Aiming for nuclear war prevention

Non-proliferation is not the only way to prevent nuclear war. (It may not even be a way at all.)

Craig Campbell and Jan Ruzicka have a refreshing blog post at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage on how what they call the “non-proliferation complex” has locked down fresh thinking on the nuclear problem.

It is refreshing to see Western commentators accept that the current nuclear order is based on “massive hypocrisy” (for the nuclear powers reneged on their commitment to disarm) and that the “complex’s domination of nuclear politics is its stifling of thinking about serious alternatives to the current nuclear order.”

Campbell & Ruzicka suggest that a solution may lie in the direction of forming a—admittedly unrealistic and unfashionable—world government.

It might not be necessary to form a world government for this purpose. Creating an international regime that performs certain nuclear risk management functions (okay, that guarantees a retaliation against any nuclear attack) is likely to be good enough for the limited purpose of preventing nuclear war. This modest proposal from 2009 lists out a three step process that can get us there:

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. [A modest proposal]

It is unclear if the combination of a mindless worship of nuclear disarmament and the dubious theology of the non-proliferation complex will permit such proposals to be even discussed in wonkdom, forget their consideration by official multilateral forums. It isn’t in the interests of the beneficiaries of the current order to do so.

China’s nuclear brazenness

Power is when you can break the rules with impunity

Why is China literally giving away two nuclear reactors to Pakistan now?

As this blog has long argued the new reactors do not matter much to India from a security perspective. K Subrahmanyam supported this contention in a recent op-ed in the Indian Express.

If, as China claims, the reactors are safeguarded and cannot be used to produce material for nuclear weapons, then the only risks are those relating to Pakistan’s domestic stability and its nuclear facilities. These risks, we have on the authority of the US president and the Indian prime minister, are currently adequately managed. If, on the other hand, China’s claims are false—and both this blog and K Subrahmanyam are inclined towards this—then the new reactors will escalate the nuclear arms race between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Beyond the security calculus, there is a simple political reason why China is brazenly violating the commitments it made when it joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2004. It is playing a grand geopolitical game of tit-for-tat with the United States. It saw the US-India nuclear deal as a move to check its own power. It has responded by giving reactors away (literally)to Pakistan. Indeed, it could have done so by going through the due process of the NSG, as the United States did in India’s case. But tit-for-tat becomes all the more effective when you show that you can break the NSG norms and there’s nothing anyone can do about it—the Obama administration can just lump it. The sanctimonious Europeans, New Zealanders and others won’t even open their mouths (via INI Polaris) this time.

More than equating Pakistan to India, China is signaling that it is the United States’ equal. Once it is down that path, it can hardly back off. Can it?

Robert Wrong

Why the discourse over nuclear arms controls needs to start with objectivity

Over at the New York Times Opinionator, Robert Wright gives you a timesaving preview of his deep thoughts before Armageddon. The NPT review conference next month will amount to nothing because, essentially, because “change is impossible when lots of those 189 nations are annoyed with the nations that are pushing for change.”

So far, so good. But Mr Wright gets the whole plot wrong as to why many nations are annoyed with the nations pushing for the change. “(Some) nuclear have-nots unhappy with the United States,” he writes, because “we seem to be fine with India, Pakistan and Israel having nukes, whereas we go ballistic (figuratively) over the possession of nukes by North Korea.”

It doesn’t cross Mr Wright’s mind that the annoyance could be due the fact that there is no real sign that “pledge that the big five would gradually get rid of all their nukes” will ever be redeemed. This is typical of what some Indian commentators term “non-proliferation ayatollahs” (why insult ayatollahs?). So steeped is their sense of entitlement to nuclear weapons, so complete is their rewriting of nuclear history, that the NPT is presented merely as an instrument to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of everyone but the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France. The reality that it represents a bargain—disarmament (by the five countries that had tested nuclear weapons before 1969) for non-development of nuclear weapons (by the rest)—is distorted into a discourse over who can ‘legitimately’ have nuclear weapons.

Mr Wright goes on. North Korea, he writes “having dropped out of the treaty around the time it got a nuke, has the same status in international law as India, Pakistan and Israel.” This is not only smugness and ignorance. It is a failure to apply elementary logic. There is a huge difference in international law between a countries that have willfully violated a treaty it has signed—North Korea and Iran—and a country that have not signed the treaty at all. Anthropomorphic analogies are best avoided while discussing international relations, but this one makes sense: It is absurd to accuse an unmarried person of adultery.

