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(DV) Rajiva: The NPT is Dead . . . . And It's a Good Thing Too







The NPT is Dead.... And It's a Good Thing Too
by Lila Rajiva
August 17, 2005

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“The global restraint on the development of nuclear weapons has, in effect, been destroyed in a few months. The world could now be more vulnerable to the consequences of proliferation than it has been for 35 years.”

-- George Monbiot, The Guardian, on the July 18, 2005 US-India civil nuclear deal

This past July Indian PM Manmohan Singh struck a deal with President Bush by which the US promised full support for India's civil nuclear program if it submitted to IAEA controls. For those who've signed the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), not developing weapons is the condition for getting US help on nuclear energy, so a non-signatory like India getting it anyway had a lot of people wringing their hands over the death of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as we know it. (1)

In the end, it may only leave the two countries where they've been for years -- coyly playing he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not with each other, this time with nukes glittering up front rather than tucked away in the background. Still, coming as it did just a few weeks before the August 7 anniversary of Hiroshima and the August 15 anniversary of Indian Independence, it churns the debate about whether developing countries, especially one born out of a struggle that claimed to be non-violent, should be building nukes anyway. And it provides a little morality play for the rest of the globe with the contrast between India chomping happily on the tasty little carrot usually reserved for those who agree to the NPT and poor Iran, an NPT signatory for years, bludgeoned night and day with US threats and sanctions. The message is clear. Defy the US, and be invited over to meet the family, grovel, and feel the imperial heel on your neck.

Of course, the US-India deal also came gift wrapped in shades of blackmail over the gas pipeline to Iran via Pakistan. America wants Iran isolated, not cozying up in some Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai deal that cuts Washington out of the picture. But Indians, perennially suspicious of “rice conversions” of the old missionary kind, were not taken in by the new Rice mission and the dissembling Condoleezza -- more con than deleeza -- left empty-handed without disrupting the pipeline. But, India really is in desperate need of renewable energy alternatives, among which nuclear power is at the top of the shopping list. So bang goes the NTP -- or perhaps that's not the word I should have chosen.

But is busting the NPT really the calamity it's made out to be: the first leg down in a rapid descent into nuclear maelstrom? There are three points around which progressive criticism of the Indian stance solidifies:

I. Nuclear weapons are so uniquely devastating that security arguments about deterrence not only don't apply they're morally repugnant.

II. There's no real need for India to have nuclear weapons; ergo, the whole nuclear project there is driven by regional and global ambition if not sheer vanity.

III. The bomb is a Western colonial tool and a fundamental break with longstanding Indian policy and tradition.

In short -- the bomb is unnatural.

But this isn't self evident to me. When you think about it, it was nature that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Human nature. Of the virulent Amero-corporate strain no doubt, but nature nonetheless. That sometimes escapes all those tender-hearted souls for whom benign nature is a regulative ideal. The Romantics, clustered around a picturesque piece of waterfront real estate in England, taught us a bit too optimistically that nature was always on the side of what's good in man. But nature like man is infinitely many-sided and almost infinitely malleable. If nature can be red in tooth and claw, human nature can be crimson. And in India, nukes are inextricably linked with both, sometimes in convoluted ways. In that sense, they are anything but unnatural.

Long before Coca-Cola added its lethal caramel-colored twist to the story, before Vivendi, Suez and Saur of France, Thames Water from the UK, Bechtel and Enron from the US, and the other giant carnivores of late capitalism began their ravages, human nature in its Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalee incarnations had been cannibalizing itself in the Deccan for years. Karnataka, Andhra, and the central state of Maharashtra argued over the distribution of water from the Godavari; Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Pondicherry, and Andhra squabbled over the distribution of water of the Kaveri, sometimes violently. Untreated industrial and domestic waste and pesticide/fertilizer run-off from farms poured into river water. Largely from the thoughtless adoption of modern chemical technologies, of course.

The story was the same in North India, so that since independence, more than 12 major rivers countrywide have been designated as polluted. Hydrological experts say that there are no more freshwater sources to be found anywhere in India. And in the north, matters are complicated by international borders. Indian control over the headwaters of the five branches of the Indus in the fertile northwest state of the Punjab has repercussions for Pakistan whose survival depends on those waters. Under the 1960 Indus Treaty, India gets the waters of the three eastern tributaries and Pakistan the three western; neither country can opt out unilaterally or link the water issue with the obviously “political” matter of Kashmir.

