Unequal bargain

Print edition : June 20, 1998

Some strategic thinkers see an opportunity for India to gain a place in the American nuclear imperium but majority opinion resolutely opposes the idea as a reversal of priorities and policies.

TO say that the nuclear tests in the Rajasthan desert and Pakistan's matching response have damaged India's standing in the global disarmament debate would perhaps be a non sequitur. The Western alliance, which exerts a decisive influence in these matters, has never shown the slightest sign of deviating from its own belief that disarmament is essentially a bilateral matter concerning the United States on the one hand and Russia, as the principal successor-state of the Soviet Union, on the other. Shifting the negotiations to a multilateral forum would, in this interpretation, be diversionary and dilatory.

Because they have remained in the main unstated, the underlying postulates of the global arms control process have never really been challenged in an official disarmament forum. The U.S. has in its tacit advocacy of these supposedly inviolable postulates remained as resolute as India and a number of other states have been in opposing them. This polarity of views has engendered a prolonged stalemate in global arms control negotiations, punctuated by periods of supposed progress. And even if the nuclear weapon states (NWSs) have always been insistent that the few treaties to have emerged from this global process represent substantive progress, India has often enough sought an honourable posture in dissent.

It is not necessary to read between the lines of strategic text and doctrine to appreciate the true reasons for the U.S. recalcitrance towards the idea of total disarmament. In brief, this stems not so much from an attachment to these weapons of mass destruction - though that could be a factor - as from a dread of the consequences that could ensue from others obtaining them.

"Massive retaliation" was the declared strategic doctrine of the U.S. in the early days of the nuclear age, when it enjoyed an enormous numerical advantage in nuclear weaponry. This was replaced by a notion of "flexible response" when tactical nuclear weapons became a reality in the 1960s. In the bipolar context of rivalry with the Soviet Union, strategic nuclear doctrine finally climaxed in the notion of "mutually assured destruction".

A Greenpeace protest at the Taj Mahal on June 12.-STEVE MORGAN/REUTERS

Overwhelming military superiority remains the fundamental principle of the U.S. engagement with the rest of the globe. In its present bloated state, the American arsenal can tolerate transient disruptions of the numerical balance with rival nuclear weapon states. But a shrinkage of the American arsenal would reduce the potency of the "assured destruction" doctrine and constrict the range of tolerance for imbalances - whether perceived or real - with existing and prospective nuclear weapon states. Complete disarmament, even on a globally agreed schedule, would leave the U.S. vulnerable to the exertions of what are engagingly called "rogue states" in American strategic debates.

The U.S., in short, cannot conceive of any movement towards disarmament without ensuring that it has the political means and the technological resources to deny access to all others. Where institutional knowledge exists, it has to be effaced; where intellectual ability has been fostered, it has to be diverted; where technology has been developed, it has to be disabled; and where the materials exist, they have to be placed under a comprehensive system of safeguards.

Managing affairs in the comfortable bipolarity of the Cold War was difficult enough, often necessitating strategic choices that defied all ethical norms. In the early-1960s, when the Americans received evidence that the Soviet Union was putting in place an anti-ballistic missile defence around Moscow, the dominant opinion in strategic circles was to respond in kind - to fortify American cities against nuclear missiles. As U.S. Defence Secretary, Robert S. McNamara however put up a rather persuasive argument that the appropriate recourse would not be a missile defence system that would be porous and fallible, but a considerable augmentation of offensive capacity. A clear signal was to be sent to the Soviet Union that no system of defence would assure it of the slightest security against the awesome force of U.S. missiles.

CHINA'S arrival on the world stage as an NWS altered the bipolar character of the nuclear race and prompted a revision of U.S. strategy. Although China never sought parity and repeatedly emphasised that its nuclear capability was deployed in a defensive mode, the U.S. resurrected the doctrine of massive retaliation to deal with the new challenge. Concurrently, in recognition of the more modest scale of the Chinese arsenal, the U.S. began putting in place a ballistic missile defence system. This asymmetry in strategic response engendered a dissonance in the bargain with the Soviet Union. In an ironic shift, disarmament negotiations then shifted focus towards restraining the development of missile defence systems.

Nuclear deterrence was premised upon a symmetry of offensive capabilities. The development of a defence system threatened to upset this symmetry, apart from meaning a plunge into an unknown realm of technology. Well before it accepted any numerical arms control commitments or any restraints upon testing nuclear devices, the U.S. was pressuring the Soviet Union for a treaty that severely curbed the evolution of missile defence systems. The Anti-Ballistic Missiles Treaty was concluded in 1972, but curiously, the evolution of new offensive capabilities that the prospect of a ballistic missile defence had provoked - such as the development of multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) - remained firmly on course.

