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Nuclear weapons and two parallel universes

Nuclear weapons and two parallel universes
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First Published: Wed, Feb 10 2010. 12 20 AM IST

Updated: Wed, Feb 10 2010. 12 20 AM IST
Last fortnight two parallel nuclear weapon universes manifested themselves on this planet. In one universe that has nuclear weapons (the so-called haves), the possessors are unable or unwilling to give these up, despite repeated calls from their leadership to create a world free of nuclear weapons. This dilemma was reflected in a conference organized by two US nuclear weapons laboratories in Washington DC as well as a key op-ed penned by vice-president Joe Biden in The Wall Street Journal and the budget unveiled by the Obama administration on 1 February.
In the other universe, which does not possess nuclear weapons (the so-called have-nots), there is a surfeit of detailed plans and genuine efforts to rid the world of the scourge of nuclear weapons but a frustrating inability to do so. The latest of these well-intended road maps for a journey to a nuclear weapons free world is the report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament entitled Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers.
In the US-centric universe of haves, nuclear weapons have acquired their own logic, developed their own theology and established a dedicated priesthood (made up primarily of nuclear weapon scientists and laboratories) committed to defending the continued role of nuclear weapons. While the US military, sobered by the ground realities of Iraq and Afghanistan, is more open to reviewing the whole nuclear mission, the priesthood has argued that it is essential to maintain and even improve the capabilities of the existing nuclear arsenal.
First, goes the argument, nuclear weapons have been essential to prevent not only nuclear war but also conventional war and have a role in moderating great power behaviour. Second, extended deterrence (where US nuclear weapons provide a nuclear umbrella to non-nuclear allies, such as Germany and Japan) act as an anti-proliferant for countries that otherwise might be compelled to develop their own nuclear arsenals. Third, the US cannot give up nuclear weapons as long as others countries have or seek them.
All these arguments are disingenuous and have been consistently challenged. For instance, there is broad consensus that conventional war has not occurred between the original five nuclear-weapon states because they were too beat after World War II to conduct large-scale warfare against each other. Besides, even if there was no conventional war between the great powers, there were devastating proxy wars in third countries which were not prevented by nuclear weapons.
Similarly, if countries presently under the nuclear umbrella choose to decline the generously offered extended deterrence (as Germany has strongly hinted) it is not because they want to proliferate; it is also possible that they might prefer to build a non-nuclear regional cooperative security architecture with former foes. On the other hand, if extended deterrence is really an anti-proliferant then should this umbrella not be provided to countries that were or are seeking to develop nuclear weapons, such as Iraq, North Korea or Syria? Finally, if the country that was the original proliferator and has conducted 1,100 tests to ensure the reliability of its vast arsenal, what are the prospects of other nuclear-weapon states that have conducted far fewer tests ever giving up their smaller arsenals?
The logic of these arguments notwithstanding, political expediency has compelled the Obama administration to buy over the priesthood by throwing more money in the direction of the laboratories. Thus, the new budget devotes $7 billion (Rs32,690 crore today)—a 13% increase—for maintaining the US nuclear weapons stockpile. In his op-ed, Biden justified this increase “to maintain the strength of the nuclear arsenal”, while simultaneously reaffirming the administration’s goal to work towards a “world free of nuclear weapons”.
In stark contrast, the logic of the other parallel universe of nuclear have-nots is simple and compelling: As long as one state has nuclear weapons, others will want them. As long as any nuclear weapon remains, they are likely to be used “by accident, miscalculation or design”. And finally, any such use would be catastrophic for humankind. Therefore, the only option is to persistently work to reduce the role and numbers of nuclear weapons so as to ensure their eventual elimination.
However, the proponents of this argument do not actually possess or control nuclear weapons which they can give up and disarm. Indeed, while the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament had representatives from all the nuclear-weapon states, except Israel and North Korea, the commissioners have very little say on the policies of their respective governments. Thus, those from the have-nots universe can only try and convince those from the universe of “haves” to eliminate nuclear weapons.
So far these pleas have been singularly unsuccessful. The process of ridding the world of nuclear weapons will only succeed if the two universes meet and the haves accept the growing danger that these weapons pose to their own security. This realization, however, might take an eternity.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight. Your comments are welcome at borderline@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Feb 10 2010. 12 20 AM IST