July 19, 2009Foreign Affairsforeign policyIndianuclear deterrencenuclear disarmamentnuclear non-proliferationnuclear terrorismnuclear weaponsSecurityUnited States

Towards nuclear disarmament - a modest proposal

Three big steps against nuclear weapons—and one big one towards removing the poison in the India-US strategic relationship

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Here are two ironies: First, that the political establishment around the US Democratic Party should think that the Obama administration ought to deliver a tough message’ to India on nuclear weapons. Ironic, because India is perhaps the only nuclear weapons state where nuclear disarmament is state policy. It is perhaps the only country whose strongest proponents of nuclear weapons are also signed-up members of the Global Zero initiative.

Second, that for a president who came to power with promises on new approaches to everything from climate change to Iran, President Barack Obama’s chose the dogmatic dead-end of non-proliferation & arms control to move towards his idealistic vision of a nuclear weapons-free world. Ironic, because all the energy spent on flogging the dead mule could have been invested in a new path that would in the short-term minimise nuclear risks, boost international security and in the long-term, if future generations so wish, actually rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear non-proliferation does not have a future. It does help a lot of people—and there are many in Washington DC—who have invested their intellectual, professional and public lives in negotiating through the arcane world of non-proliferation treaties (the alphabet soup) make a living. The Democrats in government (like the Republicans who came before them) believe that they can resume from where they left off the last time they were in power. Strobe Talbott’s tough message’ being a case in point. What they refuse to see is that the world has changed profoundly since then: Iran and North Korea have shown how easy it is to sign-out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, develop and test nuclear weapons, and live in the knowledge that the United States can now only blow hot air at them…from a safe distance. If the United States could not prevent this—notwithstanding the NPT—at the apex of its power in the two decades after the Cold War ended, what chance does it have now, when China intends to challenge its supremacy?

If President Obama is sincere about his vision and serious about securing US interests in the emerging geopolitical configuration, he would do well to face down the non-proliferation community and let a new disarmament community take its place. If he does so, he’ll find an a partner in India. But what would a real global nuclear disarmament plan (as opposed to non-proliferation/test-ban/fissile material cutoff treaty plans) look like?

Step 1: Adopt a Global No First Use Treaty (GNFUT)—all countries of the world, regardless of whether they already have, almost have, can soon produce and do not have nuclear weapons commit that they will not be the first to use nuclear weapons against another country.

Step 2: Convert the world’s arsenal into a force-in-being’—states that have nuclear weapons will reconfigure their arsenals and deployment postures such that the risk of a surprise first strike, or indeed an accidental nuclear exchange, are minimised. Complete verification will be impossible but advances in technology will aid the process. But better a cat-and-mouse in verification and obfuscation than arms races and hair-trigger alerts. This step can accompany a global reduction in the number of weapons and delivery systems to a negotiated minimum (so-called minimum deterrence”).

Step 3: Globalise nuclear deterrence—an international treaty that allows the international community to punish any violation of the GNFUT with a punitive nuclear strike will globalise deterrence.

At the margin, these steps will lower the incentives for states to seek to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. They are unlikely to stop an Iran or a North Korea from seeking them though—which is no worse than under the NPT regime. The difference is that these steps will make more difficult for them to threaten nuclear attack. Non-nuclear states threatened by such states will have the additional security provide by global deterrence.

Almost a 70 years after the atomic bomb was invented, the nuclear weapons technology is well within the means of most countries. Meanwhile risk of use of nuclear weapons by states in contemporary conflicts is finite and non-zero. This plan is capable of addressing both the spread of nuclear weapons and checking their use in war—through real disincentives, not the platitudes in the NPT.

But will all this prevent terrorists from securing nuclear weapons? Quite unlikely. Is there a risk that states will use terrorist organisations as nuclear proxies to threaten or execute nuclear attacks? Yes, there is. But nuclear terrorism is an entirely different problem. Nuclear disarmament by states should not be subject to complete security against a hypothetical nuclear-armed terrorist organisation.

Is the United States prepared to take this route? It is in its interests to do so: at least before a rising China decides to jettison its no-first use policy. Most importantly, a fresh approach to nuclear disarmament creates the space to bring countries like India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others into a common framework of international co-operation. If not, even if tough messages’ are delivered, even if they are somehow accepted and implemented, things will continue getting worse.

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