for two decades. But these conversations—whether in the media or around the water cooler—often rely on outdated, Cold War-era assumptions about the nature of nuclear security.

Most Americans think that nuclear weapons are a necessary evil for living in an imperfect world: We don't ever want to have to use them, but we need them to deter the bad guys from getting us. This morally pragmatic position is less theologically informed than the position that I—and probably many of you—would take. But, given the horrific consequences of even a single nuclear incident, even those who disagree with this kind of pragmatism must concede the plausibility, at least, of basing a moral calculus around the prevention of nuclear attack.

During the Cold War, the distance between nuclear pragmatism and a more purist anti-nuclear viewpoint proved to be a divisive conversation-stopper, preventing discussion even from beginning. Those on the right thought that the anti-nuclear crowd was willing to risk millions of lives by sacrificing deterrence on the ephemeral altar of ethics. And those on the left thought that the pro-deterrence crowd staked far too much—in terms of blood, treasure, and yes, morality—on the infallibility of nuclear deterrence.

As we enter the third post-Cold War decade, however, there's an increasing awareness of the long-term risks of relying on deterrence as a security strategy. Today, deterrence—and, more significantly, the arsenals required to sustain it—point eventually toward significant and catastrophic consequences.

The main concern is that deterrence leads to nuclear terrorism. Because nuclear weapons cannot be made from materials found in nature, keeping weapons-quality uranium (HEU) and plutonium out of the hands of terrorists is a top priority. And, because only a nation-state has the resources to carry out the massive industrial effort required to produce bomb material, it is critical not to let the number of nuclear powers—currently nine nations—expand any further.

But preventing the expansion of the atomic club now requires a commitment to eliminating it altogether. In the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, the non-nuclear powers agreed not to build the bomb–in exchange for a pledge from the existing nuclear powers to eliminate their arsenals eventually. Now, with the Cold War a generation gone, the non-nuclear states are questioning whether the nonproliferation regime is intended for the security of all or is simply a permanent, discriminatory global norm.

What this means is that the nuclear status quo—the state of affairs that many people take as an enduring fact of nature—is actually profoundly unstable. Prolonging the nuclear nonproliferation regime, and the significant security benefits it offers to all nations, requires getting serious about going to zero nuclear weapons and attaining a post-atomic age.

That's why current advocates for the total elimination of nuclear weapons include figures who aren't known for being idealists, like former Cold War hawk Henry Kissinger. They support a world free of nuclear weapons not because they're naïve do-gooders with too much time on their hands but because they believe that the pursuit of such a world is the only solution to the massive nuclear security crisis that the future otherwise holds. Their nuclear abolitionism hasn't replaced their absolute commitment to American security—it's a consequence of it.

Of course, a commitment by the existing nuclear powers to the eventual abolition of their own arsenals won't magically solve today's ongoing nuclear crises, like Iran and North Korea. Nobody's saying that it will. But these problems, and those that the future will hold if we follow the present course, are fundamentally unsolvable without such a commitment. A willingness to take seriously our own disarmament commitments is a key component of securing the world's nuclear future.

We've come a long way: The work of Cold Warriors like Kissinger, George Shultz, Bill Perry, and Sam Nunn has established the elimination of nuclear weapons as a credible policy option. A new coalition called Global Zero is convening unprecedented international consensus toward that end. And President Obama has repeatedly stated his commitment to the goal of a nuclear-free world.

But our progress toward this eventual future depends upon our ability to advance some key concrete steps over the next few years:

1) The successor to the US-Russian START treaty could further reduce the Cold War powers' bloated arsenals—which, at 20,000+ warheads, comprise 95 percent of the global total. But extremists in the US Senate are threatening to derail decades of trust-building by treating the new START as a political football. Ratification with a strong majority is key to moving forward.

2) The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) would ban all nuclear testing, thus placing a huge obstacle in the path to nuclear breakout and nuclear terrorism. But the road to the global entry-into-force of the treaty runs through the US Senate. In 1999 the CTBT was rejected on a party-line vote—ratification in 2010 or 2011 would be a huge boon for global security.

3) The Global Security Priorities Resolution, presently in the US House, calls for tying nuclear reductions to spending reallocation that would combat nuclear terrorism and promote child survival. It's an important bipartisan step and a welcome reminder that security entails a comprehensive commitment to the preservation of human life.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the founder and director of the Two Futures Project (, a movement of American Christians for the abolition of all nuclear weapons. 


Nukes in the News


Check out this handful of recent articles that shed light on the nuclear weapons conversation.

How to Protect Our Nuclear Deterrent (—an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (1.19.10) from a nonpartisan group of four senior statesman: George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn.

U.S. spy agencies see Iran pushing atom bomb research ( by Adam Entous for Reuters (1.19.10) reports that Revised National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) suggests that Iran has not halted its nuclear weapons research.

Russia, U.S. Seen on "Verge" of Arms Control Agreement ( from the NTI (1.15.10)

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