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In this essay Tyler Wigg-Stevenson situates the new international discourse on the “humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons” as the latest historical phase of nuclear weapons governance, involving a shift in focus toward the risks and effects of nuclear weapons, rather than the political ends they serve. Read in light of a Christian political theology that grounds state being in justice, the humanitarian impact findings indicate that the harms and risks of nuclear weapons are demonstrably unjust, meaning they exceed and contravene the basis for state authority. This suggests the theological imperative of Christian support for the legal prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the Chair of the Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons for the World Evangelical Alliance, and a doctoral student in theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.

With the Cold War now a quarter-century in the rearview, dedicating an entire, non-specialist journal to the topic of nuclear weapons might appear at first blush to be almost gauchely anachronistic, maybe even aggressively so, like showing up to a wedding dressed in knickerbocker pants. Absent the centrality of nuclear weapons to an existentially decisive ideological and geopolitical struggle, they seem less interesting as a category of thought. Today’s young people lack the shared bodily memory of crouching under pressboard desks in drills that seemed to be self-evidently farcical (even then, even to innocent minds), but which still inculcated a generational fascination with this thing, The Bomb, that sent children to their knees at the sound of the alarm, clutching hands to heads like terrified supplicants before a fiery god.

Instead, nuclear weapons tend to be relegated today—in the political, popular, and scholarly imaginations—to an ad hoc problem. How to deal with breakout in this or that repressive regime? What to do with a once-proud division of the US military that has been rocked by scandals and diagnosed with organizational rot? The days are long gone in which expertise about nuclear matters meant a promising career for a politician, military officer, or public-minded cleric. So it is understandable why one would wonder whether we have happily transitioned from the era of The Bomb back to the era of bombs, instead. Bombs, plural, are certainly dangerous and must be dealt with, but they lie at the technical periphery of human affairs, rather than at the heart of our most pressing concerns.

This sense that we have moved on, however, fails to see how the continuing crisis posed by nuclear weapons is in fact the crisis of our era in microcosm. The front-page threats of the twenty-first century, from ecological crisis to pandemic disease, do not represent a different species of concern from nuclear weapons. Instead, they are the more sophisticated, more complex descendants of The Bomb: a family of phenomena whose all-encompassing reach gives material and technical reality to a unity, “the global,” that for most of human history has been strictly conceptual. That is, these are phenomena that create a new level of interconnectedness for humanity-as-such. Whether rising markets or rising emissions, viral pathogens or viral videos, humanity’s global interdependence and our awareness of it has given birth to a new era of civilization.1

Albert Einstein famously noted that “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”2 It is a neat summary of the challenge posed by this family of phenomena: the modes of governance that have hitherto provided moral discipline over human capacities have proven unable to keep pace with the qualitative shift occasioned by the development of truly global phenomena. Put simply, we have the capacity to destroy and deform ourselves at a global level, but not to govern ourselves effectively at the same. Nowhere is this dichotomy so tightly encompassed as in the matter of The Bomb.

The question of nuclear weapons governance is hardly new, of course. For more than 50 years, nuclear governance has been primarily conducted through nonproliferation and gradual disarmament mechanisms. Since 2010, however, a rising focus in international forums on the “humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons” (HINW)—which includes the consequences of their development, testing, possession, threat, and potential use—has begun to suggest a paradigm shift away from the traditional, phased, and open-ended processes toward a comprehensive international legal ban on nuclear weapons. This would put nuclear weapons in the same category as other weapons increasingly regarded as unacceptable, and prohibited by a mix of de jure and de facto agreements, such as chemical and biological arms, land mines, and cluster munitions.

The HINW discourse has been welcomed by many representative Christian bodies. The Central Committee of the World Council of Churches recommended in July 2014 that churches lobby governments to “ban the production, deployment, transfer and use of nuclear weapons in accordance with international humanitarian law,” and suggested that its members join the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), one of the leading civil society coalitions working in the humanitarian impact arena.3 In Pope Francis’ message to the opening session of the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in December, 2014, he proposed broadening the focus from nuclear weapons’ “potential for mass killing” to also include the “‘unnecessary suffering’ brought on by their use.”4

Due in part to the newness of HINW, however, its fuller implications for Christian ethical considerations of nuclear weapons have not yet been explored. This essay proposes that a political-theological reading of the HINW findings challenges state claims regarding the legitimate possession of nuclear weapons. This in turn suggests the rationale for a decisive and categorical Christian condemnation of the manufacture, possession, threat, or use of nuclear weapons by any actor. The following proceeds in two moves. I first identify the ethical significance of HINW by situating it as the latest in five successive historical phases of concern that have conditioned nuclear weapons governance. In this framing, HINW marks a shift away from considering nuclear weapons in reference to the political ends they serve—especially as instruments justified by the supranational, existential weight of the Cold War—and toward a focus on the weapons themselves—their risks and effects. In the second part, I argue that a theological understanding of statehood combining power and authority grounded in justice, when paired with the evidence of the HINW discourse, demonstrates that nuclear weapons necessarily entail unjust risks and unjust harms. This makes the existence of nuclear weapons fundamentally incompatible with the constitutionally ethical character of the state.

