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Hannah Arendt: On the Spectre of Nuclear War

Maurits de Jongh finds our contemporary situation reflected in earlier states.

On 27th February 2022, three days after the invasion of Ukraine began, Vladimir Putin ordered his generals to put Russia’s nuclear deterrent force on high alert. Seventy-seven years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Putin’s words brought the spectre of nuclear war back onto the world stage.

During the first months of the war, Western leaders kept their cool, not responding to his nuclear rhetoric, although the then French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, did remind the Russians on the first day of the invasion that NATO is also a nuclear alliance. Otherwise, Putin’s nuclear threats were met in the West with what Emmanuel Macron called ‘strategic ambiguity’. But the tide is changing. As Russia insists its nuclear threats are not a bluff, the White House has repeatedly warned about the catastrophic consequences that would follow nuclear escalation by the Kremlin. Yet Western leaders also continue to insist on the utmost caution in dealing with Putin. Numerous Eastern European leaders object that for the Russians caution is often perceived as weakness: that Putin might take it as a license to resort to non-conventional weapons – all the more so since his intended Blitzkrieg has turned into a farce. Indeed, as the Ukrainian army gained the upper hand, Putin’s desperation became increasingly expressed by outright nuclear blackmail. And so Western leaders keep wobbling on a tightrope between caution and decisiveness, under which the abyss of reckless escalation lurks.

This balancing act is by no means eased by Putin’s erratic attitude. Putin is said to no longer behave like a rationally calculating strategist, but like a paranoid, isolated leader who harbors grotesque fantasies of a restored Russian Empire. The more Putin radicalizes, the more the world worries that he may not keep his finger off the button. Yet as long as Putin fears death – and thus also the mutually assured destruction of nuclear war – we have some assurance of nuclear safety.

Analyses of the extent to which nuclear violence is a real threat in today’s world tend to focus on the capriciousness of one man – be it Putin, or ‘rocket man’ Kim Jong-un. A fixation on these men also obstructs a more fundamental reflection on the existential danger of nuclear war. What does the presence of nuclear weapons say about our world, for instance? What implications does it have for world politics?

Hannah Arendt’s (1906-75) political philosophy can help us make sense of the spectre of nuclear destruction at a time when the public seems curiously lethargic about the issue. Three of her insights stand out.

Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt by Darren McAndrew

Totalitarianism & The Bomb

Her first insight is that nuclear violence, alongside totalitarian domination, are defining events of the modern world.

Politics is essentially about events. A journalist once asked Harold Macmillan when he was British Prime Minister what was the greatest challenge to a statesman. He replied: “Events, dear boy, events.” In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt depicts Hitler’s and Stalin’s totalitarianisms, together with the Bomb, as the central events that left their mark on the contemporary world. In both events the hubris of the modern age reaches a climax, and humanity finds itself more alienated than ever before.

Let’s first take a look at totalitarianism.

Whereas murderous oppression by tyranny is as old as recorded history, the totalitarianisms of Hitler and Stalin were without precedent. The tyrant, as we know since Aristotle’s analysis, exercises arbitrary power and wanton violence to further his private interests. A tyrant’s actions are characterized by arbitrary lawlessness, his thinking by indifference to the common good. The totalitarian leader, by contrast, has the highest regard for the law: yet in a totalitarian system, the law does not constitute a stabilizer of human relations, as it does in liberal democratic states. Instead, the ‘law’ is understood as some superhuman and transhistorical force, such as racial superiority or class struggle, which can be used to justify the regime’s actions. The vocation of the totalitarian leader is to let this law unfold in the present. Equally sharp is his notion of the common good – a utopia in which the people are purged of whatever the law says pollutes it: inferior races, parasitic capitalists, or other notions of foreignness and otherness.

It is precisely the supposed inevitability of the law that strengthens the totalitarian leader in his conviction that ‘everything is possible and everything is permitted’, as Arendt puts it. This conviction grounds his efforts, not so much to change human nature, as to rob it of its humanity, freedom, and dignity. Whereas the tyrant employs terror and propaganda opportunistically to secure his private interests, the totalitarian leader structurally employs such tactics to propel the law of empire; not only by isolating people, but also by compressing them into an indivisible mass. To separate the wheat of the ‘real’ people from its chaff, policies of persecution create streams of refugees and exiles. The concentration and extermination camps of totalitarian systems reduce people to ‘specimens of the human species’, preceding the destruction of these ‘superfluous human beings’.

