Science in Christian Perspective



Security and Morality in Planning
For U.S. Defense
Department of Political Science
Dordt College
Sioux Center, Iowa 51250

From: JASA 34
June 1982): 84-89.

There can hardly be a greater challenge than to address some of the burning ethical questions that arise in the context of contemporary U.S. defense and energy policies. It is a challenge, however, that one should approach with as much care and caution as one would approach a complicated diplomatic mission; it is so easy to be misunderstood, and there are so many different views of the matter. Though it would be helpful for the purpose of clarifying many viewpoints, I do not intend to review here the history of the debate between moralists and pragmatists, between idealists and realists. It is enough to say that U.S. foreign policy-making has, for the past forty years, been dominated by what passes for "realism". This means that many so-called ethical questions have not received serious attention from those who are responsible for constructing pragmatic policies for current situations.

Even in many religious circles an attitude dominates discussion and decision-making that corresponds to the title of one of Reinhold Niebuhr's books: Moral Man and Immoral Society.1 It might be quite legitimate and realistic to discuss the moral responsibilities of individual persons, according to this attitude, but it is quite another matter when social institutions and states come into view. Society, especially international society, is not ordered by submission to those moral norms which individual consciences might acknowledge.

But must we simply accept this framework of current debate as our unquestioned point of departure? Does it go without saying that we must act and think "realistically"? What does it mean to be realistic today? Are the leading pragmatists in the Defense and Energy Departments truly realistic? It is important to raise these questions because much depends on our point of departure in approaching the complex issues of defense and security. Let us took for a moment at the so-called realist argument.

 The "Realist" Argument

Morality, the realist argues, is a personal thing that has meaning only if individuals can be held accountable for their acts. Within ordinary societies there are countless human communities and religious systems from the family to the courts, from the schools to the churches, that accomplish precisely this function of holding individuals accountable. But states are not individuals, in the first place; and in the second place there are not sufficient numbers and kinds of supra-national institutions to hold states accountable to and for one another in relation to some universal, supra-national, moral principle. If a state were to attempt unilaterally to act on the basis of a moral code that is applicable to individuals, it would very likely run into the greater evil of endangering its own existence and thus the very lives of its citizens. Consequently, so the argument concludes, states must act as states, not as individual persons, and the result might at times appear to be quite immoral from the vantage point of the moral individual.

There is more, however, to the realist's argument. Having established what appears to be the impossibility of a completely moral state in the international arena, the argument goes on to try to legitimate a state's seemingly immoral actions on the grounds that states have no choice but to seek their own survival and self-interest. Whether one believes that self-interested acts are the result of human sin, or whether one simply recognizes the reality of self-interest on empirical grounds, it remains the case, so the realist argues, that such is the reality of the international arena and states do not have the freedom to act as if this were not so.

But think now about what was just said. How was the state described in the last few sentences? What was assumed about how states are compelled to act? The word "self" was used several times in connection with the idea of "national self-interest." And the word "act" was used, clearly revealing that states act as integral entities, making certain policies that express the state's "will." What is the meaning of these terms? If states cannot be held accountable as moral persons, can they be accepted as immoral, or selfcentered persons? If states are not "selves" capable of moral acts and responsibilities, then why should we grant that they are "selves" allowed to act immorally?

What has happened, you see, is that a framework of moral meaning has been rejected on the grounds that the state is not a moral agent; but at the same time a framework of personal, behavioral meaning has been retained (however analogically or metaphorically) in order to explain and interpret a state's actions in the international context. And in this context a state's "self-interested actions" are then justified as necessary and legitimate. While our attention was focused on the question of morality, we were led to believe that states cannot be expected to act always according to moral principle. But if we turn our attention to the meaning or "person," "self," "will," and "act," then we can see that the question of morality and immorality is not the primary issue; for the more fundamental question is about two different kinds of "persons" that can "act," and about two different sorts of principles that ought to guide them, given their respectively different identities. States are not individual persons; international relations are not the same as interpersonal relations. But states do have responsibilities, and their leaders must constantly make judgments about how they ought to act. Our conclusion, then, is that political and military questions are unavoidably and inevitably moral questions: not questions of individual morality, but questions of political morality.

