Matthew Kroenig talked about the ethics of nuclear weapons during our annual Christianity and National Security Conference.
Matthew Kroenig: Great well thank you very much for that introduction, Mark and for the invitation to speak here today. Thanks to all of you for attending I look forward to chatting with you about my subject today which is ethics and nuclear weapons. So, I’m a Christian, I was raised Methodist. When my wife and I got married, we were living in Georgetown and you know what church to attend was such an important decision that I left it to her she’s the boss in the family and looked around and she really liked Christ Church in Georgetown so we’re members there, both of my children were baptized there, and we enjoy the community. It turns out it’s also a church with many other national security leaders in town which I didn’t realize and so this gets to the second part of my life which is my work and my area of expertise and have focused a lot on nuclear weapons nuclear strategy over the years. So, I’ve written seven books, five of them are about nuclear weapons. I’ve worked in the U.S. Department of Defense and in the intelligence community in various roles including on nuclear weapons issues, including from 2017 to 2021 I was a special adviser a special government employee and senior policy advisor in the Nuclear and Missile Defense Office in the Office of the Secretary of Defense so it was a part-time role I was teaching at Georgetown working at the Atlantic Council think tank but also advising in the Department of Defense and played a major role in drafting the 2018 us nuclear posture review so essentially the nuclear strategy still of the United States. The Biden team is doing their own nuclear posture review currently.
So I had these two parts of my life that I hadn’t really put together very often but in recent years in part due to invitations from Mark and Providence I have thought about how did these two parts of my life fit together my Christianity and nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence. And I think there is a widespread view that nuclear weapons are immoral these are terrible weapons. We saw at Hiroshima and Nagasaki a single weapon can kill many people the many Christian churches now are seeming to come to that view that the threat of annihilation is immoral and therefore we need to abolish nuclear weapons. But I guess I see it differently and in fact the way I see it, I think U.S. nuclear weapons have been one of the major forces for good in the world over the past 70 years, and I said U.S. nuclear weapons specifically because I don’t think Russian, Chinese, North Korean nuclear weapons play the same role, but I do think that U.S. nuclear weapons are special.
And so, you may have heard of this idea of a U.S. led rules rules-based international order that the United States and its allies set up after World War II you know during the Trump years it was one of the criticisms Biden and others made is that you know Trump is going back on this rules-based order and it’s brought about peace and prosperity and freedom. And I do think this US-led rules-based order is special and I think that U.S. nuclear weapons are really a central pillar to this order and that without U.S. nuclear weapons I’m not sure we could have had the peace prosperity and freedom we’ve had over the past 70 years. So why do I say that? Well, I think U.S. nuclear weapons are special for a couple of reasons. One U.S. nuclear strategy is different from the nuclear strategies of every other country on earth because the United States doesn’t use its nuclear weapons just to defend itself, that’s what Russia, India, China do, but the United States uses nuclear weapons to defend the entire free world. The United States extends its nuclear umbrella over 30 formal treaty allies so the 29 other members of NATO, South Korea, Australia arguably other countries rely on U.S. nuclear weapons for their security, and we’ve essentially made a deal with them, we’ve said don’t build your own nuclear weapons we think it would be dangerous if all 30 of you all possess nuclear weapons rather don’t build nuclear weapons and you can rely on U.S. nuclear weapons for your security. And so I think through extended deterrence the United States has played a great role in actually preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries, I think without this policy of extended deterrence it’s very likely that Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Poland, perhaps other countries would have nuclear weapons today.
