The Saudi bomb

Made in Pakistan, Supported by China, but still Saudi Arabia’s nuclear weapon

This week, a major Western media house discovered that the Saudi Arabia has already paid Pakistan for the bomb and can have it home-delivered pretty quickly. This is perhaps the first time that news of the Saudi-Pakistan nuclear arrangement is getting media coverage. This topic was something that Western mediapersons and analysts would determinedly avoid discussing in public. Even the most committed advocates of the nuclear non-proliferation regime still do not write or talk about the relationship, which makes their advocacy and intent a lot less credible than it otherwise might have been.

Regular readers of this blog will recall analysis suggesting that Pakistan’s rapid stockpiling of fissile material is linked to Saudi Arabia’s needs in correlation with Iran’s nuclear advancements. China’s grandfatherly nuclear largesse makes Beijing an accomplice in this nuclear weapons manufacturing and transfer business. This is plain and simple nuclear proliferation, no matter if the self-appointed guardians of that term choose to ignore it.

Given this background, the fact that BBC’s Newsnight is now revealing that the Pakistanis might transfer the bomb to Saudi Arabia on demand suggests that the Saudi Arabian government wants it to be revealed. This is understandable: with chances of a Iran’s rapprochement with the West increasing this year, the likelihood that the world will eventually accept a nuclear Iran is also rising. Letting it be known that Saudi Arabia also has nuclear capacity—albeit in an outsourced model—serves to reinforce Riyadh’s prestige, proto-deterrence and adds pressure on its Western allies to not cut deals with the Iranians. It also helps prepare the ground for an eventual coming out of the nuclear closet.

What Western analysts of nuclear proliferation have to answer for is when exactly did the Saudi-Pakistan-China nuclear arrangement start? If it predates Tehran’s own decision to develop nuclear weapons capacity, then shouldn’t part of the responsibility for Iran’s move accrue to Riyadh, Islamabad and Beijing? Recriminations of the intellectual kind are futile in geopolitics, but to the extent that the United States recognises Iran’s security challenges, it might be able to negotiate for better outcomes with Iran, for the international community.

The emerging problem in the Middle East is one of shaping a stable nuclear deterrence relationship primarily involving Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the United States, Pakistan and China as actors in a supporting role. Getting facts out into the open is the good way to begin addressing it.

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.

Schelling questions the abolition of nuclear weapons

First check if there is better than here

The professor has set the question paper. And it’s not an easy exam.

The desirability of a world without nuclear weapons, Thomas Schelling argues in a brilliant essay in Daedalus, is being treated as axiomatic, and “hardly any of the analyses or policy statements that I have come across question overtly the ultimate goal of total nuclear disarmament.” After pointing out that nuclear deterrence has prevented major wars on the scale of the Second World War, he warns that “this nuclear quiet should not be traded away for a world in which a brief race to reacquire nuclear weapons could become every former nuclear state’s overriding preoccupation.”


If a “world without nuclear weapons” means no mobilization bases, there can be no such world. Even starting in 1940 the mobilization base was built. And would minimizing mobilization potential serve the purpose ? To answer this requires working through various scenarios involving the expectation of war, the outbreak of war, and the conduct of war. That is the kind of analysis I haven’t seen.

A crucial question is whether a government could hide weapons-grade fissile material from any possible inspection verification. Considering that enough plutonium to make a bomb could be hidden in the freezing compartment of my refrigerator or to evade radiation detection could be hidden at the bottom of the water in a well, I think only the fear of a whistle-blower could possibly make success at all questionable. I believe that a “responsible” government would make sure that fissile material would be available in an international crisis or war itself. A responsible government must at least assume that other responsible governments will do so.

We are so used to thinking in terms of thousands, or at least hundreds, of nuclear warheads that a few dozen may offer a sense of relief. But if, at the outset of what appears to be a major war, or the imminent possibility of major war, every responsible government must consider that other responsible governments will mobilize their nuclear weapons base as soon as war erupts, or as soon as war appears likely, there will be at least covert frantic efforts, or perhaps purposely conspicuous efforts, to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible. And what then?

In summary, a “world without nuclear weapons” would be a world in which the United States, Russia, Israel, China, and half a dozen or a dozen other countries would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons and mobilize or commandeer delivery systems, and would have prepared targets to preempt other nations’ nuclear facilities, all in a high-alert status, with practice drills and secure emergency communications. Every crisis would be a nuclear crisis, any war could become a nuclear war. The urge to preempt would dominate; whoever gets the first few weapons will coerce or preempt. It would be a nervous world.[Daedalus/BNet]

It’s a brilliant piece—not only for the intellectual content—but also for its debating strategy. Prof Schelling challenges the proponents of complete nuclear disarmament to prove, analytically, that their desired outcome is actually better than a world where mutual deterrence keeps a lid on the outbreak of major war. In doing so, he exposes how the bandwagon of the Global Zero has gained momentum in the last two years—not because everyone on it believes that it is desirable even if it were possible, but because the perception that the world is negotiating complete disarmament is useful to many. For instance, as Prof Schelling himself points out—the possibility that the Global Zero project might be motivated by a need for the world to perceive that the nuclear weapons states are keeping their end of the NPT bargain. In addition to being consistent with its long held position, India will go with the new disarmament discussions out of pragmatism—there are tangible benefits to be had by being part of a nuclear technological mainstream. (See M Vidyasagar’s article in the January 2010 issue of Pragati)

The Acorn has argued that nuclear weapons are the New Himalayas—preventing the outbreak of direct military conflict between India and China. It is important that the new strategic barrier remain high. Perhaps China’s transformation into a liberal democracy, as K Subrahmanyam mentioned at December’s Takshashila event in New Delhi, might make the need for this barrier less salient. Perhaps, but it is unlikely to entirely eliminate the need for it.

Related Post: A modest proposal to create disincentives for the usage of nuclear weapons

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? Continue reading Towards nuclear disarmament – a modest proposal

The Congressional OK

A big deal passes muster

It was the big deal until the Paulson bailout upstaged it. But the US Congress has voted in favour of the India-US nuclear deal. Senators John McCain, Barack Obama and Joseph Biden all voted in favour.

As is the practice, they’ve sent it to President George W Bush for his assent. Technically he can veto it. But the chances of that happening are, ahem, slim.

Why blame China?

It behaved as it should

China did whatever it could to deny and delay the liberalisation of international nuclear trade with India. It did so in characteristic fashion, using indirect means until the very end. (But it was a diplomatic failure for China, because despite coming out directly, it didn’t manage to block the consensus).

Those who expected China to behave otherwise had deluded themselves into believing their own statements that “there is room for both India and China to rise in Asia” and that India doesn’t believe in balance-of-power politics and suchlike. As C Raja Mohan said in his interview with Pragati this month, “the problem, however, is that China’s rise is taking place a lot faster than that of India. As we look to the future, it is inevitable that India will constantly rub against China in different parts of Asia and beyond. There will be many elements of competition and some opportunities for cooperation with China. Managing this immensely dynamic relationship with China will be the single most important challenge for India’s security policy in the coming years.”

It’s not only about delivering diplomatic snubs. While those are useful in their own way, India must be prepared to drive it in at times and places where it hurts, while simultaneously engaging in mutually beneficial co-operation in other areas. [See one China policy—there isn’t one.] Stability in bilateral relations is a worthy policy objective, but the lesson from Vienna is that it can’t be achieved by pusillanimity, good intentions and unilateral diffidence alone.