VIEW: Living in nuclear make-believe —Khalid Saleem - Tuesday, May 03, 2011

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Nuclear weapons are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. There are no two ways about it. The preferred objective should be nuclear disarmament rather than nuclear non-proliferation

Time and again, some personality or the other from one of our ‘friendly’ states in the west makes a loaded statement concerning the security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets. Why they have to do this defies the imagination. Maybe it is meant to keep Pakistan’s strategic planners on their toes. Or, perhaps, to send a signal around that Pakistan continues to be a dangerous customer to do business with. What gives the common man a queasy feeling though is the fact that our attitude is a bit on the ambivalent side. While on the subject, it may be worth noting that whether by coincidence or design, mention of universal nuclear disarmament has simultaneously disappeared from the front pages.

This may be the time to indulge in a little introspection on why we opted for the nuclear option in the first place. Our defence analysts have held the view that we went for the ‘bomb’ because we saw it as a ‘deterrent’. What is a deterrent? The dictionary defines ‘deterrent’ as “a nuclear weapon the possession of which is supposed to deter the use of a similar weapon by another power”. This is one aspect: where one nuclear power wishes to deter another from the use of its nuclear weapons against it.

Another aspect may be more relevant in the present case. When there happens to be a major disparity in the conventional forces of two antagonistic powers, the weaker one can employ the threat of use of its nukes to deter the bigger power from overrunning it. It may be worth recalling that this very argument was applied by NATO vis-à-vis the erstwhile Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War.

Now, analysing the European situation a bit further, it will be seen that the deterrence factor lay in the threat of use of nukes by the West in the event of an attack on Western Europe by superior conventional forces of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. This deterrent served well in the rather tense state of affairs during the Cold War. It needs to be stressed that more than anything it was the mere threat of ‘first use’ of nukes that kept the Soviet and Warsaw Pact ambitions in check. Had the US and the West foresworn the first use of nukes, then this deterrence would have been nullified. The same equation is roughly applicable in South Asia, where India has a far superior conventional force. And yet, not so long ago, the president had himself made a ‘no first use’ offer to India.

It is a tad difficult to understand how Pakistan could afford to commit itself to no first use of nuclear weapons. Of course, it could possibly make some sense when read with the president’s other assertion, “I do not feel threatened by India.” That assertion in itself opens up another line of thought! Should this be the case, we may as well roll back our nuclear programme and/or put our nukes in mothballs — or whatever it is they put them in — and forget about the whole business of nuclear deterrence.

The president’s simultaneous beckoning to India to sign a ‘Nuclear-Free South Asia Treaty’ made a lot of sense, though. Of course, the accurate nomenclature would be “Nuclear Weapons-Free South Asia’ since we would not wish to forego our right to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Going by the past record, India cannot be expected to take this offer seriously. Nonetheless, it may still be in our interest perhaps to keep on plugging for a ‘Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone’ in South Asia in the overall interest of a universal nuclear non-proliferation regime, even though it may be destined to remain no more than a pipedream.

All in all, the one point that can be made is that our attitude towards vital issues has been inexplicably very much on the defensive side. If a state adopts a defensive and apologetic stance right in the beginning, it leaves little scope for a fallback position. To take just two examples: various apologists of government policies have been heard remarking that interception of the US drones would be tantamount to declaring war against the US. Or, that the US and/or NATO incursions into our territory and the resultant carnage are, in fact, the US’s way of assisting us in ‘our war’. A slight policy adjustment on this score may be in order.

So far as the ‘nuclear option’ goes, it may be preferable to adopt a rational rather than an emotional approach. Nuclear weapons are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. There are no two ways about it. The preferred objective should be nuclear disarmament rather than nuclear non-proliferation. The latter is a negative rather than a positive concept. The compound word non-proliferation was conjured up (reportedly by the Indian representative) when negotiations for a nuclear disarmament treaty were in progress. This compound word has been the bane of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) since its inception.

Let us, then, hold on to the ultimate objective of nuclear disarmament. It is an objective worth striving for. Even civil nuclear technology has its pitfalls. The recent damage done to the Japanese nuclear power plants during the Tsunami disaster should serve as an eye-opener, if nothing else.

The writer is a former ambassador and former Assistant Secretary General of OIC. His first book is a collection of essays entitled Halfway up the Tree. He can be reached at

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