As the May 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference at the United Nations approaches, the Obama Administration will face a severe challenge. Obama has been a vocal proponent of nuclear disarmament, in April laying out an expansive arms control plan that called for U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and securing all loose nuclear materials worldwide within the next four years. He and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, have also pledged to seek further reductions to their nations’ nuclear arsenals. The United States will probably affirm their support for U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540, which is intended to prevent nonstate actors from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery and related materials.

However, opposition to this will come not only from other international actors such as India and Israel but also domestic factions. A group of Senators is telling the White House that it will have little or no chance of maintaining America’s hegemonic role in the international arena unless it also moves ahead with nuclear-warhead modernization. The warning comes in a recent letter from 40 Republican Senators and Independent-Democrat Joe Lieberman reminding the President of his legal responsibility under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 to present budget estimates for modernizing U.S. nuclear forces along with any new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) pact.

Such sentiment is not unexpected given North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test and Iran’s stepping up of uranium enrichment. Furthermore, the NPT has been opposed tooth and nail ever since the treaty came into effect in 1968. One of the treaty’s main opponents, ironically, has been India who first proposed the treaty in 1965. It was also India that first proposed an end to nuclear testing in 1954. Again, it was India that proposed in 1982 a convention to ban nuclear weapons, including a ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Finally, it was India that put forward a comprehensive action plan for a nuclear-free world within a specific time-frame at the third United Nations Special Session on Disarmament, in 1988.

The primary problem with the NPT, as India has pointed out umpteen times over the past half-century, is that although it attempts to limit horizontal proliferation, the spread of nuclear weapons beyond those nuclear powers as of the arbitrary date of January 01, 1967, it does nothing to prevent vertical proliferation, the continued improvement of nuclear warheads through complex computer simulations. The treaty as it stands, allows the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China to miniaturise warheads, improve yield, and create better delivery systems while the rest of the world must watch and pray that these self-appointed judges, jurors, and executioners of world affairs have the sense to eschew these weapons of mass destruction. For most countries, this is not problematic as they have no means of acquiring nuclear weapons nor do they have the need to (by their own defence estimates). This means that countries like Italy, Jordan, or Australia would be willing signatories of the treaty while others countries with more troubled defence ministries such as India, Israel, or Iran would need more from the Nuclear Five to be assuaged that their safety has not been compromised.

In the idealistic efforts to rid the world of the military atom, another key point has been overlooked. Although Kenneth Waltz and Scott Sagan have argued both sides of the issue in their masterful book, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons, the necessity of nuclear weapons and their stabilising influence has not received much attention in the mainstream press. The argument is simple: although it is possible for large states such as the United States, Russia, and China to envision large and effective conventional armies to subdue not only their neighbours if the need arose but also far-flung countries around the globe (the US already has this capability as we have witnessed the horrors and triumphs of the last 60 years, and China is most definitely working towards this goal), smaller states with more limited budgets and other concerns more worthy of their GDP have no hope of holding off their larger neighbours. Seven and half million Israelis surrounded by approximately 400 million Arabs is one of these small states. India, a military midget in comparison to its larger and more powerful neighbour, China, is another, as is Pakistan in comparison to India. Although some leaders in these states might be willing to give up their nuclear weapons, it is strategically nonsensical to expect them to do so. Nuclear umbrellas are no guarantee of borders, nor are they easy to come by. Even if a state were to secure an ironclad nuclear security treaty with one of the Five, questions regarding massive conventional attacks would always remain, as would the willingness of one of the Five to challenge a state backed by another member of the Five Powers. Besides, as global power equations and interests change, any security agreement would be strained over time.

States such as Iran and N. Korea are another issue. Both seek nuclear weapons for defensive purposes as well as to augment their weight on the innternational stage. Given the dismal state of N. Korea’s economy, it has become increasingly difficult for it to maintain a balance of power with its more prosperous southern cousin. Nuclear weapons were thus the cheap alternative to curb any South Korean ambitions towards reuniting the peninsula. In Iran’s case, seeing two of its neighbours decimated by American forces must not have been easy, even if they were traditional foes of the Shia regime. Furthermore, the clerics are continuing a nationalist agendum of Iranian power in the region despite their religious rhetoric. It is no secret to any keen Middle East observer that Iran is the only largely Shia country surrounded by predominantly Sunni states that are ethnically different from them. This may not mean much to most Westerners, but the Thirty Years’ War should be a poignant reminder that seemingly minor differences (to outsiders) in religion can be a source of deep-seated and seething hatred. Iran’s dream of becoming a regional power was pursued by America’s friend and ally, the Shah, as well. A nuclear programme would make Iran a legitimate power in the Persian Gulf and would, the clerics hope, make it the centre of politics and business in the Middle East. Another concern Iran’s Supreme Council may have is that neither the United Nations nor the Nuclear Five did anything in defence of Iran when it was first attacked by Iraq in September 1980 and then subsequently bombed with chemical weapons – Iranian security has only one champion, they reason, and it is Iran. The anti-israeli rhetoric is also most useful in dissuading a concerned Turkey and Arabia from pursuing a nuclear programme of their own. It is unlikely, however, that Iran would ever strike against Israel. For one, it probably fears not only the military retribution from Israel but also the political retribution (at the very least) from the rest of the world. Secondly, Iranian leaders are far too smart to become martyrs in the fight against world Jewry for the benefit of their Arab Muslim brothers. It is also safe to assume that the wild proclamations will be significantly tempered after Iran tests a nuclear device – China is the classic example of this (and the Soviet Union to a lesser extent) who went from challenging the Western alliance to conduct a nuclear strike to a more clear-headed albeit more dangerous power.

The NPT is given further legitimacy in some minds by talk of stability in newer nuclear powers. This Anglo propaganda (because this idea seems to appeal most to the US and the UK) holds no water, for India has been far more responsible with nuclear secrets than the united States or China. Further, the issue is not merely of stability but also of sanity. American leadership, though certainly possessing the former, has at times gravely lacked the latter – one needs to look no further than the Taliban, or the fact that Pakistan and Iran both partly owe their nuclear programmes to American largesse (refer to my post, Lessons in Hegemony, August 30, 2009). China’s behaviour in the nuclear and missile departments has been nothing short of criminal – the sale of nuclear and missile designs to Pakistan and possibly to Libya, N. Korea, and Iran are not exactly the kind of confidence building measures (CBMs) the world would look for in a responsible nuclear power. Yet, there are no penalties being contemplated against China or the US.

This is not to say that the Big Five do not have legitimate yet personal interests in curtailing the further spread of nuclear weapons. However, no nation that feels genuinely threatened (legitimately or otherwise) would ever want to outsource its defence interests to the benevalence of the Five caretakers. And given the preponderance of conventional force that can be mustered by some nations, it would only be logical (in terms of realism) for their neighbours to want to have something equivalent to balance the game. The abolition of nuclear weapons are thus tied to massive reductions in conventional forces on the part of some nations. Only then will the gatecrashers to the nuclear party feel safe to give up their arsenals. This endless struggle for upmanship offers no solution to the proliferation question, nor has it in non-nuclear matters for the past 5,000 years. As the Athenians told the Melians in 431 BCE, “Of the Gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.”

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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