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Nuclear rivalry

April 24, 2018

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THIS week, the nuclear nonproliferation world is gathered in Geneva for the second preparatory meeting (prepcomm) of the 2020 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Confe­rence. The NPT is the cornerstone of the global nonproliferation regime that aims to eliminate nuclear weapons and regulate the use of nuclear technologies and materials.

For NPT member states, the prepcomm is business as usual. There will be grandstanding, hollow promises and commitments made to the disarmament agenda. But things aren’t as mundane for the independent non-proliferation lobbies and experts in Geneva to push these states to recognise the serious problems coming their way.

First, the revival of great power competition is bad news for this crowd. The salience of nuclear weapons decreased after the Cold War, given that the centrality of the atomic bomb in the bipolar era had been a function of superpower nuclear competition. The US and Russia began cutting back on their arsenals and talk of nuclear war-fighting all but disappeared from great power lingo.

Will this hold? President Trump clearly prefers to elevate the role of nuclear arms in US defence strategising. The new US nuclear posture review has codified his intent. This goes against the conventional wisdom that the world’s strongest conventional military power would benefit most by marginalising the global role of nuclear weapons and, instead, focus on conventional superiority. Even before this, Russia had begun to revive conversations on its own nuclear capability. Its military continues to think of and integrate nuclear weapons planning and posturing in its military exercises. China is modernising its capability at an unprecedented pace.

The revival of nuclear competition is disquieting.

Great power capabilities are tied in with those of regional nuclear states. The US nuclear postures impact Russian and Chinese decisions; the latter influence India; and India drives Pakistan’s behaviour. Intensified US-China competition can generate a race to the top that would suck India and Pakistan into an active nuclear arms race. Given its limited resources, Pakistan is the most vulnerable actor in this chain.

Second, a demand-side problem in terms of nuclear proliferation has been brewing. Several critical post-9/11 developments in global politics are to blame.

Take Iraq and Libya. Saddam Hussein didn’t have WMD, but his demise was triggered by this allegation; Muammar Qadhafi gave up his nuclear ambitions hoping to bring Libya back into the international mainstream. He was gone shortly thereafter. Compare this to North Korea, the only country to develop nuclear weapons while being an NPT member. It has repeatedly defied the UN and threatened its neighbours and the US. Yet, it has escaped Iraq and Libya’s fate.

The suggestion is not that the absence of nuclear weapons was the reason for the conflicts in Iraq and Libya. It wasn’t. Still, this interpretation won’t be all that unnatural for a recalcitrant state that perceives a threat from any of the strong powers. Indeed, North Korean leaders have often been reported to claim that their biggest lesson from Iraq and Libya is that nuclear capability is the only way for their regime to ensure survival.

The problem is that global non-proliferation efforts continue to persist with their historical bias towards supply-side issues. Conversations focus on controlling countries’ access to nuclear materials and technology and boosting global vigilance mechanisms to catch culprits. These measures are going to come under increasing pressure, perhaps even reach their maximum limits, unless action is taken to address demand-side problems.

Third, the world’s inability to figure out how to deal with the three non-NPT nuclear weapons states, India, Pakistan and Israel, adds to the conundrum. A large segment of the non-proliferation lobby has re­­mained opposed to offering any concessions to these states. Yet, the limbo hasn’t helped. For instance, attempts to mainstream India through country-specific concessions have imposed only modest accountability but conferred great legitimacy on the Indian nuclear programme. For many champions of disarmament, this represents the worst of both worlds: the troubling signal they wished to avoid has been transmitted but without any permanent solution to the grey legal status of these countries.

Finally, the present aura of unpredictability around US foreign policy risks strengthening conservative lobbies in countries under US security umbrellas. The impression that the unipolar moment is waning is forcing some US allies to seek reassurances that Washington will be there to protect them in crises. Every time the reassurance isn’t categorical and public, those arguing for self-help in these countries grab attention.

The non-proliferation regime is under far greater stress than the business as usual attitude of states at the prepcomm suggests. The stakes are too high to ignore this reality.

The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2018