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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 51, December 5, 2009

Securing a Nuclear Weapon Free World

Tuesday 8 December 2009, by Saurabh Kumar

This article was written before PM Manmohan Singh’s visit to the US as the first state guest to be hosted by President Barack Obama in the White House. But it is being published here in view of the undiminished validity of its contents.

I. A Historic Opportunity Beckons

More than six months after US President Obama’s public declaration of “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” (and that “the US will take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons” and “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy”) in his speech at Prague in early April, there is no move, internationally, to build upon this conceptual breakthrough in US thinking and take it forward to have the goal of abolition of nuclear weapons adopted globally, that is, as a legally binding commitment by all nations. This is surprising, and disappointing.

A nuclear weapon free world has long been a cherished goal of the international community, with a galaxy of statesmen, public figures, activists and academics worldwide having championed it over the years. At least since the First Special Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on Disarmament in 1978, when this idea was accepted by all nations as a desideratum, it has been articulated very clearly periodically at various global forums. India itself has been in the forefront of such advocacy, nationally and also along with like-minded nations [as in the Six-Nation Initiative, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and other groupings and, above all, under the Action Plan for Nuclear Weapon Free World put forward by the late Shri Rajiv Gandhi at the Third Special Session of the UNGA on Disarmament in 1988], as warranted by circumstances from time to time.

The main reason for its never having figured on the active international agenda nevertheless is, as is well known, that the country with the largest nuclear arsenal—by far several times the numbers of the next largest, and also of the rest put together—was not ready to move in that direction, or even to contemplate committing itself to ever doing so. Now that the President of that very country has publicly committed his country to that very goal—of a nuclear weapon free world—the community of nations is treating it as if it were a ‘run-of-the-mill’ announcement of no great consequence or concern to them!

There has, of course, been quite some comment on Obama’s Prague speech, including on his vision of a nuclear weapon free world in particular. What is notable, however (because it stands out), is the absence of endorsement (and action) for translating the US President’s aspirations into a concrete, multilaterally agreed goal; not the verbiage, which was on expected lines – damning him with faint praise, essentially.

No nation, or any other actor on the inter-national stage, has thought it fit, for example, to ask the other Nuclear Weapon States (NWSs) to follow suit so that the goal of a ‘global zero’ (of nuclear weapons) could be (re)endorsed by the UNGA—the obvious thing to do in the wake of the gargantuan US shift—in order to seal the agreement at the conceptual level. And, accordingly, to then task the Conference on Disarmament (in Geneva, which is the designated UN body for negotiating disarmament agreements and has so far not been able to even bring nuclear disarmament on its agenda primarily because of US led opposition) to finally commence negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention (the way a Chemical Weapons Convention providing for elimination of chemical weapons globally in a specified time frame, with mechanisms to verify compliance to the satisfaction of all signatories, has been concluded).

Even the NAM (which has been consistent in not losing sight of the centrality of nuclear weapons in its consideration of international security issues) does not appear to have looked upon Obama’s Prague speech (at its Sharm el-Sheikh Summit in July) as an opportunity for pursuing what has been one of its foremost objectives with renewed vigour.

On the other hand, skeptics questioning the practicability of a world without nuclear weapons, on one ground or another, abound. More than the voices discrediting the “vision thing”, it is the lukewarm reception accorded to Obama’s bold break with the past by the defence and strategic establishments of NATO countries, including the US itself, that is disconcerting. India has its own share of hawks, who are likewise unable to shed the view that nuclear weapons should remain part of the nation’s war fighting arsenal for ‘deterrence’, and accordingly tend to be dismissive about Obama’s Prague speech in a somewhat self-serving fashion (as became evident from the recent contrived public questioning of the yield of the 1998 thermo-nuclear test).

It is therefore necessary for right thinking persons everywhere to come forward and join hands at this juncture, when there is a historic opportunity of doing away with nuclear weapons, for generating momentum behind this vision, each in their own way. While the advocacy exercise need not be restricted to governments alone—a groundswell of popular opinion in support of Obama’s courageous move, which should be possible to manifest quite easily in this digital age, can provide some of the much needed impetus—, India could perhaps take the lead on the inter-governmental front by sounding other nations within the NAM (and outside) to serve as a kind of core group for forging an international consensus on the goal of a ‘world without nuclear weapons’.

