Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar: The Future of Nuclear Weapons

Tuesday, November 8, 2022
Gleb Garanrich/REUTERS

Affiliate, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University

Professor of Theology Emerita and President Emerita, Chicago Theological Seminary


Associate Professor, International Relations, Catholic University of America

Steven K. Pifer, affiliate of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, professor of theology emerita and president emerita at Chicago Theological Seminary, discuss nuclear weapons, arms control reduction, and the religion community’s involvement in the field of nuclear power and peacekeeping. Maryann Cusimano Love, associate professor of international relations at Catholic University of America, moderates.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar series. This series convenes religion and faith-based leaders in cross-denominational dialogue on the intersection between religion and international relations. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

As a reminder, this webinar is on the record. The audio, video, and transcript will be made available on CFR’s website, CFR.org, and on the iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We are delighted to have Maryann Cusimano Love with us to moderate today’s discussion on the future of nuclear weapons. Dr. Love is a tenured associate professor of international relations at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC She serves the Holy See mission to the United Nations on nuclear arms issues, where she participated in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference in 2022, and in the negotiations for the treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. She serves on the boards of the Arms Control Association, Pope Francis’s new Technologies for Peace Taskforce, the board of the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, and previously served as a fellow at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. And she is a New York Times bestselling author. Her recent books including Global Issues Beyond Sovereignty.

So, Dr. Love, thank you very much for doing this. I’m going to turn it over to you to introduce our distinguished panel.

LOVE: Thank you, Irina. And thank you for hosting this, at this critical time when we have nuclear weapons threats in the current war between Russia and Ukraine. Obviously, that’s the downside of the nuclear danger we face. But perhaps the opportunity in this moment of challenge is increased attention to nuclear weapons issues. I’m going to include the bios in our questions so we can get right to the heart of our discussion. And I’m going to first ask Ambassador Steven Pifer, you served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during kind of a much happier period of relations, in the aftermath of the Cold War, when there were a number of really pivotal arms control and disarmament agreements made during that time.

For the first round of questions, I just want to help set some context. So can you tell us a bit about what the gains were in reducing and safeguarding nuclear arms at that time? As well as some of the challenges that nuclear—tactical nuclear weapons were kind of left outside of those agreements. How are we feeling the impact of those agreements today, both positively and negatively?

PIFER: Yeah. Well, I think if you look at the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s, that’s what one would call the golden age of arms control, particularly in the nuclear area. So for example, in 1987 you had the agreement between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate all land-based intermediate-range missiles in the U.S. and Soviet arsenals. Big step. In 1991, you had the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). That actually entailed significant reductions in both U.S. and Soviet strategic offensive forces, the long-range systems. You also then had agreement that, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, that there would only be one nuclear weapon state in that space. That would be Russia. And START I really then set the basis for the current treaty that’s now in force, the New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty, which entailed even further reductions.

In addition to formal agreements, you also had unilateral steps. In 1991, the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives by George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, and then by Boris Yeltsin. And they eliminated ten to twenty thousand U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons. And with President Bush, we basically—all the nuclear weapons in the U.S. Army’s inventory were retired, and all the nuclear weapons in the U.S. Navy inventory, except for strategic ballistic missiles, were retired. And you had very large reductions on the Soviet and Russian side. So the combination of these measures, arms control and unilateral steps, was in 1990 you had about sixty thousand nuclear weapons in the world, most in the U.S. and Soviet inventories. Today it’s about thirteen thousand. Now, that’s still way too many. But it’s important to remember that progress has been made. Now, I think there was one different story in the 1990s.

And that was the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. That was a document in which Russia, along with the United States and Britain, committed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, its territorial integrity, and its independence, and committed not to use force, or threaten to use force, against Ukraine. And that was really a key element in getting Ukraine—which at that time had the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal on its territory—to get Ukraine to agree to give up those weapons. Unfortunately, Russia shredded those commitments with the seizure of Crimea in 2014 and then, of course, with its new invasion that began in February of this year. And so I don’t see that document—it really can’t be revived.

And I worry that what the Russians have done, though, is they’ve done broader damage in the nonproliferation world, because security assurances were one part of that toolbox for trying to dissuade countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. And my guess is the Ukrainian experience is going to be one that other countries will look at. And those security assurances may not be as useful as they might have been.

LOVE: So kind of a sobering assessment, both positive but some real challenges today. Susan, I wonder, in your illustrious career as a scholar at the Chicago Theological Seminary, as well as a religious advocate and one of the founders of Faith in Public Life, in your judgement how did religious actors impact this progress Steven’s just told us about in nuclear weapon, arms control, and disarmament? And is that activism—is that impact continuing today?

