MAY 25 1998

The Straits Times

 Should we give up on nuclear curbs? 



WHEN India became the sixth member of the exclusive club of declared nuclear weapons states, it set off an explosion of analysis and comment. 

There was the rather predictable debate about the wisdom of India's decision, but less predictably, a debate seems to have begun about the impact on the struggle against further proliferation of nuclear weapons. 

It may be that India's actions have a less dramatic impact on South Asian security and make their greatest impact by undermining what once was a powerful global norm opposed to nuclear proliferation. The debate is taking shape around four main propositions. 

The first is that India's tests do not represent a terribly important step because everyone has known since 1974 that India has a nuclear capacity and all that has happened is that reality has been formally certified as reality. When Pakistan carries out its own tests, we will merely have more of the same. 

While this proposition points properly to the pragmatic attitudes in the past about proliferation, it misunderstands a basic principle. 

There was a virtue in keeping nuclear bombs in the basement because it reinforced the global norm against proliferation. 

It would only be possible to persuade the existing nuclear powers to cut or even eliminate their arsenals if we all understood the unchallenged evil of weapons of mass destruction. 

Crossing the line to becoming a declared nuclear power not only creates regional risk and an arms race, it also damages a global norm. 

The second proposition is that in fact nuclear weapons are not destabilising and will in fact bring detente. This "more is better" argument is based on the notion that the weapons are so horrific that they scare people into being sensible in times of crisis. This second proposition, often beloved of the politically correct who argue that India and Pakistan are just as civilised and capable of complex strategy as the Cold War players, misunderstands both history and local realities. 

As we unravel the history of the Cold War, we are learning just how many mistakes we made in the early stages of evolving robust deterrence and safe forms of command and control. As India and Pakistan, or perhaps in the future Israel and Iraq, work out regional deterrence, they too are likely to have scary moments that might go awry. 

The third proposition is that each case of further proliferation is different and so there is no necessary link between an Indian test and the prospect for Iran or North Korea going nuclear. 

While it is certainly true that there is no necessary link between zones of conflict, in our increasingly globalised and interdependent world, proliferators do seem to pay attention to what goes on elsewhere. 

Indians point to the toleration of Israel's nuclear arsenal and to the appeasement of North Korea in 1994. 

The fourth and related proposition is that there is no effective way to halt proliferation, so why damage international stability by imposing sanctions or waste diplomatic time by negotiating obsolete arms control agreements? If you believe in a free market, then let the nuclear chips fall where they may. 

This pre-emptively defeatist attitude may well make sense as the norm against proliferation fails more completely, but for the time being, it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

In the end, the purpose of sanctions and treaties is to reinforce that global norm against proliferation. Sanctions and treaties are also key parts of shaping an international rule of law and structures of order. 

It is odd when the same people in the developing world who want greater control of the global financial system say they do not want greater control of weapons of mass destruction. 

Sanctions are imperfect diplomatic tools, but anyone who has raised children or tried to run a company (let alone a country) will know that a key principle of good government is not to "make the best the enemy of the good". 

A useful way to judge the extent to which one wants to still fight the good fight against proliferation is to imagine what happens when the struggle is lost. 

Do East Asians believe they will be richer and safer with a nuclear armed Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia or even Singapore? Will inhabitants of the Middle East and the Gulf feel safer with nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran, Iraq, or even Libya or Syria? 

Some of these countries might prefer to be left alone to sort out their own disputes, and in such a world of nuclear proliferation, that is precisely what will happen. As the United States and the Europeans recoil from the risks of helping sort out regional disputes that will have acquired a nuclear dimension, the era of globalisation may be curtly aborted. 

Some may welcome such a trend, but those who sustain the least damage will be the already rich of the Atlantic world. 

[ The writer is Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He contributed this article to The Straits Times. ] 



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