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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 42, October 3, 2009

President Obama’s Landmark Initiative towards World Peace and Security

Monday 5 October 2009, by Muchkund Dubey


In human history, the discovery of an offensive weapon has each time been followed by the quest for a defensive weapon against it. Moreover, offensive weapons can also serve the purpose of defence and the same weapon can and has been used for both offensive and defensive purposes. All this is true of nuclear weapons also. Attempts to build defences against missiles commenced as early as in the 1960s. The first step in this direction was the launching of anti-satellite weapons of one kind or the other, by both the USA and the then Soviet Union. The quest for defensive weapons against missiles reached its climax in President Reagan’s “Star War” plan. The system was to function mainly through the deployment in the outer space of radar systems and nuclear, laser or other power driven devices whose purpose was to detect and destroy a missile fired from any direction immediately after its take off or during its trajectory. President Reagan’s dream of such a weapon system came in the way of his finalising the agreement he had reached with President Gorbachev in their meeting in Reykjavik, to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

The race for the development of missile defence weapons and their deployment was regarded as highly destabilising by the United States and the Soviet Union, mainly because of their potentiality of undermining their nuclear deterrence. They, therefore, signed in 1972 the Anti-Ballastic Missile (ABM) Treaty which prohibited the deployment of missile defence systems except in one or two agreed locations, mainly to protect important population centres.

Defensive weapon systems have been sought to be justified as a means of getting rid of nuclear weapons. This was the argument used by President Reagan in justification of the Star War and subsequently by President Bush for going in for a new version of defensive weapon system. However, this justification is only to package the system in an attractive way to sell it to the world public opinion. The intention has always been to develop such weapon systems as a means of bolstering their nuclear deterrent. Henry Kissinger had said it in so many words when the idea of Star War was mooted in the early 1980s. For the United States, which has a headlong lead over other nuclear powers in defence related technologies, the motive behind the development and deployment of such a system is to dominate the world and establish its military supremacy for a long time to come. Russia has technologies which can be used for building defences against missiles, but it is far behind the United States. It has, however, declared its intention to deploy, in collaboration with USA and Europe, a defensive system against the missiles of rogue countries. China has recently successfully fired a device to destroy a satellite in the outer space, a feat which the USA and the Soviet Union had achieved in the 1960s. India has acquired, mainly from Israel, some hardwares and softwares for defence against missiles and is keen to acquire more sophisticated technologies.

From this, it can be concluded that defensive weapon systems have come to stay. While this may be true, it is also true that in an asymmetrical global power structure, these weapons are highly destabilising. In the short and medium run, they have the effect of accelerating the nuclear arms race and in the long run it is not certain that a fool proof defence ever can be built.

As it happened, the idea of developing the Star War weapon system was quietly shelved towards the end of the Reagan Administration, in spite of the fact that hundreds of billions of dollars had been spent in research and development relating to these weapons. The main reasons for setting aside this ambitious plan were strong opposition to it in the United States itself and from the USA’s allies, the astronomical amount of expenditure involved and doubts about its technological feasibility. In its place, on May 1, 2001, President Bush launched his $ 53 billion plan for National Missile Defence (NMD). This defence system was based on the installation of land-based radar and interceptors which could detect missiles immediately after they are fired, and which by hitting them like a bullet could turn them into smithers. In order to pursue the NMD, the USA walked out of the ABM Treaty, thus casting it into the dustbin of history.

Soon after the Bush plan was announced, India through a statement of Jaswant Singh, the then Foreign Minister, became one of the first countries to support it. He gave the argument, which was cheerfully picked up by the national media, that any device which could reduce nuclear weapons, deserved to be welcomed. The UPA Government which came to power in 2004, did not withdraw this support. On the other hand, the defence pact that it signed with the United States in 2005, included provisions on cooperation between the two countries in the development of defensive weapon systems. The reason in support of these provisions, advanced by the government and some strategic thinkers, was that they would help India in acquiring defence weapon related technologies from the United States. There can be grave doubts regarding its feasibility. For, the US has not so far transferred any nuclear weapon related technologies to India. In fact, it has a very rigid attitude on this issue. Besides, the United States does not need India’s cooperation for developing its defence weapon system. The only reason why the US agreed to these provisions in the defence pact was to have India on its side in its effort to deploy a world-wide defensive weapon system. Both Russia and China strongly objected to the NMD plan. The Russians also apparently did not take very kindly to India’s strong and instant support for it. This became one of the reasons for the tension that subsequently developed in the relations between the two countries.

Later, President Bush announced that under NMD the United States would deploy interceptors in Poland and the linked radars in the nearby Czech Republic. In spite of Russia’s strong objection, the United States went ahead and signed formal agreements with these two countries for the deployment of the system. This action by the Bush Administration, along with its plan to bring Russia’s next-door neighbours, Ukraine and Georgia, into the NATO fold, severely strained its relations with Russia, which regarded the action of the Bush Administration as a hostile move and a major threat to its security. Russia felt that the defensive system deployed by the United States in nearby East European countries would expose its nuclear deterrence to US surveillance and targeting. The American reaction in response to the Russian objection was that these defensive weapon systems had been deployed not against Russia but against rogue nations like Iran. The Russians then asked the United States that if that was the intention, then why the US decided to act unilaterally, why it did not invite Russia to join in this endeavour and why it did not deploy the system at a place to which Russia can have free access.