Further, Obama’s articulation has created a new, and potentially weighty, congruence between the Indian and US approaches that stands out amidst a host of divergences on some of the other important global issues. The US too could therefore be approached perhaps, during the Prime Minister’s forthcoming visit, for a joint declaration affirming the intention of the two nations to work together for realising a nuclear weapon free world (notwithstanding the fact that there are differences between the two countries on their preferred paths to that end and on the instrumentalities they favour for this purpose, which can be put aside for further consultations).

Such a declaration by India and the US would be yeoman’s service for international peace and security and also for India’s strategic interests, as argued in the following.

II. Tackling Mindless Mindsets Mindfully

The point of the foregoing is not that ‘nuclear nirvana’ is around the corner, waiting to be ushered in by India, but simply to draw attention to a historic opportunity and to plead that it would be well worth the nation’s while to exert itself for its realisation, no matter how heavy the odds may appear to be stacked against success. Moving then from the normative to the existential plane, to take into account the approaches of the key players in the real world, two sets of constraints will need to be negotiated if a ‘nuclear weapon free world’ is to ever see the light of day.

The first category of opposition consists of the familiar, cerebral, arguments of experts—impossibility of ‘disinvention’, no guarantee against cheating and so on. These are relatively easy to address, as our defence analysts and others have long countered ably at various fora and gatherings of specialists. Their rejoinders simply need to be disseminated and digested, so that they can be hammered home at every available opportunity, forcefully, as the debate gathers momentum.

The other comes from governments, not articulated explicitly but reflected in reluctance to move (or allow movement rather) in multilateral meetings and negotiations. This is naturally the more insidious one, couched as it often is in procedural (or even principled) terms concealing or obfuscating hidden agendas. Also because it is what matters ultimately, politically.

A good idea of the latter can be had from the UN Security Council’s (UNSC) special session on “Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament” (that was held on September 24 last at the level of Heads of Government)—it did not consider it necessary to even endorse, let alone embellish, Obama’s vision at Prague, though the session was held under the (monthly rotating) US Presidency of the UNSC with President Obama himself in the Chair! Resolution 1887, adopted at this important meeting unanimously, consists of as many as 29 operative paras but not one of them is on nuclear disarmament. They concentrate entirely on ‘non-proliferation’ measures of one kind or another. Far from utilising the opportunity of this high level gathering to go in for the jugular (in accordance with the paradigmatic shift in the role of nuclear weapons that Obama’s formulation portends), the notorious sleight of hand was at work—Resolution 1887 contented itself with seeking to “create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons”, without bothering to commit itself to such a world (without nuclear weapons)!

A number of eminent persons, the Director General of the IAEA included, have long counselled that non-proliferation can be pursued better if the gaping ‘delivery deficit’ on the nuclear disarmament front is addressed sincerely first, or at least in parallel. But the UNSC quite obviously did not buy that advice, plumping for tokenism instead. As if it was enough to add the words “nuclear disarmament” in the theme of its Summit session to convince the nations of the world (in the words of the President of the Council) of its “shared commitment to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons” (and to secure their cooperation for accepting the onerous additional non-proliferation obligations it expects of them in 29 paragraphs, without even once faintly demanding the obvious of the obvious set of actors—the NWSs—in respect of the far bigger problem, of nuclear disarmament).

This clearly cannot be said to be in keeping with the Obama ‘spirit’ (of sincerity), if it could be put that way, and is a big let down on Obama’s Prague promise. Words have no meaning if (mis)used void of content. It is the kind of approach that has not worked in the past and never will in the future either.

That should, however, not be reason for being disheartened or turning cynical. The fact that the Resolution was adopted immediately, at the outset of the meeting on the basis of prior informal consultations (not, as may have been expected, after an open debate in the Council), means that it was (pre)cooked at the official level and presented to Obama to steer. The US officials and diplomats cannot be said to have done a very professional job of briefing and feeding their leader. (The Vienna Chapter of the NAM has had to take exception to Resolution 1887 of the UNSC—an extraordinary step in itself – for not being mindful of their viewpoint on the idea of a nuclear fuel bank and multilateral control of the fuel cycle in the ongoing discussions in the IAEA; the US President appears to have not been informed accurately in that respect either.)