In addition, U.S. nuclear weapons and extended deterrence contributed to peace and stability especially in Europe and Asia where we have those extended nuclear deterrence guarantees. You know if you look back through history Europe was the site of major warfare since the beginning of recorded human history up until 1945 and then since 1945 no major power wars in Europe, no major power wars in Asia and I think it was that U.S. nuclear umbrella that extended deterrence that deterred Russia, deterred China, deterred North Korea, and contributed to peace. Because of that the peace provided by U.S. nuclear weapons, Europe and East Asia became some of the most prosperous and free parts of the world, you know we often forget this but before 1945 there were only a handful of democracies in Europe today 30 or so democracies in Europe, before
1945, 0 democracies in Asia, now Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, other countries defended by U.S. nuclear weapons evolved and developed these free institutions. So, I think essentially U.S. nuclear weapons served as this fence that allowed these gardens of peace, prosperity, and freedom to flourish.
The other thing that’s unique about U.S. nuclear weapons is counter-force-targeting so you know often when people think about nuclear deterrence often the way it’s taught in universities, is essentially this idea that you know the United States has a lot of nuclear weapons, we threatened to slaughter a bunch of people in Moscow and Beijing, they have a lot of nuclear weapons they threatened to slaughter a lot of people in Washington, Los Angeles, Paris, and London and everyone’s deterred, and that’s how nuclear deterrence works. But that’s actually not how U.S. nuclear strategy works and hasn’t been for a long time. Instead, the United States practices so-called counter-force nuclear targeting which means that the United States does not purposely target innocent civilians, rather U.S. nuclear targeting practices are consistent with international law and consistent with just war theory. So, the United States only targets legitimate military targets even with its nuclear weapons, so we don’t purposely try to slaughter a lot of people in Moscow and Beijing, instead we target missile silos, air bases, naval bases, command and control sites, leadership sites. Now some of these are located in cities and you know we are talking about nuclear attacks, so there would be a lot of death and destruction, I’m not downplaying that, but I think there is an ethical and a practical distinction between purposely trying to slaughter innocent civilians and trying to target only legitimate military targets, and indeed that’s you know one of the principles that just war theory is based on.
And the United States is explicit about this, you can look to the 2013 nuclear employment guidance that President Obama gave to the Department of Defense saying that we practice counter-force targeting in part for these ethical and legal reasons. Now when you’re doing a counter force targeting that requires a larger force, if all we wanted to do was kill a bunch of people in Russia and China you know maybe one or two nuclear weapons would be enough you know certainly 200 would be enough, but if you’re conducting counter force targeting going after air bases, missile silos, etc, that’s more targets requires more warheads so some people say well okay I understand the need for nuclear deterrence but why does the United States need 1550 nuclear weapons the current size of the nuclear arsenal couldn’t we have fewer, and the main reason is counter force targeting.
Now in fact in my 2018 book in an unclassified way I just counted up the targets, nuclear and strategic targets in Russia, China and North Korea and made some assumptions about U.S. targeting practices, how many U.S. warheads would that require, and I got to about 2,000 which is roughly the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal today. The other thing just war theory emphasizes, international law emphasizes, is that self-defense is a legitimate reason to use military force, and I do think that the United States and its allies use nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence in self-defense. So, I talked about this rules-based system we’ve built over the past 70 years and it’s not a perfect system but if you compare it to any other system in world history, the results have been pretty good. 0 great power wars in 75 years from the 1600s to 1945, 1-2% of the world’s
population died in armed conflict. Today, that number is a fraction of 1%, so the world is much more peaceful today than at any point before 1945. The world is much more prosperous today than at any point since 1945, poverty rate about 66% of the earth’s population lived in poverty today it’s 10, so still too high but much many fewer people living in poverty than the past standards of living have multiplied several times since 1945.
And I also mentioned the freedom, 15 or so democratic countries in the world in 1945, today around 100. So, the world is much more peaceful, prosperous, and free today than it was in the past, and again I think U.S. leadership and nuclear weapons have been an important part of that, so it’s been good for the world good for the United States although our enemies don’t like it very much Russia, China, in particular are revisionist powers that want to tear this system down. President Putin has said explicitly he wants new rules or no rules, so he doesn’t like this rules-based system and Russia and China are building up their nuclear capabilities to challenge the system. So, you’ve probably seen the recent news China building hundreds of new nuclear silos in western deserts testing new nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles, the Department of Defense has estimated that the size of China’s nuclear arsenal could quadruple in the next decade, they’re building new nuclear submarines, new nuclear bombers, the list goes on and on.
