Democracy versus Deterrence: nuclear weapons and political integrity

Steve Cooke and Andrew Futter reflect on the trade-offs between democratic debate and effective deterrence in their recent Politics article.


In 2016, shortly after Theresa May became Prime Minister of the UK, Parliament debated Britain’s nuclear deterrent. During that debate May was challenged to answer the question:

‘Is she personally prepared to authorise a nuclear strike that can kill a hundred thousand innocent men, women and children?’

May responded with a firm and unequivocal:

‘Yes. The whole point of a deterrent is that our enemies need to know that we would be prepared to use it.’

May went on to characterise Trident as the ‘ultimate insurance policy’.

In the period after the debate, May was heavily criticised for her supposed willingness to order the killing of innocents. An interesting feature of this criticism is that it took May’s statement at face value; it assumed that her utterance was sincere. Our paper questions this assumption. We argue that a key feature of nuclear deterrence policy is that citizens cannot take statements of willingness to use nuclear weapons from political leaders at face value. This raises problems for democratic legitimacy and voter choice, and it also makes citizen judgements about the character of their leaders unreliable.

It is the nature of pursuing a policy of nuclear deterrence that it rules out a full range of policy options from being publicly debated. No political leader can publicly endorse the view that possessing nuclear weapons is a necessary evil to deter enemies but that their use is morally unconscionable. To do so would render deterrence ineffective. Yet deterrence without use is a view that many citizens and their political leaders endorse. As a consequence, political leaders may secretly hold a position that cannot be democratically chosen and deliberated upon. This raises three key problems.

First, maintaining uncertainty about government policy undermines the legitimacy of nuclear deterrence policy. To preserve democratic values of transparency and accountability political decisions need to be made openly. When politicians assert willingness use nuclear weapons, citizens have no way of knowing whether they actually endorse a hawkish or a deterrence without use position. These two positions are morally distant from each other in very significant ways.

Second, it renders moral judgements about political leaders unreliable. Citizens vote to select their representatives based on judgements about a politician’s policies and values. If policy options require a politician to conceal their personal convictions then citizens will be unable to make informed political choices.

Third, maintaining the appearance of preparedness to use nuclear weapons places psychological and social burdens upon a politicians who favour deterrence without use. In effect, politicians adopt this position must maintain a deception, building a public identity that is at odds with their moral convictions. Nuclear deterrence policy is likely to place a strain on the politician’s sense of integrity.

We argue that the consequences of deploying nuclear weapons, together with problem of uncertainty, mean that citizens ought to vote on the basis of their worst case scenario. In other words, moderate voters ought to assume hawkish leaders. However, when it comes to judging the character of their leaders that same uncertainty ought to temper criticism, particularly because of the burdens carried by those same leaders.

Steve Cooke

Steve Cooke

Dr Steve Cooke is Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Leicester. His research interests include the moral and political duties owed to non-human animals, the ethics of different forms of protest and political violence, and liberal theories of justice. He is currently researching the role of the arts and humanities in moral epistemology.

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