The post-Hiroshima global nuclear order is bleak and unstable | Opinion
On August 2, the United States (US) formally withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which has led to a string of developments that increases the disorder in the global nuclear domain.
The 1987 INF Treaty between the US and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) regulated the use of medium-range missiles with nuclear warheads or weapons of mass destruction (WMD) between the superpowers of the time, and was deemed to be the bedrock of global strategic stability. It stands discarded, as Russia, too, has walked away from the treaty.
A day after the US’ withdrawal, the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif asserted that Tehran will take another step to reduce its compliance with the “landmark” 2015 nuclear deal brokered by the then US President Barack Obama. The war of words between the US and Iran augurs ill for the regional WMD stability.
In contrast, the Pyongyang-related anxiety index has gone significantly lower after Trump’s surprise visit to North Korea in June, though there is no substantive “deal” to address the uneasy WMD discord in the Korean peninsula.
With Trump turning a blind eye, the July 25 missile tests by North Korea, supervised by Kim Jong-un, have not received the attention they would have a few years ago. Yet, the tangible consequences of this development add to the bleakness that now envelops the global nuclear/strategic domain.
Furthermore, the new US defence secretary Mark Esper announced in Sydney, on August 2, that Washington wants to quickly deploy new intermediate range missiles in Asia — the signal to China is unambiguous. In short, the global nuclear missile domain is getting bleaker, and it is evident that the global political leadership has abdicated from the grave responsibility of prudently shepherding the apocalyptic nuclear weapon.
In January 2018, a year after Trump assumed office as the US president, and made some intemperate references to the nuclear weapon capability under his command, the world’s Doomsday Clock was moved closer to midnight by 30 seconds.
It now stands at a perilous two minutes to the dreaded “midnight” — the total annihilation and darkness.
The clock is a metaphoric symbol set up after the Hiroshima-Nagasaki enormity in 1945, and is a bellwether of how vulnerable the world is to any kind of nuclear weapon danger. The last time the minute-hand was as close to midnight was in 1953, when the US embarked upon the hydrogen bomb, the most destructive atomic weapon.
In January 2018, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a widely respected global nuclear watchdog, observed: “We are very concerned with the unpredictability of the United States and how it is thinking of its nuclear weapons”, and moved the clock to its 11.58 pm position.
The post-Hiroshima global nuclear order is inherently iniquitous, and was restricted to the nuclear five (the US, Russia, the UK, France and China ), and in the mid-1970s, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) was imposed. It sought to divide the world into the nuclear weapon-haves and have-nots.
At the time, India resisted this imposition, and asserted that this was a case of “disarming the unarmed”. It merits recall that even among the nuclear five, France and China joined the NPT only after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.
The central element of the NPT is the Article VI commitment by the weapon powers that they would move towards disarmament progressively. In reality, well after the dissolution of the USSR, and the alarming number of nuclear weapons they amassed (almost 60,000 warheads), the world is far removed from pursuing any meaningful disarmament measures.
The NPT comes up for a major five-yearly review in 2020. At the preparatory conference in May this year, there was no consensus that could be arrived at among the NPT signatories about the harmonisation of objectives among the nuclear weapon powers and the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS).
India (along with Israel and Pakistan) is a non-signatory to the NPT, and has a distinctive status in the global nuclear order. It has nuclear weapons, and has been accorded an exceptional status outside the current NPT framework.
Delhi’s disarmament crusade began with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during the Cold War decades, and peaked with the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan submitted to the UN in 1988. After the 1998 Shakti tests, India is less strident, but makes the appropriate rhetorical commitment to the cause.
The need to restore consensual order among states in relation to the nuclear weapon is now compounded by the non-State entity and the nightmare exigency: That the latter may acquire this capability, even if it’s in rudimentary form.
August 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima-Nagasaki. Alas, there is no silver lining to this dark, bleak cloud.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies
The views expressed are personal