If this rather bizarre system of priorities was being worked out in the bilateral confrontation between the two principal NWSs, there was no denying that the rest of the world community had a vital stake in seeking a sensible and ethical way out. Although nuclear doctrine was evolved on the premise that Europe would be the battleground between East and West, the main theatre of confrontation between the superpowers remained national liberation struggles in the Third World. This alone provided the Non-Aligned Movement with a powerful incentive for intervening actively in the arms control process. It was not a plea that was heard with any measure of empathy or sensitivity.

In the negotiations leading up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a demand was made that in return for their renunciation of the option, the non-aligned states should be given reasonable assurances of immunity from the prospect of nuclear intimidation. The response of the NWSs was to concede grudgingly that any threat of the use of nuclear weapons would call forth an intervention by the U.N. Security Council.

From the early days of the debate, China has been an advocate of what are known as "negative security assurances" - that non-nuclear weapon states would be absolutely immune to the prospect of nuclear attack. In the NPT negotiations, France took the position that security would finally be assured only through the elimination of nuclear weapons. The U.S. was willing to go no further than assure any state "in good standing" with the NPT that it would not suffer nuclear attack, provided it did not commit aggression against the U.S. or an ally, and provided it was not allied with an NWS.

This position has been reiterated at every subsequent NPT review conference, to assuage the sensitivities of the non-aligned countries over the U.S.' resolute refusal to countenance a disarmament schedule. Article VI of the NPT makes it obligatory on all signatories to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament." This article, which was a necessary inducement for winning the adherence of several non-aligned states, has consistently been honoured in the breach by the U.S. This flagrant disregard for world opinion has, however, not escaped unchallenged.

Dissent began surfacing from the third NPT review conference in 1985. A number of states expressed disappointment over the failure to achieve the arms control and disarmament objectives of Article VI. A demand was also made that a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing should be enforced. The U.S. argued that comprehensive test ban was a long-term goal, though its immediate priority was to work towards a reduction of existing arsenals.

Ironically, this came in a context when the Reagan administration in the U.S. was pushing through the most massive expansion of nuclear weapons ever seen. It also coincided with the enunciation of a doctrine by the U.S. strategic establishment that all-out nuclear war could be waged and won. As Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger put it in his defence guidance document for 1984: "Should deterrence fail and strategic nuclear war with the USSR occur, the United States must prevail and be able to force the Soviet Union to seek earliest termination of hostilities on terms favourable to the United States."

The NPT review conference in 1990 proved wise to this dual track approach of the U.S., of enormously expanding its offensive capability while restraining others through a complex regime of treaties. With the NPT due to expire in five years, its sponsors had reason to be wary about the demand voiced by a number of non-aligned states that a firm link to a global arms control schedule and a comprehensive test ban were necessary before any further extension could be considered.

A further inducement had to be given when the NPT renewal conference came up in 1995. The system of global nuclear disparity had been perpetuated 25 years - half the span of the nuclear age. A further indefinite extension had to be buttressed by some token concessions on the part of the NWSs.

THE Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was, in the U.S. calculation, precisely that concession. Negotiations began in 1994 in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. In May 1995, the 179 nations that are party to the NPT agreed on its indefinite extension, with the added proviso that a comprehensive test ban would be agreed upon not later than 1996.

Yet the Geneva negotiations remained torn between conflicting priorities. The U.S. was initially keen on interpreting a "zero-yield" treaty as permitting explosions of up to 10 kilograms of explosive capacity, and on inserting an "opt-out" clause that would enable it to withdraw from treaty obligations after 10 years. The Chinese believed that certain categories of peaceful nuclear explosion should not be curbed. And Britain and France demanded that tests connected to the safety of existing warheads be sanctioned.

It was only in August 1995 that the U.S. abandoned its rather permissive interpretation and firmly committed itself to an authentic zero-yield agreement. Prudence was clearly of the essence. A scheduled series of sub-critical nuclear tests was postponed in mid-1996 since the negotiations were entering a crucial phase and would certainly have been thrown into disarray by the American demonstration of how it could work its way around treaty obligations.

On September 24, 1996, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed the CTBT, which he described as the "hardest-fought and longest-sought prize in the history of arms control." A week later, he signed legislation approving a massive increase in funding for a laser facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, that could generate miniature thermonuclear explosions. In his letter despatching the CTBT to the U.S. Senate for approval, Clinton affirmed that these releases of energy through nuclear fusion, since they were "non-destructively contained within a suitable vessel," would not be considered a nuclear explosion.