Phases of Nuclear Weapons Governance

The need for governance strategies to match the potential global destructiveness of nuclear weapons was immediately recognized in the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The argument in this section proposes—as a pragmatic heuristic device, rather than a decisive historical claim—that we can view the history of governance efforts as divided into five general phases, each of which has proven illustrative of its era’s chief concerns: the shift from atomic monopoly to arms race (late 1940s); controlling testing (1950s through mid-1960s); limiting proliferation (1968 through the end of the Cold War); the doomed hope for disarmament (1995-2010); and the burgeoning HINW discourse and move toward a ban (2010-present).

In the brief, initial era immediately following World War II, the future of nuclear weapons was wide open—at least in theory. In 1946, the United States presented the Baruch Plan to the first meeting of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. The plan proposed a system for the verifiable prohibition of nuclear weapons as well as the free exchange of peaceful nuclear power technologies. Incipient Cold War hostilities derailed the proposal, however, as the Soviets saw the Baruch Plan as an attempt to secure American hegemony. They rejected it, and the USSR went on to test a nuclear weapon in 1949.

The second era began with the development of the arms race between the US and USSR. This inaugurated an era of nuclear testing, with governance proposals following accordingly. The tests of thermonuclear devices in particular occasioned a rise in public concern about the dangers of nuclear weapons, given the stupendous power of the bombs (for example, the 15-megaton “Castle Bravo” test at Bikini Atoll in 1954, and the 50-megaton “Tsar Bomba” test at Novaya Zemlya archipelago in 1961). Such massive tests led to plausible fears of proliferation leading to global annihilation as well as increased attention to the significant and devastating health effects from radioactive fallout.

Testing-centered governance peaked in 1963, when the US, USSR, and UK signed and ratified the Limited Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting all explosive nuclear testing except subterranean tests.5 The three initial signatories were not coincidental: by the end of 1962, the US and USSR had each conducted nearly 200 nuclear weapons tests, and the UK, two dozen. France, by contrast, had done six tests, and China had not tested at all.6 A treaty limiting nuclear tests thus served the political interests of the nations with the most extensive data, since it secured their technological advantage. France and China refused to sign and have never done so, though they have not conducted atmospheric tests since 1974 and 1980, respectively.

The third era of governance can be pinned to China’s entry into the nuclear club in 1964, when the perception of the prevailing nuclear threat shifted to proliferation. The increase in nuclear-armed countries entailed both an increase in the number of conflicts that could escalate to nuclear war, and the heightened instability inherent to negotiating pressures between multiple nuclear powers. This concern resulted in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was opened for signature in 1968, entered into force in 1970, and which has become the cornerstone of international nuclear security arrangements. As summarized by Thomas Graham, the American ambassador who helped to secure the indefinite extension of the NPT, the treaty “is based on a central bargain: the NPT non-nuclear-weapon states agree never to acquire nuclear weapons and the NPT nuclear-weapon states [US, Russia, UK, France, and China] in exchange agree to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals.”7 After the NPT’s entry into force in 1970 it gradually acquired signatories, with France and China not acceding until 1992. However, even without universal accession, the NPT exercised a nearly immediate normative force, even outside its states parties. As Graham notes, “it converted the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a state from an act of national pride in 1960 [France] to an act contrary to international law in 1974,” when India tested a weapon, despite the fact that India had not acceded to the treaty.8

It is important to note that the security of the NPT stands on its vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world, in that the check on proliferation is directly related to the promise of disarmament. When the treaty entered into force during the height of the Cold War, fulfillment of this promise seemed far removed—and only seemed to get further away, as the total number of nuclear warheads increased from 38,000 in 1970 to a historical high of over 65,000 in 1986.9 Yet the prevention of horizontal proliferation (an increase in the number of nuclear powers) was so important that this vertical proliferation (an increase in the number of nuclear weapons) was tolerated for the sake of maintaining the NPT.10 To date the NPT is the second-most adhered to international agreement, after the United Nations Charter.

The five UN member states that are not party to the treaty are India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, and, as of this writing, the new country of South Sudan. From the outset, India perceived the treaty as an attempt to secure great power status for the existing nuclear powers via a discriminatory norm, and refused to sign. Its regional adversary, Pakistan, followed suit. India became a nuclear power in 1974 but then refrained from testing until Pakistan’s successful nuclear test in 1998. North Korea originally signed, but withdrew in 2003 and conducted its first nuclear weapon test in 2006. Knowledge of Israel’s nuclear arsenal is a commonplace, but the Israeli government has never acknowledged it and maintains an official position of deliberate ambiguity regarding its nuclear capabilities.

The indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 inaugurated what might be regarded as the fourth era of nuclear governance, which began with a burst of hope that the Cold War’s end might herald rapid progress toward the Post-atomic Age. By 1995, bilateral US-Russian disarmament measures had cut the global nuclear stockpile essentially in half, dropping from approximately 55,000 to 27,000 warheads.11 This pace of reductions was not maintained, however, and though a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—banning all testing involving physical nuclear detonation—was signed in 1996, efforts to bring it into force stalled, including the US Senate’s rejection of its ratification in 1999.

