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Nuclear Weapons and New Security Challenges

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Religious leaders have made strong and influential statements about nuclear weapons at critical moments. The 1983 Pastoral Letter on War and Peace from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops was released shortly before I started working as a first-year teacher at Our Lady Queen of Peace School in Madison Wisconsin. I found that statement very empowering even though I was not a Catholic, and did not even consider myself to be especially religious at that time. It helped channel my own amorphous fears of nuclear war into a more focused plan of action. It provided cogent analysis and moral authority which increased my confidence when I spoke about nuclear issues to parents and the principal at my school. It strengthened my commitment to teaching about war and peace in the nuclear age, which is one reason why I returned to graduate school and devoted my professional life to nuclear arms control. 

More typically, a different type of theology shapes debates about nuclear weapons.  When I accompanied General Shalikashvili and Ambassador Goodby to speak with U.S. Senators, government officials, and others about the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, we were often told that controversies surrounding the Treaty stemmed from basic "theological disagreements." Of course, nobody was suggesting that attitudes toward nuclear weapons are necessarily determined by people's religious affiliation. Instead, they meant that ideas about nuclear weapons are heavily influenced by worldviews  i.e. fundamental beliefs about human nature and about how people should behave in a world that lacks an overarching secular authority.

Tonight, I want to start by talking about how the interplay between different worldviews during the Cold War led to a grand bargain and what is sometimes called the "nuclear restraint regime." I will say a few words about why the new security challenges that have emerged since make a legally based nuclear restraint regime more, not less, important. I will then make the case that the Bush Administration has responded to these new security challenges by systematically repudiating the grand bargain and undermining central elements of the nuclear restraint regime. Finally, I will conclude by suggesting that the situation today is much like it was in 1983, in that the security policies being pursued by the government are spreading fear, increasing hatred, and producing actions that degrade the quality of life as they raise the risk of nuclear war. What is missing now is any serious democratic debate or sustained opposition to rhetoric and policies that reflect an extreme version of one worldview and a narrow conception of national interests while violating key tenets of other worldviews and more comprehensive conceptions of the global good.

Nancy Gallagher is Associate Director for Research at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, University of Maryland.

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