Threat of nuclear war greater than ever as nations cling to arsenals
By Jonathan Eyal
FOR several hours last weekend, diplomats believed that a war between two nuclear powers was imminent.
At the height of the recent Mumbai terrorist siege, Pakistan's President received a threatening phone call from the Indian Foreign Minister. The message was so ominous that the Pakistani military went on high alert.
The phone call turned out to be a hoax; the Indians deny any knowledge of it. And, luckily, no harm was done. Yet the episode was a sobering reminder of how the world can stumble into a nuclear disaster. And it provided a powerful justification for those demanding the total abolition of nuclear weapons.
Ever since 'Fat Man' and 'Little Boy' were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, some academics, scientists and non-governmental organisations have advocated total nuclear disarmament. They were admired for their principles, and won the occasional Nobel Peace Prize. But their calls were ignored by the world's nuclear powers, which continued their arms races.
The people who have joined the bandwagon of nuclear disarmament recently are hardly old Utopians. In a highly unusual appeal published recently in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, top US security luminaries Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn argued for the 'zero option' - the total destruction of the world's nuclear arsenals.
And, instead of recoiling in horror, other former high-ranking US officials - Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, James Baker and Anthony Lake, to name but a few - swiftly embraced the abolitionist cause.
Is this just a case of some serious people espousing an unserious idea, or is the world about to witness a new dawn? Neither: The fact is, though the disarmament calls are genuine, they come too late to make a difference.
Technically, the world's declared nuclear powers are already legally bound to abolish their arsenals. Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which came into force in 1970, the signatories are committed to work in good faith for 'general and complete disarmament'. The treaty comes up for review in 2010; that is the perfect opportunity to make promises a reality.
Today's 'zero option' advocates are not naïve. They accept that the abolition of nuclear weapons remains a long-term project, and is dependent on strict verification measures, to ensure that nobody cheats. Nevertheless, they believe that if the United States and Russia take the lead, other powers will follow.
And they put forward some weighty arguments. The current non-proliferation regime is breaking up: Pakistan, India and Israel have already acquired the bomb, while North Korea and Iran may follow. By leading the disarmament effort, the US could nip this danger in the bud.
More importantly, disarmament advocates believe that today's world can no longer handle the weapons without a high probability of a nuclear war.
For almost half a century, the then Soviet Union and the US faced each other in a nuclear stand-off, but they understood the rules of the game: they accepted that nothing is worth risking a nuclear exchange. Both the Soviet leaders and their American counterparts belonged to the World War II generation which experienced total destruction. Thus, they limited themselves to deterring each other, but never went further than that.
However, can one be sure that a North Korean ruler or an Iranian cleric share the same logic? Some of the leaders who now have their finger on the button could be tempted to launch a pre-emptive strike, either because they do not grasp the complicated theory of nuclear deterrence, or because they do not care. So abolishing the weapons altogether is the only option.
Yet, as compelling as they sound, the abolitionists' arguments remain misconceived. The US and some of its closest Western allies can contemplate nuclear disarmament because they know that, ultimately, they can still maintain their military superiority through other means. Their sophisticated aircraft and conventional missile technology will be no match for potential enemies.
But for Pakistan, nuclear weapons are the only means of achieving military parity with India; without them, the country would be largely irrelevant. The same applies to Israel: stripped of its nuclear weapons, the Jewish state could, one day, be overwhelmed by its far more numerous neighbours.
Nor is it very obvious that that some of the long-established nuclear powers are ready to play along with the abolitionist proposal. The Chinese nuclear arsenal is puny, and it beggars belief that Beijing would consent to part with it, just as the country is finally regaining its historic great power status.
Meanwhile, Russia is also having second thoughts. For many years, the Russians advocated nuclear disarmament, largely because they had no money to keep their arsenal in operational readiness. That time is past. The bomb is now regarded as Russia's only chance of keeping its seat at the world's top table.
Undeterred, US President-elect Barack Obama is still promising to make nuclear disarmament a 'central element' of his policy. Sadly, he is guaranteed to fail. For, with the benefit of historic hindsight, it is now clear that the best chance for nuclear disarmament existed two decades ago when, immediately after the end of the Cold War, US superiority was unchallenged. That was the moment when a US drive to abolish the bomb, coupled with a serious effort to resolve some of the world's major conflicts, could have worked.
But that opportunity was missed. Nuclear weapons are here to stay, because the causes which prompted countries to acquire them were never properly addressed.
Historic mistakes are certainly regrettable. Yet they are usually irreversible.