Subsequent NPT review conferences have generated attempts to inscribe concrete detail to the nuclear-weapon-states’ original and general commitment under the NPT to pursue “negotiations in good faith” for a nuclear weapons-free world.12 However, these detailed steps have generally not been carried out. India’s historic critique of the NPT’s permanent discriminatory norm between nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” now seems increasingly prescient to many non-nuclear-weapon states, who are concerned at the “glacial pace of nuclear disarmament under the NPT and the value that nuclear-armed states continue to place on their nuclear weapons.”13 As a result, many non-nuclear powers increasingly feel “attendant concern that the NPT will never deliver nuclear disarmament and that nuclear-weapon states view their possession of nuclear weapons as permanent, with all of the continued risks of inadvertent or deliberate use this entails.”14

The Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons: An Emerging Concern

The fifth, current phase of nuclear governance is dominated by the rise of the “humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons” discourse, which began with the Final Document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference. This observed “the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and reaffirms the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.”15 In a significant follow-on move, the 2011 Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (ICRC) urged the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, based on the humanitarian consequences of “any use of nuclear weapons” and the difficulty of envisaging “how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law, in particular the rules of distinction, precaution and proportionality.”16 The ICRC reiterated this appeal in a 2012 statement to the United Nations.17 Subsequently, the government of Norway convened a groundbreaking conference on HINW in Oslo in 2013, which was attended by 128 countries as well as civil society.18 State participation expanded to 146 with a second HINW conference in February 2014 in Nayarit, Mexico.19

This process came to something of a climax with the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, hosted by the Austrian government in December 2014. Though rumors of a possible fourth meeting in South Africa have circulated, the Vienna Conference was important both as a capstone to the humanitarian impact argument—there being a general sensibility that with Vienna, the HINW case had been made—and as the last major international nuclear gathering prior to the 2015 NPT Review Conference. The growing power of the HINW trajectory was demonstrated by the participation of 156 states, including the US and the UK, with China sending an unofficial representative.20 The last-minute reversal of these nuclear powers in deciding to attend the Vienna meeting was especially significant, as they had boycotted Oslo and Nayarit as counterproductive to and distractions from the disarmament mechanisms related to NPT processes.21 The Vienna Conference also involved global civil society in significant ways, with participation by key NGOs and religious organizations, including the three global bodies representing Christianity: the Holy See, the World Council of Churches, and the World Evangelical Alliance. Additionally, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was visibly active at the official meeting and hosted a separate civil society meeting immediately prior to the government meeting.

The Chair’s Summary from the Vienna meeting presents a clear and succinct summary of the HINW findings through its exhaustive “facts-based” investigation of the topic. This summary also informs the conclusions of this paper. The HINW findings include:

—that nuclear weapons, even in limited uses, would have far-reaching, catastrophic, insoluble, and potentially irreversible humanitarian effects, ranging from the health consequences of fallout to systemic environmental collapse, and that in more extensive use would include global famine and the elimination of the ozone layer;

—that the risks inherent to the existence of nuclear weapons are both underestimated and unacceptable;22

—that, though the consequences of nuclear use means that it would likely contravene international health and humanitarian law, no existing legal instrument “universally prohibit[s] possession, transfer, production and use” of nuclear weapons;

—and that the consideration of the humanitarian impact raises “profound ethical and moral questions on a level transcending legal discussions and interpretations.”23

The essential contribution of HINW that drives the imperative to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons,” as articulated in the “Austrian Pledge” offered at the conclusion of the Vienna Conference, is that deterrence is an inadequate tactic for managing nuclear risks.24 Elimination—preceded by legal prohibition—is the necessary alternative. For the theological analysis that follows below, however, the most ethically significant ramification of HINW may be its refusal to ground the discussion about nuclear weapons primarily in the political outcomes that they serve. That is, what is remarkable about HINW is its focus on nuclear weapons as instruments, rather than as a means toward an over-arching end, like strategic stability. Throughout the shifting context of the Cold War, the governance problem was not nuclear weapons themselves, but, successively, the consequences of testing, the proliferation of nuclear-armed nations, and the arms race. With HINW, the problem is simply The Bomb—in se, as the philosophers have it.

This shift has been occasioned by the collapse of a singular purpose that can justify nuclear weapons possession. During the Cold War, the NPT codified nuclear weapons as the sole province of the great powers vying for control over the global order.25 Within this struggle, the destructive power offered by nuclear weapons corresponded—or could be perceived to correspond, at least—to the existential ramifications of the conflict. Today, by contrast, the map of nuclear-armed states neatly illustrates the turmoil of our time, and the transition between eras. On the one side is the now-venerable international order that emerged from the wreckage of World War II. Here, the five principal Allied victors hold Security Council vetoes and exclusive legal status as nuclear states, and struggle to square their NPT obligations to nuclear disarmament with national policies that seem to indicate no such commitment. On the other side, the four unofficial nuclear powers are a veritable snapshot of the broad dynamics that characterize this new century, and the ways in which nuclear weapons serve a wide variety of national goals: an emerging and would-be great power wanting to chart its own course (India); regional actors seeking existential security guarantees in the face of entrenched regional, religious, and ethnic threats (Pakistan and Israel); and a rogue power striving for immunity from all international norms (DPRK).

The collapse of the Cold War binary that subsumed the NPT nuclear-weapons-states, and the diversity of interests represented by the new, non-NPT nuclear powers, means that it is no longer possible to claim plausibly that The Bomb, as a category, serves an all-encompassing, supranational conflict in which all peoples have a stake. Instead, nuclear weapons are a means toward a variety of ends, which are no more transcendent than their possessor’s national interest. This development entails a categorical philosophical shift in the consideration of nuclear weapons. It is natural and perhaps almost inevitable that, in this context, our focus would turn to nuclear weapons’ bare effects: what they do to people, and have done to people, and the risks inherent to their existence.

Authority, Justice, and Nuclear Governance

Nuclear powers do not primarily justify their arsenals through an appeal to supranational ends, of course. Instead, every nuclear power articulates a vital national interest that nuclear weapons purportedly serve. As noted above, these vary broadly from nation to nation. The United States’ nuclear doctrine grounds nuclear possession in the need to “maintain strategic stability with other major nuclear powers, deter potential adversaries, and reassure our allies and partners of our security commitments to them.”26 As a contrasting example, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions seem to have been driven by the conviction that nuclear weapons are a necessary hedge against American power.27

The critique and contribution of HINW in this context, then, is the observation that the risks and effects of nuclear weapons possession and/or use are radically disproportionate to the goals which they serve. HINW does not dispute the fundamental right of states to defend themselves and maintain their existence. But from the perspective of international law, the right to national self-defense is not unlimited with regards to means, which must comply with conditions of necessity and proportionality.28 Anyone with knowledge of the Christian Just War tradition will readily recognize the theological heritage informing these criteria of modern humanitarian law and the law of war.

Our primary concern here, however, is the deeper theological resonance between HINW and Christian ethics of war, which is the recognition that sovereign states are not morally superordinate. A foreign policy arch-realist might rebut this assertion and scoff at international law as an essentially toothless arrangement. From a theological perspective, however, the claim of international law echoes the confessional conviction that institutions of human authority do not exist to their own purposes, but to the God who grants their authority and ordains their purpose (see, for example, Rom. 13:1-7, 1 Pet. 2:13).29 The notion of a morally unconstrained and self-authorizing institution of human government is foreign to Christian theology. The HINW discourse is grounded on the conviction that humanitarian law should govern the possession and use of nuclear weapons; Christian ethics holds that states are morally circumscribed entities. A Christian ethical interrogation proceeding in parallel to HINW, then, should investigate the place of nuclear weapons in relation to the moral boundaries of the state. This does not simply mean asking in which circumstances nuclear weapons might be used morally by states. That worthy turf is well turned, and in its most serious and substantive investigations has often yielded ambivalent answers, such as the “strictly conditioned moral acceptance” of deterrence by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in their 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace.

Instead, because HINW confronts us with the bare effects and risks of nuclear weapons, apart from their political ends, the question this discourse poses to Christian ethics is not how they should factor in to state behavior, but whether or not such devices are commensurate with state being.30 Put simply: can states qua states wield nuclear weapons? The question—and this essay’s final, negative conclusion—takes shape, below, through a series of four moves: 1) that a state becomes a unique moral actor by combining force with authority; 2) that the state’s authority requires justice; 3) that a state cannot lay claim to its own authority when it acts unjustly; and, in conclusion, 4) that the claims of the HINW discourse clearly demonstrate that the existence of nuclear weapons is an unjust harm and an unjust risk.

We begin with the first point: what makes a state, in a theological sense, is a combination of force and legitimacy—a formulation that has held sway in the West since late antiquity, at least. In the final years of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius famously wrote to the Emperor Anastasius that “two there are [duo sunt]… by which this world is chiefly ruled”: the sacerdotal authority [auctoritas] and the royal power [potestas].”31 Though Gelasius’ letter was a highly contextual document, not an intentional work of theory, the “Gelasian dualism of powers” became one of the principal frameworks for interpreting ecclesiastical and secular authority for centuries.32 The debate about what Gelasius meant by this twofold split is intense and often proleptic, as interpreters have based their understandings of auctoritas and potestas on later realities.33 What proved decisive, however, was the differentiation of two fundamental kinds of power, as evidenced in Alan Cottrell’s persuasive argument about the highly specific meanings of auctoritas and potestas in Gelasius’ era.34 The former meant something like an “eminent personal prestige” that conferred influence. The latter was the political capability to exercise power, potentially encompassing the right over life and death implied in a related term, imperium. This distinction is important because it demonstrates an embedded differentiation of means implied in the two powers.

Today, of course, we have left behind the days when the world was run by popes and kings. But if we consider Gelasius’ words without those particular office-holders, we are left with a rather fundamental truth. Two there are by which the world is chiefly ruled: authority and power. What Duo sunt highlights is that every manifestation of public order, such as statehood, combines both of these. That is, because power alone does not make a state actor, but only power combined with authority, to speak of states at all is to speak of actors that are inherently morally constituted. This character of the state’s constitution holds regardless of the morality of the state’s behavior.

Modern political theory has enshrined the force-authority pairing in Max Weber’s now-commonplace criterion of statehood, as the monopoly of “the legitimate use of physical force as a means of domination within a territory.”35 The state claims that it alone may rightfully wield violence. All states demand money, in the form of tax and tariff, and all states kill, in war and the execution of law. Yet though it takes and kills, the state insists that it is neither a thief nor a murderer. Why? Because it claims the authority to undertake these actions of power. Here we may also hear echoes of the Just War tradition’s classic concern for “rightful authority.” The gun-wielding street-robber has only power, and no recognized authority as an actor entitled to approval in the exercise of coercive power. The state, by contrast, has both power and authority, and it is this authority that makes a state a state—a unique moral actor.

Where, then, does this authority come from? What is to prevent the robber from claiming it? By what moral right do we give states our honor, treasure, and lives, rather than regarding them as simple brigands? This is precisely the question driving St. Augustine’s famous interrogation of authority and power in The City of God Against the Pagans:

Justice removed, then, what are kingdoms but great bands of robbers? What are bands of robbers themselves but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is governed by the authority of a ruler; it is bound together by a pact of association; and the loot is divided according to an agreed law. If…this scourge grows to such a size that it acquires territory, establishes a seat of government, occupies cities and subjugates peoples, it assumes the name of kingdom more openly. For this name is now manifestly conferred upon it not by the removal of greed, but by the addition of impunity.36

The key quantity to state authority is justice. Justice is, of course, a freighted concept; for Augustine, in particular, it does very robust theological work, and it is easy to misappropriate him. But we can still rightfully take his point in the most uncontroversial sense, which should be convincing to even modern and irreligious readers: a state’s authority is essentially grounded in its claim of exercising justice, which in a minimal sense entails the right pursuit of its people’s wellbeing.37 All states, even the most reprehensible, claim their people’s welfare as the rationale for their existence. This is important: we are not here arguing that (nor which) ethical judgments ought to guide state action, but rather that state action and state being as such require a claim to authority grounded in something that the state names as justice—even when the substance of the authorizing “justice” is morally bankrupt, like that of the Third Reich.

Justice is equally constitutional for the interaction of states among states, as entities of equal juridical dignity. The essential point here is that the same justice that authorizes state power to its own people also limits it with regards to other states. A state claims authority based on its service of the welfare of its people, but as it does not serve the welfare of all people, neither can it claim authority over them. Other states do serve other peoples, however, and states are mutually recognizable to one another, as members of the same political species, by the (at least nominal) affirmation that each defends the territory, rights, and security of its own people.38 Justice is thus at the very heart of the concept of sovereignty, which takes the authority asserted over a people and directs it horizontally, toward other states, as a claim of inviolability. Claiming sovereignty for oneself requires honoring it, at least conceptually, for some other(s). As an idea, sovereignty is flatly nonsensical without some system wherein another sovereign might recognize it.39 In practice, of course, states have always transgressed against other states, and some nations seem far more sovereign than others, inasmuch as the strong take advantage of the weak. But the ethical point holds nonetheless: a state’s authority as a unique moral actor is implicitly circumscribed by the corresponding authority of other states. (This limitation also informs our working definition of justice, in that one people’s wellbeing is not justly pursued at the radical expense of another’s.) For a state to claim the authority of justice, therefore—which is to say, for a state to act as a state—it cannot flagrantly trespass on the welfare of other peoples, nor another state’s ability to serve that welfare.

If we take seriously that justice-grounded authority is an integral aspect of statehood itself, then, what are we to say about state behavior that ignores justice in its most basic sense: domestically, by flouting the well-being of its own people, and/or internationally, by egregiously violating other states’ sovereign right to preserve their own peoples?

In his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, St. Thomas Aquinas observes that a ruler is illegitimate when his command opposes the purpose or exceeds the competence of his authority.40 In such a case, when the ruler violates the mandate of his authority, he actually ceases to be a ruler and becomes a tyrant, instead. This distinction is critical for Aquinas, who grounds the duty of political obedience in a metaphysical hierarchy of authority: “And so the Christian is bound to obey [political order] insofar as it is ‘of God’, and not insofar as it is not.”41 Authority is “not of God” when it is gained by an “unlawful mode of acquisition,” like “violence or simony,” or when it is abused, which is tyranny.42

As with Augustine, Aquinas’ political theory is one and the same as his theology, which presents a challenge of translation to a modern, non-theological political context. But—also similar to Augustine—we can see that a minimalist appropriation of Aquinas can be instructive for our concern. Whether authority is understood as deriving from a providential order or the irreligious—but still inescapably moral—formulation of justice we have considered above, the critical point is that authority does not categorically or permanently inhere to a particular institution or person. Rather, it maintains a vital connection to its founding mandate of justice. If this connection fails, the ruler stops being a ruler in regards to the unjust command, which is to say, he loses the right to be obeyed in that matter. Aquinas’ emphasis on the injustice of a ruler’s particular commands is important to note here, because the shift from ruler to tyrant is not a comprehensive transformation. A ruler might be just in his tax policy and tyrannical in his military exercises; in this case, he should be obeyed in the former and disobeyed in the latter. This admixture confuses discernment, because most tyrants still maintain some semblance of the form of authority, its glamor and glory. The problem is that they have lost its substance. In their own excesses, they are reduced to mere murderers and thieves, just like anyone else who kills and takes without authority. If we apply Aquinas to our question, above, we see that his categories for abuse of authority map directly onto modern concerns. A state that causes harm to its own people opposes the purpose of state authority. A state that violates other states’ service to their own people both opposes the purpose of state authority and exceeds its competence. In both cases, according to Thomistic logic, such misdeeds require the disobedience of those who are otherwise subject to the authority and duty-bound to obey it.

