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Nuclear Disarmament versus Nuclear Revolution: Options for India

S. Sasikumar is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 15, 2010

    The 2010 Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, elegantly called the RevCon, ended in New York on 28 May 2010. The final document agreed upon by state parties affirmed that the effective implementation of the treaty has a vital role in promoting international peace and security. Specifically on nuclear disarmament, the Conference resolved that the nuclear-weapon States (NWS) commit to accelerate concrete progress on steps leading to nuclear disarmament and ensure that NWS rapidly move towards overall reduction in the global stockpiles of all types of nuclear weapons, address the question of nuclear weapons as a part of the general nuclear disarmament process, diminish the role and significance of nuclear weapons in all military and security concepts, doctrines and policies, lessen the danger of nuclear war including accidental use of nuclear weapons and further enhance transparency in nuclear weapons reduction initiatives. However, critics note that the 2010 RevCon generated more heat than light, and unsurprisingly failed to create tangible provisions for universal nuclear disarmament. The RevCon has also been criticised extensively for its failure to design any concrete procedures to discourage non-compliance, defection and discrimination. While the issues of Middle East Nuclear Free Zone, Russia’s call on Israel to join the NPT, Iran’s continued ambiguity over its nuclear weapons programme and the recent accusation of Burma’s nuclear weapons aspirations continue to buffet nuclear politics, the question of elimination of nuclear weapons remains a strong and deep philosophical, theoretical and policy making industry for over half a century now. The inability of RevCon to earnestly address this problem of nuclear disarmament has conceptual reasons. This article attempts to conceptually address the problem of nuclear disarmament and suggest policy alternatives to India. All arguments on the elimination of nuclear weapons are propagandistic behaviour for deception in an anarchic international system. The article concludes by asserting the need for India’s nuclear weapons strategy, not elimination.

    “Nuclear weapons greatly altered the nature of statecraft; the destructiveness of nuclear weapons has created an impossibility of military victory thereby transforming the fundamental nature and sources of security in the nuclear era.” This nuclear revolution, according to Robert Jervis, has altered the relationship between force and foreign policy. Understood within the tenets of nuclear revolution, nuclear weapons transformed the nature and objectives of war. This understanding is not new. However, after half a century of the existence of nuclear weapons, even though it may be hard to believe, we have learned to ‘live with the bomb’. And if this continued co-existence with the bomb could be termed another revolution, it is definitely not a hopeless enterprise.

    From earliest times the relationship between military innovation and conquest gave cutting-edge advantage to pursue territorial consolidation. Although such an association had differential impacts on different societies, scholars acknowledge that military innovation had a profound influence in changing the international system. States were forced to transcend their complacency in existing military technology and organisation in response to the dynamism of the world order. In other words, the vicious circle begins with the changing world order, which demands technological breakthroughs; this quest breeds innovation; and, military innovations in turn abet conquest. Nuclear weapons stalled this relationship between innovation and conquest. Unlike artilleries and sailing ships, nuclear weapons could not be used for territorial consolidation. Therefore, states which possessed nuclear weapons could not engage in conquest in response to the dynamic world order. The enormous destructiveness of nuclear weapons has precluded an all-out nuclear war and a meaningful military victory. Until now nuclear weapons are the last stake technological innovation, therefore states exercise complacency – in other words they are logically forced to “live with the bomb”.

    Nuclear disarmament, defined as the elimination of a nation’s nuclear weapons or its capacity to manufacture them, is paradoxical to the current understanding of the revolution of nuclear weapons. When no consensus has been arrived at on the feasibility of nuclear war between nations and where no technological breakthrough beyond nuclear weapons has been contemplated, nuclear weapons would continue to dominate world politics in the originally construed revolutionary dictum. Broadly, what nuclear disarmament attempts to do is to either force states to revert to the conventional ‘technology-innovation-conquest’ syndrome or to accept that war has become an obsolete enterprise in world politics. Interestingly, given the strong conventional firepower that nations have capitalized for war in the 21st century, the former would lead to dreadful and devastating territorial aggrandizement than any limited nuclear strikes would offer. Sadly, security competition and war have not been purged from the international system, though peace and prevention of war have been philosophers’ quest for centuries. In this sense, tabooing ‘war as an obsolete enterprise’ would merely be propagandistic. Even beyond these broadly conceived alternatives, questions about the post-non nuclear world order, relationship between world peace and universal disarmament, and problems of reinventing the un-invented have not been unequivocally addressed. Nuclear weapons cannot be eliminated without making nations transcend their interest in securing territory, exercising sovereignty and achieving integrity; the impact of nuclear revolution and the goal of nuclear disarmament are thus incompatible.

    India has been a vocal advocate of universal nuclear disarmament since independence. As early as 1948, India called for limiting the use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes; this Nehruvian idealism was offered as a pragmatic alternative for a resource deficient newly independent nation. India’s nuclear weapons testing not only heralded an understanding of the nuclear revolution but also marked the beginning of the ‘second nuclear age’. If the implications of the nuclear revolution cannot be divorced between the first and the second nuclear ages, then India has to strengthen its understanding of nuclear revolution and should also learn to ‘live with the bomb’. The purported global peace through universal nuclear disarmament has already been achieved though the possession of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons helped to avoid superpower war; in Europe nuclear weapons brought peace, and in the South Asian theatre they have relatively influenced stability. In this context, India has to not only come out of its strait-jacket of nuclear disarmament and work towards strengthening its nuclear strategy but also disregard guilt in its statecraft. A nation’s security is preserved by its prudence; therefore, in Machiavellian terms, the inhibitions of morality must have no bearing in the conduct of states. Nehruvian idealism was a pragmatic solution to an independent India but nuclear strategy is the political reality of the present world order. India can fully relish the implications of the nuclear revolution only when it untangles itself from the inhibitions of nuclear disarmament. In other words, India must not confuse ‘what is’ for the desire of ‘what ought to be’.

    World peace and universal nuclear disarmament can be interesting agenda for philosophical research. As long as great powers are largely determined on the basis of their relative military capability and as long as nuclear weapons determine a nation’s power and capability, India must have no hesitation in strengthening its nuclear strategies.

    The Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, the successive RevCons, debates on Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), etc., would all be symbolic aspirations to attain perfection among conflicting units. But none can offer any alternative to the nuclear revolution. India must not be an object lesson of great historical blunder by disarming its nuclear weapons when nuclear weapons and strategies are revolutionizing international relations and would continue to do so. India must learn to ‘live with the bomb’ and perforce a comprehensive nuclear weapons strategy.


    1. Robert Jervis, The Meaning of Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1989).