South Asian Dialectic

Thinking the Unthinkable: Promoting Nuclear Disarmament

21 Jul, 2014    ·   4570

Prof PR Chari asks whether nuclear non-proliferation is a lost cause and whether nuclear disarmament remains a desirable but elusive goal

In a barely noticed event, forty bishops, scholars and activists had gathered in the Catholic University of Notre Dame in end-April to explore how the world could eliminate nuclear weapons.  University President Rev Jenkins cited Pope John XIII’s message after the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) that “nuclear weapons are morally tolerable only for the purpose of nuclear deterrence, and even then, only as a step on the way toward progressive disarmament.”

Apropos, non-proliferation advocates had met in New York in May 2014 for a two-week Preparatory Committee meeting to pave the way for the NPT Review Conference in 2015. The bland statement issued by them after their confabulations urged the nuclear weapon states (NWS) to hasten their efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament in an "irreversible, transparent and verifiable manner," as envisaged in Article VI of the NPT.  However, the preparatory meeting also expressed its disappointment that a conference to discuss the establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East, visualised at the last NPT Review Conference in 2010, has not yet been held. It is no secret that this proposal is directed against Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal, which has motivated its regional neighbours to stockpile chemical and biological weapons to deter Israel. More distressingly, the Preparatory Committee meeting could not even negotiate a final document for being placed before the 2015 NPT Review Conference.

In other negative developments, India, though not a NPT signatory, has revealed that it had tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile from an underwater platform. They are planned to equip its nuclear submarine INS Arihant. North Korea has declared that it means to carry out a fourth nuclear test. Analysts believe this would accelerate Pyongyang’s development of a miniaturised warhead to be delivered by a ballistic missile. South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye warned that another nuclear test by Pyongyang would trigger a “nuclear domino” effect, since both South Korea and Japan would be under great domestic pressure from their alarmed people to develop and deploy nuclear weapons to deter North Korea. Neither country is believed to be very far from becoming a nuclear weapon power if they so choose in view of their advanced atomic energy programmes. Efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear progress by bringing its uranium enrichment programme under safeguards have received a setback with the rise of Islamic (Sunni) forces in Syria and Iraq. Iran is needed to balance these disruptive forces. Its ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons might, therefore, get placed on the backburner. Should Iran go nuclear a “nuclear domino” effect could ensue in the Gulf and Middle East regions with many regional countries seeking nuclear weapons to deter Iran. Further, the technological abilities of several developing countries have been growing rapidly. Non-proliferation efforts cannot succeed much longer by gating the spread of technology, but require the difficult political issues driving nuclear proliferation to be addressed.

In its latest Annual Report on Armament and Disarmament the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has assessed the total number of nuclear weapons worldwide to be around 16,300, with 93 per cent being held by the US and Russia.  The remaining are held by the seven other NWS viz.  UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. SIPRI has noted that India and Pakistan continue to increase their nuclear stockpiles, and that there is no” genuine willingness to work toward complete dismantlement of their nuclear arsenals. The long term modernization programs under way in these states suggest that nuclear weapons will remain deeply embedded elements of their strategic calculus.” The modernisation of the nuclear arsenals held by the US and Russia like in the sphere of missile defense has gained much attention, but the steady efforts being made by other NWS to improve their arsenals proceed under the radar screen. Naturally, the non-nuclear adherents to the NPT view these developments askance, and their resentments could surface in the 2015 Review Conference with threats to withdraw from the NPT. 

The question now arises whether nuclear non-proliferation is a lost cause and whether nuclear disarmament remains a desirable but elusive goal? The simple answer to this despairing question is “No.” Why? Nuclear weapons are different in that they can effect global destruction in very short time frames; the consequent radiation effects would last for centuries  And, this massive devastation could occur, not by deliberate use, but by accident. The nuclear age is replete with examples of near-misses that could have led to the use of nuclear weapons by misapprehension or inadvertence. Nuclear theology urges that these weapons are irreplaceable to provide deterrence against adversaries. But reliance on nuclear weapons is hazardous and is becoming less effective with the passing years.

Again, why? There is little controversy that, at present, the main security threat to nations arises from terrorism and non-military threats like climate change or migration. Nuclear weapons have no utility to meet them.