The above discussion moves from authority to justice to the conditions and consequences of injustice. It should be clear how this relates to the issue of nuclear governance as viewed through the humanitarian impact lens, which served as our jumping-off point at the end of the previous section. If the Chair’s Summary from the Vienna Conference is correct regarding the risks and effects of nuclear weapons possession and use—and the scrupulousness of the proceedings makes this evaluation convincing—then it would seem that nuclear weapons constitute a categorical violation of the justice upon which the authority of state action depends. (HINW may thus also be understood as a decisive contribution to any Just War reasoning about nuclear weapons, demonstrating them fundamentally incompatible with criteria of macro-proportionality—doing more good than harm—and discrimination.) National interest, and especially national survival, can entail both risks and harms to others that are reconcilable with justice. But the HINW verdict is that the existence of nuclear weapons entails unjust harm and unjust risk to possessors and non-possessors alike, and neither harm nor risk can be mitigated satisfactorily by any means other than their complete elimination.43

Put simply, this means that a nuclear-armed state cannot be a just state.44 Its nuclear weapons both oppose the purpose and exceed the competency of state authority. This means that disobedience in regards to its nuclear “commands”—which, we might suggest, entails directives regarding “possession, transfer, production, and use”—is required by all peoples.45


One can readily imagine the response of nuclear-armed states and their non-nuclear-armed allies to this extraordinarily inflammatory conclusion. The first reaction is certainly the vehement rebuttal against the allegation that there could be an arena of state activity in which a state does not properly act as a state. The contrary seems to defy common sense: after all, if a state does something, has it not done so as a state?

The answer is both yes and no. It is obvious that a state’s nuclear weapons activity is conducted through the apparatus of the state, rather than some extra-governmental process, and thus constitutes de facto “state action.” What our argument above suggests, however, is that unjust commands are de jure outside the bounds of state activity. So nuclear weapons activity—their possession, trans- port, threat, or use—would be an enacted incoherence. It appears to be legitimate because it occurs within the state apparatus, but because it is unjust it cannot claim the mantle of that legitimacy.

Though this might seem like an ephemeral rebuttal that might stand in the court of philosophy but fade in real life, we have a ready example of just such a phenomenon in the instance of Nuremberg. There, the defense depended upon the claim of state authority to insulate individuals from prosecution for actions carried out as government officials. But the verdict of Nuremberg, which transcends that particular court, is that there are some actions that states have no authority to command, even if they are carried out through the state apparatus. It is technically state action, but the verdict is that the state lacks standing to undertake it, and so the moral culpability falls to those who executed an unjust order, as individuals rather than as corporate officers. That is, the existence of individual responsibility indicates the absence of state authority. This is a precise historical example of what Aquinas describes in the transformation from ruler to tyrant—a murderer with rank.

Being heir to the Nuremberg bench means that the present world order cannot maintain an argument that all state activity, no matter what it includes, is morally protected by virtue of the state’s authority. This is a truth that Gen. Curtis LeMay—commander of the US firebombing46 of Japan and, later, US strategic nuclear forces—knew well, per his famous observation that “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”47 The triumph of victors always obscures their injustices.

Absent the defense of state action, the nuclear powers’ response must certainly revert to a predictable set of visceral reactions in support of nuclear weapons’ legitimacy: these are the bombs that won the war in the Pacific; they kept the peace, through deterrence; they are essential. These reactions are predictable because the difficulty for Westerners’ (in particular) is to evaluate weapons apart from the conflicts in which they have played a role. But this is precisely the challenge that HINW has undertaken: what do these things do, and what are the attendant risks?

In my estimation, the most compelling moment of the Vienna Conference was the offering of three testimonies about the lasting effects of testing, presented by Abacca Anjain-Maddison of the Marshall Islands, Sue Coleman-Haseldine, from Australian Aboriginal communities, and Michelle Thomas, representing Utah “downwinders.” The session was notable for its prominent spot in the agenda (government-sponsored conferences about nuclear weapons do not often foreground women from poor, rural, and indigenous communities) as well as the coherence of accounts from such geographically and culturally disparate communities.

According to these testimonies, the greatest suffering from nuclear testing was born by women and children, particularly around childbearing. Anjain-Maddison told of her cousin, who had never seen snow, playing with friends in the fallout ashes from a nuclear test, 300 miles distant, which no-one had warned them about. This caused acute radiation sickness. Marshallese women immediately began to suffer pregnancy complications, including “jellyfish and monster-like babies.”48 Similar experiences were recounted by Coleman-Haseldine and Thomas. Other first-hand accounts explain the well-documented phenomenon:

[Jellyfish babies] are born with no bones in their bodies and with transparent skin. We can see their brains and hearts beating. The babies usually live for a day or two before they stop breathing. Many women die from abnormal pregnancies, and those who survive give birth to what looks like purple grapes that we quickly bury.49

Such testimonies invite a biblical inflection of the HINW discourse: these weapons exercise violence against God’s first commandment—be fruitful and multiply—upon which all life hangs. If we cannot bear babies and cannot grow crops we cannot live. These stories and their implications are rarely considered in the security-dominated calculus of most official forums around nuclear weapons. But the bias toward security and how to maintain deterrence is precisely why existing modes of nuclear governance are no longer adequate.

The Bomb is a genus of threat with many species: inter-state war, terrorism, accident, health effects of testing and production, and so on. Deterrence is a threat-management strategy that addresses only one of these—war. Yet the practice of deterrence, which is the primary justification of nuclear powers for their arsenals, requires activity—the possession, transfer, production and threat of use of nuclear weapons—that perpetuates and even amplifies every other sub-species of threat, like that articulated above. It also establishes a rationale for possession—others have them, so we must also—that is at once entirely circular and entirely contingent. This is why the existence of nuclear weapons is irreconcilable with justice, and why the strategies of the nuclear-armed powers are so indefensible and intolerable.

