In the latest Prov-Happy Hour on November 30, a distinguished panel—featuring Marathon Initiative co-principle Elbridge Colby, Georgetown professor Matthew Kroenig, and Providence contributing editor and Hudson Institute senior fellow Rebeccah Heinrichs—responds to the recently published A World Free from Nuclear Weapons. Co-edited by Father Drew Christiansen and Carole Sargent, the volume’s various essays are drawn from the fall 2017 Vatican conference on disarmament. Refuting the book’s central claims, Bridge, Matt, and Rebeccah challenge its flawed theological, policy, and ethical premises and offer in their place prescriptions and insights grounded in Christian moral realism and their own deep wells of experience and study.
Following the video, take a deeper dive through these excellent resources:
Matthew Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, The Return of Great Power Rivalry.
Rebeccah Heinrichs, “Trump’s Additional Low-Yield Missile Warheads Are a Force for Peace and Stability,” “Pope Francis is Wrong about the Morality of Nuclear Weapons,” among much else at Rebeccah’s Providence author page.
Elbridge Colby, “Keeping the Peace: The Role of Nuclear Weapons in the Deterrence of War.”
LiVecche: I would like to welcome everybody to the Providence Magazine happy hour. Tonight, we’ve got a panel of three speakers. I suppose I should introduce myself. For those who don’t know me, I am Marc LiVecche. I am the executive editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, and I am also the Stockdale research fellow at the U.S. naval academy here in Annapolis, Maryland. I will introduce my three speakers in a moment. First, I want to just give a rough overview of why we have gathered. We are here to discuss a new book called A World Free from Nuclear Weapons, subtitled The Vatican Conference on Disarmament. It is co-edited by Father Drew Christiansen and Carole Sargent. And if you haven’t caught it, Drew Christiansen recently did a Zoom interview with Mark Tooley, who is the editor of Providence Magazine. I encourage you to check that out after this or sometime in the near future. In that interview, Father Drew Christiansen notes that the purpose of his edited book is “to acquaint readers with negotiations around and the adoption of the recent UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” which was signed in the summer of 2017. This prohibition was the first legally binding international agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons, with the ultimate goal of absolute abolition. For now, the ban specifically prohibits the development, testing, the production, the stockpiling, the stationing, the transfer, the use, and the threat of use of nuclear weapons. And if you’re curious, the vote went 122 in favor of the ban. There was one against; there was one official abstention. And 69 did not vote on the resolution at all. And these included the U.S., the UK, Russia, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran. I do also know that Andorra did not vote, so I don’t know what they’re up to but pay attention. Ultimately 50 went on to ratify it. The book is composed of papers that were drawn from a Vatican-sponsored conference in November of 2017, somewhat immediately following the ratification of the nuclear ban. That conference is, I suspect, a part of a series of similar discussions that have been held in Rome, including an April 2016 conference that was sponsored in part by Pax Christie International, the Catholic peace building network, and the Vatican Council for Justice and Peace. And that conference in April of 2016 was billed as a re-examination of the Catholic Church’s long-held acceptance of the Just War tradition as established teaching. And Providence responded to this conference and I also encourage you to look that up, especially an article by James Turner Johnson who addresses the history of the pacifist movement within the Catholic Church. Now I think Cardinal Peter Turkson recognizes this connection in the preface to the book that is under discussion tonight when he notes that there has been recent urgency in Vatican discussions regarding disarmament. And I quote from the preface, he writes, “We live in a moment of human history when fear of a potential nuclear catastrophe has intensified to a point rarely experienced before.” In setting the tone for the edited volume, Cardinal Turkson goes on to lament the economic costs of military spending in general, which he sees as “theft from those who hunger and are not fed.” He laments the nations that have not heeded the warning which is inscribed over a doorway in the United Nations in Geneva. The warning says, “Nations must disarm or perish.” He laments we have ignored that. But he sees encouraging signs, and he sees them “in the healthy realism that continues to shine a light of hope in our unruly world.” And one of these rays of hope was the alliance of civil societies, states, international organizations, academics, and experts that succeeded in getting the UN to sign that nuclear weapons ban. This is a ray of hope. This is one example Turkson calls “humanitarian disarmament,” which focuses on preventing and remediating human suffering rather than on advancing national security. So, that is a ray of hope in Turkson’s view. So, the book is a ready reference. Turkson insists for peacemakers who are interested in converting their own hearts, and thereby converting the world from a focus on violence to a focus on love. That is the hope of the volume. As to whether or not the volume succeeds and these ambitious hopes will be made clear by our panel, and I would like to introduce them now. First, we have Providence contributing editor and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, Rebeccah Heinrichs. We have the Marathon Initiative’s Elbridge Colby. We have Georgetown professor Matthew Kroenig. I am grateful to all of you for being here. They all have published extensively in journals, distinguished journals, of repute, both in print and online, including Providence. Just to highlight some of their additional work, Matt has recently written two books. Most recently, The Return of Great Power Rivalry, and prior to that, and relevant for tonight, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy. Bridge was the lead official in the writing of the Trump Administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy. And Rebeccah Heinrichs is a U.S. Speakers Program delegate who is charged with going abroad to speak to foreign audiences to help them better understand America. And I don’t know if this was a part of that official program, but she bravely went to the Oxford Union and debated and defended American foreign policy, which is a brave thing to do in Oxford. So, I tip my hat to you. The order of our speakers tonight will be Bridge, then Matt, and then Rebeccah. So, Bridge, I leave it to you. And if I may ask everybody, including myself, to mute yourselves if you’re not actually speaking, that might be helpful. Then you can slurp your cocktails with impunity. Bridge.