Upon closer examination, in fact, we find that the realists have not relinquished morality and normativity at all. They have always argued quite vigorously about how states ought to act in order to preserve their own interests and in order to preserve as much international peace and stability as possible. Realism, therefore, is clearly not opposed to moral judgments; it has merely tried to free itself from a certain kind of idealistic moralism that it finds unacceptable. It has tried to erect a framework for making political judgments in the international arena which can legitimate self-interested acts on the part of particular states. Realism, then is a moral philosophy which provides a rationalization for states to act pragmatically in their own interests.2

Unfortunately, many realists have become confined by the restrictions of yesterday's moral assumptions and judgments because they have become uncritical pragma-

Use of the slogans "realism " and etnational interest" does not in itself guarantee thatpolitical reality is being dealt with in the best way possible, either realistically or ethically.

tists. Thus, all their efforts at pragmatic and technological adjustment do not take them deeply enough into a reassessment of the full human meaning of international politics. In the name of realism they have refused to continue the ongoing moral debate about what government responsibility should be in the international arena today.

It seems to me, therefore, that we must reject the problem in the way that contemporary realism and pragmatism pose it for us. Use of the slogans "realism" and "national interest" does not in itself guarantee that political reality is being dealt with in the best way possible, either realistically or ethically. To argue that a certain defense policy will serve the national interest does nothing to unveil what is meant by the national interest or why that interest ought to be served in that way. And if at a particular time in a state's history a foreign policy consensus does not exist, then the debate required at that moment will have to be a debate about the whole meaning of political reality, including ethical principles and moral purpose as well as technological limits and shifting power alignments. For us to take up questions of an ethical nature, then, is not an illegitimate intrusion into the realm of hardnosed politics where ethics doesn't really belong. Rather it is an essential exercise within the human domain of political reality-a reality that is always a realm of responsible action where questions of principle must be raised.

In what follows I want to make a case for why we need a somewhat different outlook on, and approach to, U.S. foreign policy, particularly defense policy. My contention is that U.S. defense policy is currently being fashioned in far too restricted a framework due to the inadequate moral/political vision that we and our political leaders generally accept. What is that restricted vision and why is it inadequate?

Contradictions in U.S. Policy

Let us begin by noting some of the inconsistencies and contradictions in U.S. policy. There is, first of all, the growing recognition on many sides that an increasing number of international problems are political and not merely technical. Yet so many of our approaches to (and expenditures for) those problems are guided by the hope of

Prepared for the 1980 Science, Philosophy, and Religion Symposium, September 11-13, 1980, Air Force Weapons Laboratory, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.

technological solutions, especially big technological solutions. As Air Force Secretary, Hans Mark argued, for example, 

we must make a conscious national effort at technology development, aimed at reindustrializing the U.S. and modernizing our industrial plant. We must start with people, and, once again, in the long term, make it attractive for them to go into technical and engineering fields. We must then play to the strengths of those technologies we already have where we now lead; that is, aviation, electronics, synthetics, and so forth, and make a conscious effort to develop new ones where we have serious problems. I firmly believe that this is the only way we will retain out position as a major nation.3

But haven't we learned from our lack of military success in Vietnam and from the Shah's downfall in Iran that massive military machines and technical superiority are not enough to keep a state strong and healthy? If an MX missile system undermines the confidence of many citizens in the western United States, destroys a delicate environmental balance, and fuels inflation with its billions of dollars of expense, will the U.S. be a more secure place to live? Is big technology the first and best hope that we have, or is it a quickly chosen substitute for political sufficiency and wisdom?

Consider another contradiction. Supposedly our defense policy is built on the commitment to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, yet global proliferation grows at an alarming rate and the U.S. spends billions more each year on the further development of its nuclear capability, both for military and domestic energy purposes4, Which will it be?

A third inconsistency concerns the quest for invulnerability in defense. in an absolute sense invulnerability of a state to nuclear attack cannot be attained or guaranteed by purely military and strategic means, yet our defense research and testing continue to follow precisely that ever receding goal of ultimate security. Deterrence is by its very nature a strategy that cannot be guaranteed of success. Moreover, if the Soviet Union or any other country ever decides to unleash a nuclear first strike against the U.S., or if a conventional war escalates to the point where nuclear weapons begin to be used against us, there simply is no way for the U.S. to guarantee its security. These are simple facts that cannot be ignored. But what did then Defense Secretary Harold Brown say in 1980? In quest of the impossible goal of guaranteed security through greater and greater technological efforts and expenditures, Brown argued: "We must have the forces, contingency plans and command control capabilities that will convine the Soviet leadership that no war and no course of aggression by them that led to the use of nuclear weapons could lead to victory, however they may define victory."' But when will we ever be certain that we know that the Soviet leaders know that they cannot win any nuclear war? We don't have that assurance now, apparently, so what will it take for us to obtain it?

