Remarks to the Colloquium on Catholic Approaches to Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament

Good afternoon everyone. It’s a genuine pleasure to be here, and I know I speak on behalf of my colleague, Carmen MacDougall, who is with me here today, and on behalf of NTI, when I say what an honor it is to be associated with this event.  We have been involved in this initiative for some time now, and it is one of our most important pieces of work—the reasons for which I will explain in a few minutes.  So, thank you very much indeed, Gerry and Warren, for your opening remarks.

I live and work in the United States now, and I’m conscious that when I speak there I am the manifestation of two peoples who are separated by a common language – particularly with this accent, which either is very confusing or, for those who believe they have Scottish roots, very admired.

So I have come to, in two years, adjust, so I find myself even here talking about soccer when I mean football. It’s terrible for a Scot to have to admit this.  I’ll never get to grips with envisioning as opposed to envisaging.  And I’m even willing, because you know we all rely to some degree on this great mind’s legacy for some proliferation, to allow my fellow countryman’s name to be changed from Car-NAY-gay to CAR-neg-ee.  But I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to hearing in London people calling No-tra Dahm “No-ter Dame.” But you may persuade us, and since you’ve been here, the time that you’ve had so successfully, I’m sure that your impact will be such that you will really know you are welcome here when we talk about Notre Dame. 

So, thank you very much for your kind words, and thank you for hosting us here at the University of Notre Dame.  I am delighted to be here in the heart of London, which is my adopted city and a city that I am very proud of–and not many Scottish people would say that these days—and in the company of such an esteemed group of leaders in the faith and political communities, of thinkers and of practitioners on the issues which are now my commitment for this stage of my life: of nuclear deterrence, disarmament, nonproliferation, nuclear security.

We are gathered, I think, at a critical and, by a number of measures, an opportune time for advancing the Church’s—my Church’s—capacity to support and engage with the policy debate on the future of nuclear weapons.

It is true that nuclear weapons challenge our very humanity, and I believe that we all—but perhaps especially people of faith—have a moral obligation, but obligations from a number of roots, to speak out for change and to work for change.

There is no question that the challenges we are facing today are enormous. I mean Patricia—I know because I know Patricia well, and I’m pleased to have worked with her on many occasions—could talk for a long time about those challenges, and she’s made it her life’s work to engage with some of them. But they are significant and growing:

• Progress on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—the bargain struck nearly a half-century ago that the then-recognized nuclear weapon states would work toward disarmament and non-nuclear weapon states would not pursue weapons—has been painfully slow, creating understandable anger and frustration, which is at the point of boiling over with some countries in this great “grand bargain”.

• Negotiations on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty–just stopping making this damned stuff which is so dangerous—are long-stalled, and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty still hinges on the ratification by eight states, including the United States and China. And I saw today to my horror that a couple of Senators have decided to go to public at some length—to be fair on a Sky News blog—on why they made the right decision not to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty when they didn’t before and why that decision was still relevant.

• Nuclear facilities and command and control of weapons are at increased risk of being compromised by sabotage or cyber attack – potentially with catastrophic results.  And certainly here in the United Kingdom–and this is getting no attention—I know it is getting some significant attention in the United States, but we may well have inadvertently created a disrupter which we cannot control.

• All the world’s nuclear weapon states either have or are working to modernize and rebuild their arsenals.  They all use different vocabulary, of course, to avoid what they are actually doing but they are modernizing their nuclear weapon systems, sending a powerful and unfortunate message about their lack of enthusiasm for arms control – and about their priorities, especially at a time of limited resources.

• A corrosive lack of trust is undermining political and military cooperation and threatening security across the Euro-Atlantic region.  The West and Russia are deploying forces increasingly near each other and acting in a very aggressive fashion very near each other.  We are – in case you don’t know this – both flying aircraft very close to each other’s capabilities and borders with their transponders switched off.  Now the people in the military aircraft might be very good at knowing where other people are, but we fly in that airspace as civilians, and our civilian pilots do not know where they are, but we are doing this increasingly. 

• And I’m afraid we are sleep-walking —apparently—into a costly and dangerous new arms race between the United States and Russia.

These challenges can make it seem as if the possibilities for progress are all but lost.

But they are not. So, we should consider all the significant positive developments just in recent years even in this deteriorating environment:

• Arms reductions in the U.S. and Russia under the New START Treaty for example.  We are in a position now where we have 85 percent fewer nuclear weapons in the world than we had at the height of the arms race.  And we certainly don’t want to get back to those ridiculous numbers, but that is progress;

• Four Nuclear Security Summits that brought heads of state together to address the security of nuclear and radiological materials around the world; and continuing work in that regard, although there is still a lot more to be done;

• The hard-fought, and apparently, successful Iran Agreement, which appears to be sticking and has manifestations beyond just the nuclear file, which we carefully kept from all the other areas that we discussed.  But it has manifestations and we see them day and daylight in what is coming out of Iran and the commentaries.  As far as I understand it recently, although I wasn’t here, an Iranian minister visited our Parliament in the United Kingdom, which would have been completely unthinkable until very recently;

• The important attention on catastrophic threats through the increasingly robust Humanitarian Initiative.  At least we are talking about this now in a way that we haven’t ever before.

So there has been important progress amid the setbacks—and there are many more opportunities to make headway in reducing the risks posed by nuclear weapons and materials.  But increasingly we have people, including our military leaders, talking about the escalation of conventional war and nuclear war.  My own view is that is utterly irresponsible behavior on both sides of this divide, but it is happening on both sides of the divide. So, global leaders are responsible for the security of their citizens, but faith communities share some of that responsibility, but they have a responsibility to engage when it comes to matters that challenge and threaten our humanity and indeed, our very survival.

