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Nuclear Ethics, by Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

Blinking Owls

Nuclear Ethics.
by Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
Free Press. 160 pp. $14.95.

Of the writing of books on nuclear weapons and morality there is no end. The current debate over nuclear ethics, however, which was provoked in the United States by the Reagan administration’s efforts to move toward restoring the strategic balance and by the 1983 pastoral letter on war and peace of the U.S. Catholic bishops, seems to owe more to the public temper than to any actual urgency. Indeed, the truly urgent strategic issues facing the United States, namely, the Soviet development of a missile-defense system and Soviet diplomatic and political moves to disrupt regional stability in the Pacific, Central America, and Western Europe, find little or no reflection in the nuclear debate. But then neither does the question of the morality of defending a particular political order—our own—even though it would seem obvious that to argue for a “just defense” policy requires some acknowledgment of what political values are worth defending, and how.

Nuclear Ethics focuses almost exclusively on the how. Joseph Nye, who is director of the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, begins by invoking the familiar apocalyptic imagery of recent years, in particular the notion that an all-out nuclear war might “destroy God’s Creation,” as the Catholic bishops absurdly put it. This imagery would deserve to be taken more seriously had it something to do with the reality of nuclear arsenals today rather than with certain psychological fears and compulsions of liberal middle-class Americans. For as Albert Wohlstetter and Richard Perle never tire of pointing out, the total megatonnage of the U.S. nuclear arsenal peaked in 1960 and is now a quarter of what it was then; the total number of warheads peaked in 1967 and is today about half.

Nor did the much larger and far more inaccurate—hence, by just-war criteria, more immoral—bombs of 1960 deter religious thinkers like John Courtney Murray and Paul Ramsey from discussing nuclear war. Both men insisted that, since war might be a necessity, there was a moral obligation to devise ways of limiting it; to refuse to do so was tantamount to abdicating moral responsibility altogether. Why might war be a necessity? Because certain political values are so important that we are obliged to fight to defend them.

Today, the starting point is the exact opposite. No values, it is said, are important enough to be worth defending with nuclear weapons; therefore, there is no obligation to limit their use. It is not that a nuclear holocaust is more likely to occur now than in 1960, or that civilization is in greater danger of destruction—if anything, the opposite is closer to the truth, thanks to smaller yields and increased accuracy—but rather that many post-Vietnam and post-Watergate Americans no longer see national survival and the defense of free institutions as an absolute obligation.

It is to Nye’s credit that, although paying excessive deference to the nuclear pacifists and disarmers, he rejects their shrill moralism. This he does by way of a detour into moral philosophy which is one of the best parts of the book. Applying a combination of utilitarian and Kantian ethics, Nye discusses the obligations we owe to foreigners, whether allies, neutrals, or adversaries.

Nye distinguishes four basic views of such obligations. The first, that of the “total skeptic who denies any duties beyond borders,” is quickly dismissed. Of the remaining three, “the realist, the state moralist, and the cosmopolitan,” the realist places an especially heavy emphasis on order, the state moralist on national survival and self-determination, and the cosmopolitan on universal human values. Nye also recognizes a mixed form, cosmopolitan moralism, shared on the one hand by nuclear abolitionists like Jonathan Schell, who demand disarmament, unilateral if necessary, in what they wrongly believe is the common interest of mankind, and on the other hand by neointerventionists like Charles Krauthammer, who call for U.S. support of anti-Communist insurgencies.

Nye himself adopts a combination of moderate cosmopolitanism and realism, from which he derives two kinds of obligation to foreigners. First, we should “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” Second, we should take responsibility for our actions abroad, because “the prospects for justice within a nation are affected by actions of others outside the nation.”

Indeed so—but unfortunately Nye applies his principles rather selectively. Thus, the U.S. abandonment of Vietnam, helped aloneg in part by the antiwar writings of some American scholars, with their erroneous view that the Vietnames Communists were local nationalists, had very clear consequences for justice in that unhappy country. Accepting responsibility for those consequences and drawing lessons from them would have been a good exercise in illustration of Nye’s ethics. Rather than engage in such an exercise, however, Nye in this book takes refuge in the old view that the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was immoral because “idealism tended to blind our leaders to the facts of polycentric Communism and local nationalism.”



In his discussion of nuclear ends and means, Nye wisely rejects a policy of deterrence “based on nuclear weapons that threaten disproportionate devastation and harm to innocent people.” Unlike the Catholic bishops, however, he does not conclude from this that we should therefore rely on a policy of bluff. Instead, he offers five “maxims of nuclear ethics” that should undergird a policy of nuclear deterrence, properly understood.