We conclude by sharpening this point against the whetstone of Nuremberg, which says that command and control always terminate with a morally culpable mortal. The atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific may have ended, but the novel contribution of HINW is the recognition that similar consequences, or worse, attend all species of nuclear weapons possession or use, and—critically—that the risks cannot be abated by strategic nuclear threat management. So allow a baby born without a skeleton—surely the least of all peoples, in earthly terms, though still fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God—to stand as a terrible proxy for the “humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.” Is there anyone who would argue that any man or woman, as head of a nuclear-armed state, has or ever could be vested with the rightful and just authority to take the bones from a baby in the womb?

Hence the rightful presence of testimonies from individuals like Anjain-Maddison, Coleman-Haseldine, and Thomas—so often unheard—at the heart of the humanitarian impact discourse. They remind us that governance of The Bomb is about far more than merely keeping weapons out of the “wrong hands.” Indeed: they are the proof that there are no right hands to hold it at all.50

Cite this article
Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, “The Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons: A Problem for State Authority”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:4 , 355-372


  1. Indeed, some scientists have suggested that we have now shifted from the Holocene, the geological epoch inaugurated by the last ice age, into the “Anthropocene,” a geological epoch defined by human impact on the natural environment. A recent paper proposes the first test of an atomic weapon on July 16, 1945, as a “clear, objective moment in time” marking the epochal transition, given that subsequent nuclear testing resulted in “attendant worldwide fallout easily identifiable in the chemostratigraphic record.” See Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “When did the Anthropocene Begin? A Mid-twentieth Century Boundary Level is Stratigraphically Optimal,” Quaternary International (2014): 1-8, doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2014.11.045.
  2. Quoted in Lawrence M. Krauss, “Deafness at Doomsday,” The New York Times, January 15, 2013.
  3. “Statement Towards a Nuclear-Free World,” July 7, 2014, Central Committee, World Council of Churches.
  4. Pope Francis, “Message from Pope Francis to Sebastian Kurz,” Statement Given to the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (Vienna, Austria, December 8-9, 2014). pdf. The contributed paper by the Holy See’s permanent mission to the United Nations in Geneva went even further. It named the possession of nuclear weapons even for deterrence as “morally problematic,” suggested that the “provisional acceptance” extended to nuclear deterrence during the Cold War had run its course, and argued that the time had come to name the possession of nuclear weapons, as well as their use, as immoral. “Nuclear Disarmament: Time for Abolition—A Contribution of the Holy See,” December 8, 2014. The supporting remarks at the Vienna Conference by the author, who represented the World Evangelical Alliance there, provided the foundation for this paper.
  5. “Limited Test Ban Treaty,” U.S. Department of State, January 1, 2004.
  6. Xiaoping Yang et al., “Worldwide Nuclear Explosions.”
  7. Thomas Graham, “Avoiding the Tipping Point,” review of The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices, in Arms Control Today, eds. Kurt M. Campbell, Robert J. Einhorn, and Mitchell B. Reiss (November 2004).
  8. Ibid.
  9. “Table of Global Nuclear Weapons Stockpiles, 1945-2002,” National Resources Defense Council.
  10. One could argue that the non-proliferation “phase” of governance would be more accurately divided in two: an initial move to counter horizontal proliferation, through the NPT, and a subsequent response to the vertical proliferation of the US-Soviet arms race, which manifested in the citizen activism of the nuclear freeze movement and was eventually codified in the groundbreaking arms control agreements negotiated between the American and Soviet/Russian governments in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
  11. “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” Federation Of American Scientists, accessed December 17, 2014.
  12. See the “Principles and Objectives” of the 1995 NPT RevCon, the “13 Steps” of the 2000 RevCon, and the 64-point “Action Plan” from the 2010 RevCon. See Nick Ritchie, “The Story So Far: The Humanitarian Initiative on the Impacts of Nuclear Weapons,” paper 1 of 6 in the ILPI-UNIDIR Vienna Conference Series, December 8, 2014: 1–2.
  13. Ibid., 2.
  14. Ibid.
  15. “2010 NPT Final Document (Volume 1),” June 18, 2010, 19.
  16. “Working Towards the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons,” International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, November 26, 2011.
  17. “Nuclear Weapons: ICRC Statement to the United Nations, 2012,” International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, October 16, 2012.
  18. “Conference: Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway, March 11, 2013.
  19. “Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mexico.
  20. “Chair’s Summary: Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons,” Foreign Ministry of Austria, December 9, 2014. pdf. Regarding China’s representation, see Kukil Bora, “China Sends Official Posing As ‘Academic’ To Attend Vienna Nuclear Conference: Report,” International Business Times, December 9, 2014.
  21. “UK to Attend Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons,” December 3, 2014.
  22. Statistically speaking, the risk of nuclear war is far higher than most people assume. According to Seth Baum, Executive Director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, if one assumes a total probability of nuclear war every 700 years, and assuming 700 million dead in such a war—numbers which Baum dubs “optimistic”—then in the long view “each of us is on average more likely to die from nuclear war than from car crashes.” See Seth Baum, “What Is the Risk of Nuclear War?,” presentation at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, December 8, 2014.
  23. Foreign Ministry of Austria, “Chair’s Summary: Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons,” December 9, 2014.
  24. “Austrian Pledge,” December 9, 2014.