Mr Wright might argue that his point was that he meant that North Korea was a sovereign state, just like India, Pakistan and Israel. In which case, he should know, that so is the United States. If his point is that the United States shouldn’t discriminate between allies and non-allies when it comes to accepting their ownership of nuclear weapons, then he should answer just why the United States should accept its own nuclear status.

If all this stinks of hypocrisy, it is because that’s what it is. Realists will have no problems with that—in the amoral world of international relations, discriminatory behaviour in the pursuit of self-interest is par for the course. But in that tragically amusing world of US politics, ‘liberals’ like Mr Wright will argue that it is only the conservatives that do the hypocrisy thing. That is hypocrisy.

NB: The NPT is bunk. If those genuinely concerned about nuclear disarmament don’t think different, like in this modest proposal, just be ready for more blows like the one China is set to deliver.

Nuclear candour with Chinese characteristics

China signals that its nuclear support to Pakistan is about weapons

Mark Hibbs has news on the two new nuclear reactors that China is selling to Pakistan in blatant violation of its non-proliferation commitments:

Chinese officials said last month that export of the reactors to Pakistan would be justified in consideration of political developments in South Asia, including the entry into force of the U.S.–India deal and the NSG exemption for India. Western diplomats said China would not strongly favor an NSG exemption for Pakistan matching India’s because that would not additionally benefit Chinese industry and because Pakistan, compared to India, is a limited nuclear power market with far less infrastructure and far fewer financial resources.

China in 2004 did not claim that more power reactors after Chashma-2 would be “grandfathered” by the prior Sino–Pakistan nuclear accord, and China has argued instead that there are compelling political reasons concerning the stability of South Asia to justify the exports. China will therefore not justify the transactions on the basis of any confidential commercial agreements between China and Pakistan, NSG state representatives said. [CEIP]

As brazen has China’s attitude towards nuclear proliferation continues to be, it is nevertheless good to see Beijing openly reveal why it is abetting Pakistan’s fissile material factory. It’s not about nuclear energy. It’s about nuclear weapons. For if you have “compelling political reasons concerning the stability of South Asia” helping Pakistan build more electricity generation plants is not what you would do.

The incredulous attempt to claim that its new reactor sales are actually part of a deal it signed with Pakistan before accepting NSG obligations appears to have been discarded. China’s brazenness is supposedly due to the fact that the United States needs its support at the United Nations Security Council to place sanctions against Iran.

Mr Hibbs writes that if the United States failed to object to China’s flouting of its obligations it would mean “Obama was prepared to brush off an important nuclear nonproliferation norm on grounds of political expediency.”

In other words, Beijing is counting on President Obama being okay with the certainty of allowing an unstable, adventurous, military-ruled Pakistan to build more nuclear weapons as the price of the possibility of preventing Iran from building one.

Reprocessing arguments

The G-8 statement on non-proliferation does not take away the core benefits of the India-US nuclear deal

Don’t blame yourself if you have difficulty in navigating through the jargon, subtext and the writers’ agenda in the return this week of the India-US nuclear deal into the media limelight. But before you subscribe to any of the conclusions that reporter-commentators, opposition leaders and incumbent ministers want you to, take a step back and consider what the deal is about. (See A good deal, but bad politics, from August 2007)

The deal—which itself comprises of the bilateral agreements between India and the US; US domestic law in the form of the Hyde Act; and the multilateral “clean waiver” at the Nuclear Suppliers Group—allows India to import foreign reactors and nuclear fuel for generating electricity. These reactors and fuel supplies will be under an international inspection regime (called ‘safeguards’) under the International Atomic Energy Agency, which ensure that they are not used for producing weapons.

This means two things: first, provided the domestic regulatory environment is liberalised, it will be much easier for India to address the huge energy shortage by exploiting nuclear power. And second, it will free up domestic and foreign non-NSG sources of nuclear fuel for use in the weapons programme.

There is nothing in what the G-8 leaders said earlier this week that will change this. But wait, didn’t they, as Siddharth Varadarajan argues,—at the behest of the Obama administration—call for a ban on the transfer of enrichment & reprocessing (ENR) technology to India, even to safeguarded civilian facilities? Yes, but it doesn’t really matter.