Colby: Great. Well thanks, Marc and Providence for the invitation, and great to be on with Rebeccah and Matt on the topic that, as Rebeccah was saying very eloquently before we started, that it’s really important to think about the moral ramifications of these weighty issues both from a kind of practical prudential point of view, but also for those of us who are believers, we need to take this very seriously. And I certainly do. Actually, one of my earliest published pieces was for First Things. I was looking, reviewing it again, to see what I think from that in 2011, and it was actually a critique of the churches. That some of the members of the church hierarchy even at the time on these issues back around 2011. I think there’s a ton to talk about here. What I thought I would, kind of the core point that I would make, and it resonates with that piece I did almost 10 years ago, is I think that from what I can tell, and I’m a Roman Catholic so I take this exceptionally seriously of course and soberly when the holy father speaks, even if he’s not speaking ex cathedra or what have you, we certainly owe him a very serious deference on issues of morality and faith of course. I think the main point is on that, actually, and that’s that there is an air of tremendous confidence and certainty in this document from the various contributors, including the members of the Catholic hierarchy, including Cardinal Turkson, Father Christiansen who I’ve debated a few years ago. And I think that that is on weak foundations. I’ll put it that way. And the reason is they are making, essentially the output is kind of a moral argument but their actual logic relies very heavily on prudential sort of worldly political assessments. And I think their assessments are at best disputable and at worst sometimes just wrong. And I think that creates enormous weakness in their arguments, not even, more than arguments, I mean really a kind of a moral program that they direct towards those of us who believe deterrence is necessary in a fallen world. And I think that that should cause them to reassess their approach. I’ll say one thing, and I don’t mean to be sort of uncharitable, but actually I remember I spent a few years trying to reach out to various members of this group, and with very little success actually. And I commend them for talking to Rose Gottemoeller, who’s a great American, a very serious person and thinker, but is certainly more representative of the arms control and disarmament. I don’t think Rose would object to my saying that than this sort of strategist or defense professional. And I think if the church is going to make a call like this, if you will, they should really touch all the bases and make sure they’re on solid ground. I think in the 1980s, in the famous Bishops’ letter, while it may have had some problems, they were much more consultative at that time. And just to give you an example, chapter 27 of the volume is Cardinal Turkson going through what he encapsulates as the fundamental takeaway. So, I think it’s a fair thing to look at, and I think almost every one is on shaky foundations. So, the first thing he says, “Nuclear weapons deserve condemnation because they are indiscriminate and disproportionate.” Well, I mean, as Matt has written about very ably and lucidly, that’s not necessarily true. And in fact, U.S. targeting doctrine for many decades, while it’s not perfect, certainly has made efforts to be more discriminate. In fact, both Matt and I have written extensively about this in the developments since the 1960s. And in fact, I mean this is an important complicating factor, conventional weapons in a lot of ways can have much more damaging and destructive effects than nuclear weapons. I mean, I think the way they discuss nuclear weapons in this volume is a little bit cartoonish. It doesn’t comport with reality. Which it’s absolutely true that if you drop a one megaton bomb as a ground burst on a city, you will have the kinds of effects that they are talking about, but that’s not necessarily what’s happening. And I think it’s really important the church is going to lean forward like this to be serious about that disproportionate, well disproportionate is a matter of that’s an inherently relational assessment. I mean, they talk a lot about Hiroshima. Well, Hiroshima was the end of the bloodiest war in human history. I believe it was justified based on the factors. People reasonably disagree, but to isolate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it borders on the obtuse. And so, I think first off that is simply a weak point. Secondly, they say nuclear weapons do not adequately address the challenges of security in the multipolar world. Well, that is not an assessment for the Holy See to be making pronouncements about. That is an assessment that is for politicians and states people and so forth in the world to be making. And the Holy See is not in a position to be making kind of firm calls on that. In fact, the very adjective multipolar itself is disputed. I mean, I think we’re in a sort of more of a bipolar type world. So, already you have reasonable debate on that point, and there’s a lot of discussion that’s sort of very superficial, frankly, that probably wouldn’t pass Matt’s class at Georgetown undergrad. What I mean, I mean Georgetown kids are brilliant, but it’s stuff that definitely needs to be stress tested. Definitely needs to have a, I don’t want to say devil’s advocate, but an advocate for the other side. So, I think that’s another one. And then he says that nuclear weapons do not create the conditions for a stable peace. Well, I mean, if there’s a consensus ever about anything, it’s that nuclear weapons have been correlated with what John Gaddis famously called “the long peace.” So, I mean, there they’re actually going against an academic consensus. I’m not saying that John Gaddis is infallible, but I’m saying look, you’ve got to get your facts straight. Fourth point says, “wastes resources.” Well, I mean frankly, if anything nuclear weapons have traditionally been associated, as the French regularly point out, with economies of efficiencies. Nuclear weapons are less expensive. So, I mean, and actually, to the earlier point about a stable peace, the reality of the post-World War II world is very clearly that the reliance by the Western powers on nuclear weapons allowed European societies in particular to invest in social development. It’s very clear. I mean, the European societies refused to invest in the necessary resources, in conventional defense, right up to the end of the Cold War because they relied on the American nuclear umbrella. And that’s a simple fact. And that’s another point I just returned to, which is they’re, the participants and contributors, in this volume talk a lot about 122 nations. Well, that’s one way of putting it, but if you could put the majority of the world’s population I believe is covered by, or at least a substantial plurality, as well as most of the world’s economic activity and GDP, is covered by nuclear weapons. And that’s the important thing. They talk about nine nuclear weapon states, but there are dozens of states that are covered by the nuclear umbrella of the United States, so they are involved as well. And that is, they feel, and I hear it all the time, that it’s critical for stability. So, that’s an argument that needs to be heard, and it needs to be reckoned with if you’re to have a serious moral judgment. The fifth point that Cardinal Turkson points to is the humanitarian consequences. Well, indisputably, war in general has horrible humanitarian consequences. Look at the Civil War in the Congo in recent decades or World War II for that matter, which didn’t have atomic weapons until the very end. So, I mean, this touches on a big issue, which Christians cannot be fully consequentialist of course in our morality. But I also think that when you’re talking about something