With the passing away of Senator Richard Lugar (born 1932) on April 28, the US and the global community have lost a stoic and amazingly effective legislator-cum-sherpa of complex nuclear issues. The greater pity is that even as the world is grappling with more urgent and alarming nuclear-related exigencies, there appears to be nobody in the current generation of US (and global ) legislators and policymakers who can envision making the kind of contribution that Lugar and his colleague Senator Sam Nunn did in the 1990s.
The anomalous end of the Cold War occurred in December 1991 when the Soviet Union became “former” and the formidable USSR shrank to a vulnerable Russia. The Cold War that was predicated on the amassing of apocalyptic nuclear weapons to ensure deterrence stability through MAD (mutually assured destruction) resulted in the creation of a huge nuclear and missile arsenal by both superpowers.
However, a weary, materially impoverished Moscow did not have the resources to monitor and safeguard its scattered WMD (weapons of mass destruction) inventory and the possibility of ex-Soviet nuclear warheads and fissile material falling into wrong hands posed a serious challenge. Appreciating the gravity of the situation, the two US senators introduced the radical Nunn-Lugar legislation that conceived of a nuclear arms dismantling programme, under which Washington provided the resources for the destruction of excess WMD inventory in different regions of the former USSR.
This proposal was initially opposed by the White House but the Lugar-Nunn team (a Republican and Democrat respectively) were able to persuade their colleagues and the US national security establishment. The success of this perseverance is reflected in the fact that in 2011, almost 20 years after it was first mooted, the Nunn-Lugar legislation led to the deactivation of more than 7,500 strategic nuclear warheads and the destruction of more than 1,400 land- and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. This level of consensual nuclear weapons and related threat reduction between the two largest WMD nations remains unprecedented and on current evidence, given the prevailing US-Russia discord, it is unlikely to be repeated any time soon.
In the interim, the global nuclear weapon challenge has become even more intractable and the amber light signalling a breakdown of the wobbly nuclear order is flashing. Regrettably, the slender optimism that was generated in the Barack Obama years is now a distant memory.
In an unintended coincidence, Senator Lugar passed away a day before the global community (excluding India) began the preparatory deliberations for the NPT (nuclear non-proliferation treaty) Review conference of 2020. The 10-day NPT Prepcom 2019 opened in New York on April 29 and the list of global nuclear challenges is daunting.
At the macro-level, the US and Russia, accusing each other of treaty violations, have announced that they are walking away from the 1987 INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty with effect from August 2. What this means is there will be no binding treaty obligations to restrain the US and Russia from either modernising their nuclear inventory or introducing even more lethal weapons to assuage their strategic insecurities.
Paradoxically, at the height of the Cold War, the two superpowers perceived the other as the “enemy” but their professional arms control negotiators had a robust and regular engagement for treaty compliance that ensured nuclear stability.
At the secondary and tertiary levels, the orientation of the medium nuclear powers and those perceived to be acquiring this capability (Iran) pose unexpected challenges to the global nuclear order. The most complex nuclear nettles are North Korea and Pakistan, given their linkage to terrorism and the umbilical ties with Beijing. Israel, with its opaque nuclear capability, prevents any consensus in the Middle East and this is the tip of the iceberg. The non-state entity and the technology-market trajectory poses an entirely different set of WMD-related security nightmares.
India, it may be recalled, is a non-NPT signatory that has been accorded exceptional status in the global nuclear regime. However, like the Trump reference to the size of the US nuclear button, the Modi Diwali quip adds to the current global discomfiture about leadership sagacity among democracies.
The preliminary deliberations at New York indicate that the NPT cannot deal with the current global nuclear challenge and some radical initiatives in the Richard Lugar mode are urgently called for. Alas, the US and global bench strength of perspicacious and committed nuclear policymakers is very modest.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 2, 2019, under the title ‘Missing the nuclear sherpa’. The writer is director, Society for Policy Studies.