Over the past four decades, there has been developing what can only be called a theology around nuclear weapons. A significant amount of proselytisation has been conducted around the idea that nuclear weapons are the greatest danger to mankind. In the broadest sense that weapons and war are not a productive way of investing resources, this can perhaps be accepted. However, non-proliferation theology goes much beyond that, and like many theologies, problematically so.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is one of the central credos of the high priests of the new theology. They argue that the NPT must be strictly adhered to and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) given unhindered access to all nuclear facilities, including, if necessary, 24-hour live feeds at some facilities. In addition, all nuclear commerce should be conducted within the purview of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The appeal of these core beliefs, these commandments if you will, is not hard to understand. Surely, something as dangerous as nuclear technology ought to be monitored closely for safety purposes, and given the international scope of any potential disaster, be supported through international mechanisms that channel trade, operations, and materiel through a secure and verifiable system. For most nuclear ventures, this is not objectionable. The wrinkle only appears where nuclear weapons or their proliferation is concerned.

Again, while it would be infinitely more preferable for there to be no weapons in the world, nuclear or conventional, and for us all to hold hands and sing Kumbaya around a nice campfire, the reality of the world system is a large number of nation-states in competition with each other, economically, militarily, and even culturally. Given the high cost of a nuclear weapons programme, not only in terms of material but also the physical and knowledge infrastructure needed to manufacture and maintain them safely, the nuclear club has remained a most exclusive club of Great Powers and a couple of recent gatecrashers. As the lesser Great Powers (Pakistan, N. Korea) have learned, nuclear weapons is only a means to securing what Isaiah Berlin would call a negative freedom rather than gaining any additional clout in the international community. It is worth asking why these lesser Powers would invest so much energy into acquiring weapons they will, hopefully, never use.

A large part of the answer lies in the fact that nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation had little to do with arms control initially and entirely to do with national security. Historical documents clearly indicate that the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Conference (ENDC) that produced the NPT was a forum for horse-trading rather than for the discussion of genuine approaches to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. There were at least five scripts being acted out at the ENDC negotiations:

  • the United States wished to keep China from the bomb
  • the United States, understanding the pressure a German bomb would put upon the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), wished to keep Bonn from the bomb
  • the British and French wished to ensure that Washington did not bargain away their arsenals to strike a deal with Moscow
  • the Indians, Italians, and W. Germans wanted to protect their rights to nuclear technology and science
  • the USSR wanted to ensure that neither Germany ever got the bomb – in this, they had wide European support, particularly from France and Italy

Furthermore, some key aspects of NATO nuclear strategy were withheld by the United States until six months after the NPT signing ceremony – for example, the ENDC was not aware of the nuclear sharing arrangements between Britain, France, and the United States. This is not to say that the ENDC did not support nuclear non-proliferation – most did, but the Powers had their own caveats. The main motive, however, was to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Germanies and China, not nuclear disarmament. Interestingly, the early 1960s had seen a memo from the US Department of Defence suggesting that India be provided with a  few nuclear bombs and delivery systems to spike the propaganda boost China would receive if it tested first. However, the 1965 Gilpatric Report changed the US tune as it began to subscribe to the nth country problem. The report highlighted the threat to US national security if more countries, even allies, were to possess nuclear weapons – the more NWSs, the greater the instability and unpredictability in a crisis, as US “diplomatic and military influence would wane.” The aim of the NPT was thus far less altruistic than has been read into it post facto. It was and is a treaty that furthered national security of a few, not the aims of global nuclear disarmament, except perhaps incidentally.

Though the high priests of non-proliferation theology would reject it, non-proliferation was and still is an extension of US national security. The difference in which Iran and Pakistan have been handled is ample proof of that. While the latter acquired nuclear weapons as the United States looked away, Iran has been under close watch since the fall of the Shah. Despite the exposure of the AQ Khan nuclear black market and alleged high-level Pakistani government complicity, there is little that has been done in terms of sanctions or arrests, while Iran has lived under the threat of invasion for over a year. They are both Islamic countries, they are both known to have links to terrorist groups, and they have both been less than upfront about their nuclear programme (though Iran has at least signed the NPT). The one difference between the two is that Pakistan’s nuclear programme was not seen as a threat to US allies or assets, while Iran’s programme is.

Another mantra of the new theology is that the spread of nuclear weapons creates an unstable international system. At the micro level, the United States has not been able to sell the idea to its citizens that less guns are safe, and at the macro level, this mantra entirely ignores the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons and how the Cold War remained cold. Some argue that some states are less stable than others and are therefore riskier than others. This makes perfect sense, what is the yardstick of stability? On the one hand, totalitarian dictatorships with little regard for human life have not engaged in any overtly unsafe behaviour. On the other, democratic states with regular elections and fairly transparent systems have engaged in wars all around the globe – the UK in the Suezis one example, and the United States has interfered militarily in more places in the last forty years, some of them in the immediate vicinity of its superpower rivals, than one can easily recount. So the question remains, what is safe behaviour, and to whom is it safe?

It is also necessary to question the basis upon which the whole edifice of non-proliferation is built. One source is perhaps the report that warned US President John Kennedy that there could well be over 20 nuclear powers by the 1980s. Such claims belong in the same dustbin that contains claims like electricity being too meter (Lewis Strauss in 1954, Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission). Making nuclear weapons has significant costs, not just political but economic too, and requires a complex infrastructure. Despite provocations by China and N. Korea, Japan and S. Korea have resisted the temptation of the nuclear genie; despite Israel’s open nuclear secret, the Middle East has, by and large, refrained from acquiring nuclear weapons; South Africa gave up its weapons, and Australia and South america have declared their regions as nuclear weapons-free (NWFZ). Even if there were no NPT, it is highly unlikely that Lesotho, Monaco, Papua New Guinea, or even Sweden would consider possessing a nuclear arsenal. Very few states would consider a nuclear programme, and it is unlikely that the NPT would restrain them if the perceived need were sufficiently strong. As scientists have told us many times before, knowledge cannot be concealed indefinitely.

It is possible that the non-proliferation lobby is speaking from a moral point of view. After all, killing tens of thousands of people, if not more, surely cannot be a moral enterprise. That is a thorny issue, but assuming for the moment that nuclear weapons are indeed immoral, the question arises why the non-proliferationists do not advocate that the United States or the United Kingdom set a schedule for complete, unilateral, disarmament. After all, I would not want to be complicit in an immoral act just because you are. There is no such call (at least, not seriously), because everyone, even the non-proliferation theologians, understand that national security and strategy are involved.

The foundation of the present non-proliferation regime, the NPT, was based on considerations of national security; the notion of stable and unstable states is, though not incorrect, heavily skewed towards protecting the interests of the five recognised nuclear powers, the N-5; the fear that any weakness in the NPT or associated protocols of nuclear commodities transfer will dramatically raise the number of nuclear weapons states (NWS) is fallacious; and despite the implied morality of nuclear non-proliferation, it is clearly a differentiated value that is willing to be subservient to the nuclear balance of power between the N-5. Given the overwhelming deceit that the non-proliferation system is built on, leaders in national capitals world over would do well to consider whose security or morality is enhanced by their decision to challenge or accept the newfangled non-proliferation theology.

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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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