New missile defenses Russia is investing in exotic nuclear weapons systems, nuclear-powered submarine, drones the idea is that they could pull up and say the port of Baltimore and detonate building a nuclear-powered nuclear cruise missile, so a cruise missile with the nuclear warhead on the tip but also a mini nuclear reactor inside to power it giving it essentially unlimited range. And Russia has a large stockpile of non-strategic nuclear weapons basically any weapon system you can imagine, Russia has put a nuclear warhead on it. So they have nuclear torpedoes, nuclear depth charges, nuclear naval mines, nuclear land mines, nuclear surface-to-surface missiles, nuclear surface-to-air missiles to shoot airplanes out of the sky, nuclear-tipped missile defenses to shoot missiles out of the sky, and this is backing this revisionist strategy I think Russia and China have been very clear they want the United States to go home to disband these alliances to give them spheres of influence in Europe and Asia.
And so given that threat I think it makes sense that the United States and its allies in the free world have a strong nuclear deterrent for self-defense consistent with just war theory. If we don’t have a strong deterrent then Russia and China will use these nuclear weapons as a backstop for aggression, and I do think that that’s one of the main motivators of China’s nuclear buildup, that they think that if they can deter the United States with nuclear weapons, it will give them a freer hand to engage in aggression against Taiwan and other neighbors.
So in short, I see U.S. nuclear weapons as ethical and consistent with just war theory, with international law, and again as one of the greatest forces for good in the world underpinning this rules-based international system. So what does that mean then for the future of U.S. nuclear policy? Does it mean that the United States always needs to maintain a robust nuclear arsenal? And I would say no, there are always choices I think the United States could greatly reduce the size of its nuclear arsenal it could even disarm if it wanted too, but that would be putting a lot at risk. It would mean throwing away this world that we’ve built over the past 70 years I think it would mean pulling back these extended deterrence commitments basically saying to our 30 allies go ahead and build nuclear weapons, you’re on your own we’re not protecting you anymore. It would mean throwing international law and just war theory out the window we’re only going to have a few nuclear weapons to incinerate cities, we’re not going to do counter force targeting so you could go in that direction.
I think it would be a mistake on the other hand if the United States wants to continue to play this important role that it’s played since World War II, providing peace and stability in important geopolitical regions, defending allies, complying with international law and just war theory then I do think the United States will continue to require a robust nuclear arsenal. So, I’ll end my talk there and very much look forward to your questions and comments. Yes? Please.
Questioner: Thank you so much for coming out here totalk to us I’m Rohan from Wheaton College. You talked about how after 1945 when the U.S. launched the nuclear umbrella how that helped reduce poverty, could you tell us more about how that happened and kind of just walk us through the history of how that action that the U.S. took actually helped reduce world poverty?
Matthew Kroenig: Oh, yeah. So, the question is how do U.S. nuclear weapons relate to world poverty and good question. I skipped over a lot you know, 75 years of history in 13 minutes there. But you know I’m a political scientist, I’m not an economist, but one of the things economists have shown is that countries that deal with and conflict don’t develop as quickly as countries in peace, and it makes sense if you’re fighting wars, you don’t have the kind of peace and stability that leads to stable economic environment that allows for long-term growth. And so, U.S. nuclear weapons have provided that piece that has allowed countries to develop. And so, you know a good example of this I think is, and it’s not just U.S. nuclear weapons it’s this broader rules based order, but you can look at eastern Europe and you know the growth after World War II once they joined this western alliance were under the U.S. nuclear umbrella joined NATO joined the EU in remarkable economic development there.
