Universal Nuclear Disarmament: What Can India Offer?

Universal nuclear disarmament** is not a new concept. From the time that the weapon was first used in 1945, and once the horrendous destruction that it could cause was understood, countries have struggled with the challenge of how to put the genie back into the bottle. To little avail. Nuclear abolition has proved to be an elusive objective owing to the lack of sufficient political will to actually undertake the exercise. In fact, the politics of the possession of nuclear weapons and questions over the very desirability of eliminating nuclear weapons have always overshadowed all other considerations. Arguments against a nuclear weapons free world have often hidden behind the assumptions of unfeasibility of nuclear abolition owing to the complications involved in the logistics of handling dismantlement and destruction of already built up stockpiles of nuclear warheads and the safe storage of recovered fissile material. Meanwhile, horizontal and vertical proliferation have continued, thereby making the attainment of universal nuclear disarmament more and more difficult and complicated.

During the Cold War, the number of weapons between the two Superpowers touched an all time high of 70,000. These could have destroyed the world several times over and still left the radioactive rubble bouncing. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the numbers of nuclear warheads fell substantially. In fact, over the years since then, as USA and Russia have rationalized their nuclear arsenals in keeping with the changed threat perceptions, the numbers have progressively come down. So, the US and Russian arsenals can today boast of nuclear stockpiles in the vicinity of a meager 10,000 each, while the total global nuclear stockpile stands at about 22,500. This, of course, is still plenty to destroy the world, if not as many times over as in the past!

These reduced numbers, however, are not an indication of a reduced importance of nuclear weapons. For countries that possess these weapons, not only are they considered an essential element of their national security strategies, but they are also deeply entangled with concepts of sovereignty and prestige. In fact, three major motivations can be easily identified as being the prime movers behind national nuclear weapon programmes − a sense of security or insurance against coercion or blackmail, the independence to exercise national policies without outside interference, and the prestige they bestow. These factors combine to weave a complex web that holds nuclear weapons firmly in place in national arsenals.

As a result of the above, any attempts at dealing with the ideas and issues related to elimination of nuclear weapons necessarily require going deeper into the reasons for their possession and justifications for their sustenance. This is important because, though at one level, it appears that universal nuclear disarmament can come about fairly quickly if the requisite political will in the nations that matter can be generated, yet the challenge that lies in creating the atmospherics that can help that ‘political will’ to emerge and be expressed demands that due consideration be granted to the motivations for nuclear weapons in the first place. In fact, this is where the bottleneck lies and the history of failed attempts at nuclear abolition proves that the reasons for elimination of nuclear weapons have never been able to outweigh those that have made countries acquire or hold on to them.

This situation could possibly change in three circumstances:
One, if there was an accumulation of enough risks from the continued possession of nuclear weapons. As dangers surmount and begin to make nuclear weapons more a liability for security than an asset providing security, nations could find greater prudence in their elimination than in their retention.

Two, if enough public pressure is mounted on governments to make politically binding commitments towards nuclear abolition. Some of this existed during the period of the Cold War when non-governmental organizations and civic campaigns kept the focus on the dangers of a nuclear exchange. However, they dissipated once the threat of a nuclear holocaust as a result of a nuclear exchange between the US and USSR vanished. Today the civil society does not advocate the cause of disarmament with any major sense of urgency, though several organizations in more recent times, especially in the run up to the NPT Review Conference in 2010 have pushed the case. For instance, Global Zero – an initiative headed by Bruce Blair, a former US official once in charge of command and control, the International Commission for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) instituted by Australia and Japan, the Middle Powers Initiative, etc. pressed for steps towards nuclear abolition in 2009-2010. The initiatives, however, have remained individual attempts instead of snowballing into a movement with global dimensions and appeal.

Thirdly, if as a result of the above two factors, the political leadership in major nuclear armed nations feels the need to change the status quo. For instance, it is for the first time that the President of a nation that possesses one of the largest nuclear arsenals – the United States – has publicly supported the goal of a world rid of nuclear weapons. President Obama has even received the Nobel Peace Prize in good faith for his personal endorsement of this aspiration. More like-minded leaders are needed to join hands with him, and the US, to create a critical mass that could generate enough momentum to turn the hope into reality.