It only means eight of the 45 countries of the NSG have agreed to implement a draft of a text that the NSG has not yet agreed to. The NSG is a cartel, not a treaty, and its agreements are non-binding on its members. The G-8 is a loose group, not even a cartel, less a treaty, and its agreements are non-binding on its members. France and Russia are aware that the United States disadvantaged itself as a nuclear supplier to India by hobbling itself with the Hyde Act. Are they likely to sign away a long-term competitive commercial advantage for the sake of a lofty principle? Unlikely—the prisoners’ dilemma is in India’s favour. But what if they do?

Well, it means that the fuel for civilian nuclear reactors will have to be sent back to reprocessing facilities abroad. While this might change the price of the fuel—and affect the competitiveness of the supplier of that fuel—it does not disturb the security of fuel supply.

Since India has its own indigenous reprocessing technology, the ‘ban’ on ENR exports to India, were it ever to materialise, does not affect the ability to produce fissile material for the nuclear arsenal. Even Mr Varadarajan admits that India is “technologically self-sufficient in reprocessing and enrichment technology” and its inclusion in the India-US nuclear deal was “matter of principle, positioning and ‘paisa’.” (Actually, the real problem with respect to reprocessing is not the G-8 or NSG rules, but rather, the Indian government’s lackadaisical attitude towards investing in new reprocessing facilities.)

So it turns out that even in the worst case—if the G-8 countries decide to overturn bilateral agreements, voluntarily give up their competitive advantages and prevent others from doing so—India’s energy security and nuclear programme will remain substantially unaffected.

Why the outcry then? Mr Varadarajan is right on two counts: the US government will do what it must to protect its interests, and the Indian government can’t afford to be complacent.

But unless you’ve been living in a cave you would have guessed by now that Barack Obama does not have the same view on India as his predecessor did. You will also know that Mr Obama intends to take the old arms control and non-proliferation route to nuclear disarmament. This means that the old alphabet soup of CTBT, FMCT and NPT is back on the table, and the G-8 decision is an early sign of that. Disagreements and differences of opinion are on the cards, but India is in a much better position to deal with these because of the nuclear deal, than it would have been without it.

What the UPA’s election win means for foreign policy

Regaining lost ground on China, re-engaging the United States

Mint’s Samar Srivastava & Tanmaya Kumar Nanda have an opinion round-up on the prospects for India’s foreign affairs under the second UPA government. They find that the “UPA win (is) good for foreign policy, but (there are) clouds ahead”, and that the biggest of those clouds is China.

Most experts agreed that one of India’s largest challenges would come not from its west but east: China.

“China is recalcitrant. Forget magnanimity, things are becoming frozen. China is signalling its unwillingness to accommodate India, that is more worrying,” said Amitabh Mattoo, professor of International Politics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.

Kapur added India would have to take steps to increase its bargaining power. “China’s approach is to speak softly but carry a big stick. India’s approach is to speak loudly and carry a small stick…. We haven’t even cultivated Taiwan or backed the Dalai Lama. As a country, we are apprehensive and insecure about China.”

Nitin Pai, editor of Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review magazine, agreed, saying India has done the worst in five years with regard to China. “India needs to (sit) bilaterally with key players like Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, Korea, Vietnam.” [Mint]

The point I made is that while the UPA government did generally well with respect to relations with the United States and was so-so with respect to Pakistan, it lost the plot with respect to China. Whether this was due to the presence of the Leftists or a strategic naivete-cum-pusillanimity within the Congress Party’s own senior leadership, the objective fact is that India failed to even mitigate the rise of Chinese power in East Asia. Such was the neglect that even the band-aid, in the form of approval for infrastructure development along the India-China border, was applied after the elections started. The single biggest task—in the medium term—is to draw out a vision of India’s geopolitical role in the 21st century, and begin to take purposeful steps to get there. (From the way the article is written, it might appear that I agreed with Dr Kapur on Taiwan and the Dalai Lama. I didn’t mention them at all)

The UPA government and the Obama administration will have to work with each other at least for the next four years. Here, far from a sense of defensiveness over Washington’s vaunted/troubled Af-Pak strategy, the UPA government must understand that President Obama’s success or failure in Afghanistan & Pakistan (and second term in office) is to a significant extent contingent on New Delhi’s support. This doesn’t mean grandstanding: quite the opposite, it means a confident and constructive partnership. It means allowing and ensuring that the United States ends up doing the necessary—confronting the Pakistani military-jihadi complex—sooner rather than later.

