As the U.S. and Korea escalate their war of words, Pope Francis and others wonder — Have world leaders become so irrational that the once-unthinkable is now possible?
On Nov. 21, the Trump administration designated North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism in a bid to deter its nuclear ambitions through heavy sanctions.
Little more than a week later, North Korean President Kim Jong Un said his country had successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking anywhere on the U.S. mainland. Missile experts are still grappling with whether North Korea’s new Hwasong-15 missile is capable of successfully striking the U.S. with any accuracy.
But North Korea’s missile launch followed a nuclear bombshell of another sort from Pope Francis.
Speaking to a Vatican symposium Nov. 10, the pope condemned as immoral the “very possession” of nuclear armaments and not only “the threat of their use.” The pope also voiced support for a United Nations effort to ban nuclear weapons that has been opposed by the U.S. and other nuclear powers.
In making his remarks, Pope Francis seemed to signal that he is ready to move the Church beyond her long-held if reluctant acceptance of nuclear deterrence.
In 1982, in the final decade of the Cold War, St. John Paul II told the U.N. that stockpiling nuclear arms as a “deterrent” against attacks from other nations could only be morally acceptable as “a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament.”
Pope Francis now seems to believe that the nuclear powers’ unwillingness to disarm and give up their deterrent is destabilizing the world as other states embrace their logic, leading to a new era of nuclear proliferation.
Earlier this month, on the papal plane back to Rome from Myanmar and Bangladesh, the pope said much has changed in the years since Pope John Paul addressed the U.N.
He expressed concern about the increasing “irrationality” in the world, which some took as a reference to the tensions between North Korea and the United States.
“It is my opinion, but I am convinced of my opinion,” the pope told reporters. “We are at the limit of what is legitimate when it comes to having and using nuclear arms. Because today, with the nuclear arsenal so sophisticated, we risk the destruction of humanity or at least a great part of it,” he said.
When the next big one drops
Since the Cold War, both the U.S. and Russia have reduced their arsenals, but their stockpiles still account for most of the 15,000 nuclear warheads currently held by the world’s nine known nuclear nations.
And the Vatican has watched with alarm as both the U.S. and Russia have moved away from a goal of nuclear abolition toward modernizing their arsenals. The U.S. government has committed $1 trillion over the next 30 years to upgrading its nuclear capabilities. And experts agree with Pope Francis that the increasing size of arsenals, along with the increasingly deadly capacity of the weapons themselves, has raised the stakes today.
Alex Wellerstein is a historian of science who runs the website Nukemap, which calculates deaths and damage that would result from nuclear attacks. He told Angelus News that the world’s cities are much more densely populated than Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in 1945, when the U.S. conducted the world’s first and to this day only nuclear attacks.
The combined death toll in those attacks was roughly 225,000 from two atomic bombs less than 20 kilotons in explosive power. Today, North Korea has warheads between 30 and 200 kilotons.
“Consider the damage that was done to the United States, both physically and politically, by the 9/11 attacks, and then multiply that by several hundred times,” Wellerstein said.
Nukemaps estimates that the 150 kiloton weapon tested by North Korea, if dropped on downtown Los Angeles, would kill 241,000 people and injure about 630,000 more.
Rhetoric of ‘fire and fury’
This is further reason that the bellicose rhetoric against North Korea coming from President Donald Trump has deeply alarmed North Korea’s neighbors and international authorities.
South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, a Catholic, has repeatedly called on the U.S. to respect its leadership in dealing with the North, to little avail.
Russian, Chinese and South Korean leaders and officials are dismayed at what they see as rhetorical sabotage of negotiations with the Kim regime, with President Trump belittling Kim as “little rocket man,” and vowing to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” and “totally destroy” the country.
Diplomatic experts warn that Trump’s rhetoric is unprecedented and reckless, coming from the leader of the only country in the world that has used atomic weapons.
“This is a statement that goes beyond anything that any U.S. president has said to another head of a sovereign state,” said Mary Ellen O’Connell of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
O’Connell told Angelus News that the American people bear responsibility for allowing a steady erosion of the government’s respect for the rule of law in resolving international conflicts.
