The Contradiction of Nuclear Democracy: An interview with Elaine Scarry

Simon Waxman in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_813 Sep. 27 11.48This is the anniversary of “the day the world almost died.” On September 26, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was bunkered near Moscow, monitoring readings from the Soviet nuclear early warning satellite Oko, when he received an alert of impending U.S. nuclear attack. But he judged the warning a false alarm and chose not to notify his superiors, who, operating under the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, may have been compelled to respond in kind. Petrov was right; the United States had made no attack. The system had malfunctioned, but catastrophe was averted.

Last year, on the thirtieth anniversary, the United Nations held high-level disarmament talks. Now the body has declared September 26 the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

But while many share this aspiration, nuclear weapons have remained a stubborn feature of our lives. Though Barack Obama made arms reduction an early centerpiece of his presidency, and won a Nobel Peace Prize partially on the strength of his “vision of a world free from nuclear arms,” the United States is plowing money into upgrades of the nuclear arsenal. Annual spending on nuclear weapons is now greater than at any time during the Cold War.

But nuclear weapons haven’t been used since 1945. Is the persistence of the arsenal really a problem?

Philosopher and Boston Review contributor Elaine Scarry believes it is. Earlier this year she published Thermonuclear Monarchy, a book that continues her arguments about the corrupting effects of unaccountable executive power, particularly in the realm of national security. Scarry contends that because nuclear weapons make citizen control of military force impossible, maintaining a nuclear arsenal is fundamentally anti-democratic. To be a nuclear-armed state is to invest the executive with dictatorial powers over immeasurable destructive capacity.

More here.