Most of us keep our distance from the subject of nuclear weapons. Nor is it hard to understand why. Many think that since the end of the Cold War, nuclear war has become a minor threat. Especially when compared to an economy that seems like it’s always on the brink of imploding just as the United States and Russia seemed always on the brink of exploding into nuclear war. Nor, understandably, are most who are aware that nuclear war remains a threat capable of facing what may well be a sword of Damocles hanging over their very existence, as well as their families’.
Another, less apparent, reason why most of us avert our attention from the prospect of war waged with nuclear weapons is that we believe that national-security policy, as well as warfighting strategy, not to mention the daunting technology of nuclear weapons, are above our pay grade. After all, deterrence seems to be working, doesn’t it? Perhaps, but, when it comes to weapons with the destructive power of nuclear weapons, keeping the world waiting with bated breath to make sure that war doesn’t break out is not a long-term solution.
In an oped at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists titled Democracy and the bomb, Kennette Benedict, its executive editor, points to the lack of attention paid to nuclear weapons and disarmament in the recent election as evidence that most of us feel overwhelmed by the whole subject. “Too often,” writes Ms. Benedict
… many of us lucky enough to live in democracies view elections as the only responsibility we have as citizens and leave the policy discussions to the elected and to the experts. … Political leaders and policy experts don’t always encourage a lot of participation, either; perhaps they believe that citizens are badly informed about issues and that their participation will result in poor decisions.
Allowing policy leaders and officials to make decisions for us, however, is at odds with the principle of equality, as Robert Dahl notes in his often overlooked essay “Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy versus Guardianship.” … The principle of guardianship … holds that only a small minority of citizens is sufficiently qualified and therefore capable of making binding decisions for the nation. As Dahl observes, the political system of a modern democratic country is usually a combination of democracy and meritocracy, but, when it comes to nuclear weapons, “We have in fact turned over to a small group of people decisions of incalculable importance to ourselves and mankind, and it is very far from clear how, if at all, we could recapture a control that in fact we have never had.” We are living in a democracy based on guardianship, not equality, when it comes to nuclear weapons.
Since it combines two of our favorite subjects — nuclear weapons and voter ignorance and/or apathy — we were only too happy to go straight to the horse’s mouth and read Controlling Nuclear Weapons (Syracuse University Press, 1985), which, though Benedict refers to it as an essay, was published as a short book. Dahl, who taught at Yale University and was known as the “dean” of American political scientists, writes that the idea that only a minority of persons are competent to rule, per Plato’s The Republic, has enjoyed new life (at least as of the eighties) in democratic countries because
… the complexity of public issues challenges the assumption that ordinary people are competent to make decisions about these matters. in order to make wise decisions, decision makers need specialized knowledge that most citizens do not possess.
One might respond by saying that even in a democracy, after all, complex decisions like these can be delegated to experts. But suppose that most of us do not even possess enough knowledge to understand the terms on which we can safely delegate authority over these decisions to those more expert than we? Then we have not simply delegated authority. Instead, we have alienated [or given away — RW] control over our lives to others: that is, for practical purposes we simply lose control over crucial decisions, and lose control over our lives. The more we alienate authority … the more we lose our freedom, and the more hollow the democratic process becomes. Or to put it another way, the more that we alienate authority the more the external forms of democracy clothe a de facto regime of guardianship.
Thus, the subject of nuclear weapons not only overwhelms us, but may strain democracy itself to the breaking point. As Dahl asks:
Are the institutions of contemporary democracy adequate to cope satisfactorily with the enormous complexity of public matters?
The reservation we have with Dahl’s otherwise valuable book is that he seems to think that nuclear weapons are a problem to which society needs to adjust. Dahl provides ideas for solutions for citizen participation in nuclear-weapons decisions, many of them more or less implemented in the meantime via information technology. But they seem like so much tweaking.
The case can be made that nuclear weapons are the ultimate test of democracy. But the stakes are too high if we lose. In fact, the existence of nuclear weapons needs to adjust to the needs of society by eliminating them.
We find ourselves in reluctant accord with libertarians, though while many of them believe that government is too large and complex for the average voter (as best explained by Ilya Somin for the Cato Institute in 2004) to understand, we’ll just stick with “too complex.” Nuclear weapons, with the existential questions they force us to face and their daunting strategy and technology, exponentially compound the problem. They discourage participation in democracy, at exactly the point democracy is most needed. As Benedict writes:
Once citizens no longer feel qualified to participate in decisions about their very survival, the connection between the governing and the governed is severed. It is hard to see where the democracy is in this.