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India's Nuclearism and the

New Shape of World Order




Richard Falk, TFF adviser



Anyone who pretends that India's decision to cross the nuclear weapons threshold openly has made no difference to its international standing is either lying or living in fantasy. Of course, the official reaction in the West was one of anger, and disappointment. India with nuclear weapons inevitably meant that Pakistan would soon follow. It was a major setback for the American-led effort to sustain the non-proliferation regime, and it appeared to make the world more dangerous, especially in the setting of Indo-Pakistan relations.

Perhaps, more troubling for the West than the strategic implications of an Indian bomb, was the public enthusiasm that greeted the news in India. Indeed, most commentators tried to reassure the world that Delhi's decision to go nuclear was driven by domestic politics, especially by the BJP's declining popularity. When the Indian Defense Minister, George Fernandes, contended that the bomb was intended mainly to improve India's security with respect to nuclear China, the world, to the extent that it noticed, laughed off such an explanation as diversionary at best.

After the first year, when talk of sanctions subsided, the sharp edge of India's decision has been dulled even in Washington. Instead, India's nuclear status is being quietly factored into the latest assessments of global security. For instance, consider the recent report of the influential Trialateral Commission, entitled 21st Century Strategies of the Trialateral Countries (that is, North America, Europe, Japan). A former high-ranking US State Department diplomat, Robert Zoellnik, includes India as "one of the three great challenges of Eurasia" for early in the next century, the other two being China and Russia. Although nuclearism was not explicitly stressed, it would be foolish to suppose its irrelevance. In searching through the literature on geo-strategic threats, I find no mention of India as a challenge before May 1998 and a great deal of attention ever since. It is hardly a coincidence!

It is only slowly dawning on informed global opinion that the United States, as the self-appointed manager of the nuclear club, cannot credibly claim to occupy the high ground of moral principle. To begin with, the US nuclear weapons posture, despite the end of the cold war, shows no sign of softening. Nuclear weapons continued to be developed and deployed by the thousand, and beyond this, the US Government even now refuses to issue a no first use pledge with respect to the weaponry. It is also the case that the United States, along with the other nuclear weapons states, have completely ignored the unanimous view of the World Court in its 1996 Advisory Opinion that states possessing nuclear weapons have a solemn legal obligation to engage in good faith negotiations aimed at achieving nuclear disarmament. This American image of irresponsible nuclearism was further reinforced a few months ago when the US Senate refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty designed to put a global brake on further weapons development. Against such a background, it appears to be extreme hypocrisy to single out India (and Pakistan) as breakers of the international moral code on nuclear weapons.

At worst, India is pursuing a security logic based on the same sort of power politics that have guided the approach of the existing nuclear weapons states. This logic has been reinforced for decades by virtue of the fact that the five declared nuclear weapons states were also the five countries given permanent membership in the UN Security Council with the right of veto. How can the rest of the world insist that a democratically elected Indian Government has no right to pursue its security by acquiring nuclear weapons, especially when its decision has been applauded by the overwhelming majority of its citizenry? Is such a move by India more "irresponsible" than Israel's much earlier "open secret" that was deliberately ignored by the gatekeepers of the nuclear club? In effect, India's crossing of the nuclear threshold was fully consistent with the geopolitical rules of the game over the course of the last century.

What is more, India's interest in being finally acknowledged as a great civilizational power is also fully understandable. It is truly sad that it appears to take nuclear weapons to achieve such a result. Consider the record. Being the world largest democracy is not enough. Having almost one billion people is not enough, and being the center of a world Hindu civilization is not enough. But now that India possesses nuclear weapons it is no longer possible to think of the future of Asian security without including India as an indispensable player. In this respect, Mr. Fernandes may have been quite right to insist that India's nuclear weapons had more to do with China than Pakistan, as their main impact has been to close the gap between these two dominant countries in the Asia/Pacific region. It is no longer plausible to think of China and the rest. Now strategic analysis must consider, at the very least, China and India and the rest.

None of this assessment is meant to be read as a belated note of congratulations to India on the decision. Undoubtedly, the region is more dangerous in the event of crisis and conflict. During the Kargil campaign there were real anxieties and rumors about Pakistan's evident contemplation of a nuclear attack. Perhaps, more fundamentally, India's decision was a decisive step away from its post-independence identity as a country dedicated to world peace, international morality, and leadership of the Third World. India's geopolitical "normalcy" meant that it could no longer claim such a leadership role or to be an exceptional nation. Arguably, such an undertaking had long since been discarded by Indian politicians as "a mission impossible," yet still in the rest of the world there was a bereft feeling after the explosions in the Pokhran desert that anti-nuclear activists around the world had lost their oldest and most trusted friend.


© Richard Falk 2000


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