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We must end the nuclear threat before it ends us

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States in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will meet for the first time June 21-23, 2022, in Vienna.

Every five years since 1970, the parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty meet to attempt to produce a consensus document that reviews the treaty’s implementation and lays out actions that member nations should take to bolster it. That’s the idea, anyway. In practice, everyone is not always on the same page. So, it was thought that the 2020 NPT Review Conference would be a contentious meeting — then COVID-19 happened and the event was postponed until this August. As President Biden and President Putin of Russia plan to meet on June 16, top on the agenda should be establishing a climate in which the Review Conference can succeed in reducing the nuclear threat. The moment could not be more urgent. 

Nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to all life on Earth. Working toward a world without nuclear weapons, in which vigorous international monitoring and enforcement mechanisms verify compliance, is not some utopian dream. It is, rather, a practical and moral necessity.

“If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world,” said “Father of the Bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer, “or to the arsenals of the nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The people of this world must unite or they will perish.” 

Oppenheimer was right. Our choice is to work for a world without nuclear weapons or risk a catastrophic humanitarian and ecological disaster. It’s time to renew the Reagan-Gorbachev principle: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

“Nuclear weapons must be banned,” Pope John XXIII urged in 1963. “A general agreement must be reached on a suitable disarmament program, with an effective system of mutual control.” Every pope since has embraced the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, as have numerous other religious leaders. Beginning in 2017, Pope Francis has repeatedly declared that not only the use, or even the threat of use, but the very possession and existence of nuclear weapons is immoral. 

Nuclear war does not respect national boundaries. Even a limited nuclear war between states with smaller arsenals, such as India and Pakistan, would have devastating consequences. In addition to the millions of innocent civilians killed, radiation and dust clouds could poison agriculture and bring famine, killing millions more far from the conflict. A nuclear war between Russia and the United States, the world’s leading nuclear powers, could cause our ecosystem — indeed civilization itself — to collapse.

The Catholic Church and other religious traditions affirm the moral principle that any justified use of force must discriminate between civilians and combatants. Such force also must be proportionate to the good intended. But the use of nuclear weapons can never discriminate and always causes disproportionate damage. And so we must ask: What good could possibly justify the killing of millions of innocent people and damaging, perhaps irreparably, our common home, Earth?

As Pope Francis argues in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, the ethic of deterrence has become inherently destabilizing in an age of proliferation and modernization of nuclear weapons. “The ultimate goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons becomes both a challenge and a moral and humanitarian imperative.”

The challenge is stark; our planet is awash in nuclear weapons. Nine countries possess some 9,000 of them: the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea. The United States and Russia — which own 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons — have unique responsibilities in taking the lead to eliminate the nuclear threat. At a minimum, Presidents Biden and Putin must seize the opportunity of their meeting to reaffirm their commitment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament … under strict and effective international control.” 

Scientists have developed advanced tools and technologies to develop confidence-building mechanisms, including compliance monitoring. These tools, along with additional investments in the International Atomic Energy Agency, could help the international community enforce the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a treaty that enjoys the support of the Vatican and numerous nations.

Nations that have the power to wipe out all planetary life have a grave responsibility to choose cooperation and life over a cycle of deterrence premised on the threat of death on an unimaginable scale. Presidents Biden and Putin must take bold action to foster multilateral negotiations that engage all nuclear-armed states. There is precious little time to waste. The nuclear powers of the world must work together to eliminate the nuclear threat — before it eliminates us.

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich is the ninth archbishop of Chicago.

Tags Arms control Biden-Putin summit Joe Biden Nuclear weapons Pope Francis Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Vladimir Putin

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