Choosing Between Democracy and Doom
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Nuclear weaponry has stealthily altered the substance of our form of government, contends Scarry (Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value/Harvard Univ.; Thinking in an Emergency, 2011, etc.).

Americans generally give little thought to the policy under which the president can order a first strike using nuclear weapons, and yet the president's power to order, at his sole discretion, the destruction of millions of people is a power far greater than anything imagined by earlier absolute rulers. Scarry presents a frightening argument that the president has assumed extra-constitutional control of weapons of mass destruction and that the doctrine of presidential first use of nuclear weapons has effectively eviscerated our democracy and rendered us a monarchy. She goes on to show how the possession of nuclear weapons is contrary to the social contract as described by the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Scarry's argument is intriguing, but its presentation is flawed. Her philosophical analyses of social contract, consent and emergencies are learned and thorough but far more extensive than necessary to support her thesis. The author's arguments about American constitutional law, though creative, suffer from superficial analysis and factual misperceptions. For example, she never articulates how the congressional authorizations of hostile action employed since 1941 differ significantly from a resolution formally styled as a declaration of war. Throughout, Scarry fails to differentiate between circumstances arising specifically from the existence of nuclear weapons and those equally attributable to other technologies or political theories. While she regards certain American constitutional provisions as tools through which the people could regain their control over war-making powers, which would likely require renouncing nuclear weapons, she gives no hint of how this might be done and suggests no means for persuading nations that care nothing for our constitution or Hobbesian analysis to abandon their nuclear weapons.

An important discussion that deserves a more disciplined presentation.

Pub Date: Feb. 24th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-393-08008-7
Page count: 640pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2014


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