In a totalitarian system, rather than imposing limits on what is possible and permissible, the law and the ‘common good’ dictate endless expansion of the state. The Russian mass killings in Bucha and Kramatorsk; the ruthless bombings from Kharkov to Mariupol; Putin’s nuclear threats: there seems little doubt that this man knows no limits. Putin’s brutality thus provides ample support for Arendt’s hypothesis: “the totalitarian conviction that everything is possible has so far proved only that everything can be destroyed.”

The notion that everything is possible and permitted is not just a driving force of past totalitarianisms, it is also a central feature of the modern age. And although courage and ingenuity have inspired unprecedented scientific and technological achievements, the pride of tyrants can turn nearly every triumph Pyrrhic. Nuclear science and technology exemplify this lurking downside. While nuclear power as an inexhaustible source of energy might make us believe that everything is possible, nuclear weapons and waste are constant reminders that everything can be destroyed. Arendt argues that we pretend to stand on Archimedes’ point, from which we subject the earth to our designs (Archimedes once claimed that if you gave him a lever long enough, he could move the earth). This pretence disregards our earthly embeddedness – the vulnerability of life’s processes, and the fragility of human civilisation.

It would be a stretch to claim that science as such disregards limits. The opposite seems true. After all, experimental science can only test hypotheses, and thus make progress, in a setting that is strictly delimited from the wider environment. As Arendt’s contemporary (and ex-husband) Günther Anders emphasized, however, this delimitation is alien to nuclear science. The impact of nuclear accidents or explosions is potentially so widespread that the nuclear laboratory is no longer distinguishable from Planet Earth as a whole. The essential character of nuclear weapons, therefore, lies in their ability to destroy the entire Earth – in Anders’ words, Ihre Allmacht ist ihr Defekt : ‘‘their omnipotence is their defect.”

The common denominator of the Bomb and totalitarianism lies precisely in this modern hubris; in driving transgressions that risk humanity’s ultimate self-defeat.

Power & Violence As Opposites

The question arises of whether threatening nuclear warfare indeed makes one omnipotent. In dealing with this question, Arendt’s second insight seems right: instead of manifesting power, nuclear weapons are much more likely to undermine it.

With this insight Arendt challenges the common reduction of power to violence – the notion that power, as Mao Zedong claimed, grows from the barrel of a gun; or as Clausewitz put it, that war is essentially the continuation of politics by other means. The understanding of power behind such notions is that my exercise of power consists of imposing my will on others. The American political scientist Robert Dahl’s definition is telling: “A has power over B,” he writes, “to the extent that he can make B do something that B would not otherwise do” (Behavioral Science, 1957). The usual way we think about power thus emphasizes power over. Viewed this way, it makes perfect sense that violence, the ultimate means of me imposing my will on others, is seen as a manifestation of power. And to the extent that nuclear violence is the most violent form of violence, it is easy to conclude that it must also be the most powerful manifestation of power.

Our thinking about both domestic politics and international relations is saturated with this understanding of power. According to Arendt, it reinforces our image of the state as a hierarchical relationship of command and obedience – of power over – sanctioned by the threat of violence; rather than as an association of free and equal citizens in which shared power – power with – is checked by law. In line with this picture, world politics is presented as power struggles between states pursuing their self-interest – security and prosperity – in an international state of nature. World politics is nothing but an anarchic race for raw power over.

Against this backdrop, we can understand the attempt by so-called ‘neorealists’ to reconcile nuclear proliferation with the classical doctrine of ‘balance of power’. The quest for a balance of power traditionally consists of preventing an unbalanced concentration of power in the hands of one state or alliance of states. Since any state with nuclear weapons by definition possesses an unbalanced concentration of power over those which don’t, this reconciliation seems doomed to fail. Nuclear powers are, after all, capable of the complete destruction of countries, if not global civilisation as a whole. Neorealists, however, propose nuclear deterrence as the perfect policy instrument to achieve balance of power. Indeed, as long as nuclear weapons exist, you better make sure you qualify as a nuclear power. The most advanced and extensive nuclear arsenal serves as an insurance policy against the dominating power of other states. Thus neorealists depict the nuclear spectre not as an existential global threat, but rather as a global public good. ‘Deterrence works’, they say.

