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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 22, May 16, 2009

President Obama’s Initiative for Achieving a Nuclear Weapons-Free World

Monday 18 May 2009, by Muchkund Dubey

To rid the world of weapons of war has been the age-old aspiration of mankind. The Bible talks about turning swords into ploughshares. In the very first resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at its meeting in London in January 1946, the member states were called upon to work for the elimination of national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons of mass destruction. After that, the item ’General and Complete Disarmament’ remained on the agenda of the United Nations for decades. The advent of nuclear weapons rendered the realisation of this agenda extremely difficult and complex. Priority had to be accorded to nuclear disarmament in the Agenda for General and Complete Disarmament. Writing in the Harijan in September 1948, Gandhiji said:

I regard the employment of the atom bomb for the wholesale destruction of men, women and children as the most diabolical use of science.

In a BBC broadcast from London in January 1951, referring to the bomb, Jawaharlal Nehru said:

Today hundreds of millions all over the world live under some kind of a suspended sentence of death.

Until the last days of his life, Jawaharlal Nehru made an untiring and persistent effort to seek the elimination of nuclear weapons.

A key provision in the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) which came into force from 1970, was that the five nuclear weapon states, so recognised in the Treaty, will undertake negotiations in good faith for achieving nuclear disarmament. The international community achieved the highest level of consensus in favour of nuclear disarmament at the Tenth Special Session of the General Assembly, which was the First Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD-I). In the Final Document adopted at the Session, it was stated:

It is essential to halt and reverse the nuclear arms race in all its aspects in order to avert the danger of war involving nuclear weapons. The ultimate goal in this context is the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, after the SSOD-I, the world started moving back from the goal of the elimination of nuclear weapons. The Cold War got intensified from the beginning of the 1980s, and reached its apex during the first half of the decade. Consequently, the nuclear arms race was intensified and acquired new dimensions. The nuclear arsenals in the possession of the two rival groups led by the USA and the USSR, competing for hegemony in the world, acquired a huge and frightening proportion. This prompted a group of eminent scientists of the world to propound the hypothesis of ’Nuclear Winter’. According to this, the use of even a fraction of the existing stockpile of nuclear weapons will result in the annihilation of not only humankind but also of all lives on earth and the destruction of all centres and traces of human civilisation. In spite of the recent reductions in nuclear weapons, mainly through the treaties between the United States and USSR/Russia, the ’Nuclear Winter’ still remains not only a plausible hypothesis but also a distinct possibility.

After the end of the Cold War, a new life was infused into the agenda for nuclear disarmament. Towards the fading years of the Cold War, the former Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, proposed, on January 15, 1986, a phased programme for the elimination of nuclear weapons by the year 2000. However, that did not elicit a positive response from the other nuclear weapon powers. But, in the meeting between Gorbachev and President Reagan in Reykjavik in October 1986, the two leaders came tantalisingly close to an agreement for the elimination of nuclear weapons even before the deadline proposed in the Gorbachev programme. However, as a great tragic irony of history, that agreement came unstuck over President Reagan’s insistence on going ahead with his controversial Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) or the Star War plan.

A new spurt of interest, commencing from the end of the 1980s, in the elimination of nuclear weapons was generated due to two major factors. Firstly, with the end of the Cold War, the central rationale for maintaining nuclear weapons was knocked out of any serious consideration. Secondly, the unprecedented measures devised and adopted for verification and inspection within the framework of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was also of great help. Elimination appeared realistic, and for many, even in the Western world, a necessity. Since then, there has been an expanding lobby of abolitionists in these countries, consisting of eminent strategic thinkers, former high-level policy-makers, scientists and peace-movement activists.

However, most of the proposals emanting from these quarters are half-hearted, gradualistic and conditional; but all of them adumbrate the goal of eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. One of such proposals was advanced by Robert S. McNamara, the former US Defence Secretary, who was earlier responsible for decisions for enhancing US nuclear arsenals. According to him, a reduction to the level of 1000 warheads by each of the two largest nuclear powers could be achieved by a series of unilateral actions and that, according to him, should be efficacious enough to serve the residual function of deterrence. A major initiative taken last year was jointly by four eminent US strategic thinkers and policy-makers, namely, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nun, Bill Perry and George Shultz. Since these individuals had an important role in the formulation and conduct of the security and foreign policy of the United States and were, till recently, the proponents of retention and use of nuclear weapons by the United States, their proposal attracted worldwide attention. However, this initiative also, while setting the objective of Global Zero, envisages a series of measures leading towards the realisation of the zero option, without setting a deadline for it.

