Not deterred?

Threats make the unthinkable a present danger

Aug 28, 2017 by

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What happens to the doctrine of nuclear deterrence when leaders act in ways that suggest they lack sound judgment and restraint? The war of words between Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump exposed the moral evil of attempting to maintain peace by threatening nuclear war.

The idea of mutually assured destruction, the mad bargain that has held the world in a vise for 70 years, maintains that nuclear weapons deter their own use. To attack would be suicide, because the enemy is prepared to commit mass murder in retaliation.

In theory, this makes nuclear war unthinkable. But lately there’s been a lot to think about. As the U.S. president and the North Korean dictator blustered with statements that evoked nuclear apocalypse, fears rose that the usual assumptions of deterrence might no longer apply.

After North Korea successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach California, Trump threatened “fire and fury” if North Korea made “any more threats” — after which Kim threatened to attack Guam. Both implied the usual constraints against a first strike would not deter them. The U.S. already assumed North Korea could not reliably be deterred. Now Trump essentially has said the U.S. cannot be either.

Though Trump and Kim may have other motives — sounding tough in order to score propaganda points or to shore up support from “the base” — reckless talk of war can’t be dismissed as empty words. The world has good reasons to worry when a U.S. president ratchets up the tension in a crisis rather than attempts to defuse it and enables an adversary to justify the continuing development of his nuclear program.

One of Trump’s key evangelical Christian advisers blessed the president’s bellicose rhetoric. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, who claims to speak with Trump “on a variety of issues,” proclaimed that God had given Trump the authority to “take out” the North Korean leader. When a pastor pronounces divine favor upon an act of war that would bring death and suffering on a massive scale, he takes God’s name in vain.

Rather than endorsing threats of war, Christians can serve the cause of peace by showing support for a new global nuclear disarmament agreement. Signed at the United Nations on July 7 by 122 nations, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons says the use or threat of using nuclear weapons violates international law.

The world’s nine nuclear-armed countries boycotted the talks. The 122 harbor no illusions that the nine will give up their weapons of mass destruction any time soon. But they hope the agreement’s widespread acceptance will eventually influence public opinion to create a stigma against nations deploying weapons of such unimaginable horror. They note that weapons once regarded as acceptable — biological and chemical arms, land mines and cluster bombs — are now almost universally rejected.

Izumi Nakamitsu, the U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs, praised faith-based disarmament activists “whose pioneering efforts . . . made possible much of what has been achieved today.”

While some Christians may bless “fire and fury,” those who follow the Prince of Peace align with those who work to ban nuclear weapons and declare that any use of them is evil.


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  • Rainer Moeller

    Let’s not forget: Deterrence is at the heart of nearly all political life. Of course not deterrence by nuclear arms, but deterrence by police, courts, prisons, by economical means (loss of business, loss of job) etc.

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