What it shows is the hold of older, moribund, mindsets. As with individuals, the force of habit tends to drag bureaucracies back to the beaten track even after the dawning of a new realisation or wisdom (through the lead of a visionary
Head of Government with a transformational personality, in this case). It will have to be tackled through the force of reason, patiently and persuasively. India is uniquely placed to do so because it has never had a problem with emphasis on non-proliferation, some perceptions to the contrary (because of its having had to stay out of the NPT) notwithstanding. Its concern rather has been about the ineffectiveness of the ‘non-proliferation regime’ (which has led to severe adverse consequences for it in its neighbourhood and) whose strengthening and revamping it has publicly advocated, guaranteeing that it would be able to add value to that endeavour.

Likewise, the reasons for the shift (in the US position articulated by Obama), which are analysed ad nauseum (in cynical terms generally), need not detain serious advocates of a nuclear weapon free world. Where the US is coming from is not as important as where they have come to (and what common ground that position offers for advance). The important thing is to build on that common ground—the goal of a nuclear weapon free world—without getting into motivations etc., which can easily turn acrimonious and divisive.

The need of the hour, it is submitted, is for an Arjuna-like eying of the target centre, seeing nothing else, in order not to blur the focus on the task at hand. For too long have well-meaning experts tried to thrash out in advance (‘fore-argue’, if it could be put that way) all possible aspects of the ‘world-without-nuclear-weapons-to-be’ but ended up achieving only ‘fore-closure’ of all possibility of progressing towards it in the process. The sole aspect that matters at the moment is convergence of political will—of the international community as a whole—to set a tangible goal for itself in this regard in categorical terms, free of any kind of caveats, qualifications etc. that can develop into loopholes and detract from the ambition of a nuclear weapon free world.

Such political will might be best mobilised by a ‘minimalist’ approach, of limiting our sights to a single first step based on the lowest common denominator—of a shortest possible multilaterally agreed document declaring universal commitment to realise a world without nuclear weapons within a reasonable time frame. And leaving all subsequent steps for the future when, hopefully, the clear direction set by such agreement, and the electrifying effect of the transformed political climate of international relations (that is, without question, bound to come about as a result), would be able to raise the quality of international dialogue and mutual trust to a new plane at which obduracy will either not arise or be resolved without turning into an obstacle.

III. Indian Nuclear Weapons as an International ‘Public Good’

India’s nuclear weapons were born, it must not be forgotten, out of India’s failure—and the failure of the international community as a whole—to persuade the NPT Nuclear Weapon States (NWSs) to get rid of theirs. For long years, India strove hard (along with others) to mobilise international opinion to that end, while exercising extreme restraint by not going in for nuclear weapons despite a hostile strategic security environment. (For meeting its national security needs, India rested content with keeping open the nuclear ‘option’—staying out of the NPT and keeping abreast of all aspects of nuclear technology.) These efforts did not make any headway beyond some limited arms control measures between the former Soviet Union and the USA.

In 1995, there was a regression in India’s strategic security environment—a severe one—, when the NPT was extended in perpetuity without any commitment by the NWSs to do away with nuclear weapons ever. This meant that the hierarchy of nuclear ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ could last indefinitely—a discriminatory order that left India out of its fold.

Even so, India held back on exercise of the nuclear option. It was the pushing through of the CTBT in 1996, without that Treaty being embedded in a framework of nuclear disarmament (in the sense of obliging the NWSs to follow up on it with concrete nuclear disarmament measures) that proved to be the last straw for India and led to its reconsidering its long standing policy of utilising nuclear energy for peaceful purposes only. It decided to reject the CTBT and, later in 1998, to cross the Rubicon and test nuclear weapons. For such a CTBT would have emasculated India’s nuclear option—of maintaining ‘recessed’ readiness and capability, its preferred answer to its strategic security predicament (of being confronted with nuclear weapons in its neighbour-hood)—without any guarantee of an eventual world without nuclear weapons.

It was not a decision that came easy and it was not the best solution, in India’s own reckoning, to the Indian strategic security dilemma. The Indian strategic establishment well understood that exercise of the option in favour of nuclear weapons was a ‘second best’, or sub-optimal, answer, yet was left with no choice but to go in for it. If nuclear weapons (and the distinction between nuclear ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’) were there to stay, India could not afford to remain ‘nuclear naked’ or be consigned to the category of the ‘have-nots’ permanently; severe costs though were undoubtedly attached to this ‘second best’ solution.