The biggest danger of a defensive weapon system, which involves not only Russia but the whole world, is that it is bound to trigger a new nuclear arms race. For, the most effective way to penetrate a defencive weapon system is to saturate it with a very large number of radar-evading offensive weapons. Russia warned the United States of this danger but when the Bush Administration did not pay any attention to it, it started developing and deploying new offensive systems. It developed and deployed a more sophisticated version of the Topolov series of missiles. It started preparing for the deployment of its short-range missile, Iskandar, in its enclave Kaliningrad located close to Poland. The American NMD plan gave an excuse to China for justifying its nuclear armament which has been moving at a feverish pace for the last few decades.


In this context, President Obama’s announcement of September 17, 2009 of the withdrawal of Bush’s NMD has come as a great relief to the whole world. In his announcement, President Obama stated that in place of the Bush plan, his Administration intended to deploy a new defensive weapon system based on proven technologies, which will be cheaper, quicker and more effective against the threat from Iranian missiles. Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, indicated that for the time being the US defensive system will be deployed on warships near Europe, with interceptors capable of blowing up missiles above the atmosphere. According to Obama, this new missile architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defence for both American forces stationed in Europe and West Asia, and for American allies.

For obvious domestic political reasons, Obama had to reiterate that the US was committed to deploying strong missile systems that are adaptable to the threat of the 21st century. Gates stated that land-based defence system will be fielded in the second phase starting in about 2015. The US Senate has authorised over the last 30 years an expenditure of $ 3 to 5 billion per annum for the development of land-based defensive systems. It is, therefore, unrealistic to expect any President of the United States to abandon such a system. It is very difficult to predict at this stage as to what shape the new architecture referred to by Obama will take. But it is very likely that it would be a cooperative effort in collaboration with Russia. This was hinted in the statement by James Cartright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, when he stated that the new system could be based in the Caucasus. A similar indication came from Mr Rasmussen, the NATO Secretary-General, who stated in Brussels on September 18 that “we should explore the potential for linking US, NATO and Russian missile defensive system at an appropriate time”.

Obama’s initiative was immediately welcomed by the European Union, the Secretary-General of NATO and the British Prime Minister. So far as Russia is concerned, both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reacted positively. Prime Minister Putin described it as “correct and courageous”. Russia also gave an indication almost immediately after Obama’s announcement that it would postpone its plan to deploy the Iskandar missiles in Kaliningrad. The swift reaction and relief felt by the European countries indicates that they must have agreed only reluctantly, for the sake of their alliance with the United States, with Bush’s NMD plan and that they have been rather restive about the tension prevailing in US-Russian relations mainly because of this, over the last three-four years.

The two East European countries, that is, Poland and the Czech Republic, directly involved with Bush’s plan, have as expected reacted negatively to the Obama move. This is because of their obsessive concern about the threat to their security emanating from Russia. Though the Bush plan did not provide any safeguard against such threat, the very fact that the United States decided to install its radar and interceptors in their territories was an indication that it was prepared to underwrite their security. In fact, the Bush plan was more of a symbolic value to them rather than in the nature of a direct safeguard. There were, however, reports that even in these countries a section of the population was against the US NMD deployment.

Obama’s initiative has far-reaching implications for world peace and security. First, it will have a restraining influence on the race that has already started among major nuclear weapon powers for expanding their nuclear arsenals and making them more lethal. This is by no means a small achievement. Secondly, it will pave the way for the resumption of dialogue between the United States and Russia for further reductions in their nuclear arsenals. In fact, reports have come in that talks to this end have already commenced in Geneva. It was high time that it happened because START expires at the end of 2009. And Russia is very keen to continue negotiating under START for further reductions because within this framework it can extract a quid pro quo from the USA for its unilateral slashing of nuclear weapons due mainly to economic reasons. Third, the international security system cannot be stable without the cooperation of Russia which is militarily the second most powerful nation in the world. The Secretary General of the NATO very rightly stated in his statement that the collaboration of Russia is necessary for solving the great issues of modern times. In the immediate context, America is desperately in need of Russian cooperation for dealing with the situation in Iran and Afghanistan. The USA wants Russia to agree to apply stricter sanctions against Iran in case the latter does not agree to stop its programme for uranium enrichment. It also needs Russian assistance to fight the Taliban in Afghanbistan. In fact, Russia has already agreed to extend its cooperation by allowing US military supplies to move to Afghanistan through its territory.

Finally, this initiative is also likely to have a positive bearing on the progress of Obama’s initiatives for nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. In the speech delivered in Prague in the beginning of April 2009, Obama had projected a vision for a nuclear weapon-free world. It is impossible to realise such a vision without Russia’s cooperation. The United States recently took a major initiative in the United Nations for making a beginning towards the realisation of the vision. President Obama presided over a summit-level meeting of the Security Council in which a major resolution on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament was adopted. A draft resolution had been prepared by the United States and extensive consultations had been held in New York prior to its adoption at the Summit meeting.

The Government of India has preferred to remain silent on the Obama initiative. One has not come across any official reaction to it nor has the public come to know about the role played and contributions made by India in the consultations on the Security Council resolution held in New York. On the other hand, during the last few weeks, there have been numerous reports and comments in the Indian media expressing grave apprehensions regarding the US move in the Security Council. This is because the resolution adopted by the Security Council puts a great deal of emphasis on nuclear non-proliferation. In particular, it seeks to universalise the NPT. It seems India is so much obsessed with its non-proliferation concern that it has lost all interest in issues and initiatives for building and consolidating world peace and security.

There was a time when the objective of global peace and security was an indispensable part of our foreign policy and our contribution in this area was acknowledged and lauded all over the world. But now because of our inept policies, we have tied ourselves in knots and become indifferent to the issues of survival or demise of humankind.

The author is a former Foreign Secretary of India.

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