THISTLETHWAITE: Thank you. I want to go back even further than that. One of my earliest memories as a child is walking with my mother, marching with my mother, in New York in a Ban the Bomb March. And the atmospheric testing was a big deal for activists in that very early period. Albert Schweitzer, a theologian as well as a Nobel Prize Peace winner, Pope Pius XII came out strongly against atmospheric nuclear testing. Albert Schweitzer was crucial in supporting these marches. And we got—and I think the tattered fabric that we have of the treaties and the successes and near-misses of the history of nuclear weapons—we got the Partial Test Ban Treaty. We got finally the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and so forth.

Now, these have been around for a while. And taking account of that in an age where you’ve got, in fact, one national actually still testing nuclear weapons. I want to hook onto Steven’s Reagan assessment. Early on in the Reagan administration there was anti-Soviet rhetoric left over from the campaign, nuclear strength. And this, of course, evolved. But a significant faith moment in that period, and I think in response to some of this, was the American Catholic Bishops’s significant letter, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” This is an important moment in faith response to and opposition to nuclear weapons. They used just war theory, and very effectively laid out how you cannot use nuclear weapons according to just war theory.

It's an excellent letter, and it built momentum in terms of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Protestant denominations supported it, other faith groups—Buddhists, Soka Gakkai. And the movement accelerated in the 1980s to reject the development, the trade, the use of nuclear weapons. The 1980s were a moment for this. And then, as Steven pointed out, you’ve also got a negotiation then with the Russians. It was a good moment. And I think the religious communities helped enormously in supporting that.

Nineties was a decline, actually, in anti-nuclear protest. But in 2000, there was the Joint Nuclear Reduction Disarmament Statement that was issued in Washington, DC And this is an interfaith movement, interfaith statement. And Dr. Siddiqui of the Islamic Society of North America said, and I was at the announcement of this, “We must say to ourselves first, and then to the world, that we want a total and universal ban on the possession, production of nuclear weapons.” And he supported this argument with Islamic thought.

Now, these faith communities’ denunciation of nuclear weapons were not just statements. There’s also activism, there’s education. I want to recommend to those who were on the call, Religions for Peace have an excellent collection of educational materials for your religious communities. And then, as was mentioned, the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—strong religious community’s activism on pushing forward that treaty. And the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ICAN, has a lot of good material on that.

So from the Quakers to the Catholic Church, there was strong faith support, and is strong faith support, for this treaty. I’m going to pause there, but we have a waxing and waning of success and drawing back in terms of opposition to nuclear weapons. And we have the same kind of waxing and waning within faith communities. I would say this is a really good time to be waxing in the faith communities and stepping it up.

LOVE: So you both described kind of the golden era for arms control and disarmament, both on the activist, the religious community side, and the government side. Of course, today we are not in that golden era. (Laughs.) Steven, can I ask you to tell us a little bit about what our avenues for de-escalation are today? How close are we to nuclear weapons use, we know that Putin has made some threats, whether intentionally or by accident? And what do you propose be done to de-escalate the current nuclear danger?

PIFER: Yeah. I think Vladimir Putin has certainly highlighted the nuclear risk with the threats that we’ve seen going back to February 28, when he put his—or, he said he put his nuclear forces on alert. Although, happily, the Pentagon says they’ve seen no change in Russian nuclear posture. I think it’s important to recognize with Putin, that Putin does not want to a nuclear war. What he does want, though, is to use that threat to try to persuade Ukraine to cave into his demands, or to persuade the West to cut off support for Ukraine. And there are very real reasons why, at the end of the day, I don’t think Putin would use a nuclear weapon.

First of all, it would not change the Ukrainians’ determination to resist. They’ve seen what losing to Russia means. Second, thus far the global south—including China and India—have largely stayed on the sidelines. I think the global south would turn against Russia if they were to introduce nuclear weapons. And we saw that President Xi of China last week basically expressing concern about Russian nuclear threats. And also, the West has said there would be serious consequences. So I think there are real reasons why the Russians would not carry out that nuclear threat.

And it’s interesting that both two weeks ago President Putin himself, and then last week in a statement put out by the Russian foreign ministry, they seem to be trying to de-escalate the nuclear rhetoric. But I think we have to face the fact that as long as nuclear weapons exist, and as long as we depend on nuclear deterrence, there’s going to be risk. Now, let me say, nuclear deterrence, I believe, likely kept the United States and the Soviet Union from going to war in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. It’s hard to see in history two—cases where you have two countries that were so opposed in political, ideological, military, and economic terms, and war didn’t result. And so nuclear deterrence probably kept the peace.

But let me put a big asterisk on that. There were several points where nuclear deterrence came close to failing, either due to human miscalculation or mechanical failure. Just think what would have happened had we made different decisions, had President Kennedy made different decisions in the Cuban Missile Crisis. For example, a recommendation was made to him to launch attacks and engage the island of Cuba. We did not know then in 1962, we only learned in 1992, that the commander of Soviet forces on the island had tactical nuclear weapons and had already been given authority to use them against invading American forces.