The first concerns motive; in Nye’s view, the only acceptable reason for possessing a nuclear deterrent, much less devising plans for its use, is self-defense (appropriately expanded to include alliances). The second and third maxims concern means, the second stating that nuclear weapons are not and never will be “normal” weapons, the third that the purpose of any nuclear strategy must be to minimize harm to innocents (i.e., noncombatants). The fourth and fifth maxims concern consequences: according to the fourth we should work to reduce the risks of war in the near term, while according to the fifth we should work to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons in the longer term.

This is all good and unexceptionable, and Nye has done the cause of common sense a service by opposing these maxims to the apocalyptic rantings of the likes of Jonathan Schell and Barrie Parkins. But the lack of a political dimension, by which I mean an argument as to why we need (or ought) to defend ourselves, is particularly awkward in this final chapter because it prevents Nye from looking at what is actually happening in the world and what we might (morally) do about it.



The fourth maxim, about the need to reduce the risk of war, is especially ambiguous unless given political content. Nuclear pacifists think they know exactly how to reduce the risk of war, namely, through immediate and unilateral nuclear disarmament. But even within the community of serious nuclear-policy experts there are two radically opposed ways of interpreting this injunction, which depend in turn on radically opposed interpretations of Soviet behavior and goals.

One interpretation, traditionally held by the vast majority of Western politicians and policy-makers since around 1960, is that the risk of nuclear war will be reduced by negotiations and arms control. The underlying assumption here is that the Soviets can be made more peaceful by being shown that we are peaceful. Nye himself takes this line, assuming without much debate that “our approach should include engaging the Soviets in prolonged strategic discussions” and pointing to the “importance of enhancing mutual transparency and communication.” Quite apart from the naiveté of expecting “transparency and communication” in dealing with the Soviet system, this position rests on the questionable twin assumptions that Soviet leaders are not fundamentally hostile to the West and that their nuclear strategy does not have the clear purpose of giving them the possibility, at some future date, of dictating the terms of world order.

The other, minority, interpretation of Nye’s fourth maxim is that nuclear war will be prevented primarily by our maintaining American power in the form of a credible, survivable strategic force capable of destroying the military strength and infrastructure of the Soviet Union. Only within the context of such a deterrent, and the accompanying political and diplomatic vigilance, do arms-control talks have any significance. Such talks, according to this view, are themselves only an instrument of national-security policy; the goal of that policy can be nothing other than our political survival.

The reason all this is now urgent, as I noted at the outset, is the rise of a Soviet anti-missile force, posing a credible first-strike threat to the land-based U.S. deterrent and a credible threat as well to the possibility that any of our surviving retaliatory forces could reach their targets. Part of the American response to this urgent crisis has been the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Nye devotes a disparaging page-and-a-half to SDI, assuming that the only good defense is a leakproof defense, and ignoring the Soviets’ own strategic-defense effort without which SDI would, indeed, be both politically and morally problematic. If, however, one were to take the new threat (which is actually not that new) seriously, the development of an American strategic-defense capability to counter the Soviet effort becomes both politically and morally obligatory, being necessary and appropriate not only to ensure the continued survival of this country but also to ulfill Nye’s fourth and fifth maxims of reducing the risk of war in the near term and the reliance on nuclear weapons in the long term.



Nuclear Ethics derives from Nye’s work with Graham Allison and Albert Carnesale on avoiding nuclear war, which has led to several publications and an ongoing series of Ford-sponsored Aspen conferences. All three are professors at the Kennedy School of Government and all three share the bureaucratic-technical approach to nuclear weapons and strategy that reached an apogee of sorts in the 1960’s when Robert McNamara served as Secretary of Defense. These men call themselves “owls”—as opposed to either “hawks” or “doves.” Hawks believe that wars happen for political reasons, and principally when the rulers of an aggressive power judge that their enemies are weak or will not resist. Doves believe that wars happen as a result of unintended provocations, usually as the end product of arms races which follow their own inner dynamic. Owls, finally, think that war, especially nuclear war, will happen, if it does, primarily as a result of a breakdown of communications and perceptions in a time of crisis.

There is a certain smugness in adopting the owlish label, for since the time of Athens owls have always been associated with wisdom, memory, and foresight. But in considering Nuclear Ethics one is more often reminded of another metaphorical owlish trait, namely, myopia and a weakened capacity to see things in the light of day. Almost forty years ago, Raymond Aron defined the nature and the challenge of the Soviet-Western struggle as “peace impossible—war unlikely.” This still unsurpassed phrase reveals a combination of political, strategic, and moral wisdom which is lacking in Nye’s generally sound effort.



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