‘First Mover’ Disadvantage

                              India has an unbeatable record. There is no arms control bandwagon it has not jumped on to with reckless alacrity. Indian political leaders and  diplomats are no lotus eaters or yokels easily conned into disarming the nation even as powerful countries bristle with newer, more lethal, armaments. But confront them with agreements promising deliverance from the hyped-up dangers of an armed world and they act as if their brains are “on hold”, unable to resist the lure of the halo and the chance supposedly to burnish India’s reputation as a “responsible” state even if this imperils national security.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who outlined the contours of Indian foreign policy, was a master at using morality to extract foreign policy benefits. A statesman in the classical mould, he was motivated by realpolitik – a seminal fact missed by most in the ruling Congress Party and two generations of Indian historians and hagiographers, and still not sufficiently  appreciated by media commentators, academics and their ilk. When he had India in the vanguard of the campaign for “general and complete” disarmament in the 1950s (which, other than banning nuclear weapons, required the reduction of all conventional militaries to constabulary status), he did so knowing that, precisely because this goal was beyond reach,  it would fetch India otherwise unobtainable dividends. And it did – shoving the superpowers, Soviet Russia and the United States, on the defensive, making an end-run round the 1947 Baruch Plan forwarded by Washington aimed at international control of all nuclear-related ores and natural resources everywhere, providing political cover for the dual-purpose Indian nuclear energy programme whose weapons thrust Nehru was secretly nursing to maturity, and benefiting  from security as a free good offered by an America driven by ideology more than common sense. Together with its leadership of the goodwill-generating anti-colonialism and anti-racism movements in the United Nations, India enhanced its standing and ability to box above its weight class.  These were no mean benefits at a time when India, a rag-tag nation, had little to bank on except its pretensions.

With less gifted leaders at the helm, however, the larger strategic calculations were lost sight of as policymaking steadily veered towards self-validating postures and a Pavlovian response of energetic me-tooism to every self-serving arms control initiative by the great powers. It is another matter that, in each case, wisdom dawned late and on further consideration India retreated to less exposed but still vulnerable positions that the big powers exploited to push this country into a corner. It happened in the negotiations over the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and lately the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). At the Committee on Disarmament currently contemplating the FMCT, for instance, instead of quietly encouraging Pakistan’s obstructionism as a means of stalling progress, which development will afford India additional time to further augment its fissile material stockpile, the Manmohan Singh government, has foolishly joined the Western states in dumping on Islamabad. The inane Indian enthusiasm for arms control-qua-disarmament measures means that expectations are raised all round and pressures on Delhi to fall in line in any related negotiations increase to a point where failing to do so costs the country plenty.

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) India signed with undue haste in 1992 and ratified four years later, reflects the sort of problems the Indian government creates for the country by not thinking through its policy choices. In 2009 India declared that its entire holding of chemical weapons had been destroyed, joining Albania and South Korea as the only three countries in the world verifiably to reach the zero weapons level. Indeed, the National Authority for the Chemical Weapons Convention, working out of the Cabinet Secretariat, has so diligently monitored adherence to CWC provisions, it secured the ISO 9001 certification in 2008. But Delhi’s expectation that as a first and “fast mover” India would be rewarded with the top posts in the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) headquartered at the Hague and thereby control the secretariat, the sensitive information flows, etc., was belied when India was out-manoeuvred and the Permanent Representative of Turkey to the United Nations in Geneva, Ahmet Uzumcu, installed by “consensus” as Director-General, OPCW.

But the downside is more substantive because without ready chemical weapons at hand India may find itself in a real pickle. The Indian nuclear doctrine threatens nuclear retaliation, other than after a nuclear hit, in case of chemical and biological weapons attack. The trouble is that countering the use of chemical (or biological) weapons with an atom bomb goes against the fundamental logic of proportionate response and would be a difficult political decision to make in the face of concerted international opposition. Moreover, given how seriously the Indian government sticks as much by the spirit as the letter of arms control laws, it is reasonable to assume there is no cache of chemical weapons stashed away somewhere for just such contingencies.

What exists is a “defensive” capability permitted by CWC.  But, however quickly these so-called defensive warfare resources and in situ weapons capability can be marshalled to produce chemical devices for offensive use, there will still be a lag time during which two things can happen. Emboldened by the Indian non-reaction to its initial provocation, the adversary state could follow up with a series of new attacks. Or, it could utilize this time to firm up international pressure even against a retributive Indian counter-attack. With the Indian government’s proven tendency to fold at the first hint of pressure, it is very likely that a chemical (or biological) weapons strike will, in fact, go unanswered. So much  for CWC ensuring protection.

Despite repeatedly burning its fingers, India habitually accords undue importance to arms control agreements. Great powers know better. As Convention signatories the United States and Russia have taken their time to eliminate their chemical weapons inventories. Obliged to finish the job by 2012, they are still adrift of that goal.

[Published as “Nuclear Morality” in ‘The Asian Age’ & ‘The Deccan Chronicle’, January 15, 2011,  www.asianage.com/columnists/nuclear-morality-137 ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Great Power imperatives, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Nuclear Policy & Strategy. Bookmark the permalink.

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