Towards a new nuclear world order

Towards a new nuclear world order

Poor Barack Obama. His ambitious plan to establish a new nuclear world order, albeit incrementally, has been misconstrued by the very countries that are likely to benefit the most from it. The actions of these countries, including India, could impair the establishment of this order to their own detriment. Although, on the face of it, the recently concluded Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington, DC, was simply about securing all nuclear material worldwide in the next four years and ensuring that these do not fall into the hands of armed non-state actors, it was also the first subtle step to build a post-nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) regime.

The most obvious indication of this lies in the absence of any reference to the NPT in either the communiqué or the work plan. Although Indian diplomats claimed credit for this exclusion, and it was well earned, the role of the US administration cannot be underestimated.

The other obvious indication is the inclusion of the three non-NPT member states—Israel, India and Pakistan—in this process. This is significant, especially when contrasted with the deliberate exclusion of Iran, North Korea and Syria, all of which are signatories to the NPT. It is a clear acknowledgement of the status of Israel, India and Pakistan as states with nuclear weapons in the evolving new nuclear world order and the tacit understanding that states outside this order (particularly Iran, North Korea and Syria) will not be accepted as states with nuclear weapons. Iran predictably reacted to NSS by hosting its own poorly attended summit a week later and launching an attack against the new nuclear order.

The import of this new reordering was not lost on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who acknowledged: “We do not favour Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions." While New Delhi has rightly questioned the effectiveness of sanctions against Iran, it would do well, as a responsible member of the order, to suggest an alternative approach to effectively curb Iran’s potential nuclear weapon ambitions.

Another challenge to the efforts to establish a new nuclear order is India’s opposition to Pakistan’s inclusion in the NSS on two grounds: First, Islamabad’s irresponsible behaviour, evident in the Kargil conflict, soon after going overtly nuclear; second, the concerns over the A.Q. Khan network, especially when juxtaposed with the events of 26/11. The prospect of a future attack involving nuclear weapons is a clear and present danger. The recent episode involving Cobalt-60 at Mayapuri in New Delhi underlines the threat that even non-fissile nuclear material can pose.

These valid concerns about Pakistan notwithstanding, they will have to be weighed against two factors. First, Pakistan is as likely to give up its nuclear weapons unilaterally as India. The chances of any country trying to forcibly denuclearize Pakistan are even more remote, especially given the US experience in Iraq. Thus, a Pakistan with nuclear weapons is a reality that cannot be wished away. All that the US and other countries can hope to do is to convince Pakistan that unimpeachable behaviour in non-proliferation issues is in its own interest. Second, although New Delhi feels Islamabad should not have been invited to the NSS, it is worth asking whether it is easier to hold Islamabad accountable within the NSS or without. Clearly, the consensus appears to be that it might be easier to ensure Pakistan’s compliance with strict non-proliferation norms by working with it within the new regime.

Obama’s summit, the largest since the 50-nation summit called for in 1945 that led to the creation of the United Nations (UN) and nearly twice as large as the Bandung and Belgrade summits in 1955 and 1961, respectively, which led to the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement, is a critical first step in reshaping the existing nuclear order and needs all the support it can get. After all, even the UN was built in one summit.

W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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