In this week’s episode of Marksism, the editors discuss recent content on nuclear weapons and losing elections.

Rough Transcript

Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with another episode of Marksism with fellow editors and fellow Mark(c)s, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton. And today, with energy and gusto, we will briefly overview a few postings at the Providence website, including an essay from our patron saint Reinhold Niebuhr from 1945 on the nuclear weapons dilemma. On a related note, we’ll review a Providence happy hour conversation with Marc LiVecche and three experts on nuclear weapons and apply their thoughts to a new book outlining evolving Roman Catholic teaching on nuclear weapons. And finally, we’ll touch on an essay I wrote about the importance of losing elections in sustaining democracy. So, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton, starting out with this Reinhold Niebuhr piece from 1945 in his journal Christianity & Crisis addressing the fact that the U.S. had just used for the first time a nuclear weapon against Japan. And he rejects, as you would expect him to as a Christian realist, the idea that nuclear weapons could be banned or that war itself could be banned to international treaty. Which he doesn’t rule out altogether, but says it’s extremely unlikely for the foreseeable future and in essence doesn’t offer any real options in terms of limiting the use of nuclear weapons, but suggests that perhaps nuclear technology could be shared by the U.S. with the Soviet Union since it was only a matter of time before the Soviets would procure the technology for themselves. Which of course was true; they would have their own nuclear weapons within several years. So, Reinhold Niebuhr seems uncharacteristically befuddled by the dilemma of how to address nuclear weapons from a Christian realist perspective. So, Marc LiVecche, as a Christian realist, what is your response to Reinhold Niebuhr in 1945?

LiVecche: Happily, on this occasion I can completely agree with Reinhold Niebuhr. Or unhappily, I suppose. I mean, it’s a despairing piece. And he sort of recognizes that. But I think the salient feature of it is this realism. He simply recognizes that since the Trinity test in July of 1945, nuclear weapons have become a reality and there’s no wishing the genie back into the bottle. It won’t go back into the bottle. And that is now the reality that we have to deal with whether we like it or not. And that’s not defeatism. That’s simply realism. That’s recognizing that we have to accept the world as it is not as we would want it to be, even as we work toward pushing it closer toward what we would want it to be. I think, toward the end of the essay, he says something that I think is sort of a banner statement for Christian realism. He says, as he’s reflecting on everything you’ve already said and coming to the conclusion that there’s not a lot we can do about this, he says such considerations may well prompt the heart to complete despair but one has to elaborate them nevertheless merely as a matter of honesty. And so, as a matter of honesty, I think his essay was on target.

Tooley: Mark Melton, Reinhold Niebuhr, as we just mentioned, offers no real solution to the nuclear challenge. He seems to say simply that we must muddle forward with whatever prudence we have available to us. So, what are your thoughts?

Melton: So, on this piece, kind of like what LiVecche was saying, it is a pragmatic look at the problem. And he’s responding to a lot of people who are advocating for just outlawing the bomb, and he brings up how that’s just not possible. It’s not going to happen. He brings up the only time it’s really worked was with chemical weapons and that’s really because they were ineffective, but you couldn’t outlaw using submarines against certain maritime vessels. And so, yeah, it’s a very interesting piece to look within the moment at that time in 1945 of what they were going through. And so, I’m sure he was fairly befuddled. And we ran another piece last week kind of along with this one from another writer whose name is not off top of my head, but he kind of brings up the idea that people need to repent and the world needs to really come to terms with a Christian view. And it’s interesting looking at that statement in 1945 and trying to think of it today in 2020 when some would say we’re post-Christian, or just the idea of we’re going to bring everyone repentance is not very realistic. And yet even though we didn’t do what I think these articles said, we found ways to prevent World War III. we figured it out. And so, I think there’s some hope there. And hope going forward that when you’re dealing with such a serious problem, we learn how to do deterrence. Yeah, I think it’s interesting to look at just this historical example of pragmatic thinking in the very early stages after it happened.

Tooley: On this topic, the Providence happy hour this week responding to a new book on catholic teaching about nuclear weapons edited by our friend, the Georgetown Jesuit scholar, Father Drew Christiansen, essentially advocating what Reinhold Niebuhr is commenting is extremely unlikely, the abolition of nuclear weapons and for the U.S. to renounce the use and possession of nuclear weapons. Marc LiVecche hosted this conversation with Rebeccah Heinrichs at the Hudson Institute, and with Elbridge Colby who himself had served in the Department of Defense, along with Matthew Kroenig at the Atlantic Council who also has served in the Department of Defense. Elbridge Colby is himself a serious Roman Catholic and so had a more theological response to these proposals. But Marc LiVecche, fill us in a little bit on that conversation.