The gradualistic approach does not provide a credible basis for elimination of nuclear weapons. If global nuclear arsenals are reduced to a few hundreds, the possibility of moving from hundreds to thousands is much greater than of moving to zero.

The most recent developments leading to the revival of interest in nuclear disarmament are the increase in the number of states acquiring or desiring to acquire nuclear weapons and the possibility of these weapons coming under the possession of terrorists. There is also a feeling among the officially recognised nuclear weapon states that their objective of non-proliferation will not succeed unless they themselves take initiatives for renouncing nuclear weapons.


It is because of these developments and the realisation of this fact that mainly led President Obama to put forward his proposals for nuclear disarmament in his historic speech in Prague on April 4, 2009. In his campaign for presidential election, he had stated that a very important element of his foreign policy will be to rid the world of nuclear weapons. He did not forget this electoral promise, as other political leaders do. Barely three months after taking oath as the President of the United States, he presented, in the Prague speech, an elaborate road map for moving in the direction of his goal. In his speech, he very significantly underlined:

Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped, cannot be checked—that we are destined to live in a world where more nations and more people possess the ultimate tools of destruction. Such fatalism is a deadly adversary.

He also stated that the United States, as the only country to have used nuclear weapons, had the special responsibility to take the initiative for the elimination of these weapons.

He then outlined the actions that he had already taken and was going to take to realise this objective. These included the following:

• an agreement with President Medvedev to resume the negotiations for the reduction of strategic weapons (START); the objective will be to achieve a cut of one-third, if not deeper, from the existing nuclear arsenal of about 20,000 held by the two powers;

• to reduce the importance of nuclear weapons in the US security strategy;

• to take immediate and energetic action to seek the ratification by the US Senate of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT);

• to take initiative for commencing negotiations for achieving a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT);

• to convene, next year, a Summit-level Conference for reductions in and ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons.

India should generally welcome and support President Obama’s initiative. The objective behind the initiative is entirely in unison with India’s traditional values and disarmament policy. Hardly any country has worked more assiduously and over a longer period for achieving nuclear disarmament than India. The issue of nuclear test ban was put on the agenda of the UN for the first time in the mid-1950s at the initiative of India—in fact, at the personal initiative of Jawaharlal Nehru. India played a crucial role in shaping the Final Document that emerged from the SSOD-I in 1978. In the SSOD-II, though the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, could not attend the conference, she transmitted under her signature a number of concrete proposals for consideration by the conference. These included signing a Convention on the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons and concluding an agreement on banning the production of fissile material. After the SSOD-II, India pursued these two proposals for nuclear disarmament at every session of the General Assembly for almost a decade-and-a-half. At the SSOD-III, held in 1988, the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, submitted his celebrated Action Plan on a Nuclear Weapons-Free World.

The Action Plan was one of the most elaborate and internally consistent set of proposals for nuclear disarmament ever submitted to the United Nations. Its distinguishing features are: it seeks a phased and time-bound elimination of nuclear weapons, and it lays down obligations for all states, the two biggest nuclear weapon states, the other three recognised nuclear weapon states, the so-called threshold nuclear weapon powers, and other member states of the United Nations. Its key feature is a trade-off between nuclear weapon states committing themselves to the elimination of their nuclear weapons within a time-bound framework, and the threshold nuclear weapon states like India undertaking the commitment not to cross the threshold. These commitments were to be incorporated in a treaty to be negotiated in the UN forum. The Action Plan also included collateral measures—for both nuclear and conventional disarmament—which must be adopted en route to a nuclear weapons-free world. The Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan was the last attempt by India to ensure its security by means of nuclear disarmament. The nuclear weapon states, while praising India’s initiative, did not respond to it in any concrete and meaningful manner. In the meantime, increasing and almost foolproof evidence of Pakistan having already acquired nuclear weapons came to light. This became a factor of frightening vulnerability for India’s security, leaving it no option but to go in for the acquisition of nuclear weapons. That India then exercised the nuclear option was demonstrated by the nuclear explosions carried out by it in May 1998.

After that, India formulated and announced a policy of Minimum Nuclear Deterrence. An important element of this policy was the continued pursuit by India of the goal of nuclear disarmament. Thus, India became the only nuclear weapon state (not so recognised officially) to have put its nuclear arsenal on the negotiating table. Thus, President Obama’s proposals are in accordance with the policy adopted by India even after becoming a nuclear weapon state. India’s support of these proposals will neither jeopardise its security nor detract from its position in the global power structure.


