This article was first published by the Transnational Institute
President Barack Obama’s April 5 speech in Prague calling for a world free of the scourge of nuclear weapons is a major foreign and security policy initiative that deserves applause. If he pursues its logic through to the end with the same since rity and passion with which he outlined his commitment “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”, he could be the first United States President to go beyond nuclear arms control and to put nuclear weapons elimination on the global agenda. That would mark a turning point for strategic thinking the world over and open up new avenues through which to seek security.
This remains a big “if”. Obama has not yet worked out the doctrinal, strategic and practical consequences of his fundamental premise that a secure world without nuclear weapons is both possible and desirable. His speech only outlines some necessary steps but without specifying their sequence or time frame, numbers (of weapons to be de-alerted or destroyed), the roles of different actors, the function of legally binding treaties, and so on.
But Obama has stated some premises upfront and emphasised their moral-political rationale in a way no major global leader has done in recent years. Thus, he said, “the existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War”; these are “the ultimate tools of destruction”, which can erase the world “in a single flash of light”. The global non-proliferation regime is in crisis and “the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up”; soon, “we could reach the point where the centre cannot hold”.
“We are not destined,” said Obama, “to live in a world where more nations and more people possess [nuclear weapons]. Such fatalism is a deadly adversary, for if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.” Logically, fighting fatalism means putting “an end to Cold War thinking” and reducing “the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy”.
This sets Obama miles apart not just from George W. Bush but also from Bill Clinton. Obama is effectively reversing a long tradition beginning with the Ronald Reagan presidency towards either a hardening of the U.S. nuclear posture, or the development of new weapons such as “Star Wars”-style ballistic missile defence (BMD), itself premised on even more dangerous doctrines than that of nuclear deterrence, which is fatally flawed.
Thus, the U.S. has failed, even two decades after the Cold War ended, to move beyond relatively paltry reductions in its nuclear arsenal through the Moscow Treaty of 2002. Under Bush, it refused to take 2,200 weapons off “launch on warning” alert. The U.S. military establishment wants to develop a Reliable Replaceable Warhead for existing ones, find new uses (for example, bunker-busting) for old weapon designs, and has yielded to pressures from the nuclear weapons laboratories to modernise and refine existing armaments and do experimental work on fusion weapons at the expensive National Ignition Facility.
Bush was not only obsessed with perpetuating America’s nuclear superiority. He gave it a particularly deadly edge through BMD deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic, thus exacerbating tensions with Russia and destabilising strategic balances worldwide. Bush also blurred vital distinctions between conventional and nuclear weapons, unsigned the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia.
Bush’s BMD programme will militarise and nuclearise outer space, in which the U.S. seeks “full-spectrum” dominance. His paranoid response to the September 11 attacks resulted in the worst-ever fiasco in the history of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at its important review conference in 2005, liquidating all the significant gains made at the 2000 review.
Obama promises to change course, radically. He has spoken more boldly and honestly in favour of a nuclear weapons-free world than any other U.S. President in decades. He has gone further than any other in acknowledging that the U.S. bears a “moral responsibility” for nuclear disarmament because it is the only power to have used the horror weapon. This speaks of exemplary moral clarity, as does his statement that the U.S. must take the lead on disarmament. However, that cannot be said about four other propositions in Obama’s speech. First, he betrays an unpardonably naive faith in nuclear deterrence: “Make no mistake. As long as [nuclear] weapons exist, the U.S. will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary.…” He also believes in extended deterrence – deploying nuclear weapons in non-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries.
This column has dissected the fallacy of nuclear deterrence far too often to warrant further comment other than that it is a fallible, fragile and unreliable basis on which to premise security (via a balance of terror). It involves unrealistic assumptions about capabilities and doctrines, symmetrical perceptions by adversaries of “unacceptable damage” means, and the complete absence of miscalculations and accidents – 100 per cent of the time.
Second, Obama continues to repose faith in BMD – he congratulated the Czech for their “courage” in hosting it – although he qualifies his support by saying BMD must be “cost-effective and proven”. This ignores BMD’s primitive, as-yet-premature status in intercepting missiles, and worse, the danger of escalating military rivalry to uncertain and risky levels where an adversary could feel tempted to neutralise a putative BMD advantage by amassing more missiles or launching wildcat strikes.
Third, Obama, like Bush and Clinton, makes a specious distinction between responsible/acceptable/good nuclear powers (the Big Five-plus-Israel-plus-India-plus-non-Taliban-Pakistan) and irresponsible/dangerous ones (Iran, North Korea). This permits double standards and detracts from the universal urgency of abolishing all nuclear weapons. Obama’s endorsement of Bush’s Proliferation Security Initiative – unilateral interception at sea of suspect nuclear-related materials – follows from this.
Finally, Obama believes that disarmament may not be achieved in “my lifetime”. Such pessimism is unwarranted. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s thoughtful plan for global nuclear disarmament, presented to the United Nations General Assembly in 1988, set a 15-year timeline for complete nuclear elimination. This is realistic – if the U.S. and the international community musters the will for an early disarmament initiative.
If Obama effects deep cuts in U.S. nuclear weapons through the promised Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia this year, and launches a drive for banning nuclear testing and ending fissile production worldwide, the momentum can be accelerated, especially if U.S. policy shifts to no-first-use. After all, even the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – George P. Schulz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn – believe that nuclear weapons abolition can be achieved in the foreseeable future.
Obama’s speech provides an opportunity to all those who believe in complete nuclear weapons elimination, a cause kept alive by the peace movement, a coalition of states, and several expert commissions. India too professes a commitment to this goal and must seize this opportunity.
India’s lukewarm response
Regrettably, Indian policymakers have extended a lukewarm, if not cold, welcome to Obama’s speech. So fearful are they of pressure on India to sign the CTBT that they are clutching at straws. One such is Obama’s statement that “my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the CTBT”. This is different from what he wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before he was sworn in: “I will work with the U.S. Senate to secure ratification of [CTBT] at the earliest practical day, and then launch a major diplomatic initiative to ensure its entry into force.” (The letter was suppressed by South Block.)
Indian policymakers are also reportedly relieved that Obama has not reiterated his letter’s reference to India’s “real responsibilities – [including] steps to restrain nuclear weapons programmes and pursuing effective disarmament when others do so”. They are also pleased that Obama has appointed Ellen Tauscher, a Democrat Congresswoman, as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security rather than Robert Einhorn, described by India’s nuclear hawks as “an ayatollah of non-proliferation”.
Such timidity is unbecoming of a nation that claims to be proud of its pro-disarmament record and has pledged to fight for a nuclear weapons-free world. India opposed the CTBT in 1995-96 not for its intrinsic flaws or demerits but because it wanted to test nuclear weapons. Having done so in 1998, India should sign and ratify the treaty. Even Arundhati Ghose, who famously declared that India will not sign it “not now, not ever”, now says that she sees no problem with its signature. This may show a deplorable level of cynicism, but it is nevertheless a ground for correcting course and returning to the disarmament agenda.
Logically, this includes several steps such as the CTBT, Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, regional nuclear risk-reduction and restraint measures (including forswearing missile test-flights and keeping delivery vehicles apart from warheads) and, of course, deep cuts in nuclear weapons by all the nuclear weapons states, beginning with the U.S. and Russia.
India must boldly seize the initiative by updating the Rajiv Gandhi plan, opposing BMD and proactively arguing for rapid strides towards the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. Here lies the litmus test of India’s commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world and of its creative and principled diplomacy.