The Well-Read Wonk on Democracy & the Bomb

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Almost every contemporary issue having to do with nuclear weapons has been considered in earlier debates. Indeed, the earlier the better, since it’s easier for strategic analysts to be prescient when starting from scratch. Hence, my periodic encouragement to new readers of ACW to read the early work of Bernard Brodie, especially his thin edited volume, The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order (1946).

The singular authority of the President of the United States to authorize the use of nuclear weapons has once again become a public issue as a result of the Republican Party’s nomination of Donald Trump as its standard-bearer against Hillary Clinton. The last time Americans focused so intently on the linkage between temperament and release authority was during the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Then, as now, campaign commercials appeared seeking to sway undecided voters to cast their ballots for the steadier mind and hand.

States that possess nuclear weapons have “National Command Authorities,” standard operating procedures, and lines of succession that guide employment decisions in worst cases. All of this looks good on paper, but cannot possibly do justice to the extreme time pressures involved, the “known unknowns,” and the “unknown unknowns.” The latter two terms are borrowed from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a very smart, confident man who, it bears remembering, blundered with his colleagues into the most mistaken and costly American war since Vietnam. The Iraq and Vietnam wars combined would be a walk in the park compared to the risks entailed in crossing the nuclear threshold.

The time-sensitivity problem weakens the case for investing heavily in “use or lose” weapon systems, like silo-based missiles. It also calls into question reliance on very short-range or no-range (e.g., atomic demolition mines) nuclear weapons that would have to be situated close to the forward edge of battle.

The question of temperament doesn’t just apply to impossibly compressed timelines, however. Any authorized use of nuclear weapons, no matter how safe and secure the delivery system, is essentially an authoritarian decision – even in democratic societies. Very few individuals are engaged in these deliberations and only one has the ultimate power of decision. We are appalled that, in North Korea’s case, this individual is a very young man without experience on weighty matters. His connection to reality can be questioned because he has lived in a bubble.

This is an extreme case, but even in the United States, a decision to cross the nuclear threshold is not subject to checks and balances. The Congress has been marginalized on many an occasion when it comes to sending U.S. forces in harm’s way, and it has no role in a decision to cross the nuclear threshold. Legislative interventions before or during severe crises – such as a prohibition on first use – are improbable if not unhelpful. In worst cases, timelines are too short to allow for democratic process. What matters most when approaching the nuclear threshold is the wisdom and temperament of the one person who has ultimate authority to make this decision.

Since the wisdom and even temperament of national leaders cannot be taken for granted, especially in extremis, these traits require buttressing. During the Cold War, the buttresses were lines of communication and other measures that reflected sound working relations and appreciation of nuclear dangers. These measures included nuclear arms control and reduction treaties. These bulwarks are now eroding.

How do democratic societies try to reduce nuclear dangers when so much essential information is shrouded in secrecy? In November 1953, the American Academy of Political and Social Science published between hard covers a collection of essays that had appeared in The Annals. This book, The Impact of Atomic Energy, is worth reading. Robert A. Dahl, a renowned Yale University political scientist, served as editor. This collection of short essays appeared amidst reports that the Soviet Union had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, thereby ensuring a new and far more deadly phase of the nuclear competition. Back then, the dilemmas of time sensitivity and secrecy were very much on the minds of the contributors.

Here are excerpts from Professor Dahl’s covering essay, “Atomic Energy and the Democratic Process”:

“As a plain statement of fact, the proposition is scarcely debatable: the political processes of democracy do not operate effectively with respect to atomic energy policy…”

“Once we get outside the models of the democratic theorists to the political life of the real world, we discover that politics which we in the West call democratic are in fact systems in which most policy is determined by a relatively small number of people….”

“The institutionalization of secrecy has concentrated, in the hands of a few people, control over decisions of great magnitude for the values of a larger number of persons than in all probability were ever affected by any old-fashioned authoritarian leader…”

“Thus, secrecy or no, atomic energy seems to present choices that defy wide popular understanding and control. So far, the control of such decisions is a kind of indigestible element in the operation of American democratic politics. In this respect, the atomic energy operation aptly symbolizes an era in which opportunities for popular control have generally dwindled. To be sure, the unusual extent of elite control so far offered by atomic energy may be no more than a passing adjustment to a novel situation by an essentially vigorous and healthy democracy. But atomic energy appears to be one of a growing class of situations for which the traditional democratic processes are rather unsuitable and for which traditional theories of democracy provide no rational answer.”

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on October 11, 2016.

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