Keeping the above three factors in view, this paper specifically dwells on the Indian understanding of and initiatives towards universal nuclear disarmament. It argues that for a country like India which has long been a steady champion of nuclear disarmament, and which perceives that its national security is best served in a nuclear weapons free world, this is an opportune moment for taking a proactive stance for nudging the international community towards nuclear abolition.

It is a fact that over the last decade or so, India has been relatively quiet on disarmament as compared to the more active role it has played in the past. This may largely be attributed to the introduction of a greater strain of realism in its foreign policy owing to the nature of its threat perceptions. The use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan as a shield from behind which to foment proxy war on India through a constant influx of terrorists into Indian territory, and the close nuclear and missile nexus between China and Pakistan have compelled India to focus attention on building credible nuclear deterrence against its neighbors. Meanwhile, the inability of the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) members of the NPT to use their leverage to push the nuclear weapon states (NWS) towards honoring their commitment to Article VI of the NPT that dwells on nuclear disarmament has caused major disillusionment to India. As a consequence of the realization that the non-proliferation regime would be unable to redress its security challenges, India’s recent approach to nuclear abolition has been laced with more cynicism.

However, the major thrust of this paper is to highlight, both for the Indian establishment and public as well as for the international community, the role that India could and should play in facilitating the realization of a nuclear weapons free world. The country has a unique perspective on the issue. Unlike the case in any other nuclear-armed state, India’s nuclear doctrine, which is meant to operationalize the nuclear strategy, begins and ends with reiterating the country’s desire for nuclear disarmament. Para 8.1 of the doctrine, in the section on Disarmament and Arms Control, reads “Global verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament is a national security objective. India shall continue its efforts to achieve the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world at an early date.”15 The doctrine itself is premised on several concepts whose acceptance could ease the journey towards elimination of nuclear weapons. What are these? And, what could be India’s specific contribution in this regard? These are some of the questions that this paper attempts to answer.

For the sake of convenience and coherence, the paper is divided into three broad sections. The first of these addresses the nature of contemporary nuclear threats that make it imperative for the countries possessing nuclear weapons to seriously consider the dangers that humanity faces from the continued existence of nuclear weapons in national arsenals. Section 2 explains India’s understanding and interpretation of universal nuclear disarmament, and the last section makes some recommendations as derived from India’s nuclear doctrine to facilitate movement towards a nuclear weapons free world.

2. Nature of Contemporary Nuclear Threats
It may be recalled that the years following the Cold War were marked by a number of developments that suggested the possibility of a ‘partnership’ between the once ideologically estranged superpowers. Both, the US and Russia, unilaterally and bilaterally announced cutbacks in their nuclear arsenals. There were successive initiatives at the UN as also at the Review and Extension Conference of the NPT in 1995 to refocus attention on elimination of nuclear weapons. The Canberra Commission was instituted for the purpose of drawing a roadmap towards nuclear disarmament and it submitted its report in 1996. The World Court rendered its advisory opinion on the use of nuclear weapons in the same year. The Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy drafted a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention in 1997. Several multi-national groupings such as the Middle Powers Initiative and New Agenda Coalition, as also a number of non-governmental organizations, lent their weight and voice to moves towards universal nuclear disarmament.

However, as has been opined rather graphically, “the tide never could turn into a tsunami that could have washed away national nuclear arsenals”.1 Rather, as the sense of an imminent nuclear holocaust dissipated with the end of the ideological rivalry between the US and the USSR, it also took away with it the urgency and focus on nuclear disarmament. Active civil society and non-governmental movements pushing for universal disarmament became complacent and quiet as the threat of a possible nuclear exchange resulting in mutual assured destruction (MAD) reduced. Meanwhile, the period 1998-2007 was marked by horizontal proliferation. India and Pakistan in 1998 and North Korea in 2006 demonstrated their nuclear capability. Meanwhile, Iran emerged as a troublesome NPT member with an alleged nuclear weapons programme. The ambiguity on its nuclear capability and intentions still persists. The dangers arising from more nuclear weapon states, however, have not caught the imagination of public movements in the same way as the threat of nuclear Armageddon between the US and USSR had. Consequently, the public campaigns for nuclear disarmament are less vociferous.

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