What about nuclear weapons? It’s good to see President Obama agree with the age-old Indian position that the world ought to be free of nuclear weapons. As K Subrahmanyam—by no means an anti-nuclear weapons ideologue says—the first step is to delegitimise their use: non-use against non-nuclear states, no first use against nuclear states, and, for those with thousands of warheads, a reduction in their number. That said—there will be disagreement on the NPT and CTBT—where a change in the Indian position can only come after a substantial change in the structure of the treaties. Can Dr Singh not persuade Mr Obama that an unprecedented change in US position over nuclear weapons requires jettisoning Cold War era dogmas? Or should the world await a global nuclear crisis—like the economic one—before concluding that the G7 needs to expand into a G20?

None of this is incompatible with retaining a minimum credible deterrent in the meantime. Dr Singh should know better than anyone else that ‘operationalising’ the India-US nuclear deal and the NSG waiver is the key to ensuring that the size of the deterrent is appropriate.

Tall order this, so it’s important to start right: can Prime Minister Manmohan Singh first appoint a good external affairs minister, a good defence minister and a good national security advisor?

Lying to the legislature

Maybe, maybe not. It does not matter

The Indian prime minister told his legislature that India has the right to conduct a nuclear test. The US president told his, that the United States has the right to cease co-operation and repossess whatever was sold to India. Neither is being untruthful. But it is amazing that many Indians should automatically assume that it is their prime minister who lied to their parliament. Surely, they can’t be unaware of the rich tradition of US presidents lying to the US Congress?

The spanner that the non-proliferation ayatollahs threw into the works at the Nuclear Suppliers Group does not change the essential logic. As this blog has argued before, speeches, letters, understandings and agreements do not matter as much as the interests of the two countries. The editorial of the Times of India got it right:

At the end of the day, the US cannot take any position other than to assert that it has the right to terminate cooperation in such an eventuality. On India’s part, we have been equally vigorous in maintaining our right to test in compelling circumstances. This argument would be decided by sovereign decisions and national interests, not by legalistic wording. [TOI]

New Zealand’s misplaced opposition at the NSG

Neither India’s nuclear weapons programme nor its nuclear power projects will be to New Zealand’s detriment

Regarding the proceedings at the Nuclear Suppliers Group where small states like New Zealand have shown reluctance to admit India into the nuclear mainstream, here’s what an astute and knowledgeable person said in an email:

A broad stance against testing nuclear weapons is central to nonproliferation, however India already has a voluntary moratorium in place. As long as India perceives no immediate deterioration in its local nuclear security environment the moratorium should hold. By contrast a multilateralised commitment on testing might mislead the Pakistanis and elements of the proliferation underworld that provocative behaviour will go without a response from the Indian side. The Nuclear Supplier Group’s history of failures when it comes to checking Pakistani proliferation little by way of comfort to anyone in India.

It is difficult to imagine parallels between New Zealand’s opposition to French nuclear testing and India’s posture on nuclear testing. India has not tested any nuclear weapons in waters off New Zealand’s coast and nor does it intend to. If India does decide to conduct an atmospheric test, it would need to first withdraw from the Partial Test Ban Treaty. Such a withdrawal requires a three months notice be given to the depository countries and that should allow for enough time for New Zealand to take steps to ensure that India doesn’t just drop 20 MT on some atoll in the Southern Pacific. So what is the point of putting 50 conditions on India right now, when all New Zealand should be interested in is one condition when the time comes.

While one can argue that ensuring visible compliance of norms is the key to ensure the spread of non-proliferation ideology—one can also examine any gains on this front against losses from criminalising routine commerce. India’s energy needs are well known at this stage and every nuclear energy company in the world wants to access that market. By keeping the barriers at the Nuclear Suppliers Group artificially high—a large volume of trade is forced underground. In light of the peculiar auditing practices followed by NSG members states when keeping track of the A Q Khan network, one might ask if excessive regulation created circumstances ideal for putting nuclear weapons into the hands of terrorists?

With an increased dependence on carbon fuels in India will produce enough greenhouse gases to make nightmare scenarios on global warming a reality. Blocking India’s path to nuclear energy seems like sensible alternative to some non-proliferation pundits, but then most of them live in countries with plenty of high ground. Surely, a small country like New Zealand can be expected to take a different view the perils of rising water levels.