It is necessary to recall this perspective in order to be able to draw the right conclusions about the role and function of the nuclear arsenal in the nation’s possession, which naturally is the key to evolving a reasoned approach to the changing, and changed, external scenario. Nuclear weapons are in no way essential for safeguarding India’s strategic security for all time to come and under all circumstances—not at all. The real utility of nuclear weapons for India is political, not military—as a lever, and leveller, of sorts—though it has to be acknowledged that such is the calculus of these ‘weapons’, that the political advantage accrues only if they are maintained in fighting fit, full military, condition. [This, in turn, means that the benefits cannot be had without incurring the risks; also that some degree of an arms race is inbuilt in the (illogic of nuclear weapons, subjective disinclination for indulging in it notwithstanding—hence the overall negative assessment in the ‘cost-benefit-risk’ analysis implicit here.)

From the above premise(s) which, it is hoped, will be acceptable to all constituencies in the country, flows the rationale of the present submission—namely, that the political leverage acquired by the nation as a result of its gate-crashing into the ‘nuclear club’ can, and should, be exercised (that is, traded off) for the purpose of securing a world free of nuclear weapons (which in the final analysis is in India’s supreme interest and) which now, at long last, appears to be within reach.

Thus India could declare its readiness to reconsider the non-civilian part of its nuclear programme, provided a multilaterally negotiated (and legally binding) programme for time-bound elimination of all nuclear weapons of all countries could be agreed upon—but of course not until then, that is, not under any partial measures such as the UN SC Resolution 1887, CTBT, FMCT etc. Such a programme for moving towards a ‘global zero’ should be able to take care of all these vexatious issues that have been problematic for one country or another (precisely because of their being advanced as stand-alone measures, side-stepping the key issue of nuclear disarmament on which they all hinge), including those that are anticipated at the NPT Review Conference in May next.

The ‘non-proliferation’ wave or upsurge that is being witnessed since last year, with several busybodies like the Evans-Kawagachi Commission working overtime to devise ‘practicable and realistic options’, is with an eye on the NPT Review Conference, at which various nuclear issues—Iran’s successful invocation of the right of NPT signatories to develop/master enrichment technologies for peaceful purposes, in particular —are likely to prove contentious. The US, which now (under Obama’s influence perhaps) appears to have realised that Iran is not likely to give up its enrichment technology (and obviously concerned at the possible knock-on impact Iran’s ‘breaking away’ from the NPT straitjacket in this manner would have on the Arab world and others), is understandably keen to prevent a failure of the NPT Review Conference, as in 2005.

An Indian initiative on the above lines, expressly predicated on a global agreement on total elimination of all nuclear weapons of all countries, might therefore be welcome from more angles than one. This is a golden opportunity of putting the national nuclear assets to wider political use—in the service of the long, and widely, cherished goal of nuclear disarmament and therefore of lasting national and international security.

IV. Heeding the Higher Call of
‘Ekla Chalo Re’ to do some Heavy Lifting

If a ‘world without nuclear weapons’ is the prize at the top of the mountain, which the community of nations would need to ascend in order to secure the prize, the case made in the preceding columns is essentially for (India to take the lead and work for) a decision that the summit be scaled now, without any further ado. Of course, if not India, any other nation can also play that catalytic role. There is a further role, however, which India alone can, and therefore should, play—that of a ‘sherpa’, cautioning against slippery slopes and diversionary dead ends on the way to the top. Furthermore, there is some heavy lifting it can do as a—nay, as the only—nuclear weapon state interested in getting rid of all nuclear weapons; those of others, of course, like everyone else but also its own.

The opportunity for doing so arises out of a fortuitous circumstance whose significance does not appear to have been appreciated, except perhaps by experts. The CTBT, which India was constrained to reject during the negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva in 1996 (because it had no provisions for a link to the goal of elimination of nuclear weapons, or even to nuclear disarmament in general terms), has a provision that it cannot enter into force until all 44 countries listed in its Annexe II, which includes India, accede to it. (India was included in this list without its consent and despite its reservations on the text of the treaty placed on record—at the instance of some powers cleverly seeking to take cover behind Indian objections.) This aspect therefore now provides India with leverage that can be used to good effect.

