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"Wars are stupid and can therefore only be caused by people who are more stupid than those who recognize the stupidity of war."

As my professor read those words during a recent religion and political order class at the University of Chicago, a wistfulness came over me. I wished wars were merely nonsensical. Then they would be easy to stop: All we'd have to do is educate warmongers out of their ignorance.

The theologian who penned the statement, Reinhold Niebuhr, didn't believe it either. He meant it as a characterization of the Christian pacifism he had espoused before he saw what the fascists were up to in the 1930s. Eventually, he articulated a view of world politics called Christian realism, which influenced his student Dietrich Bonhoeffer, contributed to the development of just-war theory, and today shows up in Barack Obama's public statements.

As I thought about Niebuhr, my mind went to a recent book by William Langewiesche, whose pithy, world-enlarging reporting made The Atlantic Monthly a must-subscribe in my home. In The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, Langewiesche attempts to disarm fears of nuclear doom. He does it by pointing out that international hostilities—especially ones that involve the development of nuclear weapons—are far from stupid.

A nuclear-free world is not realistic, Langewiesche argues; poorer countries will inevitably join the group of countries we like to think are more responsible in stockpiling nukes. North Korea and Iran are just the beginning.

Politicians may paint some developing nations as evil, but their production of nuclear weapons signals to Langewiesche that they're making rational choices. Nuclear weapons are the wisest investment cash-strapped countries can make. ...

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August 2007

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