Brown's argument is caught in the inescapable trap of what John Herz has termed the "security dilemma." Striving to attain security against attack by an enemy or potential enemy, states "are driven to acquire more and more power in order to escape the impact of the power of others. This, in turn, renders the others more insecure and compels them to prepare for the worst. Since none can ever feet entirely secure in such a world of competing units, power competition ensues, and the vicious circle of security and power accumulation is on."' Our growth in armaments, designed to convince the Soviets that they can never win against us, only proves to them that their own worst fears of our aggressive intentions are true.

U.S. defense policy is rooted, supposedly, in the assumptions that a nuclear war should not be started, that nuclear war will be nearly impossible to control, and that a nuclear war probably cannot be won. Yet actual spending and strategic planning give every indication to an enemy that the U.S. might act as if those assumptions are not true. Secretary Brown said that our current defense expenditures must be predicated on the assumption that the "Soviets may not believe that nuclear war is unwinnable," and thus we must plan for "more-and more selective-retaliatory options."' But what impression will such deeds actually convey? Our deeds of strategic enlargement suggest that we will not act as if a nuclear war is unwinnable as long as the Soviets do not think that it is unwinnable. Such an approach obviously suggests that we are prepared to act as if a nuclear war can be won or at least not lost. Given that logic, however, there is no way to avoid the conclusion that what we say contradicts what we do, and deeds always speak louder than words. The Soviet Union and others, even our allies, will have to take into their calculations, as they are now doing, the fact that the U.S. is increasingly acting as if it must plan to fight and win a nuclear war, with its own interests the only ultimate concern. It doesn't take much reflection to see that security is not guaranteed by that process. Bernard T. Feld of MIT says that the only possibility for real arms limitation, and thus for real security, is for the U.S. and the Soviet Union to agree to a nofirst-strike posture.' Is the U.S. doing everything within its power to help bring about such an agreement at this time?

A False Ideal: Being Number One

All of these contradictions, bring us back to the question of why? What is the source of these contradictions, and is there anything that can be changed to allow for a less contradictory or more consistent defense policy?

The key to understanding our predicament, I believe, is to recognize that U.S. citizens, government leaders, and defense strategists have, by and large, accepted a false ideal that plays havoc with any realistic and ethical planning for U.S. security. We have committed ourselves, our country, to a misleading quest-to a program that simply cannot be fulfilled. That ideal, that program, that quest is to try to guarantee American preeminence in the world-to try keep America Number One.

Let there be no misunderstanding of what I am saying. I am not arguing that we should aim to be Number Two, or Number Ten. I am not arguing that the U.S. should unilaterally disarm and pretend that power alignments and defense positions don't matter. I am not arguing that it would be better for someone else to be Number One.

No, my argument is that a state should not allow a certain power status to function as an aim of its foreign policy. The relative status of any state, whether a minipower or superpower, cannot be obtained by its own intentions and designs. A state cannot become Number One nor remain Number One by an act of political or military will, anymore than a person can become happy or remain happy by an act of will. Personal happiness is a by-product of other aims in life; it is a consequence of a host of interrelated factors that an individual can never entirely control. I might decide that I am going to be happy today, but a falling board or a slippery sidewalk might put me in the hospital with a devastating sense of unhappiness.

The U.S. did not become a superpower or the Number One state in the world by an act of its own political will. The interpretations of how and why the U.S. has become so powerful are numerous. Some emphasize the expanding economic interests that motivated American leaders, especially after the great depression. Others stress the almost accidental character of America's rise to power following World War 11 when the U.S. filled much of the power vacuum left by the devastation of Europe and the collapse of British, French, and other European empires around the world. Still others are impressed with the radical change brought about within the military bureaucracy and the executive branch of the federal government following the development of nuclear weapons. All of these, along with other factors, must be taken into account in any effort to understand the historical context in which we are examining the legitimate aim of American defense policy. What is certain, however, is that the U.S. government did not and could not have become Number One simply by deciding to do so. And now the question is whether the aim of keeping that status does not function as a misleading aim that keeps us from dealing properly, realistically, and ethically with reality. Let me pursue that question by means of six other questions.

