Nuclear riddles

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set forth over the weekend to attend the Second Nuclear Security Summit at Seoul, the first was in Washington in 2010.

Attending are 53 nations and four international institutions, attempting to advance an agenda for safeguarding fissile material and reducing stockpiles. Two years ago, US President Barack Obama was pursuing his vision of global nuclear disarmament, adumbrated in his 2009 Prague speech which obtained for him the Nobel Peace Prize, more for articulation than achievement. A mutated global agenda and the domestic politics have sucked the sap out of Mr Obama’s dream.
Firstly, following the nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan, the debate has veered to nuclear safety, which concerns nuclear plant operation, from nuclear security which was to lock down fissile materials to stymie non-state actors/ terrorists from procuring them or the ideal of a Global Zero — a nuclear weapon-free world. Germany, for instance, decided to shut down its lumbering nuclear plants. Many other countries undertook immediate safety reviews. In India the agitation around the Koodankulam plant has simmered for months and now degenerated into a home ministry-led crusade against international visitors suspected of anti-nuclear antecedents.
Secondly, casting a shadow over the summit are the nuclear ambitions of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Iran. The former has already tested nuclear weapons and the latter, although protesting its programme is strictly for civilian purposes, is nevertheless suspected, due to its geopolitical ambitions and the opaque Islamic regime, headed in the same direction. DPRK, which resumed the six-nation dialogue, has upped the ante by simultaneously announcing a space satellite launch, perceived by the US and its allies as a provocative testing of its nuclear arsenal delivery vehicles. Any discussion of the issue at Seoul that threatens DPRK would be tantamount to war.
Of course the attendees can draw solace from 80 per cent of the 2010 promises having been achieved, including the removal of weapons-usable enriched uranium from five countries i.e. Chile, Romania, Serbia, Turkey and Libya (removed a year before the Libyan uprising). Although DPRK looms over the demilitarised zone close to Seoul, the real concern is Iran, as hostilities against it can lead to a regional conflagration with cascading effect on oil and a barely recovering global economy.
However, domestic and other preoccupations of prominent participants outrank their interest in the summit. President Obama needs to finesse the endgame in Afghanistan, restrain a nervous Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from unilaterally attacking Iranian nuclear facilities, hoping meanwhile for US economic recovery by November to enable his re-election. Chinese President Hu Jintao is wrestling with the fallout from the sacking of an ambitious Bo Xilai, the erstwhile charismatic party secretary of Chongqing and son of Bo Yibo one of the “eight immortals” who ran post-Mao China, who was aspiring to join the nine-member Standing Committee of the Chinese Politburo — the source of all authority. The resulting fissures have complicated the transition to the fifth generation of Chinese leadership. President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia attends perhaps his last international conference as he makes way for President re-elect Vladimir Putin, who will be the one attending the G7 meeting in the US in May. The list of Dr Singh’s domestic ailments is perhaps even lengthier, his predicament underscored by his writing to the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse, literally from his departing aircraft, to explain the Indian affirmative vote on a UN Human Rights Council resolution on Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka, squeezed out of Delhi by the Dravidian allies of the UPA.
Dr Singh will rush back to India, in time to host a summit of Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), on March 29-30, planned in happier times for all five. Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs, who coined the acronym in 2001, although the summits began only in 2009, feels that South Africa, admitted later on Chinese insistence, hardly belongs to the group. Even the other four have performed erratically though collectively; in the current decade their performance has allowed the global GDP to sustain a 4-4.5 per cent growth. The trade among the five has grown from $27 billion in 2002 to $250 billion in 2011. While dialogue and proposals have mushroomed across different sectors, a common identity or institutional cooperation has been elusive. Divergence persists over what transformation they seek in institutions of global governance. India and Brazil, who constitute a G4 with Japan and Germany, want reform and expansion of the UN Security Council, including additional permanent members. China and Russia when asked that question, reply in riddles. China would like the institutional reform to focus on international reserve currency issue and a rebalancing of voting in International Monetary Fund/World Bank to reflect current global economic reality.
The economic performance of the five is also interesting. In 2011, Brazilian GDP slumped to 2.7 per cent from 7.5 per cent in 2010. Russian growth which averaged eight per cent in 1998-2008, contracted to 3.5-4 per cent. South Africa, a pygmy amongst the Goliaths, had its growth revised to 2.7 per cent, when the rest of Africa averaged seven per cent. Brazil is turning protectionist, Russia is refusing to reform its economy and reduce dependence on oil and gas and South Africa struggles under lacklustre leadership. India and China have other questions to answer. Can China wean itself away from export-dependent manufacturing and overcome a suspected property bubble? The Economist this week poses the question on its cover “How India is losing its magic”. Compound all this with poor political management in perhaps all five and the shine begins to come off the next week’s summitry.
Meanwhile, other emerging powers have surged, dubbed the next 11, such as Indonesia (trade with China around $60 billion or same as India’s), Turkey or Mexico. Thus, as global economic power re-balances and demographics, leadership or simply technology conditions metamorphose, the Brics of today will be overlaid with new templates. The mistake would be to imagine that India has won admission to the high table, similar to the way the Congress presumed victory in Goa, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. In all five nations the incumbent or incoming rulers must prove that they are not as the masterly 19th century British statesman Disraeli characterised Prime Minister Palmerston’s government: “... utterly exhausted, and at best only ginger-beer and not champagne.”

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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