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India needs to watch the evolving US position on nuclear issues

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 19, 2009

    On April 5, 2009, President Barack Obama delivered a landmark speech in Prague in which he outlined the US policy on nuclear weapons. Speaking of the need to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security, he expressed his commitment to a world without nuclear weapons. He said that the US will negotiate a treaty with Russia on the reduction of strategic weapons before the end of this year when the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) expires. He also said his administration would try and secure the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) from the US Congress. He also expressed readiness to start negotiations on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). He said the US would work to strengthen the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). It will engage Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapon. The US will also work towards setting up an international fuel bank so that countries which have renounced nuclear weapons will have access to nuclear fuel for peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

    This is a bold vision which is in stark contrast to that of his predecessor. During the Bush years, the US had sought to increase the salience of nuclear weapons in national security. The US was working on a new generation of nuclear weapons and had launched a bunker buster programme which involved using nuclear devices to penetrate rocks to reach underground bunkers where terrorists like Osama Bin laden might be hiding. The US had a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) programme aimed at replacing aging nuclear warheads with new ones. Obama has cancelled the programme altogether. Bush withdrew from the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty with Russia unilaterally and pursued a vigorous BMD programme which had an extremely negative impact on US-Russia relations. Bush made no effort to get Congressional ratification for the CTBT. The Bush administration actively secured UN sanctions against Iran to dissuade it from acquiring nuclear weapons.

    Bush’s nuclear policy was based on the logic of national security. America was fighting a global war on terrorism after 9/11. The so-called states of concern were acquiring nuclear weapons which could be used against the US or its allies. The terrorists had declared intentions to acquire nuclear weapons. The US was fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It needed a good stock of nuclear arsenal and a robust missile defence system to prevent attacks against the US.

    Obama, on the other hand, came with the mandate for change. He has announced several steps aimed at reversing the policies pursued during the Bush years. His pronouncement on nuclear weapons is in piece with the mandate for change. During his campaign speeches, Obama had indicated that he was in favour of a world without nuclear weapons. The overall thrust of Obama’s foreign policy seems to be to engage adversaries and use diplomacy to reduce tensions. In the nuclear field, Obama has recognised that the US should lead by example. A strengthened NPT and engagement with Iran are likely to be more helpful to US security than an aggressive stance on these issues.

    In May 2010, the NPT review conference will be held. The NPT has been facing a serious crisis of credibility given its inability to prevent North Korea, a former NPT member, from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Moreover, the non-nuclear weapon states feel cheated as the nuclear weapon states have done nothing to fulfil their obligations towards nuclear disarmament to which they are committed under Article VI. The intransigence of the US stance at the 2005 review conference was one of the reasons for the failure of the conference. There is a fear that the same fate awaits the 2010 NPT review conference.

    In the recent past there has been enormous public attention on the issue of complete elimination of nuclear weapons. In 2007, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, George Schultz and Sam Nunn , writing in the Wall Street Journal, lent support to the idea of nuclear disarmament. Since then the idea has been debated hotly around the world. It has been estimated that over two-thirds of living US secretaries of states, defence secretaries and national security advisors now support nuclear disarmament. While there seems to be strong public support for the idea around the world, the security establishments are sceptic.

    Some idea of the US view on the forthcoming NPT review conference can be gleaned from the speech of the head of the US delegation at the third meeting of the NPT Prepcom in May. Quoting from Obama’s Prague speech, Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller said that the US was keen to see the NPT regime strengthened. The US would work towards securing a “balance” between the three pillars of NPT – disarmament, non-proliferation and access to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The focus on disarmament which Obama has tried to bring in may save the NPT review conference.

    Can we therefore conclude that the US view on nuclear questions has turned decisively for the better? Will the US seriously work towards reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in national security? Will the US work towards complete elimination of nuclear weapons as has been suggested by India time and again for a long time? Will the US support the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan tabled in the UNGA in 1988? Will the US support the Indian proposals of an international treaty on the No First Use of weapons? India has also argued for de-alerting of nuclear weapons and other such measures to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons. Will the US support India’s proposals?

    Barack Obama’s proposals do not go that far. Obama himself has expressed doubt in his speech whether a world without nuclear weapons can be achieved in the short-term. For that to happen, the geopolitical situation has to change. In the US view, the geopolitical situation is not so conducive with several countries trying to secure nuclear weapons and there is a distant possibility that weapons may well fall into the hands of terrorists.

    What Obama is trying to do is negotiate a major strategic arms reduction treaty with Moscow. This will be projected by the US as a major contribution towards the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. But in real terms this is not enough. The reduction of strategic arms still leaves aside thousands of tactical nuclear weapons which both sides have. There is no firm commitment from nuclear weapons countries that they would be working towards a time bound elimination of nuclear weapons. In the absence of such a commitment, the goal of nuclear disarmament will remain distant.

    A new nuclear posture review is due in the US. A 12-member bipartisan US congressional commission headed by former Defence Secretary William Perry came out with a detailed report on May 6 on what the US nuclear posture should be. The report concluded that the world has reached a dangerous “tipping point” in nuclear proliferation. In the opinion of the authors of the report, deterrence will remain critical to US nuclear posture. The US should also provide deterrence to its allies and should have enough nuclear weapons to do so. The US may not require newer weapons but it needs to improve the safety, security and reliability of its nuclear arsenal and make it more robust.

    The report endorses many elements of Obama’s new policy but is sceptical about the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. In fact it does not seem to be as enthusiastic as President Obama about the reduction of the salience of nuclear weapons in US national security. It was divided on whether the US Congress should ratify the CTBT. The security establishment in the US remains worried about Iran and North Korea. There is no mention of giving up the ballistic missile defence programme. The report does suggest the US taking a lead in getting the FMCT negotiations started, noting that the US has enough fissile material. But the FMCT is likely to get stuck on the question of defining what constitutes fissile material and whether existing stocks should also be taken into account. The report is concerned about the deterioration of the human resource in the existing nuclear infrastructure and recommends higher investments in nuclear laboratories.

    Obama’s proposals are welcome and should give a fillip to arms control negotiations, which may lead to significant reductions in existing piles of nuclear reaction. For instance, the US and Russia could agree to reduce their nuclear stockpiles to 1000 weapons each. But even this reduction, though deep, would not be enough as no other country has more than 300 nuclear weapons. Obama has put his authority behind the ratification of CTBT. But national security imperatives may come in the way of implementing the bold vision of complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

    It can be argued that the US has over the years legitimised the role of nuclear weapons in its national security. This has led other countries to follow this practice. It is the responsibility of the US and Russia to take effective and bold steps to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons must be delegitimised, as biological and chemical weapons have been. Arms control exercises, though welcome, are not sufficient to make significant progress to global zero.

    India needs to take careful note of the way the US policy evolves. Some elements of the new US policy coincide with India’s positions. If the US Congress ratifies the CTBT, pressure will come on India too to sign the CTBT. India will have to do a careful assessment of the costs and benefits of signing or not signing the treaty. Only the government can make a decision on the state of the minimum deterrence and whether India will need to test in future. India already has a self-declared moratorium on testing. This is also a part of the 123 agreement with the US. One option before India could be to sign the CTBT and use its supreme national interest clause to exit if circumstances so warrant. The other option would be not to sign the treaty, continue with the moratorium, and withstand international pressure. India has bee in favour of a verifiable FMCT. The US push for FMCT may help start the negotiations. India would have to take stock of its fissile material stocks and then decide its negotiating positions.