like this, you really need to be sober about it because if nuclear weapons have been associated with a long peace, and deterrence in general has been associated with a long peace, it’s one thing to be righteous, but you better be sure you’ve got your ducks in a row because there are millions and millions of lives on the line, especially in an era where great powers are being more active. And then final point on this is he says a world without nuclear weapons is possible. An assertion highly disputed. Not a firm basis for consensus. Not a teaching of the church since the Council of Jerusalem. It’s disputed, right. So, this is a shaky ground. There are some other things that are more kind of theoretical, but I mean, those are the core assertions. And I think, in the end, I think really what I would say, my recommendation has always been not for the Catholic Church or any of the Christian churches to embrace nuclear deterrence. I mean, I think it is a terrible paradox that goes back to Ambrose and Theodosius, if not before that. Peaceful societies rely on the threat of violence, usually for their benefits and to be able to be moral. And that’s not something to just live with. I mean, if Christianity is anything, it’s not accepting these sorts of worldly compromises. But then on the other hand, you really have to be serious about it. Final thought there, you mentioned Marc the Just War conference. I wrote an op-ed about this a couple years ago. I don’t think that the Holy See has come down against Just War thinking, but there is definitely a shift in here that you can detect. And you’ve written about it, away from the classic principles of Just War. And again, that is an aggressive move that is not a comporting component of the traditional teaching of the Church. Again, not to say the traditional teaching of the Church lauds or embraces nuclear weapons or deterrence, but anyway, I think the main point is there should be a lot more humility and a lot more care. I think it’s totally reasonable and commendable to call Christians to push for a different kind of world, but the Church should be very careful, and cautious, and more conservative in laying out specific dictates that it’s saying are moral requirements. Thanks.
LiVecche: Thank you, Bridge. Just to set the agenda, let’s get all three panelists on the table before we go to questions. But right after Rebeccah goes we’ll go straight to audience questions. Matt.
Kroenig: Great. Well, thank you very much, Marc. Thanks to Providence for hosting this event. Thanks to all of you for spending your evening with me. It’s a pleasure to be here with Bridge and Rebeccah. So, unlike Bridge, I’m not Catholic. I’m a Protestant, so questioning the Catholic Church orthodoxy is something I’m comfortable with. But like Bridge, I think that a lot of the arguments in this book aren’t really theology. They’re more policy arguments. And I think they’re policy arguments and judgments that have essentially been rejected by elected U.S. officials for several decades. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have decided that the United States does need nuclear weapons to advance its security and its policy aims. And so, I do want to go ahead and make the moral argument for U.S. nuclear weapons. And I think that’s another criticism I would have of this volume and a lot of people who write about nuclear weapons in both secular and sacred spaces. It’s that they don’t distinguish between good and evil. They talk about nuclear weapons in and of themselves, but technology I would argue isn’t good or evil in and of itself. Fire can be used to heat homes and to bake bread but can also be used for arson or to burn people. And so, it depends on how it’s used. And I would say the same is true of nuclear weapons. And I do think that there are countries that use nuclear weapons for nefarious purposes. The book points out Russia using nuclear weapons as a way to coerce Ukraine during the Ukrainian invasion, and I agree with that. But that doesn’t mean that that’s how all countries, or how the United States, use nuclear weapons. And I would actually argue U.S. nuclear weapons have been a force for good over the past 70 years, and U.S. nuclear weapons are special because, as Bridge pointed out, the United States doesn’t use nuclear weapons just to protect itself. It uses its nuclear weapons really to defend the entire free world. 30 formal treaty allies, or arguably more, depend on U.S. nuclear weapons for their security. So, it’s something like 59% of global GDP is protected by U.S. nuclear weapons, and what has been the result of U.S. nuclear deterrence, and this extended deterrence policy of protecting allies around the world. Well prior to 1945, one to two percent of the world’s population used to die in armed conflict. This number fluctuates, but it’s between one and two percent from the 1600s to 1945. Since then, it’s greatly dropped off. It’s currently less than 1/100th of a percent of people around the world die in armed conflict. And I think U.S. extended deterrence is a big part of that, providing geopolitical stability in Europe and Asia, deterring Great Power war. So, I think U.S. nuclear weapons make the world more peaceful and safer. Second, U.S. nuclear weapons have been, I would argue, one of the greatest forces for stopping other countries from developing these dangerous weapons, because it extends deterrence to these other countries. The United States essentially makes the quid pro quo with its allies. You can rely on our nuclear weapons for your security. You don’t need to build your own. And without U.S. extended deterrence, it’s very likely today that Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, probably other countries would have their own nuclear weapons. So, if you want to stop the spread of these dangerous weapons around the world, a strong U.S. arsenal and a strong extended insurance policy by the United States actually contributes to that. Then third is, as Bridge mentioned, U.S. targeting policy. I think that many people have this view of nuclear deterrence, and it comes through in the volume, of kind of mutually assured destruction. That we threaten to just annihilate Russia and China. They threaten to annihilate us, and that’s why deterrence works. But that’s never really been U.S. targeting policy. Rather, the United States has so-called counter-force targeting policy. We plan on using our nuclear weapons against enemy military targets, so enemy nuclear silos, naval bases, air bases, command and control sites, and this is done in part for moral reasons. Just War theory talks about discriminating between innocents and legitimate military targets. And that is something that is enshrined in international law that the United States tries to take seriously and is reflected even in our nuclear targeting policy. And Barack Obama was very clear about this in his nuclear employment guidance to the Department of Defense in 2013, saying that we’ll maintain counterforce capabilities for these moral and legal reasons. So, in sum, the technology is not good or evil. It depends on how you use it. And I think the United States has used nuclear weapons to advance peace, to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and to try to comply with traditional Christian teachings. I just want to rebut some of the points that Drew Christiansen, my colleague at Georgetown, makes in his introduction. And again, many of his arguments aren’t theological, they’re kind of policy judgments. And he condemns nuclear weapons because they’re dangerous. And that’s true, but what is the alternative? What does a world without U.S. nuclear weapons look like? And I think there’s good reason to believe that it would be even more dangerous. We saw what that world looked like before 1945. He says that they’re too expensive; that this is a misallocation of resources that could go to feeding the poor and to education. And I think that’s not true. If we got rid of nuclear weapons tomorrow, I don’t think that money would suddenly be spent on hospitals and schools. It would likely be spent on other weapons to advance the country’s security interests in a dangerous world. And as Bridge pointed out, nuclear weapons are actually inexpensive. The Pentagon spends roughly five percent of its defense budget on nuclear weapons. 