11/09/2011 - 16:32

A democratic theory of disarmament

Kennette Benedict

Kennette Benedict

Benedict came to the Bulletin from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, where she directed the international peace and...


In a recent editorial, The New York Times proposed that "All Americans need to be part of [the] discussion" to reassess "where nuclear weapons fit in today's world" and went on to suggest cuts to the US nuclear weapons budget. The proposed reductions make good sense, but it will take more than looking at numbers on a spreadsheet for "all Americans" to be able to take part in a reassessment of nuclear weapons policy. At a minimum, it will take an end to government secrecy about nuclear forces; an honest account of the effects of nuclear bombs if used "by accident, miscalculation, or madness"; and recognition by government officials and experts alike that ordinary citizens can know enough about nuclear weapons to make intelligent decisions based on their own interests.

All but a small group of experts have been kept out of nuclear decision-making on the grounds of national security. Even so, citizens have found effective strategies over the years to influence these decisions. They protested nuclear testing in the 1950s, publicly criticized the build-up of nuclear arsenals in the 1980s, and took to the streets against the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. These protests, in turn, spurred leaders to negotiate an end to atmospheric nuclear testing in 1963, a halt to the US weapons build-up of the early 1980s, and, finally, an end to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

These successes have led to a safer world, yet they have been achieved within a framework of deterrence and strategic games, where nuclear weapons often are treated as bargaining chips. This old framework of deterrence, balancing, and arms control may not be sufficient to bring about irreversible change. And, as important as they are, we may need more than treaties and budget reductions to deal with weapons of mass destruction. Pushing back the hand of the Doomsday Clock for good will depend on our ability to develop new habits of thought and what I call a "democratic theory of disarmament."

Much has changed since the dawn of the nuclear age, when theories of nuclear deterrence were first devised. We are no longer engaged in mounting hostilities between two superpowers. Once-closed societies are developing democratic institutions. In Europe, Latin America, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Russia, and even in China, as well as in parts of the Middle East, there are more elected governments, more journalistic freedoms, more information available through the Internet, and more attention to public opinion and the word on the street than at any time in history. We have seen people's movements help bring down the Berlin Wall and mount effective challenges to rulers in Poland, the Philippines, Ukraine, Chile, and South Africa, to name a few.

These trends, along with the effectiveness of those earlier democratic protests in the United States and Europe, suggest new ways to deal with the nuclear weapons problem. It no longer makes sense, if it ever did, to leave nuclear weapons policy-making to military, political, and security experts alone. After all, the weapons we are talking about are not war-fighting weapons. These are weapons of genocide -- of the destruction of peoples. They annihilate the demos -- the populace -- the very basis of democracy. Millions of people will be lost, and societies torn asunder because governments cannot protect their citizens from such weapons. And so, citizens must raise their voices to protect themselves.

Of course, to participate effectively in decisions about nuclear weapons, people need to be informed. But experts tell them -- and even knowledgeable citizens often believe -- that these matters are too complicated for them to understand and are best left to political leaders, diplomats, and generals. So citizens not only need information; they need empowerment. They must feel they have a right to learn about, talk about, and make judgments about nuclear weapons. Just as you don't need to understand the chemistry of cloud formation and hydrological cycles to know you want protection from storms, tornados, droughts, and floods, you also don't need to understand the physics of nuclear fission, how to make a nuclear bomb, or the intricacies of deterrence theory to know that you want to be spared from the overwhelming destruction of the most dangerous weapons on Earth.

As the Times editorial suggests, the opportunity is ripe for citizens to act. The United States and other nuclear weapon states need to make choices and drastic cuts during these hard economic times, and leaders will need to consult widely to serve the broadest interests. In democratic countries, citizens require much more information than they have had in the past to be able to participate in difficult nuclear decisions. So governments need to lift the veil of secrecy over nuclear forces, reveal their real costs, and provide honest accounts about risks, threats, and accidents, from US arsenals, as well as others. There is little doubt that citizens have the right to express their interests and to demand that leaders rid societies of nuclear weapons -- weapons that are the very antithesis of democracy. And, by exercising that right, they can turn the democratic theory of disarmament into practice.