You know the other piece of this is that U.S. allies don’t have to spend as large a part of their economy on defense because they are relying on U.S. nuclear weapons as part of their defense that allows them to invest in health care and other things. Now this has often been a source of tension in U.S. foreign policy you know Trump loudly complained that allies needed to spend more on their defense, but it wasn’t just Trump, you can actually go all the way back to Eisenhower and see other American presidents asking the Europeans to do more for their defense. And I think that’s right, I think Europeans should do more. I think some of our Asian allies including Taiwan should do more to invest in their own defense, but I think the fact of the matter is the fact since they haven’t had to invest so much in defense, they’ve been able to invest more in in their societies and economic development.
Questioner: Hi my name is Natalie. First of all, thanks for coming and speaking with us.
But my first question is that some people argue that increased proliferation could be a positive thing based on theories of mutually assured destruction. Where do you think middle powers lie in extended U.S. nuclear deterrence?
Matthew Kroenig: Yeah, it’s a good question. So, some of you may be familiar with this proliferation optimism debate that the question references. So, there are some international relations scholars Kenneth Waltz is a prominent international relations scholar who said actually the spread of nuclear weapons is a good thing because nuclear weapons deter war and if every country had nuclear weapons, every country would be afraid of every other country, and we’d have world peace. And in fact, one of the last articles that Waltz wrote, he’s no longer with us, but before he passed away he wrote an article on foreign affairs arguing that Iran should get nuclear weapons and that would be a good thing, you know Iran would deter us, we’d deter Iran, Iran would deter Israel, Israel would deter Iran and we’d have peace. So I think that argument’s mistaken for a couple of reasons one, I do think it’s not just the technology it’s who possesses it and what are they what are they wanting to do with it. And I think the United States has used its nuclear weapons to you know defend the free world and build the world that we’ve had for the past 75 years, I don’t think that’s how Iran, Russia, North Korea, and others think about using their nuclear weapons. And then we have you know data of how North Korea uses its nuclear weapons I think it’s used it as a backstop for more aggression against South Korea since acquiring nuclear weapons has sunk a South Korean warship, shelled a South Korean island has used unlike the United States using its nuclear weapons to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, North Korea has tried to proliferate nuclear weapons, played a major role in helping Pakistan develop its missile capability, helped Syria build a nuclear reactor that Israel bombed. So, if every country had nuclear weapons, I don’t think they’d be as responsible as the United States, I think they would use them as a backstop for aggression, for proliferation, and other dangers.
The other problem is that I think there’s a logical contradiction in Walt’s argument because I do think that there are there are risks with nuclear weapons. I mean as long as nuclear weapons exist, there is a risk that they could be used, it’s not you know I don’t think it’s high but it’s not zero. And so in fact, that’s the only reason nuclear deterrence works you know if our adversaries thought there was zero chance that the United States would ever use nuclear weapons their deterrence wouldn’t work they’d say, this is a bluff, but that means there is a risk these things could be used. So, if you give every country nuclear weapons you know those risks I think greatly increase and so I think traditional U.S. non proliferation policy maintaining this capability for ourselves, but trying to prevent it both to friends and to enemies is the right approach.
Questioner: And then I guess just a brief follow-up given the buildup of Chinese military and nuclear capabilities, how likely do you think it would be that countries like Japan who rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella might see their situation as more insecure and maybe would proliferate themselves?