95 percent on other things. So, if you’re looking to save money on defense, cutting nuclear weapons isn’t the way to do that. Christiansen says the Cold War is over and so therefore, we need to take a hard look at these nuclear deterrence strategies which no longer makes sense. So, this argument may have had more resonance in the 1990s but it doesn’t today. The international security environment unfortunately has become more dangerous, as Bridge wrote about in the National Defense Strategy. Great Power competition has returned. We do face serious threats from Russia and China. Both are nuclear armed powers, and nuclear weapons, I would argue, still remain the ultimate instrument of military force. So, nuclear weapons are relevant again. Finally, Drew says that the United States and other countries have an Article 6 obligation to give up nuclear weapons. And Article 6 does talk about eventual universal disarmament, but international lawyers know that language is important. There’s no specific time frame for disarmament. It puts nuclear disarmament in the same category as complete and general disarmament. So, this is clearly a statement of aspiration. A good statement of aspiration, I think one that we should aim for eventually, but it’s not possible in our current security environment. So, I think I’ll end my remarks there. I look forward to what Rebeccah has to say and look forward to the discussion.
LiVecche: Very good. Thank you, Matt. Rebeccah.
Heinrichs: Hi. Thanks for hosting this. I think it’s important. I’m thrilled to be here with Bridge and with Matt as well. I’m do my best not to repeat a lot of what they said. I’m going to emphasize a couple different points before we turn it over to questions. A lot of the essays that are in this book are not new arguments. These are arguments that continue to pop up. And to kind of give Bridge some relief on holding down the Catholic arguments here, mainline Protestants make some of these same arguments as well. Some of the more liberal, theologically liberal, mainline Protestant churches come out with statements periodically making some of these same kinds of arguments. And so, I think it’s always important for other Christian thinkers to grapple with them, to take their arguments seriously, and to dispute them where they need to be. I think on this issue, the arguments that are put forward, they’re not only misguided and wrong, but I think that they’re dangerous. And I’m going to explain what I mean by that in just a couple of points. One, Bridge made this this argument a little bit already, but when you see essays like this come out, and I’ll take on chapter six here in a minute, the enormous burden is on the person arguing for the enormous departure of not just consensus, but consensus is just another way of saying just kind of what we see historically to be true. That serious scholars and analysts agree upon, even across the political spectrum. And we have not seen a major world war since the Second World War, that ended in the employment of nuclear weapons on the part of the United States. And I’m also careful to say employment, and not use, because nuclear weapons are in use today. The United States is using nuclear weapons to deter major conflict. But the Second World War was the only time they were employed in the purpose, for the purposes, of war and ending that horrible war. And so, when you make an argument that now’s the time to get rid of nuclear weapons, or the United States should, or other countries should, it’s not enough to have them just for deterrence purposes but you can’t even have them at all, when you make those kinds of arguments, that the burden is on you to put forward some kind of evidence to persuade why a major departure from the current situation would be more conducive to outcomes that we’re already seeing. Which if not peace, certainly relative peace to recorded history before the Second World War. And to the point that Bridge made too, it’s also a major departure from traditional Christian teaching that goes across Christian denominations and schools of thought. And so, again, when you put forward these arguments, the burden is on you to make the arguments, and to put forward the evidence, and kind of interrogate your assumptions to persuade your audience. And these arguments put forward in this book don’t do that. I don’t even think they attempt to do it. They’re full of euphemisms, very aspirational ideas not just to banish nuclear weapons, but to preemptively ban such weapons as “autonomous weapon systems.” So, they don’t like kind of where the future is going in terms of technology, and so we should preemptively ban kind of the next category of very lethal weapons. And it’s detached from reality. I think that it understands human, or gets the human nature wrong about what we see about human beings, and also the role of nation states. And it makes me think, as I kind of was reading through these essays, the great strategist Colin Gray passed away this year, and what colin was very excellent at is kind of marrying the considerations, the moral importance, of that underpinning assumption that nation states make, and matching that with policy and strategy, and just as we are today, examining the threat of the Chinese Communist Party and how it presents the primary threat to the United States and our way of life because of its military power, because of the size of its economic engine and the backbone, as we’re increasingly learning of its military arsenal and strategy, its increasingly growing nuclear arsenal, its nature of the system of government, and the ideological underpinnings of the regime, of the Chinese Communist Party. And just as we examine that to try to understand the context of the threat and how the United States can compete and can rally allies to help us to deter some of what we think that China might be up to, we also have to examine what we are as a country and what we and what our system of government and what our ideological kind of underpinnings are, so that we can present a credible policy that’s in line with our own country. And that gets back to the present conversation about nuclear weapons. And Matt made the point that American nuclear weapons have been on the whole a great force for peace and stability, and so the burden is on those who would argue against what the United States has done up until this point to prevent and to deter another major power war. I say major power war and not just nuclear war because both the current administration under President Trump and even President Obama before him have eschewed this idea that the United States would only use nuclear weapons to deter nuclear war. We’ve maintained a policy of ambiguity on that point, for good reason, because of the great power and lethal destruction that conventional weapons also pose. And we would not want to unintentionally incentivize a country to use non-nuclear weapons for strategic ends by stating that the United States would only reserve nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear employment. And the last point I wanted to make too is on this idea that both Catholics, the Catholic Church, and also mainline Protestants kind of always make this distinction between nuclear weapons for deterrent purposes only, versus any other kind of nuclear employment. Matt has handled this question so well in his last, not your most recent book but in the one before that, I recommend to my students. Matt, what’s the name of your book?
