Universal Nuclear Disarmament: What Can India Offer?

At the same time, a distinct development of recent times is the realization on the part of decision makers of the rise in two types of dangers from an increase in the number of states having nuclear weapons. These dangers include increased existential risks of unauthorized, accidental or miscalculated use of nuclear weapons; and the heightened possibility of inadequate controls over the weapons and their infrastructure leading to nuclear terrorism. These developments have brought a consciousness, especially in the USA which is normally the trendsetter on nuclear issues, that the American nuclear arsenal may no longer be an advantage for national security, but could well become a problem by encouraging proliferation of a new and more dangerous variety. Several watchers of nuclear developments in and outside governments have commented upon the novel dimensions of the contemporary nuclear threats. For instance, some of this thinking was powerfully reflected in two articles by four American Cold War nuclear practitioners2,3 (popular today as the Four Horsemen) published in the Wall Street Journal on 04 January 2007 and 15 January 2008. Both pieces highlighted how the “accelerating spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how and nuclear material has brought us to a nuclear tipping point”. And, this started the ball of disarmament rolling once again. The debate gathered a fair amount of momentum and new initiatives were offered from many capitals. A speech by President Barack Obama in Prague in early April 2009 added the weight of yet another powerful voice to the issue.

However, there was a distinct feeling, at least in India, that all of this was being done with one eye at the Review Conference of the NPT in May 2010. Given the state of nuclear relations between the nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapon states, it was assumed that unless the NWS showcased initiatives towards keeping their end of the bargain on movement towards nuclear disarmament, the NNWS would be disillusioned with the treaty itself and could lose faith and commitment to it. As an attempt to retain the NPT as a viable non-proliferation tool, the focus on nuclear disarmament peaked in the run-up to the RevCon. As it turned out, the RevCon managed to keep the treaty intact and unlike the case at the last RevCon in 2005, it even managed to conclude with a consensual Final Document that included a separate section on Conclusions and Recommendations for follow-on action on both non-proliferation and disarmament in the coming years.

With the ‘successful’ conclusion of the RevCon, the focus from disarmament, as expected, has shifted. But the nuclear dangers – in newer forms and magnitudes – have not. In fact, the nature of contemporary nuclear threats demands careful consideration and an objective cost benefit analysis on benefits of the continued existence of nuclear weapons vis-à-vis the dangers they generate. This is important because it is an absolute certainty that as long as nuclear weapons exist in the arsenal of one nation, nuclear proliferation – vertical or horizontal – cannot be stopped. Therefore, the only choice that the international community has to make is this – is it worthwhile to retain nuclear weapons even at the cost of slow motion proliferation to other states or non-state actors? Is continued exposure to newer and more dangerous prospects of imminent nuclear use a reality that mankind must always live with? Or can ways be found and the political will be generated to move towards nuclear abolition?

In order to help answer these questions, let us examine some of the new nuclear threats that mark the horizon today. The first threat arises from a possible unraveling of the non-proliferation regime because any potential future candidates for nuclear weapons will emerge out of what is today a near universal NPT. The treaty today has a total membership of 189 nations and only four countries out of the treaty – India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan – are known to possess nuclear weapons. Therefore, further cases of nuclear proliferation will be of nations who are members of the treaty and who might exercise their right to withdraw from it in order to demonstrate nuclear capability. While every nation would be well within its rights to do so, it would raise serious questions on the future of the treaty. In fact, it would cast aspersions on its very raison d’etre considering that non-proliferation has been one of the primary objectives of the NPT.

