Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy versus Guardianship

By Robert Dahl | Go to book overview

I
Obstacles to Democratic Control

CONFLICTING PRINCIPLES:
DEMOCRACY OR GUARDIANSHIP?

THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS is generally believed to be justified on the ground that people are entitled to participate as political equals in making binding decisions, enforced by the state, on matters that have important consequences for their individual and collective interests.Nothing can have more important consequences for so many people, Americans and others alike, as decisions that may prevent or cause the use of nuclear weapons.If it is also true that these decisions have so far been arrived at pretty much outside the reach of democratic controls, then we must count this a profound failure in the capacity of contemporary democratic institutions to achieve their purposes. Though I speak here specifically of the United States, the failure is common to other democratic countries as well.

I do not say that policies would necessarily have been substantially different if a more democratic process had operated, nor, certainly, that they have been made in opposition to a public consensus favoring other policies. They have simply been arrived at without even the ordinary constraints of the democratic process.

Yet the failure on nuclear weapons is not unique. Rather it is indicative of a general weakness of the democratic process—

-5-

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