In a three-week period, India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests, thus becoming new members of the nuclear weapons club. Their tests have brought forth broad, even jubilant, support among the Indian and Pakistani people. Following the Pakistani tests, one Pakistani clerk effused, “Pakistan is now a superpower.”

It is not surprising that India and Pakistan would view nuclear weapons as a path to international security and prestige. The five original members of the nuclear weapons club – the U.S., UK, France, Russia, and China – have treated their possession of nuclear weapons this way for decades.

The major problem is not that India and Pakistan have conducted nuclear tests. It is that they, like the other members of the nuclear weapons club, have indicated by their tests that they now choose to rely upon nuclear weapons to maintain their national security.

The Indians and Pakistanis are doing no more – in fact, much less – than the United States and the former Soviet Union did throughout the Cold War in relying upon their nuclear arsenals for deterrence. The policy of nuclear deterrence – despite the end of the Cold War and ostensibly friendly relations – continues to be the official policy of the U.S. and Russia, as it is of the other nations in the nuclear weapons club.

The nuclear weapons states claim that there has been no nuclear war because of their nuclear weapons rather than in spite of them. If deterrence is a viable theory, however, there should be no problem with it being adopted by all states, including India and Pakistan.

Deterrence Is Only a Theory

The truth is that deterrence is only a theory, and not one that is believed to work universally. If deterrence were in fact considered reliable, nuclear weapons proliferation should in theory be encouraged rather than opposed.

I doubt if anyone believes that the Indian subcontinent is safer now that India and Pakistan have demonstrated their nuclear weapons capabilities. It is generally and rightly recognized that the region has become far more dangerous with this new capacity for nuclear annihilation.

Imagine, for example, that the Indians decided to respond to the Pakistani threat by a pre-emptive first-strike to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems. Should the Indians fail, the Pakistanis might respond with a nuclear attack. Even the fear of such pre-emptive action by the Indians might lead the Pakistanis to themselves launch a pre-emptive first-strike against India. There are many other possible scenarios that might lead to nuclear war.

Just as the problem is not the nuclear weapons tests, but the policies that they represent, the danger is not limited to South Asia. By the Indian and Pakistani tests, we are reminded of the danger that exists from all nuclear weapons in the world – those in the hands of all nuclear weapons states. We are also reminded that nuclear weapons proliferation remains a serious threat to regional and global stability.

There are not responsible and irresponsible nuclear weapons states. All are irresponsible because they base their national security on weapons which have the capacity to murder millions of innocent people.

A Worst Case Scenario

As a worst case scenario, and one that has been long understood, a large-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia could result in ending human civilization, such as it is, and destroying the human species and most life on earth. Being willing to run this risk does not demonstrate a high level of responsibility – quite the opposite.

The choice before us is whether to deal with India and Pakistan as an isolated regional problem, or whether to view their nuclear tests as a wake-up call to commence international negotiations to achieve a treaty to eliminate all nuclear weapons in the world.

The first option is not viable. India and Pakistan will not reverse their course unless the other nuclear weapons states clearly demonstrate their commitment to achieving a world free of nuclear weapons. Following its tests, India issued a statement appealing for such a commitment in the form of a Nuclear Weapons Convention: “India calls on all nuclear weapons states and indeed the international community to join with it in opening early negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention so that these weapons can be dealt with in a global, nondiscriminatory framework as other weapons of mass destruction have been, through the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention.”

Nuclear “Haves” and “Have-Nots”

I have long maintained that a world with a small number of nuclear “haves” and a much larger number of nuclear “have-nots” is unstable and unrealistic. This instability has begun to manifest itself in a detrimental way through nuclear proliferation. We will continue in this direction unless the course is reversed by serious negotiations among the nuclear weapons states to eliminate all nuclear weapons in the world.

The United States is capable of providing the leadership to attain a world free of nuclear weapons. The U.S., however, has shown no inclination to assert this leadership. In fact, U.S. policies under the current administration have all been directed toward maintaining the existing structure of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots”. This must change. It is our best hope for preventing a nuclear holocaust in the 21st century.

One other possibility exists. It is for other nations of the world, without the U.S. but including other nuclear weapons states, to move forward on a treaty banning nuclear weapons in the way that the treaty to ban landmines was created without U.S. participation. Unless the U.S. steps forward as a leader on this issue, I would hope that other nations will proceed without us.

At the edge of a new millennium, the nation state system is challenged on many fronts to solve global environmental and security problems. The greatest of these challenges is posed by weapons of man’s own creation, the most dangerous of which are nuclear weapons capable of destroying humankind. Will we meet this challenge? Are there leaders among us capable of picking up where Gorbachev left off that can lead the world to end the nuclear weapons era?

Such leaders will have to pierce the illusions of security that have been created to manipulate the people, now including the people of India and Pakistan, into believing that nuclear weapons should be a source of national pride. Nuclear weapons are quite simply weapons of mass destruction, meaning mass murder, and should be viewed as a national disgrace. But where are the leaders to say this?

Leadership from the People

As in all great issues of social change, the leadership for a nuclear weapons free world will have to arise from the people. This grassroots leadership is already emerging from Abolition 2000, a global network working to eliminate nuclear weapons, which is now composed of nearly 1100 citizen action groups from around the world.

The challenge posed to the world by the two new members of the nuclear weapons club is nothing less than creating a world free of nuclear weapons. It is a challenge of finding new means of achieving security and settling our differences without resorting to weapons of mass destruction.