There have also been a number of cases where mechanical breakdowns almost led to miscalculation. And so a breakdown of nuclear deterrence could be catastrophic. And by “catastrophic,” we’re talking about tens of millions dead. So, I look at nuclear deterrence, and it worked, but a few times we got lucky. And if we’re going to rely on nuclear deterrence forever, we then have to be making the bet that we’re always going to be lucky. And I’m not sure that’s a good bet to make. That’s why I’m a member of Global Zero. I would like to see the verifiable elimination of all nuclear weapons, although I think it’s going to be very, very hard to get there.

And how we do that is going to be a combination of arms control measures. It’ll be a combination of steps to strengthen norms against nuclear use and nuclear threats. And it will also be real hard diplomatic work to address those concerns that lead states to acquire nuclear weapons because they see that in their security interest. And it’s going to be a long, complex, step-by-step process. But I don’t see any alternative for us to do that, other than to engage on that process. Unfortunately, now because of, in particular, the war between Russia and Ukraine, these are not the best circumstances. But at some point, we need to get down to that because, as I said, while nuclear deterrence may be an acceptable strategy now, at some point I think we need to replace it with something more durable.

LOVE: So being lucky is not a good strategy going forward. (Laughs.) And you raise a good point, how close we came during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Many do not realize that actually a commander in a Soviet sub saved us from a nuclear exchange during that conflict. But, Susan, I wonder if you can tell us a little bit more of this issue of de-escalating. We tend to think of religious actors as helping to de-escalate as being against nuclear weapons use and possession, as you mentioned in your previous remarks. But not all religious actors oppose nuclear weapons. Stanford University, where Steven is today, put out a recent book detailing the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for nuclear weapons. I wonder if you could tell us a bit about within the U.S. religious context the groups that actually favor increasing the size of the arsenals, reliance on the arsenals, and modernization of the arsenals. Including some of those who are more apocalyptically oriented, or end-times oriented religious actors.

THISTLETHWAITE: Yeah. I taught a seminar in Israel and Palestine for many years from CTS. And every year we’d drive past Tel Megiddo. So apocalypticism, Armageddon, it’s a big topic. But for the purposes of this call, I want to narrow it to the idea of the great battle, OK? This is the great battle that’s supposed to take place between the forces of God and the very sinful on earth. And it’s a conflagration. It’s the final resolution. And symbolically speaking, that’s really attractive. And it’s played out, and increasingly being played out with—and I’ll be frank—with the political recruitment of right-wing Evangelicals. They hold this theology and are attracted—attracted and attractive—to the great battle.

Today is Election Day. And I want to read to you what the Chaffee County Clerk has said about Election Day, here in Colorado. “What fresh hell is today going to bring?” So this language of the great battle, of the sinners, of heaven and hell, this has entered into our politics. And you’ve got the rank and file who are responsive to this language. It resonates with their reading of the Book of Revelation in Christian context, though Armageddon is not only particularly to Christians. But it is right now, today, playing out in our politics, that there is a great battle. And this is not symbolic.

Now, this is the base, OK? I believe fully that political leadership is cynically promoting the language of the great battle. And what is the decisive—this is Hal Lindsey from the 1970s, The Late Great Planet Earth. Nuclear weapons represent the consummate win in terms of the great battle. That’s been going on in Christian conservative thinking for quite a while. So therefore, you promote development, manufacture, and production of nuclear weapons so that you are prepared for the great battle. But that’s within the leadership.

And nuclear weapons are very emotional. They’re very emotional issue in regard to this. I do not believe that this leadership plans to use nuclear weapons. They function as a chip in the political arena. But you have a lot of nuclear weapons, you’re going to have a lot of nuclear rhetoric. Other countries read that, and as Steven is rightly pointing out, you can’t count on being lucky all the time. This is part of a political rhetoric of hyper-masculinity, carrying the biggest stick of all. And I think at the end of the day, symbolically speaking, we have a great challenge, those of us who are in the peace movement, because peace is related to weakness all the time. And war and weapons are related to strength.

I’ve spent my life on this issue, and I have never, ever been able to crack this frame of weakness and strength, peace is weak, war is strength, weapons are strength. And yet this religious churn of the great battle, that you brought up in your question, what can be done to de-escalate the great battle? You’ve got to also get to a symbolic level in relationship if we’re going to move forward, and not see the promotion of nuclear weapons as strength but in fact as weakness. And if there’s a weakness argument to be made in relationship to the corruption of the Russian military, which then in turn you use the rhetoric of nuclear weapons because you’re weak.

So there are an increasing number of Christian Evangelicals. I was at a press conference with a bunch of Christian Evangelicals who are horrified by the recruitment of their faith into this kind of political great battle. And as peace activists, you know the best way to bring about a de-escalation is for insiders to do it. So we have to support these Protestant Evangelicals who are trying to de-escalate the great battle rhetoric. And it is difficult.

