Michael KreponThe Well-Read Wonk on Democracy & the Bomb

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.”


  1. Mark Gubrud (History)

    The system of eternal preparedness for hair-trigger immediate nuclear response is insanely dangerous, even criminally so in view of its potential consequences for billions of innocent people. This is true even when people we think are the most wise and sober are in charge at the top. The entire edifice of nuclear deterrence is fundamentally flawed precisely because its logic leads to this absurd situation of humanity balanced on a knife edge, waiting for some random event to push us over.

    The only excuse for this system’s existence has always been the lack of an alternative apparent to those caught up in competing, hostile regimes. One would have thought that in the moment after the Soviet collapse we would have moved quickly to abolish nuclear weapons and build a world order that could resist their return, but instead of even seeking this outcome the US reveled in ideological “victory” and “lone superpower” status, humiliating and embittering Russia while goading China into becoming a new strategic “adversary.” We are reaping the whirlwind now: both Russia and China set on courses of aggression and all sides pursuing a renewed arms race fueled by new and emerging technologies.

    The most hopeful development is the movement toward a global ban on nuclear weapons, which is assumed to be without the participation of the nuclear-armed states. Let’s hope that this initiative is successful and yields a strong ban that can be used to pressure the nuclear outlaws to undertake whatever further initiatives are needed to bring about actual abolition.

  2. Bradley Laing (History)

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

    —Documentaries about cyberwarfare and nuclear weapons are written about in the same article. Does my modification to the statement above ring true?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      I would agree.

  3. Steven Hayden (History)

    US Department of Defense claims it spreads democracy and freedom not oligarchy. The members of US DOD and Congress take oath to defend the Constitution. Real policy has strayed far from the US Constitution under influence of judicial opinions regarding national security. The worst atrocities in all countries are usually rationalized based on “national security”. A large part of risk of nuclear war is that a first strike capacity is part of national security. National security does not exist when the Constitution is violated to expand power of individuals.
    Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the United States Constitution, sometimes referred to as the War Powers Clause, vests in the Congress the power to declare war, in the following wording:
    [The Congress shall have Power…] To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
    A number of wars have been declared under the United States Constitution, although there is some controversy as to the exact number, as the Constitution does not specify the form of such a declaration.

    Five wars have been declared by Congress under their constitutional power to do so: the War of 1812, the Mexican–American War, the Spanish–American War, World War I, and World War II.[1]
    The Korean conflict was never a war declared by Congress and so no lawful war has ever existed between USA and DPRK.
    Abraham Lincoln wrote :
    “”The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons. Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But [presidential power to declare war] places our President where kings have always stood.”
    Certainly nuclear war would impoverish the US and large part of rest of the world. The President should not be a King. The very notion of US President declaring nuclear first strike is grossly unconstitutional and built on tyranny. The proper thing to do is to pass laws by Congress requiring the use of nuclear weapons to be approved by Congress and granting civil and criminal immunity for military that refuse to carry out orders in violation of the US Constitution. First the US gets its affairs in line with its own Constitution. Then it should request DPRK adopt policies prohibiting nuclear war without DPRK Constitutional guidelines that prevent war without approval of people’s representatives. The centralized legal authority structure of DPRK was created by aggression brought against it. It can not relax its legal or procedural defenses until the nuclear first strike threat is abated.