Nuclear Disarmament Timeline Challenges
Nuclear Base Camp: The Numbers Conundrum
Ever since J.Robert Oppenheimer invoked the Bhagavad Gita to create the mother of all metaphors, “the radiance of a thousand suns” and “the destroyer of worlds”, the nuclear weapons and disarmament efforts have given us many images and metaphors. But they were all images of mutually assured destruction and inevitability of a nuclear catastrophe. There was even a telling image of the world resting comfortably under the hood of a cobra. But more recently, despair has turned into hope with the metaphor of a mountain which, though distant and high, does hold the promise of a panoramic view of a nuclear weapon free and non-violent world, if we reach the summit. The world realizes that the climb up the mountain will be slow and hazardous, but there appears to be a universal desire to make a determined effort.
The metaphor of the mountain has led to the image of a base camp, which is necessary to equip ourselves and to prepare for the climb. It is indeed a practical and necessary stage and translated into practical measures, it encourages all nations, whether they possess nuclear weapons or not, to build a staging ground. It means the establishment of intermediate goals towards disarmament on which there could be a consensus. The proponents of this concept have explained that the idea is to agree to proportional disarmament instead of smaller nuclear countries waiting till the others come down to their levels before they contemplate disarmament. They would like to craft a treaty, whereby countries, coming from different levels, could agree to work at reciprocal and proportional cuts, which would aim at all countries reaching the same lower number of weapons at a future date. William Perry characterizes the base camp as a place that would be safer than where we are today. It also serves as an organizing principle to “lead, but hedge”, in keeping with the US nuclear posture.
While the base camp concept is novel in the new context of optimism, it has been part of every plan that has been put forward in the past. Though the general and complete disarmament is the ultimate objective, giving priority to nuclear disarmament and that too through various intermediate stages is not very different from the base camp idea. The Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan of 1988 and the other practical steps put forward by various powers have contemplated intermediate stages of various descriptions. The proposal for a complete freeze was another logical step, which did not find acceptance by the nuclear weapon states. The proposed FMCT is another interim measure which is desirable and logical. We should welcome any step that reduces arsenals, strengthens non-proliferation and leads to elimination of nuclear weapons.
It is not clear, however, whether we can approach the base camp concept on the basis of numbers. Such an approach has been adopted in the case of START, but the world is skeptical about the numbers involved in the negotiations as all categories of weapons are not included in the numbers game. Transparency is highly desirable, but often absent when it comes to counting weapons. Fixing agreed numbers to reach the base camp is likely to elude us. The idea of proportionate reduction in arsenals regardless of the present size of the holdings will be anathema to those countries, which have only a minimum deterrent. India, for instance, has not revealed the number of weapons it considers necessary to have a credible minimum deterrent and the numbers are a matter of speculation. How would India participate in negotiations in reduction without revealing the numbers?
A broader approach, which takes into account the new optimism, generated by President Obama’s Prague speech, the sighting of the mountain, the encouraging signs at the latest NPT Review Conference and the Nuclear Security Summit, should move the disarmament effort forward.
India and the United States attempted precisely that at the summit level in their Joint Statement last year. The Prime Minister of India and the President of the United States agreed to join in a “strong partnership to lead global efforts for non-proliferation and universal and non-discriminatory global disarmament.” Further, “they affirmed the need for a meaningful dialogue among all states possessing nuclear weapons to build trust and confidence and for reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs and security doctrines.” The key words here are “trust and confidence” and “reducing the salience of nuclear weapons” in strategies. This will be a very good start for our journey to the base camp and beyond, but not easy to do as it requires fundamental rethinking in many capitals of the world. As the Norwegian foreign minister observed, “Every small demonstration of our willingness to move forward towards abolition make many of the intermediate obstacles more surmountable.”
The nuclear weapon states, sadly, still consider nuclear weapons important for their security and do not wish to consider a timeline for their elimination. In my view, the base camp will not be meaningful unless there is a collective commitment to a multilateral framework for negotiations within a time frame. Neither the NPT nor the CTBT has succeeded in accomplishing this. The FMCT negotiations remain stalled. An alternate route will be, as India has suggested, working on a global non-first use agreement as the first step towards delegitimisation of nuclear weapons. Hesitation on delegitimisation on the ground that it will outlaw retaliation seems unfounded as any use of the weapons will be unthinkable if there is delegitimisation. A commitment to negotiating a Nuclear Weapons Convention may also be an appropriate element of the base camp.
Changing of postures, rather than agreeing on nuclear force sizes may be a practical approach to the base camp. In the case of the two countries, which possess 95% of the nuclear warheads, numbers are relevant to build mutual confidence, but for the others, the doctrinal commitment to nuclear weapons, regardless of numbers, is the greater threat. It is no great comfort for the world to know that the nuclear weapons can now destroy the world only a dozen times, not dozens of times.
The coming to force of the START treaty on February 5 has been universally welcomed. But further progress may be stalled on account of fears of China’s growth. The focus is likely to shift to Asia, where the numbers game will be even more complex. In the Asian context, it will also be difficult to count the numbers considered necessary for minimum deterrent by different countries. Here again, a review of doctrines rather than entering a debate on numbers will have the desired impact.
The optimism that has entered the disarmament debate in recent years has not been fully justified by the latest signals from the major nuclear weapon states. The mountain and base camp images raise hope, but do not instill confidence. The urgency for nuclear disarmament, going beyond legal obligations has also been sidestepped in the process of setting up long term and intermediate stages. The time frame to reach global zero must be shorter if the world has to be safer.