LOVE: So support those who are de-escalating. We are going to just go to our last question, to make sure we have room for time. And we’ve talked about some of the challenges that we’ve faced, but what gives you hope in this moment? And what are your recommendations for the future? I wonder, Steven, if you can start us out. What gives you hope? And what are your recommendations for the future, including engagement with the next generation?

PIFER: Well, on arms control, it’s probably not the best time to be hopeful. I mean, one of the problems that you have now is mistrust between Washington and Moscow is probably at its highest level since the Cold War ended back in the end of the 1980s-1990. Now, there is a little bit of good news here, is both in Washington and in Moscow, and both President Biden and President Putin, has said that they remain interested in getting to some kind of dialogue on controlling nuclear weapons.

And I would actually argue that’s a very sensible step. I think arms control now between the United States and Russia is more important than it was, say, back in 2010, when we signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, because relations are more difficult now. It’s in both sides’ interest. And the good news, both sides seem to recognize that while we’re going to have a relationship that’s going to be largely adversarial, there are mutual interests in having some constraints on that competition. So I think it would be smart to get back to this dialogue as soon as we can, but probably begin with baby steps.

The first step, I would argue, is we now have the one remaining agreement that limits U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, the New START treaty. It expires in February of 2026. It’s not too early to be thinking now about what kind of limits you maintain on strategic offensive forces beyond 2026. We want to continue that. And we want to find a way—the Russians have developed in the last seven or eight years a couple of news kinds of strategic weapons which are not directly captured by the treaty, even though they perform basically like strategic weapons. So how can you bring those into the treaty? I think that’s the first step.

The second step is, could we actually get to a negotiation that would cover all American and Russian nuclear weapons? Not just deployed strategic weapons, which is what New START limits, but also get reserved strategic weapons and nonstrategic weapons that are also referred to as tactical nuclear weapons. That, to my mind, an agreement that covers all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, would be the next logical step after the New START treaty.

But having said that, I think in the last year getting that kind of negotiation has become harder. And that’s because of the Russians and, quite frankly, putting on my Ukraine hat—or, Ukraine-watching hat, I’m happy to see this—the Russian military at the conventional level has not performed well. Where that complicates nuclear arms negotiations, it may now make the Russians think that they have to rely more on nonstrategic nuclear weapons to make up for the deficiencies that this war has revealed in their conventional forces. And that could make it more difficult to get nonstrategic nuclear weapons on the table.

And that was already going to be hard simply because there was a huge disparity in numbers between the United States and Russia. Russia has probably eighteen hundred to two thousand nonstrategic nuclear weapons, whereas the United States only has a couple of hundred gravity bombs that would fall into that category. Now, the offsetting American advantage is the United States tends to have more reserve strategic weapons. But could you get to a tradeoff between those categories? Perhaps, but that’s going to be hard.

Another question which complicates things is what do you do about China? Because for the last fifty years, arms control—nuclear arms control—has largely been a U.S.-Soviet—a U.S.-Russian enterprise. And to a while we could really ignore China when China, like Britain and France, only had about three hundred nuclear weapons. But the projection is that the Chinese now are going to build up. We’ve seen these questions about new missile silos the Chinese are building. No one has a good idea of what’s going to be in them. The Chinese, I think, do themselves no favor by not being transparent, because they only accelerate concerns.

I think it makes people concerned here, and you may even begin to see pressures in the United States where people are saying, well, the 1,550 deployed strategic weapons that the United States is allowed under the New START treaty, those are not enough because of China. I think that that’s a very simple and an incorrect assessment, but you may begin to see some of those pressures. So that’s another challenge, is how do you get some kind of a dialogue going between Washington and Beijing that can make this a bit more transparent and perhaps then get into a dialogue that addresses mutual concerns, and things like nuclear weapons levels and related issues?

I think there’s also one area, in addition to sort of this formal arms control—and this is an area where I think the religious community in the West can help. And it’s a suggestion that the late Michael Krepon made about a year and a half ago. Which he said, in addition to formal arms control, look, it’s been almost eighty years since a nuclear weapon was used in anger. I mean, the U.S. weapons used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And he says, if you exclude North Korea, it’s now been almost twenty-five years since anybody has done a nuclear test. So can we find ways to sort of really make these norms, establish a norm? And he said, let’s aim for 2045, the hundredth anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Can we get there with a nuclear weapon not being used in anger? Can we get there, at that time it would be close to fifty years, of no nuclear testing? Are there ways to sort of make those international norms really take hold? Make them durable and universally accepted, in a way that could underpin other formal negotiations?