So far as the FMCT is concerned, India was one of the countries which put this item on the disarmament agenda of the United Nations and pursued it over several years. Since India has adopted a policy of minimum nuclear deterrence, with emphasis on the word ’minimum’, it need not get involved in a nuclear arms race either in the region or globally. Therefore, there is no point in accumulating infinite stock of fissile material, or leaving the door open for doing so in future. The number of warheads that India can fabricate with the fissile material already accumulated and likely to be available during the next few years before the FMCT comes into effect, should be adequate for it to serve as a deterrent against any attack from Pakistan and also bring under target some of the important cities of China. There is, therefore, no reason for India to be afraid of the FMCT. It is true that according to the discussions held so far on this subject, there is divergence in the positions of different countries or groups of countries. For example, the Bush Administration was not in favour of incorporating a foolproof verification measure in the Treaty. There were also differences on whether there should be a ban only on future production or the existing stock should also come within the purview of cutoff. Such differences are natural in negotiations on a complex subject like this. But this should not cause us worry. No doubt we may come under pressure during the negotiations to apply cutoff unilaterally, or to agree on a ban on production of fissile material without foolproof verification, etc. But pressure is a part of any negotiation and we should be confident enough to be able to deal with it and, at the same time, to assert our position and point of view. Ultimately, we shall agree to only that which is acceptable to the entire international community, including ourselves.

Nor should India be too much concerned about being pressurised to sign and ratify the CTBT. If the United States, China and Pakistan accede to the CTBT, there should be no problem in our also being a party to it. We don’t need further tests to verify the realibility of our existing arsenals. We can do this through sub-critical tests which will be permissible and for which, according to our scientists, we have the technology. We are also capable of manufacturing warheads of different weight, size and lethality, with the help of computer simulation. Field tests for nuclear weapons are required only for developing weapons based on new physical principles. There is no reason why we should get involved in the game of developing such new weapon systems. Finally, it will be politically impossible for India to remain outside the CTBT when the whole world becomes part of it, just as we have felt obliged to apply voluntary moratorium on testing because the rest of the world is applying such a moratorium.

The fear that India will be pressurised by the US Administration to sign the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state, seems to be exaggerated. Having become a de facto nuclear weapon power, there is no question of India applying a standstill on, and roll back, its nuclear weapons programme. Given the security situation in the region, no government in power in India will be allowed to do so by the public opinion in the country, except within the framework of a nuclear weapons-free world. The nuclear deal concluded with the United States, the Safeguard Agreement related to it signed with the IAEA, and the clearance of this deal by the Nuclear Suppliers Group strengthen our position in this regard. These agreements clearly constitute a de facto recognition of India’s status as a nuclear weapon power, as they leave it free to pursue its nuclear weapons programme in a stream separate from the civilian nuclear energy programme. The deal had bipartisan support in the US Congress, including the personal support of Obama as a Senator. In this background, it is very unlikely that the present US Administration will pressurise India to apply a standstill on, and roll back, its nuclear weapons programme.

One eventually that India must avoid at any cost is to go in for a gradualistic approach to nuclear disarmament which has been the characteristic feature of all proposals emanating from the Western think-tanks. In a sense, this seems to be true of the Obama proposals also. If it were not so, there was no reason for him to have stated that the objective of nuclear disarmament may not be realised during his lifetime, which actually can be as long as 50 years or more. We must insist, as we did in the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan, that elimination, within a phased and time-bound framework, should be agreed upon at the very beginning and incorporated in a treaty. The principal task of the proposed Summit Conference should be to negotiate such a treaty. The treaty should also provide for collateral measures to be implemented within an agreed time-frame. It may be over-ambitious to try to reach agreement on all possible collateral measures which may extend from conventional disarmament to the kind of world order which can sustain a nuclear weapons-free world. However, there are some collateral measures directly related to the achievement of the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world. These must be negotiated as a part of the proposed treaty. These include the FMCT, CTBT, non-use of nuclear weapons, prohibition of the development and deployment of outer space weapons, as well other defensive weapon systems.

If all the nations of the world agree to destroy all nuclear weapons within the framework of a foolproof verification system and an agreed time-limit, this will have a positive effect on the security of all countries, including that of India. We endeavoured for decades to seek such a security and for this purpose applied voluntary restraint on the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Now that, thanks to President Obama’s initiative, such a security has a chance of becoming a reality in our lifetime, we should rejoice and join this endeavour without being constrained by undue and unfounded fear and apprehension.

The author, a former Foreign Secretary of India who, as a serving diplomat, was deeply involved in multilateral economic negotiations and nuclear disarmament issues, is currently the President of the Council for Social Development, New Delhi.

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