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

Here are two ironies: First, that the political establishment around the US Democratic Party should think (via Atanu Dey’s blog) 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.

8 thoughts on “Towards nuclear disarmament – a modest proposal”

  1. Good post. Some comments. India has been calling for a universal, non-discriminatory and verifiable approach to disarmament for a long time. Only problem is few outside India know that India has been saying this!! So IMO India should shout louder from the rooftops about this. Everytime Hilary mentions non-proliferation India should say DISARMAMENT and CANNOT SEPARATE the two. The above steps “concretize” the framework in this regard. Also India should say Pak and China whenever non-proliferation is mentioned since these 2 countries are the biggest proliferators in the world.

    OK now with regards to what US will do. Absolutely nothing!! Even pipsqueaks like UK and France don’t want to go for NFU despite the fact that noone threatens them and they have no responsibility of protectng/policing the world. Ppl should recognize contrary to popular views that Obama is NO MESSIAH. The Republicans will go ballistic and rightly so IMO. In fact, they are arguing that nukes and MAD help deter wars and there is some truth to this argument. India is the only country in the world that has a credible NFU (China’s isn’t worth the paper it is written on, it recently said that NFU does not apply to “border countries”). In any case, with a “hot war” between US and China, I think US will use the nukes first (especially considering the fact that China are “conventionally superior” to the US according to a recent study published by RAND). So “global NFU” seems to be a pipe dream at least for now. But that does not matter as long as it serves India’s national interests. And it does. The fact that it is “moralistic” is a bonus.

    In the “short while”, India should also decide whether Iran getting nukes is good. IMO it is not because it gives Iran too much power and hinders Indian’s ability to project power from Gulf of Aden to Malacca Stratis (which should be the medium term strategic objective for India IMHO). That doesn’t mean we have to overtly do something or shout about opposing it from rooftops. India has rightly condemned Iran for violating some of the terms of NPT and voted against it twice. India’s point was very good, “yeah NPT might be ‘immoral’ but since u signed it u have to abide by it”.

    Bottomline, what I am trying is to say, is being moralistic is GREAT provided it serves to your national interests. Failing to realize this was one of Nehru’s blunders. Moral argument against NPT was fine when India was the “victim”. Now if there is a possibility that India can be inducted as a Nuclear Weapons State (this is kind of remote still I think), India should take it. Similarly with UN Security Council. If India is given veto India should accept it obviously though we might have been railing against “discrimination” by “veto wielding members” in NAM during 60s and 70s. Permanent membership without veto, thanks but no thanks!

  2. Oh and with regards to “non-proliferation” it was always a tool to target and control “smaller” countries. I don’t think any of the non-proliferation guys wants to talk about universal disarmament. India was a target from early on with the establishment of Nuclear Suppliers Group (originally London Club) in response to Smiling Buddha. On top of this consider the fact that the US and China have always propped up Pak, negligence (connivance??) of countries like Holland, Switzerland, UK, US to blatant proliferation activities by AQK, active assistance by China including supply of blueprints, Pak conducting nuke tests within 3 weeks of Indian tests etc. etc. and the picture becomes pretty clear.

  3. Nitin,
    You should know better than treat Barack Obama with good faith – he tried his level best to stop the Indo-IS civilian nuclear deal. link

    The anti-nuclear ayatollahs that vociforously opposed the deal are now back in power with Ed Markey – the same Congressman who is one of the principal architects of the “cap and trade” nonsense being proposed in the US.

    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.
    I laughed out loud on reading this. Wow. Either this is such amazing sarcasm or mind bogglingly dumb.

  4. Nagarajan,

    Either this is such amazing sarcasm or mind bogglingly dumb.

    Neither. It is realism.

  5. @Nagarajan,

    Ed Markey is a lobbyist for the coal industry and is thus radically against nuclear power (for peaceful purposes of electricity generation). Like a chameleon, he hides his real motives with his language on “non-proliferation”. Ed Markey is a snake, and the cap-and-trade bill he authored is a piece of utter crap.

    Please listen to Dr.James Hansen on his opposition to the cap-and-trade nonsense. We need a moratorium on coal for acting against climate change. Nothing less. Nuclear power is quintessential in doing so.

    @Nitin,
    Full marks for spelling out a detailed plan for nuclear disarmament. India needs to spend a lot of time and effort publicizing its stance. Then newspapers like NYT cannot employ these weasel-words, and we will get down to real business.

    By the way, you guys should check out the excellent book of Tom Blees : Prescription for the Planet.

  6. Is there a risk that states will use terrorist organisations as nuclear proxies to threaten or execute nuclear attacks?

    Think China, who tested Pakistan’s first nuclear weapon.

  7. @Ashutosh

    “Think China, who tested Pakistan’s first nuclear weapon.”

    Why not make it simpler and jus think Pak? After all, the idea of using jehadis is not new to Pak which has followed this “policy” since 1948!! Of course all this is assuming they have them and more importantly are currently IN CONTROL of them.

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