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Why democracy is an insufficient force against WMD

A protester waves signs as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin E. Dempsey, John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, and Chuck Hagel, Sec
A protester waves signs as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin E. Dempsey, John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, and Chuck Hagel, Sec

By John Lloyd

The British parliament's refusal to countenance military intervention in Syria, and President Barack Obama's decision to delay a strike until Congress approves it, point to a larger, even more dangerous contradiction of the mass destruction age.

That is, parliamentary democracy and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sit ill together. Each confounds the other's natural working.

This is for two reasons. First: everything about weapons of mass destruction — their possession, storage, security and use — demands centralized, authoritarian control and rapid decision making unimpeded by debate, except from within a tiny command circle. And when a rogue state uses or threatens to use WMD, leaders must react rapidly and forcefully, unconstrained by their legislatures. When they are so constrained, the result can be similar to what the British government suffered last week. Democracies that wish to police the use of WMD are held back by the same protocols that allow these institutions to thrive.

The second, and greater, contradiction between an active and mature democracy and WMD is that many of the countries that possess, or aspire to possess, biological or chemical weapons have weak or nonexistent democracies. These leaders are not accountable to their citizens — who are powerless and, in the case of Syria, the targets of these weapons. Much of current WMD instability lies in the Middle East. The region is roiling, with Syria's civil war at the head but with conflicts or potential conflicts in Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia. Iran likely has biological and chemical stocks, and is likely acquiring nuclear weapons. Egypt is striving, amid threats of terrorism, to embed democratic polity after its failure under the Muslim Brotherhood government and the Army coup that deposed President Mohamed Mursi. Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have, or are suspected to have or be developing, biological and/or chemical weapons.

The leaders of the security services, the military and the executives of the major western states live with this knowledge at the front of their conscious thoughts. Yet they are beholden to a public and to lawmakers who generally don't. Especially in the UK, lawmakers remember, when such issues come up, the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan, the hostility of their constituents to more commitments in such thankless and apparently futile wars, and the (ill-founded) belief that the Iraq intervention was launched on a sea of lies. Their constituents are men and women who have grown up in relative peace and security, and who must be convinced that threats are imminent. Before the Nazi threat of the 1930s, the British people were reluctant to admit the need to fight: Winston Churchill's great speech of November 1934, warning of approaching war with Germany, was imbued with the realization that he was speaking to a nation of skeptics and was not generally believed.

In the U.S., it took all of FDR's cunning — and more to the point, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — to bring the U.S. into the war, and to win it. In both countries today, lawmakers spend much more time on domestic than foreign issues — which is what their voters want them to do. It is a great irony that countries that police WMD do so without the support of their citizens.

I told my mid-twenties son a few days ago that eradicating WMD was a task for his generation of leaders. I then corrected myself. It's the task for the present generations, from the forty-somethings to the seventy-somethings. Or even eighty-somethings: in 2007 the then 84-year-old Henry Kissinger (now 90) joined other U.S. political figures to argue that "the world is now on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era," and to urge U.S. leadership in seeking a nuclear-free world.

They put it too narrowly. The world is on the precipice of a WMD era, where chemical and biological weaponry — less deadly, but hideous enough and much easier to make — could lever open a door that is now already cracking. Democratic chambers, democratic publics, must be shown the danger, grasp the need to stop deployment — at an extreme, by force. For down the precipice is the threat of democracy's destruction, with much else.

(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.) (Any opinions expressed here are the author's own.)

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