Kroenig: The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy.
Heinrichs: The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy. Which is to say that it’s really kind of building on, it’s Herman Kahn, it’s Colin Gray, it’s Keith Payne, some of these very serious thinkers who have said listen, American nuclear weapons, what makes them credible, is that the United States is thinking seriously about what happens when deterrence breaks down, and how the United States is going to seek to end that conflict as quickly as possible on terms most conducive to American security interests. Which means that we better be thinking about if we want to deter conflicts to increase the credibility of our deterrence we put forward, we’d better be thinking about what happens then if deterrence breaks down, because that strengthens deterrence to begin with. And if we just think about banning nuclear weapons, you can see that we’re hamstringing ourselves, our options, for building a force that increases the credibility of our deterrence, and so we need to be extremely careful about that. And anytime I read a book like this one that we’re discussing today, it makes me very uncomfortable, because even before we get to the point where they might be happy with a ban, which I think is unrealistic and impossible and imprudent and unwise. That if you kind of even go down this road, that the United States starts hamstringing our ability to build and develop a nuclear deterrent again, that’s in line with what we believe is necessary to adapt to the changing environment from China, from Russia’s threats to NATO, from a nuclear North Korea, from an Iran that wants to have a nuclear weapon, that we need to make sure that we’re maximizing our flexibility again to get all towards the purposes of preserving the peace and maintaining security based on American national security interests. I suppose I can leave it there. I can go into the specific problems in chapter six, Marc, but I think I’ll just leave it there and then turn it over to questions if that makes the most sense to you.
LiVecche: Yeah, I think so. I think if questions are asked and you can move them towards some of the things you’ve left out, do so. Before we jump into questions, I just want to thank the three of you. You’re a fine example of why it is that we need Christians doing the kinds of things and doing the kind of work that you do. You have each illustrated in various ways the dangers of uninformed idealism. I think you have illustrated in various ways that realism can be moral, and I think that’s an incredibly important thing. Expertise cannot be simply tossed out in favor of aspirations. And so, I thank each of you for doing what you do. You stand on freedom’s wall in important ways, and I appreciate that. With that, I would like to open it up to questions. I’m trying to see if there are any in our chat box. Anyway, I don’t see any questions, but feel free to just jump in or raise your hand in some electronic or physical way and we’ll get to you.
Kroenig: Well Marc, if I may, it does look like Daniel has a question that touches on something that Bridge mentioned, but I could discuss as well. It says, “Some say nuclear weapons cannot be morally justified because they’re inherently indiscriminate and disproportionate.”
Heinrichs: Do you want to take that, Matt? I mean, I think you kind of touched on that a little bit, and that’s that the United States is, as time has gone on since the Second World War, we’ve worked to actually make sure that our weapons are actually increasingly able to discriminate. Which is why I have argued, I wrote in a long essay for Providence on the morality of American nuclear weapons, and it was really kind of premised on this major point that counter force targeting strategy, and especially applying modern technology to do this even better, is much closer in line with American Just War theory. Which is to say that those in this document, or reading, are actually relying on something that I would call very immoral, which is to counter value strategy, a counter value targeting strategy, which is that only few nuclear weapons are even needed because we would target population centers or civilians. But that’s actually incredibly immoral. And for a country like the United States, that though perhaps not a Christian nation, a nation full of Christians and our founding documents are certainly based on principles of natural rights and ideas from the Judeo-Christian, specifically Christian understanding of universal principles and the dignity of each human being and consent of the governed, very Protestant idea here in the 400th anniversary of the landing of the pilgrims, there’s been lots of writing about this here lately. But we actually believe that we should not intentionally target civilians. And so, having a larger, more flexible, more tailored nuclear force is one in which we’re working very, very hard at being able to discriminate and just kind of get at, especially in the case of what we’re dealing with China right now, but in Russia as well. And the Trump Nuclear Posture Review was very careful to consider this. What do we need to target? And then what kind of force do we need? And that’s why we brought back kind of more low-yield nuclear weapons in the American arsenal, specifically for that purpose.