1. Are nuclear weapons something that the U.S. can develop, control, depend upon, and use in a way that enhances its own interests and guarantees its present status in the world no matter what others do? Can the U.S. simply aim for its own preeminence in this regard? Of course not, and all the U.S. efforts to establish multilateral treaties limiting or banning nuclear weapons demonstrate its awareness that its own interests and status are tied up with the common interests of all states. The real question is whether the U.S. is pressing for arms control and reductions with the same vigor as it is attempting to stay ahead of everyone else in nuclear technology. It not, and if contradictions between these two aims appear, then which one should give way to the other? If U.S. nuclear power remains Number One, it should be only as a result of another aim-namely, to limit and reduce the possibility of using nuclear weapons in war. But it might very well be that the U.S. does not have to remain Number One in nuclear weapons technology and strategy to help bring an end to the nuclear arms spiral upward. In fact, its very effort to remain on top might be standing in the way of a new and better strategy for limiting proliferation and the use of nuclear weapons.

2. Can the U.S. seek its own interests first or maintain its Number One status in a multipolar world by remaining permanently organized for war, even if most of the wars that it might enter are likely to reduce its relative power and wealth? No, of course not! The Korean Conflict did not diminish Chinese or Soviet power and enhance U.S. power, but only aided the military growth of both communist giants. Vietnam did not prove that America is pre-eminent, but showed that a certain kind of guerrilla warfare can outlast and wear down the most powerful military machine under certain circumstances. Massive military preparedness, even when necessary, cannot assure a country that its own interests will be served or that its Number One status will be maintained. Other goals and purposes must be sought by civilian and military leaders. Even within the military, many other aspects of strength must be considered besides the advanced technological character of big systems. As Pentagon advisor, William Kaufmann pointed out, "the Iran and Afghanistan crises lie outside the area where strategic nuclear weapons are of any use." The U.S., he says, should "drop the pretense that nuclear weapons will somehow extricate the United States from the confrontations and hazards of the future."' The point is that strategic and conventional war machines, even if Number One, are not enough, and in the absence of other aims and wise strategies in an interdependent world, those machines might even be a hindrance to real peace and security.

3. Can technological growth guarantee the U.S. its Number One position? Certainly not! Swiss watchmakers, Japanese car manufacturers, and Russian missile engineers

James W. Skillen received his AB from Wheaton College, BD from Westminster Theological Seminary, and PhD in political science from Duke University. He has served on the faculty of Dordt College (1978-1982), Gordon College (1975-1978), and Messiah College (1973-1975), and is currently Executive Director of the Association for Public Justice in Washington, D.C. He is the author of International Politics and the Demand for Global Justice (1981) and Christians Organizing for Political Service (1980), and is the editor of Confessing Christ and Doing Politics (1982).

might find ways to advance beyond U.S. capabilities regardless of how much money or effort the U.S. puts into technology. Technology is not something that one country can monopolize even if it wants to do so. Moreover, an unlimited faith and excessive investment in big technology can sap energy from other kinds of human activities that are essential if people and states are to be strong. Even within the military we can ask whether today the U.S. has a well-balanced capability on all sides and in all dimensions, or whether it has become unbalanced in the direction of big weapons systems. But beyond the military there are important questions to be asked about the balance of our entire society and the balance of global political, economic, and social systems. Hitler's Germany was technologically advanced, but we hardly admire the character of that regime. What kinds of human goals are we encouraging in the U.S. with so much emphasis placed on a particular kind of technological growth? Do we really want to be Number One in missiles, but only Number Six in health care, or Number Ten in having a trustworthy government, or Number Twenty in urban safety? Is that real security?

4. Should we accept Third World poverty and instability
as an inevitable fact that perhaps even highlights American wealth and power? Or could it be that real strength even for the U.S. ties in a more just world order where other countries become more self-sufficient, more productive, and more mature participants in defining the global context in which all states function? Robert S. McNamara warned that "We cannot build a secure world upon a foundation of human misery." Nurturing social justice is essential and realistic, not a useless ideal." I am not suggesting that somehow the U.S. could unilaterally create a just world order if only it were not aiming to remain Number One in power and status. I am simply asking whether the latter aim does not keep us from making the kind of major effort toward the former goal, with the consequence that we end up saying one thing and doing quite another.

5. Will the continuing quest to guarantee U.S. economic interests around the world keep the U.S. Number One? If we insist on threatening to invade the Middle East to get the oil we need to fuel our economy, will we thereby build up healthy and secure interdependencies with other states? Once again, the answer is No! There is something pitiful about a person or a state that cannot live within its means, that cannot adjust to a reasonable amount of income and resources, that must resort to theft and violence and intimidation to take over or to hold onto what is not really within its own domain. If at this moment the U.S. were putting as much effort into energy conservation and the development of renewable resources as it is into preparations for strategic and conventional war to secure its hold on Middle East oil, both we and the rest of the world would be safer and more secure. Moreover, inflation, unemployment, recession, and balance of trade deficits in the U.S. are closely bound up with the world economy. These are global problems. International cooperation is required at the start not simply at the end of the line. But cooperation requires that states seek their common interests together in a just manner. Other states are not going to accept the U.S. goal of remaining Number One as a legitimate, common goal anymore than the U.S. would be willing to orient all of its policies to keeping some other state Number One.

