In calling for an agreement among the major powers on the no-first-use of nuclear weapons at an international gathering in Delhi on Wednesday, PM Manmohan Singh was hewing close to India’s long-standing activism for eliminating nuclear weapons.
Singh’s predecessors had sustained India’s activism for global nuclear restraint. Rajiv Gandhi had the distinction of presenting to the UN in 1988 a comprehensive action plan for the abolition of nuclear weapons by 2010. Singh rightly underlined that there is no paradox in India’s possession of nuclear weapons and its continuing commitment to their abolition.
He reminded the world that Delhi was a reluctant builder of an atomic arsenal and India’s national security interests are best served in a world without weapons of mass destruction. Singh’s emphasis on a no-first-use agreement is sensible but is unlikely to win much international traction.
The dependence of major powers on first use has not decreased since the end of the Cold War. Renewed great power rivalry — between the US and Russia and between Washington and Beijing — has begun to complicate the prospects for no-first-use. The spread of missile defence technologies has altered the traditional conception of nuclear deterrence.
The increasing power of conventional weapons, which is fast approaching the lethality of tactical nuclear weapons, is lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the rise of China, the weakening of the US, and the inability of the world to roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme have triggered a reconsideration of traditional atomic abstinence in East Asian countries, including Japan and South Korea. In the Middle East, the prospects for atomic accommodation between America and Iran have generated deep anxieties among the Arab nations, many of which have outlined plans to acquire nuclear technological capabilities.
Singh’s successor is bound to continue India’s disarmament activism. But the next PM will have his hands full implementing India’s other nuclear goals that have emerged since 1998. These include the full integration of India into the global nuclear order, removing obstacles to the participation of domestic and foreign companies in the production of atomic power, managing the increasingly complex nuclear relations with Pakistan and China, and strengthening India’s nuclear deterrent.
Singh has made historic contributions to India’s nuclear advancement. But that agenda remains unfinished.