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A project from the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC


Disarmament and Deterrence:
A Strategic Dialogue Toward a Less-Threatening Nuclear Reality


We are closer to nuclear conflict than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

This project explores one of the urgent but undebated issues of our time: The reality that the geo-political rivalry between the U.S., a rising China, and revanchist Russia threatens to break out in nuclear war—a scenario made more urgent by the rise of cyberwarfare, hypersonic weapons, and the new potential for AI-generated cyberweapons to take control of the nuclear strike capacities of competing nations. Recent media reports argue that nuclear conflict “is more likely now than at any other time since the Cold War.”

These dynamics have led multiple countries (including the U.S.) to implement massive “modernization” and expansion of their nuclear war-fighting capacity. This nuclear deterrence approach dominates modern strategic nuclear thinking (except among minority nuclear strategists contemplating actual first use of nuclear weapons). Meanwhile, through the last four decades some nuclear strategists — in part prompted by the American Catholic bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace — have argued that the only rational and ethical response to these realities is multilateral and verifiable nuclear arms control and disarmament. More recently, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis have all endorsed something approximating the latter approach, in the service of both peace and integral human development among broader sectors of human society. But other nuclear strategists, including those informing U.S. policy (more briefly here), argue that deterrence of adversaries via a strong nuclear weapons profile is the rational and ethical response to the above realities.

Archbishop John C. Wester of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and Albuquerque issued in 2022 Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace: A conversation towards nuclear disarmament. This pastoral letter built on the above legacy to renew calls for multilateral and verifiable nuclear disarmament worldwide. Archbishop Wester received subsequent public support from other bishops around the world, and along with the bishops of Seattle, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki co-led a 2023 pilgrimage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki reinforcing the call. Noteworthy, of course, is that these voices represent dioceses in New Mexico (home to two both Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories where much of the U.S. nuclear weapons development and production occur); the state of Washington (home to the largest nuclear-armed submarine fleet); and the only cities where nuclear weapons have ever been used.

Yet despite important prior efforts at public dialogue, remarkably little engagement has occurred between the current strategists of nuclear deterrence that set American nuclear policy and the religious/ethical or strategic/political voices calling for mutual and verifiable nuclear disarmament as national policy. The engagement across this divide has had little impact on nuclear strategic thinking. This project will engage contrasting strategic and ethical arguments regarding the best approaches to the new geo-strategic realities of the contemporary world.

In September 2024, we will convene the intellectual architects of both disarmament and deterrence approaches to nuclear weapons policy from both Catholic and secular strategic perspectives to engage in a structured dialogue. Due to the sensitivity of the issues to be discussed, the dialogue will not be fully public and will include an expectation that the interlocutors not quote or represent others’ views outside the dialogue setting. However, a closing public forum will invite the participants to reflect on the dialogue, profile their own pre-existing stances and new insights emerging from the conversation, and engage with the broader public both in New Mexico and beyond via livestreaming.

The forum will take place in New Mexico, reflecting its desirability as a destination and its centrality in the national nuclear reality. We have secured commitments from prominent scholars and key Church leaders to be involved in the event, including Archbishop Wester. We have reached out to national nuclear strategists and the leadership of the national nuclear laboratories for their engagement. The event will be co-sponsored by the University of New Mexico and the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC, with the intention that it initiate a wider, continuing dialogue on this topic.

Why now?

New geo-strategic dynamics have emerged in the world and we must each face the reality that our world could soon be decimated by nuclear war. Even a limited nuclear exchange would likely increase the risk of full nuclear war. We can only assume that such an outcome remains unthinkable via new approaches to nuclear strategy. Perhaps more than any other source, the Catholic ethical tradition in dialogue with secular thinkers and policymakers offers resources for the new thinking required. This effort strives to expand the next stage of that new thinking.

For more information, please contact us at

The flame of peace in Hiroshima


Most Rev. John C. Wester, archbishop of Santa Fe and Albuquerque

Dr. Richard Wood, IACS president


More participants to be announced!