Nuclear threat demands a sustained U.S. effort

The end of the Cold War changed the world, and 9/11 changed it again. But despite new threats to our security, we continue to rely on outdated thinking when it comes to nuclear weapons.

What has not changed is a consensus — within the scientific and religious communities — that nuclear weapons are a global liability that makes our nation and world less secure. There are still some 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world; 95 percent are held by the United States and Russia. Many are on alert status, ready for immediate launch.

The dawn of the nuclear age unleashed the overwhelmingly destructive power of the atom, forever altering humanity’s responsibilities for life and creation. Many Manhattan Project scientists went on to become vocal proponents for nuclear reductions and safer policies.

Likewise, in the early 1980s, when the threat of nuclear war felt all too real, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a groundbreaking pastoral letter on “The Challenge of Peace,” rejecting nuclear deterrence as a “long-term basis for peace” and describing the arms race as a “folly which does not provide the security it promises.”

As a nuclear physicist and a Catholic bishop, we agree that there are both practical and moral obligations to limit the risks posed by nuclear weapons. Even if only one nuclear weapon were detonated, there would be a profound loss of human life and incalculable political, economic and environmental consequences.

Morality requires that the use of force be discriminate and proportionate, but nuclear weapons kill indiscriminately, and their widespread destruction and lingering radiation would not be proportionate in any meaningful sense.

Our leaders must embark on a step-by-step process to prevent the use and spread of these devastating weapons and reduce arsenals worldwide — steps that would make us safer now.

Policy-makers must heed the basic truth that we face two starkly different futures: a world in which the threat of nuclear weapons is remote (or eliminated), or one in which humanity is eventually devastated by their use.

It is a moral choice between life and death. As President Barack Obama said last year, “If we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.”

In our quest for a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons, we are neither naive nor ignorant of the immense challenges along the way. Instead, we remain hopeful and insist that progress is possible.

We are hopeful in part because more and more people are arguing that U.S. nuclear weapons policy must fundamentally change. There is a growing bipartisan chorus of national security experts and policy-makers, including former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn — hardly starry-eyed idealists, who are urging practical steps to reduce the nuclear threat and move down the long path toward a nuclear-weapons-free world.

Three sensible steps are already being discussed nationally and internationally.

First, this year the Senate may be asked to support ratification of both a follow on Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Both of these treaties will include practical, verifiable steps that would make us more secure, prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and build international confidence for further progress.

The Senate should seize these opportunities to help create a safer world.

Second, when President Obama approves a new U.S. nuclear weapons policy early this year, he should establish that the only purpose of our nuclear weapons is to deter other nations from using them against us or our allies. There is no situation in which our first use of nuclear weapons would be justified — politically, militarily or morally. The threat of first use does not make us more secure.

Third, while we embark on this path to greater security, our nation will need assurances that our nuclear arsenal remains safe, secure and reliable. But that does not require building new types of nuclear weapons, which would move us further away from our ultimate goal.

Albert Einstein once said, “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.” Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, “In a nuclear war there would be no victors, only victims.” Humanity has a common cause: the search for good, meaning and purpose, and a commitment to improving the human condition. Under no situation could it be argued that nuclear weapons improve the human condition. We have a moral obligation and a practical opportunity to reduce the risk from these weapons. We must not squander it.

Howard James Hubbard is bishop of Albany, N.Y., and chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Leon Lederman is a 1988 Nobel laureate in physics and the Pritzker professor of science at the Illinois Institute of Technology.