It is difficult to quarrel with this perverse optimism – with the notion that the threat of mutual assured destruction guarantees national and even global security and peace. For example, we might wonder whether Putin would have left Ukraine at peace if the country had not handed over its nuclear weapons after the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Moreover, critics of the proposition that nuclear deterrence is effective can only prove their skepticism with hindsight, once nuclear threats have started to turn into nuclear destruction. The problem is that we cannot be sure if anyone will still be alive to settle the question.

It is equally difficult to dispute that the neorealist’s optimism about nuclear deterrence rests on equating power with violence, and thus on understanding power as power over. Arendt argues that a more accurate understanding of political power must instead emphasize the collective dimension of power – power with. Power, she says, is never the exclusive prerogative of one person. Of course we can say in a metaphorical sense that a political leader is ‘in power’, but the basis of this lies in the legitimation of that power by the public. So power is in both the first and last analysis shared: it rests on the ability of people to organize for a common purpose. Public support underpins power, while violence leans on instruments – weaponry – which in principle can be deployed without political support. As Arendt put it in On Violence (1970), “The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All.” The exercise of political power is a form of what Habermas called ‘communicative action’: it arises out of the public exchange of arguments and concerted action. Its locus is therefore in what German philosopher Rainer Forst calls the space of reasons. Power gains legitimacy when leaders provide reasons that are acceptable to the public and that respect legal boundaries. Understood in this way, violence is anything but a manifestation of power. It is usually a sign of political weakness. When you resort to tactics such as blackmail, threats, or physical violence to get your way, these are rightly seen as acts of desperation, for only when we fail to convince others of our will does the temptation arise to impose it on them by force.

This does not mean that the legitimate exercise of power – which is always power with – categorically excludes the use of violence. Nor does it mean that we should deny the state a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Nor that we should question the duty of a government to defend its citizens against foreign aggression. It does mean, however, that violence can never be a substitute for public support as the basis of power, and that the political use of violence must stand tests of accountability and legality. Violence can only be publicly justified when it is seen as a proportionate means to achieve a common goal. Where power is thus communicative, violence has a strictly instrumental character: it is a means to a given end. There is little reason to break eggs unless this would enable us to make an omelette, to build on one of Arendt’s favorite metaphors. However, she underscores how violence as a means to an end always risks overshooting its goal. This risk only increases as the instruments of violence become capable of greater destruction. Thus the political goals of security and freedom are in constant danger of being overwhelmed by violence. With the threat of nuclear war, the tension inherent in political violence reaches an absolute climax. Indeed, political goals such as freedom and peace, and the power of citizens joining hands to achieve them, are meaningless if the world falls to nuclear pieces. The Bomb, then, blows up the whole category of means and ends – the category upon which the justification of violence rests.

By seeing power as power with, we can see sharply how violence does not so much manifest as undermine power. “Violence can always destroy power”, writes Arendt: “Out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power.” This conclusion that communicative power can always lose out to violence is terrifying. Yet Arendt also helps us to appreciate how much the Ukrainian authorities, President Zelensky in particular, have gained power over the past year. Zelensky garners public support and builds communicative trust among Ukrainians and world leaders alike. The waning power of the Kremlin, and of Putin in particular, stands in stark contrast to this. Putin’s power seems to decline with each increase in both his domestic repression and his foreign aggression. The objection that Putin has Russian public opinion on his side, and that his power therefore remains intact, is hardly convincing. Public support contrived through a propaganda machine is no more solid as a foundation of power than quicksand.

Courage: Past & Future

On the first day of the invasion, as Russian armoured columns rolled towards Kyiv, the Americans apparently offered to evacuate President Zelensky and he replied “I need ammunition, not a ride.” From the determined armed resistance of civilians-turned-soldiers, to the non-violent protest of the inhabitants of Kherson in the face of the Russian occupiers, that the Ukrainians display courage is beyond doubt. But we hardly seem to realize how the spectre of nuclear escalation lurking in the background calls into question the virtue of courage itself. This is the third insight Arendt offers us. The danger of nuclear weapons, she argues, unsettles the very meaning of courage as a disposition to take care of the world.

All the heartfelt words of praise from the West may be accompanied by a certain embarrassment. We may wonder what value Ukrainians place on them, when Putin’s provocations went on virtually with impunity for years; when financial and legal service providers in the West so diligently obliged Russian oligarchs; when half-hearted promises of NATO or EU membership were made; when the sufficiency of Western military support for Ukraine remains in question; and when the short-sighted energy dependence of Europeans on Russian fossil fuels financed the Kremlin’s war preparations.