Secondly, among the possible candidates for future nuclear proliferation are states that are mostly considered to be ‘of proliferation concern’ owing to their dubious record of illegal nuclear activity and unresponsive political systems. In the past, nuclear deterrence has been substantively premised on the rationality of actors and decision makers. It has been assumed that it is the ability of the leaders to make a rational cost-benefit calculation of the use of nuclear weapons that makes nuclear deterrence a workable proposition. However, with new players having different sensibilities to rationality and possibly even harboring suicidal tendencies, it is believed that deterrence will be more difficult to impose and sustain. The Four Horsemen pointed to this danger when they wrote, “It is far from certain that we can successfully replicate the old Soviet-American ‘mutually assured destruction’ with an increasing number of potential nuclear enemies worldwide without dramatically increasing the risk that nuclear weapons will be used.” They further warned that the “new nuclear era” would be “more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence”.4

Thirdly, as more states acquire nuclear weapons, there is a concomitant requirement that each one of them has a functional command and control system that can exercise controls on the nuclear arsenal in order to prevent the possibility of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch. The danger in this situation can be explained through a simple analogy. While driving in chaotic conditions, one is required to be in total control of one’s vehicle (which might be easy) while also hoping that every other driver also has skilful control over his vehicle so that chances of collision due to the mistake or miscalculation can be minimized. The same applies in the case of possession of nuclear weapons. Weak command and control by any one nuclear-armed nation could lead to an accidental nuclear use and push nations into an unwanted situation of nuclear escalation. However, as more countries acquire nuclear weapons, the ability of each one of them to establish command and control with uniform rigour and singularity of focus on high standards is difficult to assume.

Fourthly, there is a palpable danger of nuclear terrorism executed by a non-state actor. This danger has exacerbated for two reasons – one, there is greater availability of nuclear material and technology owing to the spread of nuclear power programmes. As energy demand grows across developing nations, fuel availability, especially of hydrocarbons, experiences price volatility and concerns over reliable and uninterrupted supplies. Simultaneously, as the pressure to meet growing demands through the use of environmentally friendly sources increases, nuclear power gains in popularity. Some 60 odd nations are believed to have expressed interest in setting up new nuclear power programmes to the IAEA in the last one year. Despite the fact that these energy programmes would be developed under IAEA safeguards, it has been seen in the past that violations, if a country so desires, cannot be completely ruled out. Besides the possibility of clandestine national nuclear weapons programmes, however remote, there also exists the risk of terrorist organizations being able to access fissile material from increasing number of nuclear facilities. Modern day terrorist organizations are proven to be well networked and financially flush. What has probably kept them from wreaking nuclear terrorism until now has been the difficulty in availability of requisite amount of sufficiently enriched fissile material, and the existence of the unsaid nuclear norm or taboo against use of nuclear weapons.

The fifth threat perception arises from the realization that classical deterrence could prove grossly inadequate in meeting these novel threats. Increased numbers of nuclear-armed states as well as players with different parameters of rationality and cost-benefit calculations are new phenomena that deterrence theories and practices have not had to deal with in the past.

It is a travesty of sorts that despite the novelty and severity of the contemporary nuclear threats, there is yet an absence of an imminent, pervasive threat that could involve large-scale catastrophic use of nuclear weapons. And because of this, governmental and non-governmental forces do not appear to coalesce into a sufficiently powerful critical mass that could galvanize movement towards abolition of nuclear weapons. Would the world have to wait for the occurrence of a nuclear catastrophe to experience absolute abhorrence for the weapon and mobilize action against its existence? What can be done to jolt nations and public out of their sense of complacency on nuclear weapons?

It is often opined that the US and Russia, which are the repositories of 95 per cent of the global nuclear stockpile, must take the necessary first steps to further reduce their stockpiles before others could join in the process. While it may be true that the biggest possessors of nuclear weapons have a special responsibility to reduce their weapons, the task of the other states must also not be abrogated. India’s Defence Minister, Mr. V. K. Krishna Menon said before the UN General Assembly in 1953, “Disarmament is a matter for all nations, great or small, in whatever continent they may be and in whatever climate…”5 Dr. Rajendra Prasad, India’s first President, also echoed the same thought in his inaugural speech at the Anti-Nuclear Arms Convention in New Delhi in 1962, “The non-aligned and neutral people are as much involved in this as those who are knowingly engaged in the criminal conspiracy of creating weapons and conditions that would spell their own annihilation no less than that of others.”6

Indeed, every member of the international comity of nations has the right and responsibility to make the world a safer place, and they may contribute to this through thought, ideas or action. The rest of the paper is devoted to examining the role that India can and should play in the process. India has sought to contribute towards the creation of an NWFW, both as a non-nuclear state before 1998 and as a nuclear-armed state since then. The following two sections of this paper examine the Indian interpretation of universal nuclear disarmament and suggest some ideas/concepts that the country can offer to facilitate an NWFW.


