Can true democracy exist in a nuclear weapon state?

By Kennette Benedict | February 24, 2014

Nuclear weapons and democracy do not mix. So argued Robert Dahl, a revered political scientist at Yale University, who died in February at the age of 98. His book Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy versus Guardianship is a powerful statement on the inherent contradiction between deploying nuclear weapons and governing by democracy. In it he observes that secrecy in nuclear policymaking coupled with the centralized and rapid decision making required by launch-on-warning protocols results in rule by guardians of the nuclear arsenal, rather than the people and their representatives. 

While we mourn the passing of a great theorist of democracy, we are fortunate that, in her new book Thermonuclear Monarchy, Elaine Scarry takes up where Dahl and others left off. Where Dahl drew on Aristotle’s theories, Scarry draws from the 17th century political philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, to show that nuclear weapons and democracy are contradictory. What makes Scarry’s argument so original is that she lodges the rationale for ridding our society of nuclear weapons in the very theoretical traditions, especially in Hobbes’ work, that have been used to justify leaders’ power to use nuclear weapons. In doing so, she reclaims the radically democratic intentions of Hobbes, Locke, and the founders of the United States.

Hobbes wrote at a time when the experience of nearly constant war in Europe led political thinkers to search for governing frameworks that would lead to peace. They developed ideas about the social contract that James Madison and others later drew upon to create the American constitution. Most succinctly put, the radical idea of the mid-1600s proposed that the covenant among people is established to eliminate injury. As Locke wrote, individuals enter into the social contract to “secure them from injury and violence.” For Hobbes, persons cede individual power to a legislature or sovereign to get themselves out of “that miserable condition of Warre.” The social contract, whereby individuals agree to subject themselves to the law, empowers the sovereign government to stop injury, even by use of force and imprisonment if necessary, but only after elaborate procedures are followed that provide for trial by a jury of peers. Where the social contract falls apart, as in today’s Syria, war is the result.

When it comes to a population being injured by another government, however, Hobbes makes it clear that, to preserve themselves, the people have the right to determine whether their own government shall go to war. Through legislative and parliamentary debate, and the service of citizen-soldiers, a sovereign government is subject to direction and objections from the population. It is not the sovereign’s prerogative alone to declare war, as some Hobbesian theorists have contended. Hobbes himself asserted that where all are affected by violence, all must participate in the remedy. In the case of war to fend off an enemy, in which the whole population must be mobilized to preserve society, the people must have a say in whether and when to engage.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, though, the conduct of war lies wholly outside the social contract between citizens and their government. First, the injury that thermonuclear weapons would cause another country is so massive that it is impossible to conceive conditions under which using them as retaliation would be required, unless a people had first suffered themselves from a devastating nuclear attack. But the nuclear doctrine of launch-on-warning, which sends missiles in retaliation even before the enemy’s have landed, allows for no deliberation.

Second, since their secret invention in the midst of World War II, there has been no public democratic discussion on nuclear weapons use. Information about the number of weapons, their capabilities, their targets, and their readiness are all classified. So it has been impossible for even US congressional representatives to participate in open debate about how to use these weapons of massive civilian destruction. While US elected officials have insisted on debates about whether to invade Iraq or Iran, they have had no opportunity to debate whether or when to use nuclear weapons. 

During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, US military strategists argued that the threat of surprise nuclear attack with intercontinental ballistic missiles left no time for debate. Such thinking drove US leaders to believe that the only defense against nuclear attack was to threaten massive instant retaliation. Their advisors invoked Hobbes, claiming that the social contract that lodged responsibility in the sovereign for protecting the people gave the president the moral authority to launch nuclear arsenals on their behalf. As Scarry argues in her book, however, just as individuals cannot injure one another without the government intervening, a government cannot injure another country’s population without the absolute consent of its own people. Otherwise, the sovereign becomes a tyrant, acting on its own outside the social contract between people and government. That is why the framers of the US constitution lodged the power to declare war with Congress rather than the president. Following in the tradition of the social contract, they believed ceding such power to the executive would contribute to lawlessness among nations, and a state of perpetual war. In a supreme irony, by threatening the authoritarian leaders of the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons, the United States itself became a nuclear tyrant.

As it stands today, however, even after the end of the Soviet dictatorship, Americans have continued to cede the right to collectively decide when the government will go to nuclear war. In this decision it has ceased to be democratic. The people have no voice in the most significant decision the United States government can make—whether to injure another society with weapons of mass destruction. There is no other way to put it. When it comes to the possession and use of nuclear weapons, Elaine Scarry is right: Americans live in a thermonuclear monarchy.

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