Matthew Kroenig: Yeah it’s a good question. So, the United States has extended deterrence, tried to convince her adversaries not to build nuclear weapons, but we haven’t been you know completely successful in that regard. Both Britain and France during the cold war decided that they wanted to build independent nuclear arsenals, Israel despite the Kennedy Administration trying to persuade them not to build nuclear weapons, Israel decided to build its own nuclear arsenal. So far, the record has been better in Asia but there is the possibility that Japan or South Korea or maybe in the future other countries could decide that they need their own nuclear weapons for their security. South Korea did have a an illegal nuclear program in the 1970s, Taiwan had a program in the 1970s, the United States encouraged them to shut those programs down we essentially said chose between the security guarantee from the United States or these nuclear facilities, and they chose the United States. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan probably all have the industrial capacity necessary to build nuclear weapons on short order if they needed too. So, the only question really is demand now in my role as a ou know in Washington I often have dialogues with experts and officials from other countries so I’ve talked to South Korean and Japanese officials about this exact question. And what they say is, as long as the U.S. nuclear guarantee is good, that we won’t build independent arsenals. But the pressure especially in South Korea is growing as North Korea builds up its forces and in fact some public opinion polls in South Korea today show that a majority of South Koreans support South Korea building its own nuclear arsenal. Now like a lot of public opinion polls it depends on how it’s framed, if you add a clause in there that says would you want to build nuclear
weapons even if you know China and the United States would be very upset, you know those numbers drop down. And you do have some prominent South Korean politicians also calling for South Korea to build its own nuclear arsenal and so getting directly to your question you know as the United States becomes more vulnerable to Chinese nuclear weapons as they build up their forces I do think that questions will be raised in Tokyo and Seouls our job of reassuring them is going to be harder. I think we can succeed but you know we didn’t always succeed during the cold war again Britain and France and Israel decided no we need our own nuclear weapons so it’s possible those countries could go down that path, but I think for now it’s still in the us interest to
extend deterrence and persuade them not to build independent arsenals
Questioner: Nate Wate, Liberty University. I had a question because you were talking about air force targeting being our strategy instead of mutually assured destruction but with Hiroshima and Nagasaki they also were military targets not only, but the reason why Japan’s will was broken to fight it was because of intense devastation I would argue. So how do you see that playing in with our strategy as compared to breaking the enemy’s will to fight with Russia and China because there will be another would be a lot of civilian casualties.
Matthew Kroenig: Yes, and I said the United States has never done counter value targeting but you know I think Hiroshima and Nagasaki are at least debatable. But the first president to come out who was very clear on this, believe it or not was Jimmy Carter and his Secretary of Defense Harold Brown testified before Congress about counterforce targeting the importance of counterforce targeting, he said we’ve always considered it important to target the forces that could do damage to us and our allies, and that’s been continued by every president since then. And so a couple of things I would say one, we do counter force targeting in part for ethical reasons but there is an important strategic reason as well you know the enemy gets a vote we don’t want a nuclear war but if Russia, China, or North Korea decide to launch a nuclear attack this afternoon the United States, President Biden isn’t going to say okay now we must sit back and accept our mutual assured destruction. No, we’re going to try to do everything we can to defend ourselves, defend our allies and so that’s where counterforce targeting matters. For strategic reasons you know every enemy nuclear weapon we can destroy on a missile base air base naval base over there is a nuclear weapon that’s not landing on Paris or Washington or somewhere else so that’s the strategic logic behind counter-force targeting.
In addition you know the essence of deterrence is holding at risk that which your adversary values you know in in the west in the United States we value human life and so in fact we you know refer to counter value targeting and targeting against people as synonymous know obviously that’s what leaders would care about although when you think about our authoritarian rivals that’s probably not the case in fact Mao Zedong made some real really blood curdling statements during the cold war there was a meeting he had with Khrushchev where Khrushchev was warning Mao to be more cautious around the United states that could lead to a nuclear conflict and Mao said well that’s okay, if even if there’s a nuclear war that kills millions of Chinese, we’ll just make more Chinese. And so you know I think that’s part of the strategic reason as well the United States doesn’t do counter value targeting we want to hold at risk what the enemy values, and for many dictators what they value more than the lives of their people, are their military forces, their own lives, their ability to command and control their military forces and so that’s part of the strategic logic as well. To the last point about collateral damage, you know I completely agree if we’re talking about a nuclear exchange especially a large-scale nuclear exchange even with counter-force targeting you know there’s going to be a lot of death and destruction, but again a moral and practical distinction. I’ve done some of these nuclear exchange calculations I have them in my 2018 book, but you know the differences are substantial and can be counted in tens of millions of human lives depending on U.S. strategy. And so, I think I think those tens of millions of lives matter and the United States should try to limit damage from a nuclear war as part of its strategy. All the way in the back
Questioner: Hi, my name is Michael I’m a graduate student at Harvard. I also study nuclear policy um my question is that it seems as Christians we have a responsibility of course to maintain an effective nuclear term but we also have a responsibility to a stable nuclear world order that is keeping controls in place on nuclear production internationally. It seems the last couple years as well that we’ve seen a breakdown in those unfortunately the final death of the INF treaty and now as you saw rightly noted the Chinese rush to nuclear production. What do you see as the future then of nuclear diplomacy of potential negotiated nuclear freezes or nuclear reduction? Do we have any hope at all or is deterrence our only option?