3. Defining Disarmament – India’s Interpretation
The journey to nuclear disarmament must begin with clarity on the end goal being sought. Will it be a world with no nuclear weapons, few weapons, weapons with a few nations or with an international authority of some kind? Ideally, a nuclear weapons free world should constitute a situation wherein there are no nuclear weapons. India interprets nuclear abolition as the complete removal of these weapons from the world. Some, however, contend that an international authority consensually negotiated might need to be crafted as the repository of a few nuclear weapons in case of an unthinkable eventuality. Meanwhile, most NWS are unable to accept or even envision a situation with no or zero nuclear weapons. Even the Four Horsemen restricted themselves to prescribing a low number and a low value nuclear deterrent. They were candid enough to admit that they could not yet visualize a state devoid of nuclear weapons since it appeared to be hidden on the top of some high mountains.

This is the case with most analysts who subscribe to the realist theory of international relations since for them inter-state equations are premised on competitive national interests. When self interest drives nations, it is difficult to visualize how and why they would voluntarily surrender a ‘useful’ weapon. Therefore, the definition of nuclear disarmament for most fails to get to a state of zero. The report “Eliminating Nuclear Threats” brought out by the International Commission on Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), for instance, outlines short term, medium term and long term measures for getting to a world without nuclear weapons. In the medium term it has identified 2025 as the year in which the world would actualize a ‘minimization point’ which would be characterized by “no more than 2000 nuclear warheads”.7 However, the Commission found itself unable to identify a year by which the world might get to a state of zero. It states, “we have found it impossible credibly to do so [identify a particular target date for achieving the complete elimination of nuclear weapons], given the nature and complexity of the conditions that will have to be satisfied in the final elimination phase move from low numbers to zero.”8

This problem that each of such reports has identified arises from the inability of the analysts to visualize an end state with no nuclear weapons. Steeped in the reality of the moment where inter-state relations, especially between nuclear armed states, are marked by trust deficits, it is naturally difficult to imagine a different world order based on a distinct paradigm of cooperative and not competitive security. As George Shultz et al said in their paper in 2008, “From the vantage point of our troubled world today, we can’t even see the top of the mountain, and it is tempting and easy to say we can’t get there from here.”

This is a real challenge, for, unless the nations begin to visualize disarmament as a state of zero, we would be always looking at half measures and confronting trust deficits in inter-state relations. It is only when all NWS express their willingness to give up all their nuclear weapons and the attendant fissile material, delivery systems, infra-structure, etc that there would be a complete change in how inter-state relations get perceived and conceived for the future.

As it did several centuries ago, India needs to help the world rediscover the meaning of zero, this time in the nuclear realm. It must advocate universal nuclear disarmament as a state of zero nuclear weapons − not of fewer weapons or in fewer hands because as long as even one country retains even one nuclear weapon, an NWFW cannot be realized and proliferation cannot be stopped.

India can further help to facilitate the acceptance of zero by providing a unique conceptual understanding of national security. This could eventually bring about a significant transformation of the geopolitical environment. The ICNND report rightly opines that “political-security relations among the nuclear-armed states and their neighbors will have to be cooperative and balanced enough…”9 This is obviously important, though not easy to obtain. India’s first Prime Minister used to emphasize the goal of peace over security. The reason behind this is well explained by India’s foremost strategic analyst Jasjit Singh in these words, “An environment of peace would naturally provide security, whereas mere security may or may not bring peace. For example, security in Europe during the Cold War was ensured for 45 years by something like 60,000 nuclear weapons, 94,000 combat airplanes, about 110,000 tanks and massive quantities of other weapons and military systems….” And yet despite all these security measures in place, peace proved to be elusive. The acquisition of nuclear weapons, whether as a national possession or through extended deterrence, brought security but not peace. Therefore, as Singh points out, “Peace has to be given a chance in shaping future paradigms.”10

It is in this context that India can bring a new paradigm to the understanding of inter-state relations. Cooperative security, in place of the current competitive security, is needed to meet not only the requirement of nuclear disarmament but also the many challenges of the 21st century. An indication of this understanding can be found in the UN Security Council Resolution 1887, adopted on 24 September 2009 under the chairmanship of President Obama. It established a linkage between nuclear disarmament and the promotion of international stability, peace and security premised on “the principle of increased and undiminished security for all.” Can nations bring themselves to rise above existing paradigms of security to envision a different world order premised on cooperation and the objective of peace rather than security? Can we at least begin to talk, write and debate the contours of a post-nuclear world so that its appeal and advantages can begin to pervade wider spaces – geographical, and of the mind? And as mindsets change, so will the reality of the day. This is a fact proven in history and the abolition of well entrenched systems such as slavery and apartheid bear testimony to this.

The third concept that India must emphasize in defining disarmament is the linkage between non-proliferation and a world free of nuclear weapons. From the mid-1960s onwards, the time that the NPT was being negotiated, India highlighted this linkage and advocated the conclusion of the treaty more as a disarmament and less as a non-proliferation measure because it believed that the latter would be automatically taken care of if the former could be obtained. Illustrative of this approach is one of the many statements made by V. C. Trivedi, India’s representative to the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) in August 1965. He said, “When we are talking… of non-proliferation, the fundamental problem we have to consider is that of the proliferation that has already taken place… A non-proliferation agreement is, therefore, basically an agreement to be entered into by the nuclear powers not to proliferate nuclear weapons… A prohibition to proliferate applies firstly to those who are in a position to proliferate or reproduce themselves and only secondarily to those who may subsequently be in such a position.”16

The NPT, however, evolved in exactly the reverse order with a higher emphasis on non-proliferation and a diluted commitment to disarmament. The folly of this approach is evident in the state of the NPT today when the treaty is near universal and yet the risk of nuclear proliferation has not diminished. This is primarily because without a credible prospect of nuclear disarmament, the existence of nuclear weapons set into motion a cycle of threat perceptions that can only lead to acquiring the capability. Since nuclear weapons cannot be deterred by any other military means, every nation confronted with the threat of nuclear use or blackmail is compelled to acquire them. This vicious cycle can only be broken when none has nuclear weapons and when such a state is mandated through an international convention and maintained through effective verification.

Envisioning a state of zero nuclear weapons and a world order premised on cooperative peace and security where non-proliferation becomes an automatic by-product of disarmament can be the three most constructive concepts that India could contribute to the making of a nuclear weapons free world. 63 years ago Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Indian nation, lived to see his dream of an independent India turn into reality. He achieved this through the moral conviction premised on non-violence, even though there were several detractors of this approach from amongst his own countrymen. This was natural since it was a route to independence that had never been tried before. But Gandhi traveled down this road and achieved success. Comprehensive global security will also have to be anchored in non-violence, however impractical and impossible this may sound today. As Mahatma Gandhi had presciently stated in the aftermath of the first use of nuclear weapons, “The moral to be legitimately drawn from the supreme tragedy of the bomb is that it will not be destroyed by counter-bombs, even as violence cannot be destroyed by counter-violence. Mankind has to get out of violence only through non-violence.”17

Raising its voice over the cacophony of realism, India must remind the world that the right route to civilized survival lies in establishing a world order on the principles of coexistence, non-use of force, non-intervention in the internal affairs of others and the right of every state to pursue its path of development. These principles, in fact, are enshrined in the United Nations Charter, but appear to have faded from immediate consciousness. India must help to revive their importance in the present moment if the world is to be stopped from sliding into a realist’s vision of ‘nasty, brutish and short’ for any use of nuclear weapons would certainly make it so.

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