She said the pattern started with President Bill Clinton and continued under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who increasingly used remote missile strikes and drone warfare to carry out assassinations and expand the theater of war into more countries, with either little civilian oversight or intervention from Congress.
“I’m worried we’ve undermined the rule of law that creates a barrier to using weapons of mass destruction,” O’Connell added.
The U.S. bishops are standing with the Holy See and the Korean bishops in calling for the U.S. to pursue dialogue and search for a negotiated political solution.
“Dialogue is urgently needed in this situation,” said Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace. “There is ample opportunity to resolve the crisis on the Korean peninsula peacefully.”
Colecchi said the U.S. and North Korea could come to a deal that would allow the U.S. to maintain continuous nuclear inspections, similar to the agreement the Obama administration negotiated with Iran in July 2015. Colecchi also warned that any such deal with North Korea would have to preclude the U.S. from unilaterally withdrawing, which it has threatened to do with Iran.
If the U.S. reneges on its nuclear agreements, it could spur Iran to pursue nuclear weapons and set off a Mideast nuclear arms race, and at the same time convince North Korea the U.S. can never be trusted.
Colecchi added that nuclear arms are proliferating because other nations see the U.S. and the major nuclear powers as having failed to heed the call of the popes to disarm weapons they still keep on a hair-trigger.
Does peace have a chance?
In the midst of these broader international developments, the Vatican has been pointing the way forward — signing the U.N.’s nuclear weapons ban treaty in September and promoting strategic peace-building as an alternative to armed conflict.
And the award of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to the chief backer of the U.N. ban, the small Australian-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, signals perhaps a greater global awareness of the dangers of a new wave of proliferation.
However, many are concerned that U.S. unilateral disarmament would not only threaten national security, but also could lead to global nuclear proliferation, unless agreements are in place that addresses the underlying sources of conflict.
That is the opinion of Richard Weitz, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis.
The pro-deterrent argument is that nuclear weapons by their nature discourage their use by “rational” nation-state actors, Weitz told Angelus News.
In fact, he said, there are indications that North Korean regime is actually “rational” about nuclear weapon decision-making. And Trump’s bellicose rhetoric seems aimed at reminding those decision-makers about the consequences of using nuclear weapons.
But Nukemap’s Wellerstein cautions against presuming rational state actors will not deploy nuclear weapons if they feel that their existence is threatened by a powerful adversary.
He noted that the Soviet Union nearly launched a preemptive nuclear attack in 1983, fearing that the U.S. and its allies were planning a nuclear first strike of their own.
Beyond the nuclear standoff
Gerald Schlabach, a theologian and ethicist at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, said abolishing nuclear weapons means making nations recognize that no “silver bullet” exists to solve national security problems. Instead, nations need to develop comprehensive active strategies that secure peace without “mutually assured destruction.”
Schlabach said the U.S.-North Korea nuclear standoff presents an opportunity for nations to abolish these weapons in favor of peace-building tools that could resolve conflicts successfully without devastating sanctions and war.
Schlabach told Angelus News that a U.S. war with North Korea would never meet the restrictive conditions of the just war theory (see sidebar).
“Proportionality is blown out of the water,” he said, referring to the just-war condition that limits fighting tactics that would result in large losses of civilian life. “There is just no military option unless you’re willing to devastate South Korea,” he explained.
Peace-building options other than war are critical at this juncture with North Korea, said Schlabach, who is author of the 2007 book “Just Policing, Not War.”
Schlabach said active nonviolent conflict resolution works, pointing to the use of nonviolent techniques in ending the 50-year civil war in Colombia, toppling the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, and bringing down the Soviet Union.
“There is no shortage of peacemaking strategies,” he said. “The shortage is peace-builders.”
Read related article by Peter Jesserer Smith, Are there any more just wars?
Peter Jesserer Smith, staff writer at the National Catholic Register, is a Catholic journalist who has covered national and international developments in the Church, the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, and Pope Francis’ historic visits to Jerusalem, the Holy Land and the United States.