Thomas Doyle is a visiting lecturer in International Security at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. In this piece, he discusses "nuclear ethics" in light of the upcoming summit meeting of NATO heads of state.
Next month, officials from NATO countries will gather in Lisbon, Portugal for the institution's first summit meeting in a decade. One agenda topic appears to be a proposed revision in their "strategic concept," or plan for assigning units and forces to respond to potential conventional, unconventional, and cyber attacks on the alliance. At the proposal's heart is the question of nuclear disarmament amongst NATO members, following President Obama's call for "nuclear zero." Recent reports in the New York Times suggest that the proposal's advocates (e.g. Germany, the Netherlands) are at loggerheads with states that fear a resurgent Russia (e.g., Poland) and others that do not want their prestige or sovereignty diminished in the slightest (e.g., France).
I work in a hybrid field called "nuclear ethics," meaning I am interested in describing and assessing the moral values, interests, duties, and rights that underpin strategic and political decisions by state leaders to acquire, build up, build down, eliminate, and prevent the spread of nuclear arsenals. My work puts me solidly in the camp of security studies, where I want to understand the history, processes, and causality of nuclear aspiration and aversion. I am also solidly in the camps of philosophy and normative International Relations theory, where I want to continually sharpen my understanding of moral obligation, moral responsibility, and their relation to political obligation and responsibility. I believe it matters if this or that state official advances a valid or compelling moral justification for (1) maintaining the nuclear status quo, (2) embarking on new nuclear acquisitions, or (3) pressing for global nuclear zero.
In this light, the French opposition to Germany's disarmament proposal is unsurprising. However, French resistance is not fundamentally about security; it is about "grandeur." In 1962, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle argued: "When the General de Gaulle speaks about 'grandeur,' rash criticism will attribute to him the quest for a sort a national vainglory. [What he really means is] 'rank.' Rank is . . . the recognition of the right that [France] has to be consulted on the great matters of the world." In 1984, Philip Forget defended French nuclearization unconditionally. "It is the metaphysical survival of France that is the most important: 'the moral, political, historical annihilation would be seen as worse than only the physical destruction.' France must be prepared to risk the latter to save her honor, save her identity."
In 2008, President Sarkozy made the connection between nuclear deterrence and France's metaphysical survival: "Our nuclear deterrence protects us from any aggression against our vital interests emanating from a state- wherever it may come from and whatever form it may take. Our vital interests, of course, include the elements that constitute our identity and our existence as a nation-state, as well as the free exercise of our sovereignty." Grandeur, honor, and metaphysical survival are moral values that have political import. Do-can- they, then, validly justify acquiring nuclear weapons?