By Hugh Bryant

I attended recently a most interesting discussion where a currently serving bishop said, in the context of nuclear deterrence, that he has ‘lost faith in violence’.

The question I am interested in is whether a particular type of violence, the threat of nuclear retaliation for deterrence, still works, and whether Christians can support it.

The terrible effects of weapons of mass destruction, not only nuclear weapons but also non-nuclear violence such as carpet bombing of cities, for example at Dresden, Hamburg and Coventry, where war extends to include indiscriminate attacks both on combatants and non-combatants alike, surely raise serious questions whether such destruction is ever justified.

In relation to nuclear weapons, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) is supposed to have kept the peace and avoided world wars since the end of World War II.

The Christian attitude to war seems to me to be in two parts, what Jesus said and what Christians have interpreted that to mean in succeeding years. What Jesus said is easily stated. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), ‘Love your enemies – turn the other cheek – do good to those who hate you.’ And, of course, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Later on, in C4 CE, in his ‘City of God’ Book XIX, St Augustine put forward the so-called ‘just war’ theory, which was a Christian concept relating his perception of what he believed Jesus would have said with classical Greek and Roman philosophy (in Aristotle’s Politics and Cicero’s De Officiis).

Anti-nuclear campaigners argue that it is wrong to spend money on nuclear weapons, as the state will be depriving citizens of benefits which they would otherwise be able to enjoy if the money were not being spent on nukes. The reason for this is that these weapons will never be used. If they were used, this would be the end of the world as we know it and calculations of public utility would become completely pointless as there would be nobody left alive to receive whatever benefits there might be.

It is said, just as with the other sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, here again what he is advocating is just not practicable in real life. It’s all very well for us to give up our nuclear weapons but, if so, how do we answer an aggressor such as Vladimir Putin? It is also clear that MAD is at work in relation to the current crisis, the war between Russia and Ukraine.

On the face of things there are a lot of parallels with the situation in 1939. An aggressive dictator has invaded a neighbouring country and there is a risk that, if steps are not taken to resist, in this case by operating a so-called no-fly zone, the neighbouring country will likely be overwhelmed and there is a risk that further aggression will take place against other neighbouring countries. In 1939, following the invasion of Czechoslovakia and when Poland was invaded, we declared war on Germany and the second world war began.

Now we and the other NATO countries are refusing Ukraine’s request that we join their fight against Russia. The reason for our refusal is said to be that, if NATO aircraft come into conflict with Russian aircraft this would probably trigger a third world war with a risk of nuclear conflict. This last element seems to be the factor which is making a difference when the situation is compared with what happened in 1939.

Putin has expressly threatened to use nuclear weapons if he is attacked by NATO and, apparently, his threat is being believed. But would the officer tasked with launching the apocalyptic weapon follow orders? Two Russian officers, Capt. Arkhipov during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and Lt Col Petrov in 1983, both in effect refused orders to launch nuclear weapons, and are said to have saved the world each time.

Clearly, the logic of MAD (if one can put it that way) is that the opponent cannot risk calling the other’s bluff. And I am not suggesting that only Russian officers would prefer to save the world rather than press the nuclear annihilation button. For instance, I understand that Royal Navy nuclear submarine commanders study moral philosophy. Whether that might make them less willing to press the nuclear launch button, one cannot know – but it might help.

If one forgets the nuclear weapons for a moment, what we are talking about is dispute resolution. You and I disagree about something. We can’t persuade each other who is right, whose view is to prevail. But it’s something very important to us. We can’t just let it go. It’s not something we can go to court about. So – do I beat you up? Shall I fight you, and by defeating you, force you to do what I want? Or, more realistically, perhaps, if you start to attack me, do I fight back?

In that context, of course whether one of us will win depends upon our fighting ability and the calibre of weapons each of us is using. That is where armed forces, nukes, and MAD, come into the picture. But surely this is rather like some kinds of bee sting. If the bee stings you, it may kill you – but it will itself die.

St Augustine said that even war is waged in order to bring about peace (City of God, Bk XIX, ch 12). But MAD doesn’t fit with this. If war is waged – if the nuke is launched – it cannot bring about peace, unless a fiery descent into nothingness is to be counted as peace.

So are we, in nuclear deterrence, relying on a strategy which is irrational, which in fact does not even aim at achieving an objective which we would want?

In that, in waging war, we are forcing someone to do what they do not want to do, we are perhaps acting in a similar way to a parent chastising a child, or perhaps, in a grown-up context, we are paralleling the operation of criminal legal sanctions.

What is punishment, in the context of the criminal law? It is a mark of victory. The criminal has been defeated. Then, instead of being beaten over the head, they are punished. What is the purpose of the punishment? Among other things, to protect society, to stop the criminal from doing their crime. And deterrence, to deter others from committing the crime.

That looks like a rationale for waging war against an invader. But ‘What would Jesus do?’ On the face of it, he was not against the invading Romans – although one of his disciples was Simon ‘the Zealot’, a resistance fighter. Turning the other cheek doesn’t chime with fighting to the death against someone. On the other hand, Jesus respected the Jewish Law; ‘I have not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it’ (Matt. 5:17). By extension that might imply that he supported the Rule of Law.

This could mean that, in dealing with an invader, the defending state has to abide by international law. That would allow the defenders to use violence (force) in self-defence, provided that they obeyed the rules of the Geneva Conventions (roughly equivalent to the rules of the Just War ‘jus in bello’ – rules governing conduct in a war, as opposed to principles to justify whether to wage war at all – so-called ‘jus ad bellum’).

But – none of this bears on the question whether MAD really works. Just as criminologists argue that it is the likelihood of getting caught which deters criminals, rather than the length of prison sentences, so are unjustified aggressors like Putin actually deterred by our having nukes?

MAD, as understood by Russia, involves the ‘no first use’ principle, (although NATO has not accepted this). So it could be argued that Putin’s threat to retaliate, against NATO use of non-nuclear force in support of Ukraine, does not fit the paradigm of MAD. It could be argued that Putin is expressly threatening first use: and therefore, by the operation of MAD, inviting nuclear destruction.

Either way, surely NATO could in fact respond to Putin and intervene, and at the same time robustly state that his threat of nuclear ‘retaliation’ would amount to a first use. Both sides would shy away from ‘going nuclear’. But a no-fly zone would be feasible, and that would be likely to bring about a ceasefire.

Surely that is an argument in favour of nuclear deterrence? I don’t think so. Even in this Ukrainian case, nuclear weapons are ultimately pointless. If the pilots of Russian warplanes see that NATO targeting radar has locked on to them, they will not fly over their erstwhile targets any more. That will have had nothing to do with the availability of nukes.

Hugh Bryant is a Reader in the Church in Wales.

An edited version of this article was first published on the CRCOnline website, https://www.crconline.org.uk/.