The Stockpile Stewardship and Management Programme (SSMP) - conceived of as the alternative to an active programme of nuclear testing - was well on its way. Recent estimates put the annual budgetary requirement of the SSMP at $4 billion - which is considerably more than stockpile maintenance costs incurred at the height of the Cold War. The basic goal, as enunciated in Clinton's letter to the Senate, is to maintain nuclear weapon expertise and safeguard the armaments design establishment's ability to design, test, manufacture and certify new nuclear weapons should the CTBT lapse.

IN June 1997, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) conducted the subcritical tests that had been put on hold a year earlier. Worldwide protests over the ethics of the tests were met with a brusque demand that the critics study the physics involved. But resentments were not assuaged. Sub-critical testing, said those well informed about the underlying physics, would complicate the monitoring and verification regime of the CTBT. Although in technical compliance with the zero-yield requirement in not attaining a nuclear chain reaction, subcritical testing would only arouse suspicions among states that have no way of verification. And since tests under the yield threshold of one kiloton generate no detectable seismic shock-waves, the U.S.' avowal that a test was indeed subcritical would have to be taken on faith by other CTBT signatories.

The subcritical tests at Nevada were followed within a week by an "unprecedented" simulation of a nuclear-weapons explosion at the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. According to a report in the local press, the supercomputer simulation of a nuclear tipped ballistic missile explosion is a detailed demonstration of "how specific components inside a warhead would fare during impact, breaking down the effects to millionths of a second."

The Clinton administration is obviously on a dual track strategy. The international community is to be continually reassured that the CTBT is a sincere effort at curbing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, domestic right-wing opinion, which exerts a decisive influence in the Senate, has to be mollified with conspicuous demonstrations of American nuclear prowess.

The strategy is not paying off in the domestic forum. Jesse Helms, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has characterised the ratification of the CTBT as a matter of relatively low priority. The prospect of rejection by the Senate has elicited a reaction verging on panic from the administration. As Robert Bell, special assistant to President Clinton on national security, puts it: "If the Senate should reject or refuse to act on the CTBT, I believe we put at risk the NPT. Certainly, I feel very strongly that had it not been for our willingness to negotiate the CTBT in the first term of the Clinton administration, we would have never achieved the indefinite and unconditional extension of the NPT."

Clinton had repeatedly told the Senate that he would like to carry their final ratification of the CTBT as an offering on his trip to South Asia later this year. The recent series of tests on the sub-continent perhaps have decisively scuppered this prospect. After the initial reaction of outrage at the tests in India and Pakistan, more informed world opinion switched their focus to the unequal nuclear bargain. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was among the first to deprecate the inherent injustice of the jealously guarded preserve of the NWSs. That apart, the various interventions at the U.N. Security Council debate on the issue reflected a degree of impatience among those not in possession, at the insincerity of those who are in possession of deadly nuclear arsenals.

WITHIN India itself, the events of May have engendered a sharp conflict of strategic perspectives. To appreciate the ramifications, it is necessary to understand the convergence of several doctrinal positions in determining the country's position in the disarmament debate. There was, above all, the ethical position that scientific knowledge should not be reserved for purposes that threaten human survival. This was buttressed by a post-colonial nation's assertion of sovereignty - the belief that nations which insist on preserving a monopoly of the knowledge and the means that could threaten human survival should not be led to believe that the world will forever be secure for nuclear intimidation.

At some stage the national security imperative was added on to this mix of considerations. A deterrent capability, said the proponents of the national security perspective, was essential to the defence of the realm. Never in the Indian debate though, has the notion of compellability or coercion - which some people argue is only differentiated in degree rather than in kind from the deterrence doctrine - been articulated as a justification for a nuclear weapons capability. In this respect, the Government today seems to have explored a new doctrinal frontier, though not without provoking a storm of dissent from domestic political opinion.

After the Pokhran tests, these various strands have begun to unravel. An influential body of strategic thinkers today believes that India should sign the CTBT and participate in negotiations towards a fissile material cut-off. The Pokhran tests, in this reading, afford the country an opportunity to ascend to a ranking position within the American nuclear imperium.

Majority opinion remains resolutely opposed to this abrupt reversal of priorities and principles. It advocates a firm renunciation of the weaponisation option and a renewed campaign for global disarmament. The global community has been rudely shaken off the course that led inexorably from the NPT to the CTBT. When the dust settles and a dispassionate evaluation of these events is finally done, there are unlikely to be many who will mourn the demise of the global nuclear bargain. But it is yet unclear that India can project the necessary vision and statesmanship at the global level to pursue the goal of abolition. That road remains as arduous as ever. And petitioning for membership of the exclusive club of nuclear weapon states seems to offer too many distractions.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor