Illogical exuberance

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

George W. Bush's National Missile Defence proposal protends a new global arms build-up and a growing embitterment of the climate for the disarmament dialogue.

IT was no more than coincidence that the day designated for consultations with the United States on the new script for the global nuclear order was the third anniversary of India's Pokhran-II blasts. In a mood of relative sobriety, the Indian foreign policy establishment evidently sought in the course of its interactions with the visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, to tone down the unseemly enthusiasm with which it had first received the announcement from Washington that the U.S. intended to proceed with a technologically ambitious, if rather implausible, defence system against nuclear missile attack.

Intervening in public for the first time in a terrain that has shown deep imprints of External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh's personal predilections, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee welcomed the consultations that the U.S. was undertaking with various countries on the implications of its National Missile Defence (NMD) proposal. But he warned against a unilateral abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) Treaty, counselling the path of negotiations instead. Addressing an awards function to mark the newly minted observance of National Technology Day, Vajpayee declared that India had never believed in the macabre doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). There would, however, be no compromise on the country's intent to maintain a "minimum credible" nuclear deterrent for the sake of its own security.

Vajpayee's locutions represent a curious amalgam of mutually contradictory elements, since it is the logic of deterrence that leads inexorably to the doctrine of MAD. The inherent premise of minimum deterrence is that of "unacceptable damage". Minimum "credible" deterrence implies that a country's nuclear arsenal can either survive a first strike or retain sufficient retaliatory capacity to rain destruction on the aggressor. In a tight adversarial situation, this is a prescription for an unending arms spiral whose logical consummation is the uneasy stasis of MAD.

Strategic superiority being an unattainable goal, the two principal antagonists of the nuclear arms race - the U.S. and the Soviet Union - were compelled to step back and start a process of negotiated arms reductions. The background to the grudging initiation of arms control talks is again wide and diverse and it illuminates a crucial feature of the global nuclear bargain: all its elements are locked together in a seamless web. This succession of closely interconnected agreements begins with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970, the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1972 (SALT-I) and the ABM Treaty of 1972. The ongoing START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) process, which has produced two treaties and the promise of a third one, is part of this same unbroken sequence. To remove any one element of it would lead to a rapid unravelling of the entire arms control framework.

India's effusive response to the U.S. administration's intention to initiate "unilateral reductions" in deployed nuclear arms while scrapping the ABM Treaty represents gross ignorance of this fundamental reality. Apart from this deliberately selective reading of the American announcement, the Indian response shows elements of wish-fulfilment. It spoke of the "cooperative and defensive transition" as a "strategic and technological inevitability" in the emerging global nuclear order. This of course is far from the U.S. intent, since President George W. Bush's May 1 speech mentioned specifically that the U.S. would maintain a mix of offensive and defensive weapons, tailored according to its own perceptions of national interests.

That the U.S. has no intention of reducing its nuclear warheads deployment below the threshold of 2,000 has also long been apparent, though Russia is keen on a target of 1,000 under the proposed START-III. In an exchange of negotiating briefs early last year, the U.S. side sought to defuse Russian apprehensions about its NMD proposal with the assurance that START-III would permit the active deployment of between 2,000 and 2,500 nuclear warheads. The proposed NMD, the U.S. insisted, was intended to offset the threat of missile attack from less well-endowed arsenals, such as those belonging to the so-called "rogue states". It would prove of little efficacy against an arsenal the size of Russia's.

Russia is concerned that an NMD system would blunt the persuasive power of its nuclear deterrent and provide the U.S. with overwhelming strategic superiority. At the same time, it is seriously constrained by the economic burden of maintaining its massive nuclear weapons stocks and would like to effect a rapid reduction. The U.S. intention to operationalise an NMD system, however, compels Russia to maintain an arsenal much larger than it would want. This effectively holds the global constituency for disarmament hostage to the U.S.' paranoiac perceptions of the havoc that could be caused by certain poorly funded and technologically incipient missile programmes in countries that have remained outside its sphere of influence. And behind this overdrawn picture of the potential threat from missile proliferation, of course, is the flourishing nexus between corporate interests and the U.S. military.

HOW the NMD proposal serves the purpose of disarmament, then, is a mystery whose answer only the Ministry of External Affairs is perhaps privy to. The Indian stand, strategic experts have noted, is contradictory even within the parameters outlined by the Vajpayee government as the justification for Pokhran-II. China, for instance, has reacted with hostility to the U.S. announcement and could respond by greatly augmenting its deployments of a newly designed missile system. And if the rationale outlined in Vajpayee's May 1998 letter to the then U.S. President is accepted, this would only set off an arms race in Asia, into which India and Pakistan would be inexorably drawn.

This raises questions about the costs at which the new paradigm of strategic engagement with the U.S. is being forged. Relations with China and Russia are likely to be an immediate casualty. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had visited Delhi just a week before Armitage's arrival. There was an elaborate effort to harmonise India's "strategic partnership" with Russia - first introduced into the political discourse during President Vladimir Putin's visit in October 2000 - with the newfound belief in the virtues of the NMD. But beyond fatuous phraseology, this effort remains devoid of substance.

The singular gain for India, then, if it can be construed as one, lies in an offhand statement by Armitage that the U.S. has "certain questions" about Pakistan. This was the only public indication that the visiting U.S. official gave of the content of his discussions in Delhi. Although hesitant to classify Pakistan in the company of Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea, the U.S. administration has as recently as April put India's truculent neighbour on a terrorism watch-list. If Pakistan were to make the full transition to the company of U.S.-designated "rogue states", it would represent an enormous propaganda victory for India, though there could be certain questions about the real strategic advantage that accrues to the country.

FROM another quarter, though, definitive signals were emerging that the U.S. did not conceive of any move that would alter the strategic balance in favour of India. In testimony before the Senate, Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke of a prospective American role in the Kashmir dispute: "I think there is a role we can play. And I think that the progress that we have seen over the last several years in relations between the U.S. and India, especially, give us a new entree, a new opportunity to encourage the sides to find a peaceful and just solution to the problem of Kashmir."

If the singular consequence of India's exuberant reaction to the NMD proposal is to secure the intervention of a global referee whose attentions it has always fought off, then it must count as a rather dubious gain. This must be weighed against the larger consequences of a new global arms build-up and the growing embitterment of the climate for the disarmament dialogue.

As recently as May 2000, Jaswant Singh had, in recognition of the ongoing NPT Review Conference in New York, asserted that India remained unwavering in its commitment to nuclear disarmament: "It needs to be emphasised that India today is the only nuclear weapons state that remains committed to commencing negotiations for a nuclear weapons convention, in order to bring about a nuclear-weapons-free world, the very objective envisaged in Article VI of the NPT."

The subsequent course of India's interventions in the global nuclear dialogue speak of a different intent. Against all expectations, the NPT Review Conference had managed to produce a final declaration which included a negotiated action plan on "practical steps for systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI" of the treaty. At the insistence of the New Agenda Coalition of eight nations - perhaps the most credible international grouping advocating the cause of nuclear disarmament - this declaration was presented to the Conference on Disarmament (C.D.) in Geneva as an official mandate for renewing its deadlocked deliberations.

In defiance of this mandate, the U.S. has since been insisting at the C.D. on the single-point agenda of initiating negotiations towards a global freeze on the production of fissile material (FMCT, the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty or 'fissban'). China, in particular, has thwarted this proposal with the argument that the prevention of an arms race in outer space (or PAROS) is equally important. Quoting from a document of the U.S. Space Command, which purports to sketch the full scope of the NMD system, Hu Xiaodi, China's Ambassador to the C.D. argued: "Anti-satellite weapons, strategic missile defence systems and land-based laser weapons (are) envisaged... to attack targets in space and space weapons to launch preemptive strikes. This has irrefutably demonstrated that weaponisation of outer space is imminent. Therefore, it has become a top priority task for the international community to take measures to prevent the weaponisation of outer space."

The U.S. response, as articulated by Ambassador Robert Grey, was an arrogant denial: "When we consider outer space on its own merits, seeking to appraise its suitability as a focus for concrete and specific work, the contrast with FMCT negotiations is immediate and striking. As many U.S. representatives have repeatedly emphasised, there is no arms race in outer space, nor any prospect of an arms race for as far down the road as anyone can see."

This speech was made in February, when the Bush administration was already in office. Donald Rumsfeld, whose singular contribution to strategic debate has been to warn of the U.S. suffering a Pearl Harbour kind of surprise attack in outer space, had taken over as Secretary of Defence, bringing along copious baggage of right-wing paranoia. Clearly, the U.S. position had little credibility in the eyes of the world and was beginning to be viewed as quite blatant an act of default on commitments made at the NPT review. India has now lent a comforting hand to the global policeman in its hour of splendid isolation. Devoid of principle or strategic sense, India's position represents a new low in its international standing and a fresh milestone in the Vajpayee government's irrational pursuit of status sans sovereignty.

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