LiVecche: It was a good example of Christian realists. I don’t know if all of them would sort of out themselves as Christian realists, but taking on at least a Christian realist perspective, it demonstrated the value of having subject matter experts discussing issues that intersect faith, and ethics, and morality with policy and national defense. I think one of the big takeaways mirrors a little bit of what Niebuhr was talking about in that they all recognize no matter what we might wish, nuclear weapons are here to stay for any foreseeable future. And they’ve been, as Melton has said, a force for some good in the world. Rebeccah, one of her signature statements is that we must never think that the last time a nuclear weapon was used was August 9, 1945 over Nagasaki. It’s not true. Nuclear weapons have been used every day since August 6, 1945 as a deterrent, as a stay against kinetic war. They’ve been a part of the arsenal ever since. They’ve turned a lot of hot wars cooler; made them even cold. They prevented a lot of conventional wars from happening. And I consider that not necessarily an unmitigated good. I think there are some wars that ought to have happened that couldn’t happen because it was imprudent to do because we might have annihilated the planet. But it’s a mixed bag, and we have to deal with them the best that we can. There was a sobriety in recognizing that nuclear weapons are, like any sort of new technology, it’s something that could be used for good and it is something that could be used for ill. Kroenig used the example of fire. This is a, it’s simply a technology, and how we use it is going to be what ends up warranting the ethical evaluation. So, there’s a lot they say about it. It’s a tough subject, but again, I think the takeaway is the cold sobriety marshalled with doing the best we can to keep them safe, to put in intelligent safeguards against misuse and mistrust, and all the silly sort of foolish things that could happen when somebody is a hair trigger away from blowing up the planet.

Tooley: As Bridge Colby pointed out, as a Roman Catholic, these latest teachings from Pope Francis certainly are to be taken seriously as instruction for all members of that church but are not issued ex-cathedra. So, they’re not a binding authority. So, believing Roman Catholics must walk that tight rope. But I think Bridge Colby did that fairly carefully.

LiVecche: Yeah, I think he did. I think he was quite compassionate. I think he was a little strong, not to say too strong, I think he was appropriately strong on admonishing moralists, not strictly speaking to stay in their lane but to recognize when we’re talking about things that we might not have subject matter expertise. And it’s always, one of the concerns with editing Providence is a lot of times we’re in over our heads in terms of policy knowledge or we don’t have access to all the information, classified intelligence, all sorts of things. So, as moralists, we have to do what we do carefully, humbly, and recognize that there might be people out there with better information. So, I think Bridge did a great job of showing what a robust Catholic intellect can do with incredibly difficult moral dilemmas.

Tooley: And then finally, my piece from yesterday. In terms of the importance of losing elections and sustaining democracy, we’re calling the example of Churchill’s very surprising electoral defeat in the cusp of victory in World War II against the socialist Clement Attlee. Clement Attlee was a real socialist, not a pretend online socialist circa year 2020 in the United States of America, and did go on to nationalize wide swaths of British industry. And yet, Churchill, although depressed from his defeat, did not despair for his nation. He knew there would be another election; he would come back. Democracy is a cycle and nothing is ever permanently settled. Politics are always evolving. That seemed like an important point for Americans today who perhaps often over dramatize the significance of our elections when in fact, the sun will still rise tomorrow no matter who wins, and there’s always another round in democracy. Mark Melton, what is, without getting partisan, what is your reflection and response?

Melton: One of the things, when you’re bringing up the British election, it reminded me how just the British system really trains prime ministers to lose elections. And so, I went through and checked. I think the vast majority of prime ministers, I didn’t go back to look before Winston Churchill, but most, all but two after Winston Churchill, had lost their first parliamentary election. That’s really because the parliamentary system, they put promising candidates in elections that are doomed to lose. And they see how they do in those situations; if they can move the needle where they don’t lose as badly. And so, the only two who didn’t lose, they won their first elections in 1945 and they were part of that labor wave. But Thatcher, Blair, I mean the list just goes on as to who’s all lost. And so, it seems like they can contrast that to the American system where if you lose an election, a lot of times your career could be over or you’ve got to start winning some elections. And so, yeah, it’s just interesting kind of looking at that system and how it just trains them for defeat. And with that, it’s also reminding me so it’s football season, and in this time of year, you have a lot of teams who are starting to gear up for the playoffs. And so, you have teams that do pretty well at the end who squeak by even though they have worse records. A lot of times they do pretty well because they’ve learned and trained and gotten better through their losses early in the season. Then they win late in the year to really knock out teams that people thought were superior. And so, I mean, you can apply that to any other realm in life, including politics where early defeats, or just defeats in general, can prepare you for victory later on.

Tooley: Marc LiVecche, losing elections is an important discipline for mature democracies. What say you?

LiVecche: Yes, it is. Your piece was lovely. One of the things that that jumped into my mind is that for Churchill to have been able to do what he did probably came about because Churchill loved British democracy more than he loved himself. And he was able to take a breath and recognize it doesn’t all depend on me. And he might go away, which he didn’t go away, as you point out. But in our system, maybe somebody does go away but you know what, the party doesn’t go away. Democracy doesn’t go away. And as you point out, this is a wonderful opportunity for the losing side to step back, maybe reevaluate itself, potentially reinvent itself. Which I don’t think there’s a, well there probably are, but I don’t think there’s a sober-minded soul in our country that doesn’t think the parties need to reinvent themselves to some degree. So, it’s an opportunity to recognize that my moral horizon doesn’t end with my own contribution. I think things will go on beyond me, and it’s not the existential crisis that it might seem at the time. It’s probably a mark of our division that these elections seem to be the end of the world for the losing side. And that itself is worthy of some analysis. I hope that in the end, democracy proves to be the best fix for democracy. And I suspect that will be the case.

Tooley: Of course, we at Providence are always in prayer for our own American democracy and for the forces of responsible and lawful democracy around the world, as I’m sure Reinhold Niebuhr would agree. Thank you, gentlemen, for another episode of Marksism. Until next week. Bye.