Colby: Very good. I’ll just say, I almost entirely, basically totally, agree with Rebeccah and Matt on this. I will say, I do think there is a fundamental problem at the heart of it. There is a very profound problem for Christians at the heart of this, which is that the nuclear revolution, if it means anything, is the ability to wreak damage upon a society that is way beyond what it’s willing to tolerate. So, people can argue about whether that really exists, or to the extent it does, but I mean, certainly during the Cold War. I’m always struck by, I think I used it in that First Things piece, there was a story of Brezhnev refusing to press the simulated button during an exercise because he contemplated the consequences, which would be cataclysmic destruction. And during the Cold War, particularly earlier on, the intermediate stages between pressing the button and the end of the world were pretty compressed. But I think at the end of the day, nuclear weapons really exert their unique influence by presenting people with a confident prospect of truly catastrophic damage along the lines of what Japan suffered, not only from atomic weapons but from conventional bombing and firebombing. And that is tough to reconcile with Christian morality. And one of the things I believe that we should do is find the ways to intermediate between that and to try to get off that treadmill once you’ve gone into a war through limited options and stuff. But we don’t have the capacity to decapitate and execute disarming first strike as sort of a traditional approach to military operations vis-a-vis I think the Russians and the Chinese. So, we are in a situation, mutual assured destruction had a particular meaning in the past, in the colloquial sense, but I think what I would push back on the Father Christiansens and others of the world is to say well, they put their finger on a real sore point there. But on the other hand, there’s a reason there wasn’t a conflict during the Cold War. And that was a huge part of it. And you ask any of the Europeans who had to deal with that, and I mean this is not something like the Americans, actually the Americans were always trying to get the Europeans to fight conventional, usually the Europeans who wanted the nuclear weapons. So, I mean, I think Rebeccah made such a great point. This burden idea. Peace is such a good, and Christians of all people should appreciate it. And to kind of recklessly endanger it I think is really grave. And I think that we all confront a very terrible sort of paradox, but I think the volume does not bespeak sobriety and depth on these issues that the topic deserves.
Kroenig: Let me just jump in on this question, too. And I think a lot of the criticisms of nuclear deterrence in this volume, but even more broadly even some policy experts in Washington, are coming because people don’t really understand U.S. nuclear strategy or capabilities. I think people learn in high school or college about mutually assured destruction, you know, we have enough to annihilate those guys. They have enough to annihilate us. And so, everybody is deterred, but that’s not really U.S. strategy. And to take a specific example, Russia, the major concern now is not the bolt out of the blue strike, but rather that Russia could use nuclear weapons early in a conventional conflict as a way to try to coerce us to back down, maybe a handful of one, two, a handful of nuclear weapons early in a conflict. And so, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review of the United States essentially says well if they do that, we can retaliate with limited strikes of our own, and we’re going to develop, as Rebeccah pointed out, new low-yield nuclear weapons to do that. So, it is trying to be proportionate and discriminate. They’re threatening to use one or two or three, so we’re going to threaten to use one or two or three lower yield nuclear weapons in response, not because we want to fight that nuclear war but to try to deter it. And so, I think there is a lot of thinking among U.S. nuclear strategists about how can we deter this conflict, being discriminate, being proportionate, and again, with the goal of never having to use the nuclear weapons at all.
Heinrichs: And if I could pop in here, too. The other point that needs to be made as an absence in these essays is grappling with the distinctions between the different attributes and characteristics and risk-taking assessments that for each country, kind of the way so, there are people who, sort of in the arms control community, who accuse the United States strategists of thinking that we’re doing kind of mirror imaging. That we think we need these weapons because the Russians have the weapons or because China has hypersonic weapons, so we need hypersonic weapons. It’s really not what’s happening. I think it’s kind of a cheap attack. What the United States should be doing, what I think that we have been doing very, very well, is trying to get at what is motivating, for instance Matt discussed the case of the Russians, what is motivating the Russians. What are the likely scenarios? How are they thinking? What is their historical context that makes them assess risk and calculate in ways that are very specific to the Russians? And how they’re thinking, and it can be very different than how the Chinese think about their nuclear weapons and how they might employ them, how they might think about their doctrines, how they think about what they say publicly, and what it actually means in reality. There’s a lot of texture and variables that we have to consider, again to try to make sure that we are communicating in ways that maximize our deterrent effect and are developing weapon systems that can match what we say. That what we would and wouldn’t do, and that’s simply just not included, at least in the essays that I kind of chewed on in in this book. One of them in particular, there’s a lot of just kind of glossing over what would even be necessary for a world without nuclear weapons. One of the comments that was made in chapter six was that we would need a mechanism for multinational control of the production of fissile material, and for any such mechanism to succeed, it must be universal, equitable, and apolitical. Well back here on planet Earth, the issue is a little tricky. I mean, just look at the various councils within the UN and see how difficult it is for nations with very different interests, very different morals and values and threat assessments to come up with an agreement on things. It’s very, very challenging. So, just an important, if you’re going to back to this burden, if you’re going to make very aspirational wide sweeping goals, you have to be able to practically explain how you’re going to carry this out. And that’s based on reality. And I think this book just falls short.
LiVecche: Very good. Thank you, guys. We’ve got a question in the chat box from Michael. Michael, do you just want to, I can read your question or if you want to give it to us yourself, I invite you to.
Guest: Sure. First of all, thanks to the speakers for their thoughtful comments. I arrived a few minutes late, so maybe you already talked about Iran, but we have now Mr. Biden and Mr. Kerry returning, and I think Mr. Trump has been very effective with the Iranians. Do you look to that situation to be more perilous, or was Mr. Trump imprudent in what he’s been doing?
