The nuclear family

The nuclear family

Next week,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be attending the nuclear security summit in Washington DC.

Next week,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be attending the nuclear security summit in Washington DC. The summit represents a good opportunity for India to continue its transition from being a target of the global nuclear non-proliferation order to being one of its managers. But to make that transition,India needs to be a little more aggressive and venturesome in its diplomacy than it has been so far.

The summit is the culmination of more than a year of preparation by the Obama administration and represents one part of a multi-pronged effort,all aimed at creating the necessary climate for a successful nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) review conference,which is scheduled to take place in a few weeks. NPT review conferences (RevCons) are held every five years as a stock-taking effort by the NPT members and the last one in 2005 was a disaster. The Obama administration is keen on repairing the damage to the NPT,which it sees as the result of the Bush administration’s disdainful approach to arms control.

The Obama administration is keen on a successful nuclear security summit because the other prongs of the Obama strategy have had mixed results. Obama was hoping to take the US to the RevCon after getting the US Senate to ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT),publishing a radical new nuclear strategy that would propose a no first use posture,making significant progress on the fissile materials control treaty (FMCT),and signing a new strategic arms control treaty with Russia,in addition to holding the nuclear security summit. Such successes would have given the US the momentum to prevent the RevCon from becoming another shouting match between third world members complaining about inadequate progress on nuclear disarmament and nuclear weapon states seeking to further tighten rules on safeguards and civilian nuclear commerce. But there has been no progress on the CTBT or the FMCT,and the proposed radical changes to the nuclear strategy (the just-released nuclear posture review) have been watered down. But the US and Russia have reached an agreement on strategic arms reductions and a useful outcome at the nuclear security summit would help the US present some progress at the NPT RevCon.

The subject matter of the summit itself is largely unobjectionable,even if somewhat hyped. The key worry is that lax security and accounting practices regarding nuclear materials would allow such materials to be diverted,potentially allowing terrorist groups from getting them and building bombs. Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan network illustrates this nightmare. But most terrorist groups do not even want nuclear weapons because the group would have to divert significant amounts of organisational,personnel and financial resources to pursue such weapons when they could get as much attention at far cheaper rates. Moreover,most such groups have tangible political goals. For them,nuclear weapons are the kiss of death: they would become political outcasts and no state will support them or even provide sanctuary. That is why some of the most ruthless and best funded and organised of such groups,including the Tamil Tigers and Hamas,never sought such weapons.


That does not mean there is nothing to worry. There are groups like al-Qaeda that seem to have no tangible political goals but which seek and have the potential for acquiring nuclear weapons. In addition,the consequences of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons are so great that we need to treat even that remote possibility with seriousness.

For India,there is little to be lost by participating. Some of the focus is indirectly likely to be on Pakistan and watching Islamabad squirm is always satisfying. But there is more at stake too.

Increasing worries about diversion of nuclear technology and materials for weapons has made civil nuclear transfers to non-nuclear countries difficult. New ideas such as international fuel banks have been floated to reduce the risks of nuclear commerce. Traditionally,India has found itself campaigning alongside the non-nuclear powers for greater openness in nuclear commerce and lesser restrictions on indigenous nuclear programmes. But New Delhi needs an attitude adjustment because India’s interests today are different from what it used to be.

First,though India is still not considered a legal nuclear-armed state,it is one for all practical purposes. India needs to live up to that position,not continue the rhetoric of an earlier age. Second,the US-India nuclear deal and the nuclear supplier group waiver have opened up international nuclear commerce for us. Not only are we no longer outsiders,we are actually in a better position than non-nuclear member states of the NPT. There is less worry that we might seek to build weapons since we already have them. Third,India’s huge demand for nuclear power,and the number of countries and companies that are lining up to take a shot at the Indian market means that even additional measures to curtail nuclear commerce are unlikely to apply to us.

Finally,the further spread of nuclear weapons is as much a threat to us as any other nuclear weapon state. And tightening of nuclear commerce to reduce the risk of diversion is in our interest,especially since they are unlikely to apply to us.

Changing our relationship with the global nuclear regime is thus in our interest. Obviously,changing that relationship requires work on both sides of the fence. The global nuclear regime is still getting used to the idea of India as an insider rather than outsider. But to be on the management side requires New Delhi also to use some of these opportunities to assert itself in its new position.

The writer is professor of international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University,New Delhi