  25. India is the exception that proves the rule. Its “Smiling Buddha” detonation in 1974 is the only known nuclear weapons test by a non-NPT nuclear-weapons-state during the Cold War. See report by the Federation of American Scientists.
  26. “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” US Department of Defense, April 2010: i.
  27. Mark McDonald, “North Korea Says Libya Should Have Kept Nuclear Program,” The New York Times, March 24, 2011.
  28. Louise Doswald-Beck, “International Humanitarian Law and the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons,” International Review of the Red Cross 37, special issue 316 (February 1997): 53.
  29. The error of arch-realists is to imagine that the absence of a global principal means that the field of interaction between sovereigns—the “international”—is amoral. No Christian could ever say that the international sphere is truly amoral, because it is an article of faith that the divine global sovereign does exist and is active in history as the judge of nations. From a theological perspective, then, the problem with some strains of political realism is precisely that of the fool in Psalm 14, who says in his heart that “there is no God” and thus feels freed to act wickedly. The mistake is to confuse the invisibility of God with international anarchy, and the inscrutability of his providence with international amorality.
  30. In asking this question I do not assume that the modern state is trans-historically normative as an institution of human political authority. Christian political theology has a wealth of resources for imagining politics more broadly. However, nuclear weapons emerged in a historical era in which the logic and legitimacy of states as such is broadly unchallenged, and (for now, at least) the only entities that possess nuclear weapons are states. This paper’s focus on a theological understanding of statehood is thus intentionally contextual, and necessarily leaves aside other political possibilities.
  31. Pope Gelasius, “Letter of Pope Gelasius I to Emperor Anastasius I,” in Church and State Through the Centuries: A Collection of Historic Documents with Commentaries, eds. Sidney Z. Ehler and John B. Morrall (London: Burns & Oates, 1954), 11.
  32. Gelasius was attempting to shore up papal power against the patriarch in Constantinople in light of an emperor suspected of Monophysite leanings and eastern sympathies. See Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, eds., From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought, 100-1625 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 177-178.
  33. See Alan Cottrell, “Auctoritas and Potestas: A Reevaluation of the Correspondence of Gelasius I on Papal-Imperial Relations,” Mediaeval Studies 55 (1993): 95–110.
  34. Ibid. Cottrell’s evaluation is echoed by Harro Höpfl in the introduction to Martin Luther and Jean Calvin, Luther and Calvin On Secular Authority (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), xxxix.
  35. Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” 1919, 4.
  36. St. Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, trans. R. W. Dyson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), IV, 4.
  37. This contention obtains regardless of where one situates the authority-granting mechanism. For example, in a maximalist interpretation of contract theory, a state’s legitimacy would derive from the consent of the people—but the contract exists for the people’s wellbeing as they define it.
  38. Per Article 1 of the United Nations Charter: “friendly relations among nations [should be] based on the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.” See also the first principle in Article 2, “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.” See “Charter of the United Nations: Chapter I: Purposes and Principles.”
  39. This point holds for both sides of the debate over constitutive and declarative theories of state sovereignty. Both theories assume a field of action wherein states recognize one another. The possibility that additional criteria besides recognition are necessary for sovereignty does not undermine the essential relationship of justice-grounded authority to mutuality between states.
  40. Scripta super libros sententiarum II:44:2:2. In St. Thomas Aquinas, Political Writings, trans. R. W. Dyson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 73.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented, of course, which means that the task of managing their destructive potential now falls to humanity in perpetuity. Even in a world without nuclear weapons the risk of arsenal reconstitution would remain. However, according to the ethical and philosophical considerations raised by this paper, a nuclear-disarmed world—with attendant legal prohibitions and political and technical measures for verification—could satisfy the demand of just risk management.
  44. I owe this particularly succinct formulation to Robert J. Joustra, “Can a Nuclear State Be a Just State?,” Capital Commentary, December 15, 2014.
  45. This point also raises uncomfortable questions regarding the salience of a moral distinction between state and non-state nuclear actors. Though the former may be legitimately constituted rulers and the latter are not, at a forensic level it would seem that in regards to their nuclear capabilities they are the same species: power-wielding actors whose claim to authority is incommensurate with the mandate of justice.
  46. Before the bombing of civilians was given the sanitary moniker of “strategic bombing,” it was known by the more candid term of “terror bombing.” Alex Wellerstein, “The Third Shot and Beyond (1945),” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, April 25, 2012.
  47. “American Experience. Race for the Superbomb. General Curtis E. LeMay (1906-1990),” PBS.
  48. “HINW14 – Session 1, 2014.”, quoted sentence at 1:11:31.
  49. Andrea Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005), 67-69.
  50. The author thanks the following individuals for their generous critical feedback in the development of this paper: Matthew L. Anderson, Brian Auten, David Cortright, David P. Gushee, Robert J. Joustra, Michael Peppard, and Scott Waalkes, as well as two anonymous reviewers.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson

University of Toronto
Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is an author as well as Assistant Pastor at Little Trinity Church in Toronto, Canada. He is pursuing his doctorate in theology at the University of Toronto.