Kroenig: Well, I can go first on this one. I used to work on the Iran desk in the Pentagon, and Iran is a real challenge. To make nuclear weapons, you need basically three things. You need the fissile material, and they have the ability to produce the fissile material. That’s what their enrichment program is. The best estimates are right now that if the Supreme Leader made the decision to dash to a nuclear capability, it would take him about three and a half months to get there. The second thing he would need is a weapon design, and most assessed that Iran could build at least a crude nuclear weapon already. And then it would need some way to deliver it to enemies, and Iran has the largest stockpile of ballistic missiles in the Middle East. So, it’s basically worst-case scenario three and a half months away from having nuclear weapons. So, the Trump approach was maximum pressure and engagement to try to increase the pressure on Iran, primarily through sanctions to try to force them to the table. I’d say it was halfway successful. They succeeded in putting immense pressure on Iran I think more than anyone anticipated. They didn’t succeed in the second part. Iran was unwilling to come to the table to renegotiate the deal. Now if Trump had won re-election and Iran had to deal with his pressure for four more years, would they have come to the table? I think they probably would have had to try something, because they were under intense pressure. But we’ll never know. And I think it is likely now that the Biden Administration is going to try to return to the nuclear deal, and so that will mean giving up all the leverage we’ve built over the past several years, essentially giving Iran sanctions relief again. But then well, there’s a lot more I could say about it. I wrote a book on Iran actually, too. So, I could talk about this for a while, but I think the Trump approach, I had some quibbles with how it was implemented, I think it could have been smoother, but I think that’s the better approach of pressure trying to solve this problem. Because one of the dangers of the Obama nuclear deal and Biden returning to it is it doesn’t really solve the problem. It temporarily parks the problem. And so, this is a real challenge.
LiVecche: Not suggesting attribution in any way but Matt, what are your assessments of the recent assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientist? How does that play into the question of next steps?
Kroenig: Well, I don’t have any inside information, but the Israelis have been known to take actions like this against countries pursuing WMDs in the region, going all the way back to the Egyptians and their nuclear missile program. So, it’s possible it was Israel. There’s been a lot of focus, is this going to stop Iran’s program? I think a lot of the criticism has been misguided. There is an effect on the nuclear program. He’s the top scientist. What is the effect on the other Iranian scientists? Do they want to come to work the next day? Do they decide they want to go into a different line of work? So, I think it does have an effect on the Iranian program. And so, is it the silver bullet that’s going to solve this completely? I don’t think so. But I think it can be part of an overall strategy to try to slow the program to try to deter Iran from going forward. And the arguments that this was just to try to complicate diplomacy for Biden, I don’t really buy that. I think this is probably something that has been in planning for quite a while, and that they had an opportunity.
LiVecche: Very good. We are at the five-minute mark. Are there other questions?
Heinrichs: I just wanted to pop in real quick on this and just say on Iran, I actually think that the Trump Administration has done very, very well on dealing with the Iran problem, especially considering I think that this could be fleshed out much, much more, and I hope to continue writing about this over the next few years, about kind of what we should be learning from the Trump approach to some of these issues. In the National Defense Strategy, which Bridge was one of the authors and thinkers behind that, we’re focusing now on China, major power conflict, major power competition, trying to make it not be a conflict. And really this is sort of, it never, we never moved away from it. There never was an end of history. We’re just now back in the competition game, and so we’re going to be focusing on those countries that have the will and the capability to do the most harm to the United States. Number one China; number two Russia. Trying to make sure those two countries stay as far apart as we can. We do not unintentionally push them together. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have major problems in the rest of the world. One of those major problems of course is with Iran. I think it’s been a mistake for people to just narrowly focus on the Iran nuclear program. Clearly, it’s important, but what the Trump approach has done is kind of look at the Iran problem holistically, trying to push it back, and then build a coalition of Arab states to provide a counterbalance to what the Iranians have been doing in the region, and push them back. And then also of course dry up their resources to carry out terrorism. And then make an Iran deal, something that a responsible nation kind of earns. And so, I’m happy. I would be happy if the Biden Administration with the Secretary of Defense Flournoy, or whoever else they put in there, that’s more on the realist end of things and take the threat seriously. And I think, don’t get antsy for some sort of grand conclusion to this problem. Sometimes all we can realistically hope for is to weaken a country like Iran and continue to set it back so that it doesn’t gain a nuclear weapons capability. And Israel, a nation the size of New Jersey, is not going to let Iran get a nuclear weapon. And I think we should take it into consideration. They’re a country that’s going to act in their own interests. And my last thing is on this scientist. The IAEA has wanted to meet with this guy for a long time. And the West, those of us who wants Iran to not have a nuclear weapon, have wanted them to kind of come clean to explain what they have and to disabuse us of the notion if we’re wrong that they’re pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. So, lots of patience went into letting this guy live and to come forward and kind of cooperate and explain. And he simply would not do that. So, I hope that this kind of communicates to other would-be heads of their nuclear program that it’s not good for their health.
LiVecche: Very good. Any other questions for our panelists? We are at the one-minute mark. Maybe I have one question then. If nobody else is going to jump in, I’ll take moderator’s prerogative and ask one more question that all of you have touched on in various ways, but I want you to maybe address it directly. If we woke up tomorrow and just said what, let’s go to zero. Let’s just do that. No nuclear weapons. Let’s pull them back. Does that have a stabilizing effect? Does that have a destabilizing effect? Is it a real safe thing to just I mean, let’s just go to zero? How does all that work?
