A quixotic quest for a nuclear-free world

Last week, the noted Congress politician and intellectual gadfly, Mani Shankar Aiyar, in a presentation argued that it was desirable and possible to pursue universal nuclear disarmament. He made this speech when delivering a report on the prospects of nuclear disarmament to the Prime Minister. In the Indian political context, his impassioned championing of the argument is hardly new. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had been an ardent proponent thereof and had, on one occasion, referred to nuclear weapons as “frightful engines of destruction”. More recently, his grandson, and another Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, had also spelled out a phased plan for universal nuclear disarmament in 1988. Sadly, like his grandfather, he had found few viable supporters for his grand design.
There is no doubt that a world awash with nuclear weapons would probably be a more dangerous place. The possibilities of accidents, inadvertence and miscalculation would dramatically increase. Given the uniquely destructive features of nuclear weapons the horrors of such usage is the cause of legitimate concern. Consequently, the wholesale elimination of nuclear weapons has a certain intuitive appeal.
With Mr Aiyar’s resurrection of this idea, it is apparent that the UPA regime will devote some attention to the subject. Though a laudable goal, the likelihood of its realisation is actually quite small. The global community has not yet been able to wholeheartedly agree on a comprehensive test ban, an endeavour that Nehru had set in motion through his call for a “standstill agreement’’ on nuclear testing as early as the 1950s. Nor, for that matter, thanks to Pakistan’s staunch objections, has much progress been made towards ending the production of fissile material on a global basis.
Quite apart from ending nuclear tests and curbing the production of fissile material, other initiatives for arms control are mostly at a standstill. Consequently, despite US President Barack Obama’s visionary call in Prague in 2009 for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, the US has made pitiable progress towards any significant cuts in its existing arsenal. Nor, for that matter, given the hostility that he would encounter in Congress from important quarters of the Republican Party, is he likely to initiate any new efforts anytime soon.
Consequently, the current global political context is hardly a particularly welcoming moment for the pursuit of major arms control initiatives let alone the much more demanding goal of global nuclear disarmament. The specific political circumstances aside, there are other compelling reasons why India should stop beating the drum of global nuclear disarmament.
Its leadership should be clear that unless the United States and Russia dramatically cut their nuclear arsenals there is little or no prospect that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will even entertain a meaningful reduction of its nuclear capabilities. In the absence of some movement on the part of the PRC to curb its nuclear forces India’s policymakers would be feckless to undertake a unilateral decision to even freeze the size of India’s incipient nuclear arsenal.
Furthermore, the Indian leadership should also take into account that the PRC has consistently refused to accept any of India’s justifications for acquiring nuclear capabilities in the first place. Accordingly, there is little reason to believe that its leadership will take Indian exhortations to proceed towards a nuclear-free world with any seriousness. In the unlikely event that they do, New Delhi should be prepared to hear from the PRC that such an enterprise should begin with unilateral Indian disarmament, as India has no compelling rationale for the possession of nuclear weapons. In turn, in the absence of India’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons programme it is hard to believe that Pakistan would readily part with its capabilities.
There is little or no question that New Delhi will confront such polemical assertions should it continue to press the issue further. Leaving aside such self-serving demands there are other compelling reasons for not pursuing the mirage of nuclear disarmament. As arms control specialists and strategists have long noted, the verification demands that a regime of universal nuclear disarmament will be considerable.
How, in the present world of sovereign states, will enough intrusive mechanisms be developed to ensure that no one state or set of states are still harbouring a clandestine nuclear weapons programme? What global institutional arrangements can be developed to ensure compliance with the expectations of a global ban on nuclear weapons? Who will be responsible for bringing the violators to heel and what penalties might be imposed upon them? These are hardly trivial questions and ones that the proponents of universal nuclear disarmament must answer. Yet past attempts to promote global nuclear disarmament failed to forthrightly address these issues. Instead there were hoary statements about the imminent need to move towards the goal because of the dangers that nuclear weapons pose to the global order.
Instead of embarking on this quixotic quest it may be better for India’s policymakers to recognise that nuclear weapons are likely to be part of the global strategic landscape for the foreseeable future. States may prove willing to forgo their existing nuclear weapons programmes only when they have acquired new conventional capabilities of extraordinary precision, reach and power. Indeed some American strategists have started to argue that the US could guarantee its national security without nuclear weapons. Their confidence stems from the virtually imminent availability of certain conventional weapons technologies which will be able to deliver almost hitherto unprecedented firepower.
Unless India can guarantee its own security through reliance on its conventional capabilities alone, a prospect that is most unlikely on the anticipatable horizon, it should eschew any further calls for universal nuclear disarmament. Instead it should work towards ensuring that its own arsenal remains limited, robust and secure.

The writer is a professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia

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