6. Is hardnosed pragmatism the one sure method for guaranteeing America's privileged place in the world? No, the problem with pragmatism is that it leaves unexamined the underlying assumptions that structure 'its problemsolving approach. Pragmatism can try to solve problems only within the framework of assumptions that has already been accepted. But this means that any faith in pragmatism is a faith in yesterday's assumptions; it means putting our future in the hands of yesterday's visionaries. Has it not

If we can reorient our planning away from trying to remain Number One and toward building just relationships among states whatever our status, then we will be able to recognize false and unethical ideals for what they are.

become clear, however, that the U.S. needs some new understanding, some new purposes, some new goals in a world that bears no resemblance to pre-industrialized Europe, a world which is even different from pre-energy crisis North America? A Number One America in 1950 will not necessarily be Number One in 1990 even if it refuses to accept that possibility. The question that the U.S. must ask, but which the pragmatists cannot answer, is "What ought to guide U.S. policy making now?"

The goal of "America First" or of "Keeping the U.S. Number One" cannot function as a meaningful goal of defense or foreign policy. It is a false god, a wooden idol, a romantic wish for happiness and security that functions as a substitute for genuine political norms and purposes. It is an ideal that does not help decision-makers give a proper response to reality. If U.S. interests are served, if the U.S. remains a strong country in the world, that will come as a by-product of the countless decisions that many states make with and without U.S. concurrence. In the coming decade America's role in the world depends on the degree to which it can help to build a more just and commonly acceptable world order. U.S. strength will rise or fall as a consequence of the many goals that it and other states seek in concert or at odds with one another. Its strength depends upon the norms that it obeys and upon the justice or injustice that it promotes. Being Number One is not a status that a state can obtain or maintain on its own by its own acts of political and military will.

If we can reorient our planning away from trying to remain Number One and toward building just relationships among states whatever our status, then we will be able to recognize false and unethical ideals for what they are. We will then become free to try to live within our means, free to quit thinking about trying to invade some foreign territory to secure more energy than is our due. We will work harder at subjecting ourselves as well as others to a global structure of arms limitations and non-proliferation. We will then be able to gain considerably more help from other states in putting the right kind of pressure on the Soviet Union to reduce its similarly misguided quest for an impossible security based on sheer military power. We will become more secure as a country of justice contributing to justice for all.


Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Scribners, 1960). For further discussion, see Robert DeVries, "Moral Principle and Foreign Policy-making," Christian Scholar's Review, vol. 6 (1977), pp 303-316.

One of the best representatives of "realism" is Hans Morgenthau. See his books
Truth and Pow er (New York: Praeger, 1970), and Politics Among Nations (New York: Knopf, 1967). For a substantial discussion of Morgenthau, See Cecil B. Crabb, Jr., and June Savoy, "Hans J. Morgenthau's Version of Realpolitik, " The Political Science Reviewer, vol. 5 (Fall, 1975), pp. 189-228; and James W. Skillen, International Politics and the Demand For Global Justice (Sioux Center, Iowa: Dordt College Press, 1981).

3Quoted by John K. Cooley in the Christian Science Monitor, May 16, 1980, p. 10. Compare this with the attitude of some at the Nonproliferation Treaty review conference in Geneva (August I I-September 5, 1980) who say that it is already too late for technological fixes. See the Christian Science Monitor, September 3, 1980, p. 5. Also see Pierre Lellouche, "International Nuclear Politics," Foreign Affairs (Winter, 1979/80), pp. 336-350.

4See Amory B. Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins, and Leonard Ross, "Nuclear Power and Nuclear Bombs," Foreign Affairs (Summer, 1980), pp. 1137-1177; and Robert C. Johansen, "Non-Progress in Non-Proliferation," Sojourners (September, 1980), pp. 3-5.

5Quoted in Des Moines Register, August 21, 1980.

6John H. Herz,
The Nation-State and the Crisis of World Politics (New York: David McKay Co., 1976), p. 73,

7Quoted in Des Moines Register, August 21, 1980.

8Christian Science Monitor, May 16, 1980.

9Christian Science Monitor, M
arch 25, 1980.

10Article in
The Des Moines Register, June 8, 1979.