Obama’s Nuclear Joke

The latest of the so-called “nuclear security summits” happened at the Hague on March 24-25 and is a joke gone too far. The forum established as a means to, ex post facto, buff up US president Barack Obama’s non-existent Nobel Peace Prize winner credentials in the wake of his April 2009 address in Prague calling for a nuclear weapons-free world—his sole foray into nuclear peace-making that fetched him the prize—has gained an unseemly life of its own. Thus, an Obama vanity vehicle, lacking any real legitimacy, is emerging as an international body dealing with security of nuclear materials and measures to thwart nuclear terrorism in competition with the United Nations Disarmament Commission. Whatever their stated aims, these two forums are in place basically to perpetuate the unfair international nuclear order and the supremacy of the five nuclear weapons powers—a status they bestowed on themselves, courtesy the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

India should be thankful that the soon to be ex-prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who showed unusual and quite unnecessary enthusiasm when attending the two earlier biennial summits, did not betake himself to the Netherlands on this occasion as well, to do what he did in the past—spout banalities conforming to the Obama line as if Indian and US interests on nuclear issues are congruent. Fortunately, he chose a local forum, but not on April Fool’s Day, to expound on the unrealistic and unrealisable notion of a No First Use Treaty as lead-up to a fully nuclear disarmed world. Minister for external affairs Salman Khurshid, a replacement for the PM at the Hague summit, more pettily tried to tighten the noose of responsibility for potential nuclear terrorism around Pakistan’s neck saying the summit’s focus on non-state actors “should in no way diminish state accountability in combating terrorism, dismantling its support structures or its linkages with weapons of mass destruction”.

Meanwhile, Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif sat next to Obama in the plenary session, his speech demanding recognition and benefits due Pakistan as a responsible nuclear weapons state being made in the context of the just released 2014 Nuclear Materials Security Index which showed Pakistan to have actually improved its ranking to 21 on the list, two positions ahead of India, as judged on five criteria—quantity of fissile material, quality of their storage sites, security and control measures, security norms, domestic commitments and capacity, and the risk environment. No surprise then that Islamabad later claimed that Pakistan’s good nuclear standing had been implicitly acknowledged at the summit.

Khurshid’s taking a shy at Pakistan was all very well, except by once again voicing India’s strong commitment to “global efforts to prevent the proliferation” of nuclear weapons and “their means of delivery”, he weakened India’s option to pay China back in the same coin for nuclear missile arming Pakistan. Mindful, however, of the coming change of government in New Delhi he did not eliminate this option altogether. Thus, India joined Russia, China and Pakistan in not signing the “pledge” accepting intrusive “peer review” (verification by other means) of their nuclear security regimes that 35 countries out of the 53 attending acquiesced in. It leaves a strong nationalist-minded potential prime minister such as Narendra Modi free, among other things, to rethink the country’s position on this issue and to consider the politico-military utility of passing on strategic armaments covertly to the many countries on China’s periphery fearful of an ambitious and aggressive Beijing who desire powerful means of their own to deter it.

The curtain raiser to the summit was the surprising but largely symbolic act by Japan to surrender 500kg of its bomb grade fissile material—330kg of plutonium and 170kg of enriched uranium, enough for as many as 70 weapons—to the care of the US. This move was, perhaps, to win brownie points with Obama who at the first such summit in Washington in 2010 had hoped that all vulnerable fissile material in the world would be secured within four years—a laughably unrealistic goal. Tokyo, however, took care to retain over nine metric tons of reprocessed plutonium that it can transform into a very large nuclear arsenal in double quick time, a fact that keeps Beijing on tenterhooks.

Moreover, the small amount of surrendered Japanese fissile material, as Sharon Squassoni of the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies noted, still leaves some 1,390 tons of highly enriched uranium and 490 tons of separated plutonium, which can be turned into more than 100,000 nuclear weapons, available mostly with the five nuclear weapons states (N-5). It highlights the futility of such summits, which end up permitting the worst transgressors to get away by doing nothing beyond a bit of political theatre. So the N-5 pushed for all the other countries to divest themselves of the offending nuclear material and any and all means of converting them into armaments, pronto! The brazen hypocrisy of it is striking enough for former Pakistan foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad to dismiss the Hague conference as a “junket” fulfilling a “global nonproliferation agenda…in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner”.

India ought not to be part of this circus. True, our politicians, like their ilk elsewhere, are fond of spouting high-sounding nonsense and striking poses in international forums. But while disarmament was useful as a morality stick to beat the great powers with in Jawaharlal Nehru’s time in the Fifties, in the second decade of the 21st century it is a shovel to dig our own grave.

Despite being victimised by it New Delhi has not caught on to the nuclear disarmament movement being yesterday’s preoccupation. At a time when the science of nuclear weapons is widely disseminated and the skills to engineer a bomb are within grasp of any country with even a small industrial base, national interest now requires India, rather than flogging the dead horse of nuclear weapons-free world, to spearhead a movement for a fair, more equitable, accord and system of nuclear management to replace the old order imposed by NPT.

[Published in the New Indian Express. Friday, April 4, 2014 at http://www.newindianexpress.com/opinion/Obama-Nuclears-Joke/2014/04/04/article2147851.ece#.Uz3-vaiSw7s ]

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 Asian geopolitics, China, China military, disarmament, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Japan, Missiles, nonproliferation, nuclear industry, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, nuclear power, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Pakistan nuclear forces, Russia, South Asia, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer, Terrorism, United States, US., Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Obama’s Nuclear Joke

  1. satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    Isn’t the statement that Japan can transform its large fissile stockpile into a large nuclear arsenal in double quick time unrealistic ?

    After all, every nuclear weapons state had to go through a “tapasya” before it was able to deploy anything resembling an operational arsenal: warheads had to undergo tests, C4I systems had to be put in place and more importantly, delivery systems had to be developed and repeatedly tested.

    The current generation ballistic missiles take almost a decade to develop. China took from 1986-2000 or so to develop the DF-31 (going by what one reads online). Similarly, we have taken from around 2007 (when reports of a 5000 km enhancement of the Agni III first appeared in press) to 2012 to conduct the first Agni V development test. It is likely to be around at least 2016 before we have a small number of operational A-V (given that a few more developmental tests are due). This even though we have pressing threats from China…

    How can Japan build an arsenal any faster ? True, its M-V and epsilon rockets are ICBM size, but a space launcher is always very different from a military missile: for instance, there is no time constraint for preparing a satellite launch vehicle. Also, M-V and epsilon are rather too large to be mobile. Even if Japan decides to go nuclear, they will need to test ballistic missiles, and test at least one warhead. All in all, they will take at least a decade to build anything operational from the day they decide to go down that path (as far as I can see). In the mean time, China has the option of preempting them. Not a good situation for Japan to be in.

    What do you think ?

    • Much of the case you make rests on the belief that Japan has to start from a zero baseline with respect to nuclear warheads and missiles, which’s not the case. Tokyo, whatever its pacifist rhetoric imposed by the “Peace Constitution”, has been preparing covertly for a time when it’ll not have the US to rely on. Have heard a deliverable weapon timeframe of between 10 days to a month from senior Japanese sources officials on the sidelines of closed sessions. And it is precisely the China contingency they are most mindful of. Japan, in the event, may not immediately need ICBMs when MRBMs will do just as well. The kind of rocket motors Japanese have been working on suggests this. It is just the matter of parlaying such tech into weapons.

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