This article was originally published in the Times of India
On Sunday, North Korea launched a long-range missile which Pyongyang described as a success but US experts said had been a failure. Of greater historical significance was the speech delivered the same day in Prague by US president Barack Obama. During the Democratic primary campaign last year, Hillary Clinton famously declared that both Senator John McCain and she had actual job experience to qualify to be commander-in-chief. All that Obama had done, by contrast, was to deliver one speech in Chicago opposing the Iraq war.
As we know, Clinton fatally underestimated the power of speech. Obama at his best combines linguistic eloquence and powerful oratory with substance and gravitas. On Sunday, he addressed one of the most critically important topics of our day that literally has life and death implications for all of us, wherever we may be.
The dream of a world free of nuclear weapons is an old one. It is written into the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), which balances the prohibition on non-nuclear states acquiring these weapons with the demand on the five NPT-licit nuclear powers Britain, China, France, Russia and the US (N5) to eliminate their nuclear arsenals through good-faith negotiations. Considering that the NPT was signed in 1968 and came into effect in 1970, the N5 have not lived up to their bargain.
The dream has been kept alive by many NGOs, a coalition of like-minded countries and a plethora of international blue ribbon commissions. A major difficulty is that the abundant “zero nuclear weapons” initiatives have been stillborn because of zero follow-up and a failure to address real security concerns.
If we examine the geostrategic circumstances of the existing nuclear powers, the two with the least zero security justification for holding on to any nuclear weapons are Britain and France. Nor can North Korea justify nuclear weapons on national security grounds. It seems to play a nuclear hand as a bargaining chip, the only one it has. Israel’s security environment is harsh enough with many in its neighbourhood committed to its destruction to make its reliance on nuclear weapons understandable. Pakistan will not give up its nuclear weapons while India still has them. India’s main security benchmark is not Pakistan but China. Neither China nor Russia will contemplate giving them up for fear of the US. This is why the circuit-breaker in the global nuclear weapons chain is the US.
Obama’s speech acknowledged this. The US cannot achieve the dream on its own, he said, but it is prepared to lead based on the acknowledgement of its special moral responsibility flowing from being the only power to have used atomic weapons. He thus lays down the challenge to others to follow. And he outlines concrete follow-up steps that are practical, measurable and achievable.
Obama’s strategy is to map out a vision and then outline the roadmap to achieve it. These include ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty negotiated way back in 1997; a new treaty banning fissile material; reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US national security strategy; and a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia that is bold and legally binding. Washington will also host a global summit on nuclear security within one year.
Such measures by the N5 must be matched by robust action against the proliferation threat. At the very least, Obama reclaims the moral high ground for Washington to pursue a vigorous and robust non- and counter-proliferation strategy. More resources and authority for institutions like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Proliferation Security Initiative will be provided. Countries leaving or breaking the NPT must face real and immediate consequences. An international fuel bank could be created to assure supply to countries whose interest is limited to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. All vulnerable nuclear material around the world for example, loose nukes in Russia will be secured within four years. Black markets like A Q Khan’s will be broken up, trade in nuclear materials detected and intercepted in transit, and financial tools used to disrupt dangerous trade.
Obama is right in saying that reaching the goal will require patience and persistence. But he may be wrong in saying that it may not be achieved in his lifetime. He should set down the marker for achieving it by the end of his second term if re-elected. Without a deadline, no one will work to make it happen; rather, they will retreat into the vague formula of “yes, some day, eventually”.
Obama may also be mistaken in pinning faith on the global regime centred on the NPT which, he said, “could reach the point where the centre cannot hold”. The NPT is already a broken reed, with far too many flaws, anomalies, gaps and outright contradictions. For example, the promise that those who break the rules must be punished cannot be enforced against India. The India-US civil nuclear agreement, however justified and necessary, breaks NPT rules. A new clean nuclear weapons convention might be a better goal to pursue.
That’s a minor quibble. More important is the broad sweep of Obama’s commitment, based on national interest and personal conviction, to freeing us from the fear of nuclear weapons.