Elimination of nuclear weapons will not happen in a hurry

on Sunday, June 22, 2008

Let’s Get Real
Kanwal Sibal

How seriously should the prospects of elimination of nuclear weapons be taken? Two newspaper articles by four former US State Department and Pentagon chiefs — George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn — visualising the distant possibility of such elimination have revived hopes of progress towards the goal. If some see the conversion of these diehard realists to such a ‘peacenik’ position as the beginning of a strategic change in thinking within the US security establishment, others see it as a tactical ploy to further tighten the non-proliferation regime under cover of a notional commitment to an effectively unrealisable goal.
A rational case for elimination exists. Nuclear weapons are in effect unusable. If during the Cold War one nuclear-armed ideology posed an existential challenge to the other, no such confrontation exists today. The Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) are incapable of posing ‘a threat of last resort’ to the Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) for which these weapons of last resort are required by them. If the NWS do not regard each other as ‘enemies’ any longer, only friends or competitors locked into a tight economic embrace or politics of engagement in an interdependent globalised world, then nuclear deterrence loses its raison d’etre.
The end of the Cold War presented an opportunity to adopt an agenda of elimination, but instead an agenda of consolidating the privileged position of the NWS by tightening further the non-proliferation regime for NNWS and attempting to freeze the nuclear capability of non-Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) countries like India was adopted. The NPT was extended permanently, without amendment, in 1995. The Nuclear Suppliers Group tightened its guidelines, the International Atomic Energy Agency its safeguards regime. Robust counter-proliferation strategies were enunciated. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) were inscribed on the agenda not with disarmament but with non-proliferation in view.
But the implementation of this agenda got derailed. India and Pakistan conducted weapon tests in 1998. Counter-proliferation policies produced defiance, with North Korea abjuring the NPT and claiming possession of nuclear weapons. Iran insists on its right under the NPT to enrich uranium, fuelling suspicion that it is acquiring the technology and ingredients to make nuclear weapons. The NPT consensus has floundered because the NWS refuse to discuss any timetable for elimination of nuclear weapons while insisting that the NNWS accept increasingly stringent conditions for peaceful nuclear
cooperation for non-proliferation reasons.
Mistrust between NWS and a bid for strategic ascendancy, rather than proliferation concerns, prevent elimination. The US Senate has rejected the CTBT. FMCT negotiations are blocked in the conference on disarmament in Geneva because the US rejects verification provisions and the Chinese insist on linking them to those on non-weaponisation of outer space. The US unilaterally abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and began developing a National Missile Defence System. US-Russia arms control negotiations have in effect broken down. The US decision to install missile defence components in East Europe is seen as a strategic threat by Russia. Together with NATO’s extension into Russian strategic space, these threats have prompted Russia to announce the development of new ballistic missiles and advanced nuclear submarines. China too is developing new Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles and a more potent nuclear submarine fleet, besides an antisatellite capability. Talk of the US developing newer, more reliable warheads and micro-nukes runs counter to any idea of elimination.
Who will then take the elimination agenda forward? Not the NWS who are locked up in their mutual insecurities and suspicions. Most even reject no-first-use as a confidence-building measure. They consider reductions as fulfilment of their pledge to disarm under Article 6 of the NPT. Not the NNWS who have no means of pressure left after the permanent extension of the NPT. Civil Society then? In reality, public concern about the danger of nuclear war was stronger during the Cold War than it is today. There is no discernible public movement for elimination in Russia and China; in other western countries it is muted.
Elimination of nuclear weapons is an inordinately complicated issue in which national security, vested interests, prestige, power play, fear, realism, idealism, human nature, ethics, morality, all have a part to play. A world unable to solve less complex problems is ill-equipped to solve this gargantuan one.
Where should India position itself in this exercise? On June 9, 1988, India had proposed at the UN the blueprint of a nuclear weapons-free world. India is tempted to claim ownership of the idea as it resurfaces again in the US strategic community. But India is now a nuclear weapons state and should be cautious about too big a gap growing between its elimination rhetoric and its own nuclear reality. The more India espouses the cause, the more pressure it can invite for taking intermediate steps to prove its credentials, dented by the 1998 tests, by either signing the CTBT or making a binding commitment not to test, besides unilaterally ceasing production of fissile material. Our nuclear deterrent is as yet incomplete, and because elimination is a faraway prospect, we should not get trapped into assuming commitments prematurely. We should, of course, join the debate as a responsible country for protecting our interests.