Considerations like these are not the only reason for our discomfort. This discomfort touches on a deeper disorientation afflicting the rich, free countries of the West. Francis Fukuyama already pointed it out thirty years ago, when he claimed we were reaching the end of history with the spread of liberal democracy and the capitalist market economy: he wrote that ‘the last man’ would be tormented by an unbearable sense of emptiness and boredom. We hardly find salvation in our conspicuous consumption and our obsession with social climbing. We continually fall short in our solidarity with one another, let alone with the rest of the world.

Precisely because we find it so difficult to find meaning and orientation, it was tempting to experience the courage of Zelensky and his people as a triumph which, for a fleeting moment, freed us from the liberal void we inhabit – our alienated world, in which ‘heroism’ is a term reserved for top athletes and pop stars, but in which we cannot succeed in embracing our own individuality. Our waning attention for the war as the months pass shows just how ephemeral our ecstasy is. Since ongoing Russian terror is the price Ukrainians pay for their courage, it is outright perverse for us to use it in the satisfaction of our own psychological needs.

Arendt insists that courage takes no interest in our psychological states. Courage instead finds meaning in care for the world. Indeed, courage requires self-sacrifice for the sake of the earth, and for humanity as a whole. Arendt insists that awareness of the fact that “man is not immortal, that he sacrifices a life that one day will be taken from him in any case” is a prerequisite for courage. After all, without our mortality, there is little to risk or sacrifice. But self-sacrifice, in turn, presupposes the belief that death is preferable to a life deprived of dignity and freedom – especially if that deprivation results from political oppression.

But courage does not only find meaning in our individual mortality. The endurance of the world, and the survival of humanity as a whole, also constitute necessary conditions for courage. According to Arendt, at basis courage comes from the assurance we need to leave our mark on the world. By showing courage – by sacrificing ourselves for the freedom of our countries, for the preservation of the world, or for the dignity of all life – we obtain, as it were, a second life. Our contributions live on in the small and great stories that people tell each other and pass on. Courage, then, does not lie in the expectation of eternal life, but consists instead of aspiring to what Arendt calls a ‘worldly immortality’. Courage rests on the conviction “that posterity will understand, remember, and respect the individual mortal’s sacrifice. Man can be courageous only as long as he knows that he is survived by those who are like him, that he fulfills a role in something more permanent than himself, ‘the enduring chronicle of mankind,’ as Faulkner once put it’.”

So understood, the threat of nuclear war threatens an irreparable break in human courage. For how can we still be courageous when the survival of humanity as a whole can no longer be taken for granted; when there would be no world to leave behind, and no posterity to follow us? Arendt is adamant that with the risk of nuclear annihilation, the conventional meaning and value of courage is lost. The risk of climate catastrophe also undermines the conventional understanding. But besides this twofold threat stands another disturbing fact. Medical technologists already speak of old age, and thus of mortality, as a disease. They are more than optimistic about the future reversibility of the ageing process. Thus, today’s courageous humans cannot rest assured that humanity as a whole is immortal; but neither do we know whether the individual will in fact remain mortal. Both scenarios unsettle the conditions of courage.

From the insight that courage loses its conventional meaning in times of nuclear weapons and other forms of radical rupture, it does not follow, however, that ‘courage’ has become meaningless. Arendt protests against resignation and lethargy in response to the threat of destruction. Instead of falling for defeatism and nihilism, Arendt encourages future generations to give political courage new meaning: “By putting in jeopardy the survival of mankind and not only individual life or at the most that of a whole people,” Arendt concludes, “modern warfare is about to transform the individual mortal man into a conscious member of the human race, of whose immortality he needs to be sure in order to be courageous at all and for whose survival he must care more than anything else.”

If our developed capacity for self-destruction means that the stakes could not be higher, we can also claim that political courage is more meaningful and acute than ever before. Just as Extinction Rebellion and other movements seek to subdue the spectre of climate disaster, so too do we need to rein in the spectres of nuclear destruction and totalitarian terror. It is up to all of us, including our political leaders, to summon the courage which that requires.

© Maurits de Jongh 2023

Maurits de Jongh is an assistant professor in the Ethics Institute at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands. He specializes in political philosophy and the history of economic thought, and is currently working on a book entitled The Primacy of Public Goods.

• The original Dutch version of this essay was published in July 2022 as a series of posts on the public philosophy blog Bij Nader Inzien.

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