Now, just briefly on the next generation, I find it a little bit frustrating at times that I think this generation seems to be less mindful of nuclear weapons and nuclear risks. And I think that probably was a result of the progress that was made back in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. And but now we have maybe less general knowledge about this, I have had the chance in the last five or six years to engage with and talk to sort of younger Americans, Europeans, Russians, and Chinese, who are becoming expert on this. They understand the challenges. And they’re beginning to think in creative ways. So I do think that there are people out there in that next generation who appreciate, understand this kind of threat, which is potentially an existential threat for us all. Maybe they can bring some creativity and some innovation and some new ideas to bear that my generation failed to find.

LOVE: So you lay out both some official channels ways to move forward, as well as some societal, religious actors, younger folks. How about you, Susan? What gives you hope? What recommendations do you have going forward?

THISTLETHWAITE: Well, I can connect directly to what Steve was saying. The fact that a nuclear weapon has not been used since 1945 is the greatest success of the peace movement ever. And it’s also the greatest success of the diplomatic community. But there is a—(laughs)—a waxing of knowledge of this. When I was a kid, we hid under our desks because we were going to have to hide from the bomb. Today kids hide in closets because the real threat of being killed in school, and they are killed in school, is our out-of-control gun culture. Nuclear weapons are down the list. You’ve got Black Lives Matter. African Americans are being killed with impunity. And the largest demonstrations around the world, that rival pictures of anti-nuclear demonstrations. The largest demonstrations the world has ever had were after George Floyd.

Climate change. You ask my grandchildren, that’s top of the list. Climate change and its danger is more real and more immediate. So you’ve got the immediacy of being killed by guns, which is real. The immediacy of abrupt and violent climate change. And once again, the east coast of Florida is battening down the hatches. So we’ve got multiple crises that are really engaging the younger generation. And I think from that side, we’re not going to change that. We have to try to make a case for anti-nuclear work that fits with their concerns. That does not replace them, because it’s—you can’t say to a kid—I mean, I’ve talked to children who are traumatized months later after an active shooter drill. And where I volunteer in Colorado is Mom’s Demand Gun Sense. That’s what I do. I am not these days an anti-nuclear activist. I’m trying to get the guns.

But my last couple of things is if you look at the religious arguments against nuclear weapons, Interfaith Just Peacemaking, the book I edited, with Christian and Islamic communities coming together on practices of peace. The doctrine of creation was the one that was most—it has been most commonly used to oppose the production, stockpiling, use of nuclear weapons. So today I think the better religious category is temptation, because the so-called tactical nuclear weapons, they are tempting. You can see it in political rhetoric. What’s the use of having these giant weapons and you can’t use them? So the misnomer of tactical nuclear weapon that it’s a smaller yield is just baloney. But it’s invasive. It’s tempting.

And finally, I’d like to say for those who are on the call, that a practical step we can take moving forward with religious communities is to support the bill restricting the first use of nuclear weapons by a U.S. president. It’s the Markey bill. This is the Lieu bill. And this must be done because we have seen that there are actors in the presidential administration who do not respect the history or the norms that Steven is talking about. The disrespect of this, widespread amongst certain political actors, and not just rhetorically. I don’t think disrespecting the norms is just rhetorical. So I think if you want to do one thing, it’s going to come up again and we need to support that bill. Because the U.S. president should not be able to launch a first strike.

LOVE: OK. We hear both governmental channels and nongovernmental channels. So that’s good, you both gave us plenty of room to run and to invite others to the conversation and to action.

I think we’re going to hear now some questions from our audience.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question comes from Anna Ikeda from the Soka Gakkai International Office for UN Affairs.

She writes: In today's context, in addition to supporting those who work on de-escalation, what opportunities and areas of collaboration do you see for religious communities’ activism and mobilization for nuclear disarmament and risk reduction?

LOVE: I think that one has Susan’s name on it. So as she’s preparing, I’ll just say the latter part that she mentioned of risk reduction, in the negotiations for the NPT Review Conference this summer there was some pushback to the U.S. advocacy for nuclear risk reduction, that this was a way to draw attention away from the fact that there was not much movement on nuclear disarmament. But of course we see, with the recent events in Ukraine, that we need to be able to do both things at the same time—nuclear risk reduction, as well as the movement for deeper disarmament. But, Susan, you want to weigh in that? Opportunities for collaboration among religious communities.

THISTLETHWAITE: Well, I think an opportunity for collaboration amongst religious communities is not to go in a single track relative to nuclear weapons. Military spending, spending on nuclear weapons, is expensive. It takes money away from these urgent concerns that we have in terms of climate change, in terms of racial and gender justice. And so I think we need to be more complex in the way that we do our activism, to begin to join these communities and say: When we reduce the research, production, development, et cetera, on nuclear weapons, we free money that can work on these other issues. And I think that it is the age of being able to multitask in our religious activism.