Matthew Kroenig: Yeah, good question. So, the question’s about arms control and I think there is basically a bipartisan consensus on nuclear strategy and it’s basically strong deterrence but also strong efforts at arms control and when you’re pursuing both of those things it’s easier to get bipartisan consensus easier to get consensus from alliesand so arms control was an important part of U.S. nuclear strategy with Russia beginning in the 60s- 70s with the Soviet Union and that’s an important part of damage limitation as well. You know I talked about how we do counter force targeting to limit damage but arms control limits damage. You know one way to get rid of Russian nuclear weapons is to strike them in a nuclear war, the other way is to talk to them and convince them to get rid of them. So, I think arms control can be an effective tool you need an adversary though that’s willing to engage in arms control and willing to abide by the agreements and so that’s the problem we’ve had in recent years. So, China has never engaged in arms control. The Obama Administration, the Trump Administration tried to engage China, I suspect the Biden Administration will as well, but in the Trump AdministrationChina was uneven unwilling to even come to the talks and so that makes it difficult.
Russia, we had arms control in the past but President Putin in recent years has decided that that’s no longer in his interest he cheated on several arms control agreements and so now the only remaining agreement is this new start treaty that limits both sides to 1550 nuclear weapons and the real questions about the future of that treaty given the Russian and the Chinese buildups, so
background for everybody who’s not studying nuclear strategy at Harvard, but to get directly to your question. So, I am worried about the future of arms control. I think it is a valuable tool, I think we should pursue it, but I think it’s going to be difficult if China won’t even discuss it there are strategic stability dialogues now between the United States and Russia. But it’s really hard for me to imagine an agreement in the coming years and I think the only solution is a kind of asymmetric agreement. You know we’re most worried right now about some of the Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons you know that aren’t covered they claim to be worried about our missile defenses and other things so there may be some kind of innovative trades there where we’re putting limits on missile defenses in exchange for limits on their non-strategic nuclear weapons maybe some kind of asymmetric deal is also possible with China but I think really hard to imagine a binding arms control agreement in the next several years. Thank you.
Questioner: Colleen Quinn from Messiah University. So you talked about how American nuclear weapons have led to a rise in democracies across the globe, yet we’ve seen many of these younger democracies kind of fall into states of turmoil and unrest. So, I’m really curious how you justify more nuclear spending when we could be providing aid to sustain these democracies?
Matthew Kroenig: Oh, so good question. The question of the price tag of nuclear weapons and so this is another point to quote Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, nuclear weapons don’t cost that much so the United States spends about five percent of its defense budget on nuclear weapons. So is that too much or too little, you know reasonable people can disagree but every past every recent Secretary of Defense has said that nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence is the foremost priority of the U.S. Department of Defense. And so, 5% of the defense budget for the top priority to me seems like a good value, you know, providing. So, the question was should we be providing aid on democracy promotion instead and the United States does have democracy promotion programs you know going and training legislators in the developing world how the U.S. congress works to help them develop a more robust democratic system other efforts as well, so I don’t think it’s either or I think it can be both.