(APLN, July 7, 2022)
The nuclear scenario today appears confusing. On one hand, the nuclear taboo has held, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a near universal treaty, and nuclear weapon stockpiles are a fourth of what they were at the height of the Cold War, and yet, on the other hand, there is a perception that nuclear risks are higher than before.
At such moments, it may be useful to return to the basic principles, the realisations that helped lay the foundations of the nuclear order more than seven decades ago.
The first realisation from the successful Trinity test conducted by the US on 16 July 1945, was the immense destructive capacity of the new weapon. Witnessing the mushroom cloud, Robert Oppenheimer – one of the bomb’s inventors – pondered a line from the Bhagvad-Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of the worlds”. One month later, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings reinforced the gravity of those words.
The second realisation was the worry that other countries too could now go down this path. In 1946, this led to the Baruch Plan (authored by Bernard Baruch) that envisaged transferring control to an international body so that there would not be any national arsenals. However, there were internal differences within the United States and Soviet Union did not trust it.
Once the USSR exploded its nuclear bomb in 1949, the Baruch Plan died a natural death. Even as the United States and the Soviet Union embarked on their nuclear arms race, they found convergence in the notion that nuclear materials and knowhow must be restricted. Non-proliferation became a shared objective leading to the NPT in 1968.
The third realisation was the imperative to manage nuclear risks. It was driven home in 1962 when both US and Soviet leaders realised how close they had come to a nuclear exchange during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It led to establishing fail safe communications, hotlines and nuclear risk reduction measures together with arms control.
Reconciling these three realisations helped lay the foundations of the nuclear order, shaped by the political dynamics of the Cold War. In a bipolar world, there was one nuclear dyad, the US-Soviet dyad, and deterrence was a two-player game. Strategic stability was reduced to nuclear stability and nuclear arms control was the answer. It kept the allies in check and reassured the third-world countries that the two nuclear superpowers were ‘responsible’.
Arms control and the nuclear taboo
Nuclear arms control revolved around the notions of ‘parity’ and ‘mutual vulnerability’ because US and Soviet arsenals were based on similar triads. The ABM Treaty (1972) limited missile defences thereby guaranteeing mutual vulnerability. Meanwhile, strategic planners and negotiators worked on numerical limits for strategic launchers and warheads leading to Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) I and II, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) I and II and New START in 2010. Together with unilateral initiatives undertaken after the break-up of the Soviet Union, these arms control measures helped draw down the US and Russian arsenals by over eighty percent, from nearly 65,000 in early 1980s to less than 12,000 today. The other seven nuclear-armed countries between them possess another 1,300 warheads.
Non-proliferation grew as a norm as the NPT got extended indefinitely and unconditionally in 1995. It has come to enjoy near universal adherence with only four countries outside it – India, Israel and Pakistan (that never signed) and North Korea (that withdrew). It has therefore reached the limits of its success since all four are nuclear-armed states.
Most important, the nuclear taboo has not been breached, despite some close shaves.
Today, this nuclear order, consisting of the ‘taboo’, arms control and non-proliferation is under strain. The ‘taboo’ is only normative, arms control is fraying and the NPT, a victim of its success.
Fundamentally, the political order has changed. Deterrence is no longer a two-player game; there are multiple nuclear dyads (United States-Russia, United States-China, India-China, India-Pakistan, United States-North Korea) and these are linked together in loose chains. Instead of parity, it is an age of asymmetry, both in terms of doctrines and arsenals.
Without ‘parity’ and ‘mutual vulnerability’, arms control needs to be redefined. Meanwhile, there is growing mistrust that prevents meaningful dialogue among major powers to define new areas of convergence.
The NPT delegitimised proliferation but not nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons research and development has continued and most nuclear powers are modernising and expanding their arsenals. Today, nuclear science and technology is a mature eighty-year-old technology. Terms like ‘threshold states’, ‘lead times’ and ‘break out’ did not exist when the NPT was negotiated. The political challenges inherent in the NPT surface every five years at the Review Conferences, especially since 1995.
Finally, technology doesn’t stand still. Developments in missile defence, cyber and space, dual use systems like hypersonics and conventional precision global strike capabilities have blurred the firebreak between conventional and nuclear weapons. This has created nuclear entanglement and in the absence of transparency and guard rails, raises the risks of use: advertent, inadvertent, accidental or on account of misjudgement. With the emergence of global terrorism, new threats have emerged highlighting the importance of nuclear security.
The collapsing nuclear order
The conflict in Ukraine has sharpened the growing nuclear risks. Russian President Vladimir Putin has engaged in repeated nuclear rhetoric, placing the Russian arsenal on ‘special alert’, and later warning of ‘unpredictable consequences’.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky bemoaned the fact that had Ukraine not signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, voluntarily relinquishing the nuclear weapons on its territory, Russia would not have invaded. Such statements have raised the salience of nuclear weapons. For countries that feel threatened by militarily more powerful adversaries, it is the ultimate security guarantor.
At the same time, it also means that a state possessing a nuclear deterrent can commit aggression against a smaller non-nuclear country. While NATO members have provided billions of dollars’ worth of military supplies, NATO has been deterred from either putting boots on the ground or imposing a ‘no-fly-zone’ that might bring it into direct conflict with a nuclear Russia.
The nuclear order was based on arms control, non-proliferation and a taboo. Today, the old nuclear arms control model is almost dead and a fresh convergence appears remote. Non-proliferation is under strain given the new found attractiveness of nuclear weapons and non-nuclear weapon states are actively considering nuclear powered submarines that will further strain the NPT debates. The ‘taboo’, only normative to begin with, is being eroded by growing nuclear rhetoric, presently by Russia and in recent years, by US, North Korean, Indian and Pakistani leaders.
Yet, the old realisations still hold. Nuclear weapons remain an existential threat for humanity. In an ideal world, arms control should be revived, non-proliferation buttressed and the ‘taboo’ reinforced, preferably with a legal instrument. But we don’t live in an ideal world and have to make choices. Reviving arms control has to await a modus vivendi among the major powers.
And between ‘non-proliferation’ and the ‘taboo’, I firmly believe that preserving the ‘taboo’ against use of nuclear weapons is critical, more so than ‘non-proliferation’. The world has lived with first two, then five and now nine states possessing nuclear weapons. The NPT and the world can possibly live with another one or two more. But if nuclear weapons are used, for the first time after 1945, and the nuclear taboo is breached, neither the NPT nor the non-proliferation regime will survive. A breach of the ‘taboo’ will bring about a collapse of the entire nuclear order.
Today, the only way forward for reconciling the NPT and the Ban Treaty, for reducing nuclear risks is to reinforce the nuclear taboo. It has lasted since 1945. We need to ensure that it lasts through the 21st century so that we are able to collectively negotiate a more lasting solution to the challenges of the new nuclear age.