And we cannot—we cannot reduce this activism—and I don’t want to disparage the work we’ve done in the past. I’ve done a lot of it. (Laughs.) But I think that today if we want to recognize the multiple crises that we’re facing, how does our work—our religious activism in relationship to anti-nuclear—support and engage anti-racism, climate catastrophe, toxic masculinity in terms of violence against women? So let’s be more complex in how we do this. Frankly, I see this happening. I mean, I’m very engaged in the work of Faith in Public Life. And we no longer stick in one silo. We have to multitask in this regard.

LOVE: So knowing the interdependencies of issue areas. Go ahead, Steven.

PIFER: Yeah. I think that the religious community in the West has a voice to be expressed and can apply pressure. One thing, and this, I guess, reflects my time spent in the government and having been, in the 1980s, on the receiving end of some of that pressure during the nuclear freeze movement, is that—I guess the question is, how do we find a way to build a comparable religious movement in Russia? Because as you said, you have a Russian Orthodox Church where the patriarch goes out and blesses nuclear weapons. And that’s one of the things I think—how do we get the same sorts of pressures, which I think should be functioning in democratic societies, functioning also on the other side? And I’ve never been able to figure out an answer to that challenge.

LOVE: That’s challenging in countries that don’t have religious freedom to have that space for civil society and religious actors to function.

But you have some more questions for us.

OPERATOR: We do. Our next question comes from Rebecca Blachly from the Episcopal Church.

Who writes: What are the ways we can address the risk of nonstate actors using nuclear weapons? I don’t know that international norms will constrain nonstate actors in a way that might work. She also asks: Are any investments in maintaining nuclear arsenal warranted, to ensure they are maintained safely?

LOVE: So, again, it goes to the question of nuclear safety and risk reduction. Do you want to go first on this one, Steven?

PIFER: Sure. No, I think we do have to pay attention to the risk of nonstate actors, although we should also understand it’s very hard for a nonstate actor to get a nuclear weapon. I came back from an assignment at Embassy of London back to Washington in 1993, in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union. And there was a lot of concern about loose nukes. In the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union, could the Soviet military, in fact, keep track of all the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons it had?

And it turned out actually, they did. They were able to keep track. There’s no serious report of a nuclear weapon ever having disappeared. And my guess is, had that happened we would have seen evidence in the form of a nuclear explosion somewhere. And so for a non-state actor, they have to acquire a nuclear weapon. The good news, I think nuclear weapon states are pretty careful about protecting those weapons. And getting the highly enriched uranium or plutonium for a weapon is also something that nonstate actors really don’t have in their means.

Now, I guess the concern I would have is, what if a state actor—say, like, North Korea—were to provide nuclear material? And I took part in a Brookings study about twelve years ago. And the recommendation we had on that, and I think the United States has come fairly close to this, is basically making the point that were a nonstate actor to use a nuclear weapon, the United States would respond to the state actor that provided that nuclear material as if that state actor had, in fact, conducted the nuclear attack. So the way it would be putting out a warning to state actors is: You need to control your nuclear materials. If you give it to a nonstate actor who then uses it, you could find yourself in fact on the receiving end of the retaliation. So that was sort of one way to try to come to grips with this problem.

Of course, there have to be also steps then to make sure that you control nuclear materials. That’s why, particularly as more countries may become interested in nuclear power as they’re trying to move away from carbon-based energy, we have to ensure that there’s controlled enrichment facilities. I mean, the enrichment problem is very simple. And we see it in the case of concerns about Iran. Is you can use an enrichment facility to enrich highly enriched—or, I’m sorry—to enrich uranium to, say, 3.5 to 4 percent of U-235, part of uranium. And that’s perfectly useful for a power plant for nuclear fuel for a nuclear reactor.

However, that same facility can keep on enriching. And once you get to, say, 90 percent enrichment levels, you have bomb-grade materials. So how do you control enrichment facilities? And likewise, to the extent that there are an increase in the number of nuclear power plants, how do you control the waste that comes out and control reprocessing, which would allow the possibility for countries to extract weapons-usable material from the waste? So there are things that we’re going to have to watch, again, to make sure that we have tight limits not only on nuclear weapons, but on the plutonium and the highly enriched uranium that could be used to build nuclear weapons, to make sure that they stay out of the hands of nonstate actors.

LOVE: Yeah. So looking at the whole supply chain, not just the loose nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists. And it’s a good point that you raise. There are thirty-two countries that have nuclear energy. Another thirty countries are looking to develop that, perhaps as one of their measures of response to climate change. And when you look at those list of countries there’s ones with a lot of political instability. And some of the measures the United States was doing in the past, like the series of nuclear security summits, we haven’t held those in recent years. So, obviously, a lot of room for improvement.

Susan, do you want to weigh in on this connection between nuclear energy at all?

THISTLETHWAITE: Yeah. Let me just say, Greta Thunberg, the child of the age of resisting climate change, three weeks ago said that she wants to keep the—she favors keeping the nuclear power plants going in Germany rather than switching to coal. And I think this is an issue in relationship to how do we put together protecting ourselves from catastrophic climate change in relationship to safety of nuclear power plants? And the nuclear industry is very interested in increasing the number of power plants.

