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Its Likely that the nuclear taboo may soon be broken (Achin Vanaik)

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  • Harsh Kapoor
    The Telegraph (Calcutta, India) September 10, 2002 Opinion UNLIMITED DAMAGE - It is very likely that the nuclear taboo may soon be broken Achin Vanaik (The
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 9, 2002
      The Telegraph (Calcutta, India)
      September 10, 2002

      - It is very likely that the nuclear taboo may soon be broken
      Achin Vanaik

      (The author is currently visiting professor at the Academy of Third
      World Studies, Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi)

      There are genuine fears that the anticipated American war on Iraq
      might lead to such an explosion of hostility towards the United
      States of America that somewhere down the line, over the next few
      years or decades nuclear weapons might be used by terrorist groups or
      by the US itself. Such a prognosis no longer seems unreal. The world
      remains very much under the nuclear shadow. Barring the first few
      years after the end of the Cold War (when genuine steps tow- ards
      actual nuclear disarmament and not just arms management were being
      taken), in the post-Cold War period now unfolding, the dangers of
      nuclear war are even greater, albeit different, from what they were
      during that past. Then the justified fear was of a global holocaust.
      Now it is of a regional or "limited" nuclear war or exchange.

      Supporters of nuclear weapons in India do not want to believe this.
      On the contrary, they want to use the example of that Cold War past
      as reassurance that we need not fear the use of nuclear weapons now.
      Deterrence assured peace then, so it will do so now! Actually, the
      world came close to nuclear use on a number of occasions during the
      Cold War, especially in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962.

      Nuclear peace was not the result of deterrence but much more that of
      the existence of a nuclear taboo established by the very horror of
      what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki 57 years ago. Despite US
      governments contemplating the use of nuclear weapons during the
      Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as on other occasions, the White
      House was fully aware that even the American public would not condone
      such use except in circumstances where the homeland territory itself
      was threatened.

      The longer this taboo lasted - and credit here must go to the much
      derided peace movements and to the general public sentiment that
      viewed these instruments of war as uniquely evil - the more difficult
      it became to break the taboo. Now, it is a very different situation.
      There are four possible contexts in which this taboo might finally be
      broken. Moreover, were this to happen the world would not come to an
      end. There would most likely not be a nuclear winter and much of the
      advanced and prosperous world would escape the consequences of these
      regional or "limited" holocausts were they, as is most likely, to
      take place in the "third world".

      As much as the Indian bomb lobby, in particular, might wish to deny
      it, the first scenario of such possible use involves south Asia and
      the India-Pakistan face-off. The US and the former Soviet Union were
      not territorially contiguous. They did not have a foundational
      dispute (like Kashmir) existing from their very inception as
      independent states. They never suffered from the growing ascendance
      of communal or religious extremist forces promoting the kind of
      hatreds and demonizations of the "other" that are so prevalent in
      south Asia today. They never had direct conventional wars, or the
      near-wartime situations that belong to the history of India-Pakistan
      relations and which create the most favourable contexts for
      escalating hostilities to the nuclear level. Their respective
      military-technology systems were never as ramshackle as those in
      south Asia, that make the chances of an accidental triggering of
      nuclear exchanges so much greater here.

      There are three possible positions one can take regarding the
      prospects of a nuclear war in south Asia arising from an
      India-Pakistan conventional military conflict escalating into a
      nuclear exchange. The first view, widespread outside India and
      Pakistan among both pro-nuclearists and anti-nuclearists, is that
      such an exchange sometime in the future between the two countries is
      almost inevitable. A second view is that the danger of this is so
      small it is negligible. This is certainly the position of most of
      those in India who supported India going nuclear. Interestingly,
      among Pakistani supporters of the bomb there is a greater degree of
      pessimism, who even as they support Pakistan's acquisition of the
      bomb are fearful that there could well be a nuclear exchange between
      the two countries. The difference in perspectives between these two
      bomb lobbies is not difficult to understand. Pakistan's tests in 1998
      were a reaction to India's tests. The Pakistan bomb has always been
      India-specific, motivated by fear of India. India's tests, however,
      were not motivated by fear of Pakistan (no matter what the occasional
      rhetoric) but was motivated by more grandiose visions of enhanced
      global and regional status and the desire to be taken more seriously
      as a major power.

      Prospects of growing regional insecurity or nuclear conflict between
      India and Pakistan have always been more casually dismissed on the
      Indian side. There is, of course, a third position that is far and
      away the most sober one - the possibility of a nuclear exchange is
      not negligible or inevitable but in-between; that is to say, it is a
      real-case scenario, not just a worst-case one, and that its
      likelihood varies depending on how serious conjunctural tensions are
      between the countries.

      The second context in which a "limited" or regional nuclear conflict
      might break out is easy enough to visualize. India and Pakistan have
      "got away" with having nuclear weapons. This inspires others. In a
      few more years, Iran could well do the same and this would certainly
      be followed by an open declaration of nuclear status by Israel
      dramatically raising nuclear dangers in west Asia, with
      nuclear-capable countries like Egypt aiming to follow suit. Does
      anyone, even among those worshipping at the altar of nuclear
      deterrence, think west Asia would become safer were this to happen?

      In the third scenario, terrorists attack the US with a "suitcase"
      nuclear bomb or a dirty bomb (explosive dispersion of radioactive
      materials but no nuclear chain reaction) or attack a nuclear reactor
      plant. Such is the mindset of the US elite and much of its population
      after September 11, that the first would be virtually certain to lead
      to a serious nuclear retaliation somewhere by Washington, while even
      the second or third kind of terrorist attack might push it to break
      the taboo against the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

      In the fourth scenario, the US deliberately initiates the use of
      tactical nuclear weapons. The US today is much more aggressively
      unilateralist in its behaviour and nuclearly ambitious than ever
      before. Its nuclear policies and practical preparations (for example,
      the ballistic missile defence systems) aim at establishing a
      unilateral dominance over all other countries; at developing a range
      of tactical weapons, even mini- and micro-nukes; at extending their
      possible use (against selected countries deemed to have biological
      and chemical weapons); at completely blurring the distinction between
      such weapons and conventional ones. The latest nuclear posture review
      makes both part of the same military operational strategy to support
      the US's general foreign policy perspectives and ambitions.

      There are a great many powerful people in and around the US
      government who want to break the taboo against the use of nuclear
      weapons, since these would be "confined" to places far away from the
      homeland and against forces that have no capability to retaliate
      against it. As for the threat of a possible nuclear terrorist attack
      against the US, the prior use of tactical nuclear weapons against
      some perceived enemy is, itself, seen as providing the most powerful
      deterrent example to prevent such an attack happening in the future.

      Short of again creating a disarmament momentum, it will be folly to
      think that over the next 57 years, nuclear weapons will not be used.
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