Faith-based engagement on nuclear security and nonproliferation is not a new idea.  Of course, faith communities have been involved in the discussion, as Bishop McElroy reminded us, since nuclear weapons were invented – and most certainly in recent years.  Two speakers now have already quoted Pope Francis and I intend to quote him from the very occasion that they both referred to. 

In 2014, Pope Francis, who has made eradicating nuclear threats a priority in his still-young papacy, sent a powerful message to the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. He wrote: “Nuclear weapons are a global problem, affecting all nations, and impacting future generations and the planet that is our home. … Now, more than ever, technological, social and political interdependence urgently calls for an ethic of solidarity, which encourages peoples to work together for a more secure world.”

As Bishop McElroy reminded us, he said: “the architecture of nuclear deterrence is beginning to crumble.”  That may be, but unfortunately that’s not being recognized by many leaders who hold important decision-making responsibilities.  But if it is beginning to crumble, and I think it is dangerously under-threat, particularly by other technological developments and by the complexity of the world that we’re living in, it shouldn’t surprise us because essentially it’s 74 years old.  It was in 1960 that the work of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences developed into the concept of nuclear deterrence that we presently know.  And I do not think that any persons of the stature of those who developed this philosophy in those days and in those circumstances have put their attention to a reconsideration of this, in this different world that we live in, and it’s time that that should be done.  And I have colleagues at NTI who have been saying that publicly for some time now, and I don’t know that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences heard them.  But only this week they wrote to me to tell me that they’re about to embark upon that process yet again: of reconsidering the relevance of that philosophy which was developed in this world that we live in which is a much different world from the world that it was developed in. 

So it’s not surprising that it’s beginning to crumble and again, it would appear that His Holiness was ahead of the curve on this observation. 

Several months after Pope Francis spoke here in the United Kingdom, I’m certain that (there are) at least some people in this room who will recall this, a diverse group of 26 faith leaders issued a Multi-Faith Statement on Nuclear Weapons. In it, the leaders called out security policies that are based on the threat of use of nuclear weapons as “immoral and ultimately self-defeating,” and they called on nuclear weapon states and the broad international community to “develop a robust plan of action that will lead us to a world without nuclear weapons.”
For many years, of course, deterrence policy here in the United Kingdom depended on the prominent Catholic civil servant, Sir Michael Quinlan, known in fact because of his involvement in this as the “high priest” of nuclear deterrence.

So I never worked with Sir Michael because he was retired from the MOD before I was appointed Secretary of State, but I had the privilege of taking his advice when I was.  Tragically, he died not long after that.  So, I had the privilege of knowing him for a relatively short period of time, and I was as impressed by him as all the others who knew him well. 

Michael Quinlan acknowledged the central problem for those focused on reducing reliance on deterrence and working toward a world without nuclear weapons.  It was, he said, the plain fact that the weapons “cannot be disinvented.” Given that, he wrote: “Our task now is to devise a system for living in peace and freedom while ensuring that nuclear weapons are never used.”

To that end, governments have a fundamental duty to examine whether and how these weapons will serve us in the future – and that debate should be underway here in the United Kingdom as the government moves ahead with Trident renewal. Unfortunately, the debate is not nearly as engaged as it should be by the parliament or our public, and I’m afraid it’s fair to say that it’s devoid of imaginative thinking.  When I recently spent two hours with a group of Parliamentarians trying to explain to them my concern about the interaction of disruptive technologies and nuclear weapons; so drawing on the Defense Science Board Report of the Department of Defense of the United States, I explained to them that there was concern in the United States that all resilient military systems were capable of being penetrated by a cyber threat.  And I went on to explain about other technologies that I won’t go into now—I’m happy to answer questions later. At the end, the moderator asked for questions, and a member of Parliament stood up and said: “I can’t quite figure out whether you’re a unilateralist or a multi-lateralist.”  And I said: “And?”  And he said: “No, there’s no ‘and’: I’m just trying to figure out whether you’re a unilateralist or a multi-lateralist.”  And I said: “Well, why does it matter?  Why does it matter?  It’s got nothing to do with what I’m talking about.”  And that is the extent of the debate basically in the United Kingdom.  And for some reason a country that has unilaterally disarmed repeatedly cannot stand unilateralists.    Anyways.

In summary: I would encourage faith organizations and leaders to get more involved. I believe that faith-based organizations have a key role to play in helping to hold governments accountable for their actions, particularly when they are making long-range decisions that will impact future generations. Even Michael Quinlan said he was not in favor of nuclear deterrence at any price.

The Catholic Church, I think, can play an outsized role in the debate.

The Church has a tendency, like many political leaders, to reach back and to reject – or at least refuse to acknowledge – change.  I know this.  There’s a reason for it, of course. If change isn’t approached in the right way, it can cause schisms, with parties digging in to hold extreme positions—I understand all of that. So I understand why the Catholic Church in some quarters is eager to portray its opposition to nuclear weapons as business as usual.

But it’s not. And it’s not been hailed as business as usual by the vast majority of the public who will listen to Pope Francis. The times are changing and so, to its credit, is the Church. In this case, the Church should embrace the change and encourage fresh thinking as it builds a moral case against weapons of mass destruction and their use. In doing so, the Church can provide a tremendous service because political leaders are reaching back. Just consider the power of the intervention Pope Francis made on climate change during his visit to the United States last year.

So the Church can get out ahead of the politics, lead the debate over the future of our nuclear arsenals and take us all to a place where we can make smarter, more informed, ethical decisions about the future.  We can’t dis-invent these weapons, but we can re-invent them, and our politicians are in danger of re-inventing them to serve a set of circumstances that they don’t serve.

Thank you very much. I look forward to our discussion.


June 28, 2016

Addressing the Colloquium on Catholic Approaches to Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament

Des Browne
Des Browne

Vice Chairman, NTI