In an historic first this week, President Obama will chair a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, the first American president ever to do so. Some see this as a ploy to divert attention from domestic difficulties. It is certainly a remarkable indication of how the president views himself, not just in the traditional senses of the elected American leader and informal leader of the world, but as world leader in an unprecedented institutional capacity as well.
President Obama has chosen to guide the Security Council through a broad discussion of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, beyond the Council’s planned focus on North Korea and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. These are important subjects, priorities both for Obama and for the Catholic Church. Last April, Obama declared, “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” He alluded to the unique moral responsibility of the United States in this regard, as the only country ever to have used nuclear weapons. He allowed that the prospect of a nuclear-free world is a distant one to be pursued despite many practical obstacles – including the nature of several regimes now seeking to develop nuclear weapons – even as we maintain a nuclear deterrent for now.
President Obama thus aligns himself with a longstanding, bipartisan American cause, the arrest and reversal of the spread of nuclear arms, which began with banning these weapons in outer space in 1967 and signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan sought arms control with the Soviet Union. Reagan came close to agreeing to a complete ban on nuclear weapons. Although he rejected a unilateral “freeze” on nuclear force levels, Reagan’s proposal for strategic missile defenses was a straightforward rejection of nuclear deterrence:
I’ve become more and more deeply convinced that the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence. . . .[It’s] a sad commentary on the human condition. Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them? Are we not capable of demonstrating our peaceful intentions by applying all our abilities and our ingenuity to achieving a truly lasting stability? I think we are indeed. Indeed, we must.
Later, the first President Bush and President Clinton oversaw major post-Cold War reductions in the American nuclear arsenal. The second President Bush negotiated a 2002 treaty with Russia that codified U.S. plans to reduce deployed strategic warheads from around 6000 in 2001 to around 2000 by 2012. Moscow ignored Bush’s subsequent proposed replacement treaty for the expiring START arms control agreement, but Obama and his Russian counterpart have restarted work on it. Obama has now set out the final aim of this long trajectory, the elimination of nuclear weapons.
With disarmament, Obama also aligns himself with a high priority for the Catholic Church. Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have all called for nuclear disarmament. Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, now of Baltimore and formerly the archbishop for America’s military archdiocese, spoke in July at U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, where he brilliantly summarized Catholic teaching on disarmament. O’Brien said unequivocally, “The moral end is clear: a world free of nuclear weapons.” He explained the injustice of nuclear war-fighting because of its inevitable effects on non-combatants and its inherent non-proportionality. He stressed that nuclear deterrence, while perhaps necessary, must be only an interim step towards disarmament. And he noted a series of concrete actions favored by the Holy See, including a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In a worthy prelude to the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock, the National Catholic Reporter portrayed this as Archbishop O’Brien striding into the lion’s den to speak truth to the warmongers.
In fact, he was an invited guest in a room full of people who would be quite happy to see nuclear weapons disappear. No one supported shedding nuclear weapons after the Cold War more enthusiastically than the military. In his clarity, Archbishop O’Brien joined Catholic teaching less to the spirit of Woodstock than to the spirit of Herman Wouk, an American writer, a Jew, who served in World War II aboard a minesweeper in the Pacific. His ship was preparing the way for the invasion of Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped. Lecturing at the Naval War College in 1980, Wouk said those first examples of the arms we now seek to eliminate seemed at the time “the ultimate horrors, shocking beyond imagination.” Wouk’s later fiction treated the profoundly mysterious evil of the Holocaust, the consequences of failing to confront that kind of evil resolutely and early, and the circumstances of those who did confront it in the camps or on the battle lines.
Wouk recalled in his lecture that much is unchanged in human nature since Thucydides chronicled the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. One thing that has changed is the enormous power of nuclear weapons that, while thankfully reduced in numbers since Wouk spoke, remain a potential source of vast destruction. But Wouk also quoted Isaiah’s vision of peace, “And they will beat their swords into plowshares.” He offered his audience both realism and hope, acknowledgement that evil is a fact that must be faced and belief that war is a fact that may not be eternal. He implored his listeners to persevere “in the fight against odds to hold the world together, while it struggles out of the Thucydidean nightmare to the sunlight of Isaiah’s vision.”
Whatever President Obama’s motivations for chairing the U. N. Security Council this week, Americans of all political persuasions, and Catholics especially, can support his aims. We must also hope that he deals capably with the problems of North Korea, Iran, and terrorist organizations for whom Catholic teaching is not a primary source of moral guidance.