The not-so-real ayatollah

David Albright’s credentials called into question

This blog has on several occasions called out David Albright’s high-profile reports on nuclear proliferation as being not alright. That they use facts to insinuate pre-determined conclusions, that they don’t have much by way of real analysis and that the timing of their release raises serious questions as to Mr Albright’s (and his principals’) real intentions. [See links to related posts below]

Now Mr Albright’s credentials have been questioned by Scott Ritter, a member of the international nuclear expert community, in a damning article on Truthdig (via Arms Control Wonk). Mr Albright, it turns out, is not much of a Non Proliferation Ayatollah at all

…David Albright has a track record of making half-baked analyses derived from questionable sources seem mainstream. He breathes false legitimacy into these factually challenged stories by cloaking himself in a résumé which is disingenuous in the extreme. Eventually, one must begin to question the motives of Albright and ISIS. No self-respecting think tank would allow itself to be used in such an egregious manner. The fact that ISIS is a creation of Albright himself, and as such operates as a mirror image of its founder and president, only underscores the concerns raised when an individual lacking in any demonstrable foundation of expertise has installed himself into the mainstream media in a manner that corrupts the public discourse and debate by propagating factually incorrect, illogical and misleading information.

David Albright has a history of being used by those who seek to gain media attention for their respective claims. In addition to the Hamza and Obeidi fiascos, Albright and his organization, ISIS, have served as the conduit for other agencies gaining publicity about the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program, the alleged Syrian nuclear reactor, and most recently the alleged Swiss computer containing sensitive nuclear design information. On each occasion, Albright is fed sensitive information from a third party, and then packages it in a manner that is consumable by the media. The media, engrossed with Albright’s misleading résumé (“former U.N. weapons inspector,” “Doctor,” “physicist” and “nuclear expert”), give Albright a full hearing, during which time the particulars the third-party source wanted made public are broadcast or printed for all the world to see. More often than not, it turns out that the core of the story pushed by Albright is, in fact, wrong. [Truthdig]

Mr Ritter points out that far from being a UN weapons inspector, he was “an outsider with questions”, “an informed tourist”, a “bag-boy” and a “dilettante”. He goes on to say:

It is not a sin to merely be informed, or to possess a specialty. But informed specialists are a dime a dozen. There is a reason mainstream media do not turn to bloggers when seeking out expert opinion. And yet, when they turn to “Dr. Albright, former U.N. weapons inspector,” they are getting little more than a well-funded, well-connected blogger.

Related Posts: Albright’s attempts cast doubts on India’s record on non-proliferation; and coming up with ‘revelations’ about Pakistan’s activities at convenient times.

Putting an uppity Centrifugist in his place

He was involved in nuclear proliferation, apparently

You will be forgiven for yawning. David Albright is going to release a report—he’s already leaked it to the media, ensuring that the report makes a splash—that points out that A Q Khan might have sold advanced nuclear warhead designs, in addition to those old Chinese designs that go wrapped in Islamabad tailor’s shopping bags. Now it would have been exciting if Dr Albright actually had evidence of someone actually having bought the new design, because it is not news to most people that North Korean Nodongs and Iranian Shahab-IIIs can be modified to carry the advanced warhead. But Dr Albright does not have such evidence.

Dr Albright’s report is based on digital blueprints found on the Tinners’ computers in Switzerland in 2006. It is being suggested that it was the hard copies of these blueprints that the Swiss government destroyed recently, allegedly at the behest of the United States (specifically, the CIA). The Swiss government destroyed 30,000 pages of evidence—lest it fall into the wrong hands—but, as it turns out, after the horse had bolted: there are other copies of the blueprint. But of course.

Other than explaining the Swiss government’s action, why release such a report now, two years after the blueprints came to light? Well, it should put the squeeze back on Pakistan, which has not only rehabilitated Dr Khan, but whose ruling politicians are even toying with the idea of making him president. Dr Khan recanted his 2004 televised confession recently. He also availed the opportunity to insure himself by stating that he did everything with authorisation, thereby blowing the canard that his was a rogue operation. Dr Albright’s report should dampen the Pakistani government’s enthusiasm to lionise Dr Khan all over again.

There is also the Iranian angle. But it is difficult to see how these revelations will help in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme.

All said, Dr Albright’s report adds to the edifice of cynicism that surrounds how the United States has handled the business of Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation, right from the very start. If it looked the other way when Pakistan was buying and selling materials in the black market, it is now using that knowledge for coercive diplomacy.

Update: The Arms Control Wonk has a technical analysis; Albright’s paper is now out