The CTBT is likely to come up for multilateral consideration (again) if the US Senate were to ratify it (as it is expected to before long, with US Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama having lent their weight to it). Leaving aside the question of propriety of India having been named in Annex II of the CTBT without its consent and overriding its reservations on record—which is actually untenable in international law (to pressurise a member state of the UN into submission against its will)—, this leverage that has come our way unsolicited could be utilised for shoring up the will of the international community to commit itself to a ‘nuclear weapon free world’, should that not be forthcoming (as appears to be the case at the moment, unless the disappointing and retrograde outcome of the UNSC September Summit could somehow be reversed—an obvious impossibility).

Thus India could declare (again, now) that it would not be in a position to sign the CTBT unless prior agreement was reached on a legally binding commitment for abolition of all nuclear weapons in a specified time frame and incorporated in the CTBT text, through an amendment for addition of an opening operative para to that effect.

[After all, the treaty has not yet come into being and it was, in any case, finalised behind India’s back as it were; so there can be nothing sacrosanct about its present text. There need be no hesitation in India making a suggestion on these lines just because others are likely to regard it as blasphemous and cry foul. It was their decision to take it to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) without carrying India with them (after New Delhi had, legitimately, pointed out that there was no consensus on the matter in the CD, a procedural prerequisite for CD outcomes to be remitted to the UNGA), so India cannot reasonably be expected to be circumscribed by its parameters. Details in this regard, which would naturally need to be fleshed out, can easily be worked upon—there would be myriad ways of doing so.]

That would be a way of instilling a sense of purpose and urgency into the nuclear disarmament debate, which has repeatedly been waylaid, as it were, by ad-hoc or partial measures that serve only limited objectives—of non-proliferation (and that too inadequately)—with no more than lip-service to nuclear disarmament, the UNSC September Summit session being the latest example. The NPT, which was (in part) an Indian initiative aimed at preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons (of all kinds), ended up as a treaty to prevent horizontal proliferation only (that is, of countries possessing nuclear weapons, beyond those who did so on the arbitrarily fixed date of January 1, 1967), leaving the door open for vertical proliferation. That Treaty has now been prescribed to India (in UNSC Resolution 1887) to join as a non-Nuclear Weapon State, over four decades after it was first rejected, despite the impeccable Indian record in respect of transfer of sensitive technologies and materials (and of other provisions of the NPT as well)—far better than that of several leading (industrialised) signatories (whose firms, complicit in the infamous A.Q. Khan “network”, have, almost all, been allowed by their governments to go scot free)!

Such a ham-handed approach cannot be set right except through straight talk: either there is (complete and categorical) commitment to move towards abolition of all nuclear weapons of all countries in a non-discriminatory manner—and that would be the preferred Indian alternative, it could be made clear—or the CTBT would have to await a more propitious time, when conditions were conducive for agreement on a nuclear weapon free world.

This is heavy stuff obviously, not a decision that can be taken lightly: of the nation leveraging on the CTBT in order to secure a ‘nuclear weapon free world’, once and for all. The pros and cons deserve to be discussed in depth dispassionately, including perhaps in Parliament, and in good time—well in advance of the CTBT coming up on the anvil internationally, not just in the heat of the moment when interested parties may find it easier to subvert rational decision-making.

India can play such a useful role because it is one of the few countries that has the standing and capacity to take an independent and detached view of developments and, where necessary, call a spade a spade. It has been doing so from time to time, with varying degrees of forthrightness and effectiveness. Tactics in this regard can therefore do with a review, to examine the optimal ‘risk-return ratio’ (from different degrees of ‘moderation’ in putting forward our point of view) and to determine whether a certain degree of defensiveness has not crept in at some stage in the (unexceptionable) desire to be constructive.

India’s open offer to thus trade off its nuclear arsenal and capability in return for (hastening) a nuclear weapon free world, going it alone if need be, would be a creative exercise in high diplomacy; a contribution unmatched in recent history.

The author is a former diplomat who has worked on disarmament, nuclear and other strategic security issues in the Ministry of External Affairs and the Cabinet Secretariat. He retired recently as India’s Ambassador to the IAEA, UNIDO and the UN Offices in Vienna, and to Austria.

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