I'll begin with straightforward proposition: we have a right to defend ourselves. By "defend ourselves" I mean use force to protect ourselves from violence. This is hardly controversial, although I understand that there are pacifists who would choose not to defend themselves if they were attacked. I respect that choice, although the matter becomes much more complicated when pacifists choose not to defend other people who are being attacked. It is one thing if I allow myself to be beaten; it is quite another if I allow someone else to be beaten.
And it is the question of others I wish to address. Proceeding from our non-controversial assumption (we have a right to defend ourselves) we must recognize at once that the moral and legal right to self-defense exists within certain ethical limits. For instance, before using force, I should exhaust or have been presented with no peaceful means of resolving the situation, and the force I deploy must be proportional to the threat. If you push me in anger, I may not strike you dead, unless I have very good reason to believe that you pose a further, imminent threat to my life or someone else's life. Above all, I do not have a right to defend myself in a way that harms innocent third parties. I can defend myself from you, but I can't burn down your neighbour's house in the process.
For this reason I believe that the government of Canada should use such weight as it has in the councils of NATO and the United Nations to make urgent appeals for the reduction of nuclear armaments in the world. Much has already been accomplished: the number of nuclear weapons in the world today is lower than it has been in nearly five decades. But thousands of weapons remain, ready to be launched from their silos and submarines and dropped from bombers at a moment's notice, and if they were all used at once our civilization would perish in the process. Even a small exchange, equal to, say, one percent of the weapons available, would result in a catastrophe greater than either of the World Wars.
As a member of NATO, Canada is party to an alliance that has always made nuclear weapons one of the cornerstones of its strategic and tactical planning. Three members of NATO possess nuclear weapons of their own, and for many decades American nuclear weapons were based on Canadian soil. But it is almost impossible to imagine that nuclear weapons could be used without claiming the lives of people who are not party to the conflict, thus violating the ethical principle stated above. The leaders of Russia, China, and the United States have a right to defend themselves against each other, but they do not have a right to kill Ukrainians, Laotians, and Mexicans in the process, which they almost certainly would if nuclear weapons were used.
During the Cold War, Bertrand Russell suggested that surrender was the only moral option when confronted with a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the other side. For this, he was dismissed as a raving crank (not for the first time), but in retrospect the argument makes sense. It would have availed the President of the United States nothing to retaliate after the Soviet Union had launched its thousands of nuclear weapons towards America. Nothing the President could have done at that point would have saved his country from total destruction. But he could have chosen not to take the lives of the millions of innocent people in non-aligned countries who would surely have died in the nuclear winds that would have followed an American retaliation. Needless to say, a policy of non-retaliation would have had to have been kept secret lest it embolden the enemy to attack. But it was, in Russell's view, the self-evident moral duty of any President confronted with those circumstances, and it's hard to see how he was wrong.
Our world is different, but not so different that the governments of the United States and Russia do not see fit to retain thousands of strategic nuclear weapons between them (links to another, less comforting estimate - see page three.) They do not retain these vast arsenals in order to protect themselves from rogue states and terrorists. They have them because of each other, and beneath the smiling and handshakes of American and Russian leaders at summits are men wearing suicide vests. (American liberals who are supporters of Barack Obama should be aware that it is Senator John McCain who has been most vocal in his advocacy of reducing nuclear armaments.)
I will repeat that it is an urgent cause to pressure governments to reduce the size of their nuclear arsenals. Canadians can start by writing letters to their own MPs, encouraging them to put the issue on the agenda at NATO summits. Atomic bombs are older than colour televisions, and it is impossible to imagine that they will ever be eradicated from the Earth, but reducing their number would lessen the incalculable human impact of their general use.
Unfortunately, this is not a cause that the political left shows much interest in anymore. Self-proclaimed peace activists on campuses across North America and Western Europe profess an intolerance for violence in the course of human affairs, but in fact their animus is directed only at one side in the current global struggle. When an American bomb falls anywhere in the world, their denunciation is automatic and axiomatic; when terrorists fly airplanes into buildings, they urge us to consider that the terrorists were genuinely and perhaps justifiable aggrieved. It seems unlikely that people who believe that Osama bin Laden is the purveyor of some kind of liberation theology can ever be persuaded to redirect their "activism" towards a truly just and urgent cause. We will have to do it without them, but perhaps that is for the best anyway.