Sunday, April 23, 2017

by Rune Nyrup

Are nuclear weapons a threat, not just to the people in countries threatened by them, but also to the democracy in countries controlling them? The provocative thesis of Professor Elaine Scarry (Harvard University) talks was: Yes!, in fact democracy and nuclear weapons are utterly incompatible.

More precisely, she argued that nuclear weapons have, as a matter of fact, led to worrying changes in government away from democracy including a media culture in which voices critical of nuclear weapons are virtually inaudible. On the other hand, she argued, the constitutional frameworks of democratic states have the power to abolish nuclear weapons, if we choose to use them.

The starting point for the talk was the following thought experiment:

Imagine a world in which a single nation has managed to install an intricate system of trapdoors under all other countries, such that the leader of this privileged country can, at will, decide to instantly drop the floor away from underneath the whole or part of the population of a given country. The other countries in such a world would of course be in a precarious situation, and feel an urgent need to either keep friendly with the country controlling the “flexible floors” technology or gain access to a version of the system themselves. The other countries would be wise to routinely praise the virtues of the privileged country, and it would be difficult to seriously challenge or criticise its position. When criticism were actually raised of the flexible floors technology, it is likely that the citizens of the country in control would perceive such criticism as merely expressing envy. After all, most countries of the world routinely praise the virtues of their country!

This thought experiment is supposed to illustrate, among other things, that there is nothing special about the specific technology involved in nuclear weapons or other forms of actually existing “weapons of mass destruction”. The crucial feature common to all of these, in Scarry's terminology, is that they are out of ratio weapons, i.e. that they are weapon systems where one or a few people can decide, at very short notice, to kill millions of people virtually anywhere in the world.

In support of the thesis that critical voices are virtually inaudible, Scarry highlighted a number of facts about nuclear weapons that are hardly, if ever, discussed critically in mainstream media. For instance, the fact that most of the nuclear-armed submarines (the system best suited for a first-use attack) owned by the USA and the UK were built in the 1990s, going against the common perception that the nuclear arsenal is a leftover from the Cold War.

Most relevant for Scarry's main thesis is that fact that the decision to deploy nuclear weapons is completely removed from democratic control, and decided exclusively by Presidents and their closest advisers. Deliberations about the use of nuclear weapons are not open to the public, and are usually only revealed decades after the fact. This is not an accidental feature of the weapons, but necessary for them to be used effectively. The decision to cause massive, indiscriminate destruction could not be justified publicly. Furthermore, Scarry argued, being in control of kind of power has a worrying tendency to induce arrogance and a feeling of being above constitutional and public democratic control.

On the more optimistic side, Scarry argued that provisions sufficient to rule out the use of nuclear weapons already exist in the constitutional framework of the US and elsewhere. Specifically, she highlighted two features. Firstly, that congress is required to pass a resolution formally declaring war. As a matter of fact, these have not seriously been used since the Second World War, i.e. after the invention of nuclear weapons. Second, she argued that the right to bear arms should be interpreted as the right of all citizens to be involved in the defence of their country, and that nuclear weapons places that power solely in the hands of the executive branch.

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