Colby: Well, I mean, I actually think no. I had a good debate with George Perkovich and James Acton actually, who are both very thoughtful and morally serious people, about this again about 10 years ago when this was a big issue. And I think, I mean, nuclear weapons are just a particular type of technology that essentially by definition gives you a result where you have essentially certainty between major nuclear armed powers that you will promptly and clearly receive damage that is way out of proportion to any realistic political goal. Just kind of that you could conceive of, and that actually a lot of strategy since the introduction of nuclear weapons is how to operate under that reality, right. And then you get limited nuclear options and brinksmanship and so forth. But I mean, essentially if you went to a situation with the current international political situation of not having nuclear weapons, you would be back in a situation in which war would be a much lower cost activity. Or I mean, it would, it could still be very costly like World War II, but for every World War II, there was the German Wars of reunification and unification that were immensely successful. And I mean if you’re China and you want to resolve the Taiwan issue and teach Vietnam a lesson, what’s the worst that’s going to happen? The worst is you get smacked in the face and you lick your wounds and try again another day. So, I mean, essentially what would happen is you’d get rid of them and then there would be a rush to reproduce them or something akin to them. But I mean, there’s nothing more destructive than a nuclear weapon that’s going to make sense, because we’ve already reached the limit of insanity. The Soviets detonated the Tsar Bomba that was like 60 megatons. It was essentially so destructive, you couldn’t even conceive of how it’d be used. So, and then that gets to Rebeccah’s point where there’s sort of like this airy thing about, “Oh, we’re going to get a totally new international political situation.” Well, that’s really a question about international political order. And this has always been my argument to like James and George, this is not a technical issue about physical materials, it’s to Rebeccah’s point, it’s an issue about international political governance. And ultimately, it’s a question of do we want to live in a world government or not? I don’t want to live in a world government, because only a world government is going to be able to ensure the fissile material because fissile material is just another term for ultimate source of military power, to Matt’s point about how you build a nuclear weapon. That’s what sovereignty is. So, if you have a government, if you have an international institution that can make sure you don’t do that, that is the sovereign entity basically. It’s not a technical question. That’s why the UN doesn’t work. One of the reasons. So, and I think actually, I mean, they trot out the four horsemen, Schultz, Perry, Kissinger, Nunn. I love that they’re using Henry Kissinger as some kind of moral exemplar. It’s hilarious. But I mean, I think they’ve kind of given up on it. Not so much Schultz and Perry, but maybe the others. But partially because it’s really intractable on this score. I was at a conference 10 years ago or so when they were thinking about okay, what would latent arsenals look like? Well, then it’s like well what’s the latent arsenal? Isn’t that just an arsenal? And this is Schelling’s point about well, you might as well have it realized and stable rather than this racing potential situation. So, it’s worth pointing out, I mean, Rebeccah mentioned some of the titans like Herman Kahn and so forth. But abolition was also not something, like Thomas Schelling, who I love, advocated for. In fact, in his famous book in the 1960s, he said actually the stable situation might need an increase in nuclear weapons so you have a lower chance of conflict. So, I mean, it really is a radical bet, I think what Rebeccah is saying. And I just think that’s a cosmic roll of the dice, as Harold Brown put it.
Heinrichs: If I could just say one thing, Marc, too. And this gets back to kind of the heart of how deterrence even works. This was the, circling back to a point I kind of started to make the last time, is that we’re trying to get at what is in the minds of the adversaries, the opponents. And so, Americans and some of our western friends and allies, we tend to think of these ideas sort of in the abstract about what we think might work, without taking into account what the adversaries think about these things. And so, I will often hear some of my arms control colleagues who aren’t enthusiastic about the United States kind of adding low-yield nuclear weapons in the arsenal or contemplating, or at least reserving, the right to resume testing if we need to test in order to make sure our weapons are reliable, and that kind of thing, that they would rather the United States lean more heavily on conventional, even in the idea of deterring the nuclear use. To which I always say, but how do you know that’s going to deter the adversary? The whole point of deterrence is that we’re trying to get in the head of our adversary to understand what they might do, and what is necessary to convince them that their active aggression isn’t going to be worth it, or whatever political gain they’re trying to get at. And so, that’s why I think kind of forcing ourselves to look at this to say okay, but a conventional weapon might be able to carry out the certain kind of destruction that we want to Bridge’s point about the inherent difference categorically to nuclear weapons. Even if you match for match even actual destructive capability, they do carry with them a psychological effect that is different than conventional weapons. And there’s a paradox there for the Christian too about why that psychological effect is there, but it does mean that we do treat them differently. And they exist, so we’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle. And so, if we could poof and make all nuclear weapons go away, the knowledge is still there, the human understanding of what this power can do and how it can be unleashed, and I think it would be a highly unstable environment in which the bad guy with the greatest desire to be the one with the most nuclear weapons would win the day, as long as he can hide and obscure kind of what they’re working on. So, anyway, that’s sort of the heart of it. I think it’s important for thinkers to, especially those of us who consider ourselves realists, in the line of realists, to push back on this idea that to be a realist is to be amoral. There is no such thing as immorality. We live. We’re just human beings, and we live in a world that is highly complex and has complex moral implications. And so, we should think about these things very seriously and make sure that our desires, even if very, very well intentioned, are kind of put to strategy and policy in a way that leads to the kinds of things we want to see, which is peace and stability.
LiVecche: Very good. And with that I think that’s a good place to close. Sort of my summary of this is that this is what it looks like when experts weigh an opinion, versus purely idealists or those with aspirations in place of more sound policy prescriptions. Not trying to load everybody from the book into one lump, but this has been incredibly helpful for me. I think it’s important to note that we are not buying into the choice that it’s nuclear weapons on the one side or morality on the other side. You have each made a case that given the realities of the world, whether we like it or not, the prudent use of nuclear weapons is the moral choice, rather than a rapid push toward their abolition. That’s a complicated case. I think you have made it well, and I think it can be a Christian case. So, I appreciate you. Rebeccah Heinrichs, Matt Kroenig, and Elbridge Colby, thank you very much for your time. Thank you everybody for joining us. I think that’s it. And we’ll post this on the Providence site at some point. I’ll put program notes to various books and articles that each of you have written to continue the conversation. So, thank you one and all. And I’m happy to stick around for a few minutes if anybody has additional things, but otherwise do well and thanks all.