LOVE: Yeah. So we hear a lot of advertisements from the nuclear industry that the new nuclear power plants will be much safer and better than the old. We certainly all would hope that to be true, but we still have the old ones with us with the vulnerabilities that we know of, as we see from places like Fukushima, as well as in the current war in Ukraine.

So I think we still have time for another question, Rivka.

OPERATOR: We do. Our next question comes from Daniel Joranko from Tennessee Interfaith Power and Light.

He asks: What can the religious climate movement learn from the history of the religious nuclear peace movement?

LOVE: And it’s a great question, because before the call, Susan and I were discussing a little bit whether the climate change issue helps catalyze interest and concern about nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament issues, or the ways in which there may be some fracturing on that as religious communities come down on different directions on nuclear energy. But, Susan, what can the climate and environmental movement, religious movements, learn from the nuclear disarmament religious movements?

THISTLETHWAITE: Well, I would say—and my experience over decades of the religious peace movement, religious anti-nuclear movement—is cast as wide a net as possible. That when we did Interfaith Just Peacemaking we had thirty Jewish, Christians, Islamic participants over six years. You are not going to get agreement. And you have to live with that. You have to take as much as you can in terms of collaborative activism. And you’re going to not do that together. And in the same way, and this is—I see this in the environmental movement as well. You’ve got to accept that you have to cast as wide a net as possible. And you’re going to get this, and you’re not going to get that.

I do lobby in terms of weapons. And how are we going to control the out-of-control gun lobby? You don’t get everything. You just don’t. And so I think—let me speak confessionally—(laughs)—as a religious actor. One tends to ideals and purism.  Because, God, and we’re trying to avoid sin. But you have to be as pragmatic as you possibly can in order to cast as wide a net as you can and be as diverse as you can. Where are the most polluted areas in the world? Polluted areas in this country, where climate activists need to be concerned?

It’s, of course, in poor communities. It’s in communities without power. I think the community that Steven represents is better at pragmatism. And I think if anything over the years, what I’ve learned is try to get as much as you can, cast as wide a net as you possibly can. And if you’re white, and you’re privileged, don’t lead. Don’t lead.

LOVE: So be pragmatic, be diverse, collaborate. I wonder, Steven, because the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons came into force last year, with a lot of support from the religious community, initially the U.S. government was quite opposed. More recently we’ve heard a little more conciliatory language, saying let’s search for common ground. Do you see that as a way in which we can do what you suggested to expand norms against nuclear weapons?

PIFER: Yeah. No, I certainly appreciate the sentiment behind the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons. And I think it has caused the U.S. government to think in a bit more pragmatic way about how to engage the, I think it’s now, fifty-five countries who have now ratified and brought that agreement into force. But having said that, my guess is it’s still—it’s too radical a step. And of all the countries that support it, not a single country that has nuclear weapons supports it. And so I think—it gets back to this, maybe my own experience in the government and looking for, doing as much as you can.

But I think to get towards that goal, which I think is the right goal for the United States, of a world verifiably without nuclear weapons, it’s going to have to be a step-by-step process. So we have to look for our victories where we can take them. Small agreements may not be as exciting as we want but if they’re moving in the right direction, we should pursue them. Then can we also work on sort of strengthening these broader norms against nuclear use and nuclear testing that might then create an environment in which later we can get to more dramatic agreements?

THISTLETHWAITE: I also want to say, Maryann, that, vis-à-vis the treaty, I think its advantage is it raises the thought threshold, right? Just simply to think of a world without nuclear weapons. But even without nuclear weapons, the knowledge would still exist. And Robert Oppenheimer once said: We physicists have known sin, and we cannot forget it. So what—but I think raising the thought threshold is a good idea. As much as we can, try to put the pressure on those who see nuclear weapons as a good thing. Because they’re not.

LOVE: So lessons learned would be the importance of religious communities in developing norms, but it still leaves the hard work of the step-by-step of how to implement those norms and get there, yeah.

Another question, Rivka? I think we have time for one more.

OPERATOR: We do. Our next question comes from Yuri Mantilla from Liberty University.

MATILLA: Yes. Considering the increasing influence of totalitarian ideologies in the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, how can we address this issue? How can we negotiate these kind of international treaties when it is very clear that neo-Marxist, Leninist ideologies are influencing the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China? And so from that perspective, I think the use of nuclear weapons—the threat of use of nuclear weapons—is part of that worldview. And considering Vladimir Putin’s perspective of moral relativism, which it’s a strange integration of neo-fascist and neo-communist together, how can we really influence those countries? I’m not thinking about the United States, but how can peace movements in the Russian Federation, in the People’s Republic of China, be successful in the twenty-first historical context? Thank you.

