Imperatives of nuclear age

ByM Ali Siddiqi

writer who contributes to leading periodicals


September 16, 2022

M Ali Siddiqi looks at a contentious issue

The nuclear age has come laden with more worries than prestige and more worried are the states that possess nuclear weapons. The prospects of a nuclear war was projected was so horrendous that efforts to cap this menace started almost immediately after its use in the Second World War. This was precisely the reason that endeavours to tackle this weapon and its technology began in the 1950s with high-level diplomacy under a United Nations framework managed to establish a moratorium aimed at suspension on nuclear testing by the United States and the Soviet Union. These were the hot days of the Cold War and a climate of distrust was the only sentiment prevailing with the result that by 1961 heightened tensions between the two countries caused testing to resume. The real danger of a nuclear disaster stared the world in the face when in 1962 it came to the brink of nuclear war in what is now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis when the Soviet Union sought to place nuclear warheads in Cuba less than 150 kilometres off the southern coast of the United States. Cuban leader Fidel Castro had requested the weapons to deter the United States from meddling in Cuban politics following a failed US-sponsored invasion by anti-Castro forces in 1961.

The then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, known for his boastful approach and fiery speeches stated that the two most powerful nations had been squared off against each other, each with its finger on the nuclear button. This was indeed a harrowing spectre that sent a shiver of fear across the globe. After pushing each other to the brink, US president John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev found that via diplomacy, they could agree to a compromise that satisfied the basic security needs of the other. Over a series of negotiations Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba in return for the United States removing missiles they had deployed in Turkey and Italy. As the two sides could not fully trust each other due to their rivalry, the diplomacy was based and succeeded on the principle of verification by the United Nations, which independently checked for compliance. This was certainly a tentative arrangement that is now rated as no victory for any side and any satisfaction was muted and laden with deep reflection.

The far-reaching reverberations of the Cuban crisis were however powerful enough to urgently bring back the negotiations related to nuclear matters and high-level diplomacy resumed with a renewed passion. It had become obvious that neither country desired such a dramatic break down in communications to occur again, so a direct hot line was established linking the Kremlin in Moscow and the Pentagon in Washington. This indicated that the political leadership of both the then nuclear powers decided to raise the level of decision making taking it out of routine humdrum of bureaucratic machinery and associate it with mainstream of their respective public opinions. Building further on the momentum, in July 1963 the Partial Test Ban Treaty was agreed, confining nuclear testing to underground sites only. It was not a perfect solution but it was progress and in this case it was driven by the leaders of two superpowers who wanted to de-escalate a tense state of affairs. This was a significant development as the fear of nuclear confrontation was gradually setting in the world and though the states kept on pursuing nuclear capability.

Although early moves to regulate nuclear weapons were a mixed affair, the faith that Kennedy and Khrushchev put in building diplomacy was pivotal in the course of the Cold War and facilitated further progress in finding areas of agreement. In the years that followed the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cold War diplomacy entered a high watermark phase in what became known as a period of ‘détente’ between the superpowers as they sought to engage diplomatically with each other on a variety of issues, including a major arms limitation treaty. In that climate, progress was also made on nuclear proliferation and it also set the stage for upgrading the nuclear issue and from now on the nuclear issue became truly global with official and unofficial segments joined this tricky and often frustrating process.

Building on earlier progress, the 1970s opened with the entering into force of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (1970) often known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Treaty sought to channel nuclear technology into civilian uses and to recognise the destabilising effect of further nuclear weapons proliferation on the international community. It was a triumph of diplomacy. The genius of the treaty was that it was aware of the realities of the international politics of the time. It was not a disarmament treaty as great powers would simply not give up their nuclear weapons, fearful their security would be diminished. So, instead of pursuing an impossible goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, the Non-Proliferation Treaty sought to freeze the number of nations that had nuclear weapons at the five nations which already possessed them: the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France and China. Simultaneously, those five nations were encouraged to share non-military nuclear technology with other nations – such as civilian nuclear energy – so that those nations would not feel tempted to pursue nuclear weapons.

In short, those who had nuclear weapons could keep them. Those who didn’t have them would be allowed to benefit from the non-military research and innovation of the existing nuclear powers. Due to the well-considered design of the treaty and its enforcement, it has been deemed highly successful. Following the end of the Cold War, the Non-Proliferation Treaty was permanently extended in 1995. Granted, it has not kept the number of nuclear nations to five, but there are still fewer than ten – which is far from the twenty or more projected by diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic before the treaty entered into force in 1970. States with nascent nuclear weapons programmes, such as Brazil and South Africa, gave them up due to international pressure to join the treaty. Today, only a small number of states are outside its bounds. India, Pakistan and Israel never joined as they (controversially in each case) had nuclear ambitions that they were not prepared to give up due to national security priorities. Underlining the weight of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in 2003, when North Korea decided to rekindle earlier plans to develop nuclear weapons, they withdrew from the treaty rather than violate it. To date, North Korea remains the only nation to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The non-proliferation regime is not perfect of course – a situation best underlined by North Korea’s quest to proliferate despite international will. It is also a system with an inherent bias, since a number of nations are allowed to have nuclear weapons simply because they were first to develop them – and this continues to be the case regardless of their behaviour. Yet, while humankind has developed the ultimate weapon in the nuclear bomb, diplomacy has managed to prevail in moderating its spread. When a country is rumoured to be developing a nuclear bomb, as in the case of Iran, the reaction of the international community is always one of common alarm but due to skilful diplomacy in decades gone by, non-proliferation is one of the central norms underpinning international system. Keeping in view such concerns nuclear issue has become almost an everyday issue. TW


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