LOVE: So Yuri’s question gets to the point that we often hear, we have to wait until conditions are right for nuclear disarmament, and that we really can’t engage. These are a question about how to engage these, when you’re talking about totalitarian regimes. Steven, do you want to respond to that, and then Susan?

PIFER: I guess I kind of disagree with the premise. I mean, if the only other nuclear weapon states in the world were Britain and France, we wouldn’t need nuclear arms control. Where you need nuclear arms control are precisely with those countries where you have large political, economic, ideological differences. And we’ve done this. I mean, the original negotiations go back to the 1980s, where Reagan and Gorbachev, or Reagan in his second term really I think got interested in arms control. And in 1986, when they met in Reykjavik, they came very close—I’m not sure if the agreement would have withstood the test of time—but they came very close to a U.S.-Soviet agreement to ban all of their nuclear weapons within ten years’ time. And that was despite big ideological differences.

So I think the trick is to find agreements that both sides see as in their mutual interest. I think both sides have an interest in avoiding a nuclear conflict and in avoiding a nuclear competition that becomes either too dangerous, or too expensive, or too destabilizing. And if you can find that mutual interest, you can then work an agreement. And if you have the right verification measures, you can have confidence in your ability to know the other side is abiding by the agreement or know that you will know if that other sides cheats in a way that would be militarily destabilizing. And you can do that, regardless what kind of domestic system that country has.

LOVE: So the importance of transparency, and verifiability. It’s a great point. We don’t get to negotiate with Mother Theresa, and Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. We get to negotiate with the leaders that we have. And sometimes they may be bad actors.


THISTLETHWAITE: Yeah. I was going to quote Yitzhak Rabin. “You make peace with your enemies, not with your friends.” And what you have to do, and—(laughs)—this is from having been president of a seminary. There is a fair amount of conflict in higher education. (Laughs.) So, or in international relations—talk, talk, talk. You have to make the connections, individuals to individuals, as you were pointing out, Steven. These international frameworks have to be increased and kept robust once they’re increased. Because it’s the connections between people that will ultimately produce some results. Not everything, but some.

PIFER: And just the conversations themselves. I mean, talking to people who on the American side started out in the first U.S.-Soviet negotiations back in 1969, in the first strategic arms limitation talks. And what they said was even though it took longer than you would hope to get agreements, and the agreements were much more modest, just that dialogue, they said, we were able in our conversations and our concerns to help change how the Soviets looked at things, and vice versa. And that’s been one thing, I think, that there is an advantage to the fifty years of history of dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union, or the United States and Russia, is we have a pretty common lexicon. We talk now in similar concepts. There’s an understanding there.

But I’d like to see us begin to get into that intense dialogue with China, even if it may not produce early agreements, simply because that conversation begins to develop a shared understanding of concepts and a shared understanding of the other’s concerns. And that can be valuable, quite apart from whether or not you get a specific agreement, and how quickly you get that agreement.

THISTLETHWAITE: And that’s a great point to focus on, the overlap between the diplomatic and the governmental approach, and the interreligious approach, is the need for dialogue to build deeper relationships.

Before I turn it over to Irina, I want to thank you for a very robust and fascinating discussion. I want to remind our listeners that each of these participants have some wonderful books that they’ve written. Steven, can you remind us of one of—your recent book title?

PIFER: Well, the one I wrote most recently was called The Eagle and the Trident. It’s a history of U.S.-Ukraine relations from 1991 until 2004. But for the purposes of this, a book I wrote back in 2012 with a colleague, Michael O’Hanlon, called The Opportunity: Next Steps in Nuclear Arms Control, which we wrote as ideas for whichever administration took office in 2013. Most of those ideas probably could still work today.

LOVE: So very timely. My own book, Beyond Sovereignty, on global issues. And, Susan, your book, Interfaith Just Peacemaking. So some further resources. And now I’ll turn it over to Irina.

FASKIANOS: Thank you all for this terrific conversation. We really appreciate your being with us and sharing your analysis and insights. We encourage you to follow Steven Pifer on Twitter at @steven_pifer. And, Steven, again, what is the website?

PIFER: Well, I’m at Stanford at [email protected].

FASKIANOS: There you go. And you can follow Susan Thistlethwaite at the Chicago Theological Seminary website, ctschicago.edu. You can also follow Maryann Cusimano Love’s work at politics.catholic.edu. So it’s a mouthful, but we will be sending the link to the video and the transcript for today’s conversation. So we hope that you will watch it again and share it with your colleagues.

You can follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_religion. And also, please do reach out to us. Write to us at [email protected] with any suggestions or questions. And if you are attending the SBL and AAR annual meetings in Denver, we hope you will join us in person for our luncheon panel on human rights around the world on Monday, November 21, at 11:30 a.m. Mountain Time. To register you can email us, again, at [email protected].

So thank you all, again, for being with us. We really appreciate it. And to all the fabulous questions and comments.

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