But it is linked. On the Chenab, one of the western branches, parched, energy-short India has constructed dams that parched, energy-short Pakistan claims affect its own hydroelectric projects. And though it's unlikely to happen, one of the scenarios under which Pakistan threatens to use its nuclear weapons would be India cutting off the headwaters of the Indus. And, what a surprise, Pakistan is unwilling to accept the permanency of the Line of Control in Kashmir behind which you find those head waters. (2) So the water issue is also the Kashmir issue and consequently, the water issue is also the nuclear issue. Because of the water wars, if Manmohan Singh does not address the energy crisis by expanding the civil nuclear program, he could risk a very uncivil nuclear showdown. Yet, in expanding it, he's shown up the NPT and apparently risked it another way.

So even if you took away the nukes, you would still be left with a problem. There's nothing contrived about that. In theory the problem is one of scarcity, of water and energy. But in practice it becomes the problem of whose needs gets met. The world being what it is, the kind of power that drives motors is very much linked to the other, geopolitical kind and if neither Pakistan nor India had nukes, there would still be a power struggle fueled by conventional weapons. And if you get into the details, you find that India's explicit commitment to a weapons program came only after it was defeated by China in a surprise conventional attack in 1961 just as the decision to explode “Smiling Buddha” -- the first nuclear test -- in 1974 was also triggered by a conventional threat, the dispatch of the US Seventh Fleet to threaten India in the Bangladesh War in 1971. And for Pakistan too it's the same. It was not Indian nukes so much as Indian conventional superiority that overwhelmed Pakistan in the 1971 war and convinced it that it needed a nuclear program. Of course, nukes didn't help the problem, but they didn't create it either.

The idea that there are no vital needs underlying the Indian nuclear program and that it's all about hairy-chested Hindu saber rattling or the “prestige” attached to nukes is absurd. Underlying the nuclear build up in South Asia are very much the same concerns for security and access to resources underneath conventional military build-ups. In terms of money, nuclear weapons give more bang for the buck. True, expenses from storage and delivery are high, but that can be hidden by cooking the books, so for most politicians they make quite good sense. Then there's the energy spin-off. Nuclear energy is projected to provide about 25% of India's needs in a few years.

And for countries with big neighbors nukes are the great equalizers -- Pakistan relative to India and India relative not only to China but also to the powerful triple entente of US, Israel and the pro-US Muslim governments. Remember that the not very large peninsula of India is circled by US allies or places of interest to the US (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tibet, Australia). Remember that US satellites keep a sleepless watch over India's nuclear facilities and sensitive borders and that right in her backyard there's also the sinister US base of Diego Garcia where the empire's prisoners are squirreled away out of sight of Amnesty International and from where B-52s streamed out incessantly to bomb Iraq during the war. Imagine reaction here if Russia, China, and the EU combined were to send out round-the-clock bombing runs from a secret base in Belize.

But even if nukes make strategic sense what about the second progressive argument that they are so uniquely destructive that even thinking of them as a deterrent is repulsive? That turns out to be flawed too. Napalm, Agent Orange, poison gas, and cluster bombs are also horrible and depleted uranium (DU) is radioactive for millions of years. Even if their destructiveness is less than that of nukes, it is still well past the threshold at which one could think of using them in any way that would be morally acceptable. Distinctions at such levels of lethality do not help much in calculating morality and make no sense at all to the victims. Nukes are simply not unique in wreaking indiscriminate devastation, nor did the practice start with them. “Total war” goes back to the rise of air power and the practice of strategic bombing the idea behind which was to make wars so deadly they would be unthinkable (3), exactly the idea behind nuclear deterrence. And conventional weapons have killed incomparably larger number of people so that some observers even think that “[Nuclear] treaties like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) are largely irrelevant in terms of the carnage being visited upon the multitude by ‘conventional arms.’” (4) And that is twice as true for the NPT, which is far more discriminatory than the CTBT. To be consistent, we would have to apply the same non-proliferation rules to the global arms trade in bombs where the biggest players are the nuclear states, whose economies are completely dependent on it. I'd like to see anybody do that.

So, the second progressive objection is flawed too.

What about the third? Is India's nuclear stance today an unnatural break with her past? Those who believe this are usually thinking of Nehru's opposition to nuclear testing. But while Nehru may have opposed nuclear weapons in the 1950s, there's no reason to think that he would not have changed with circumstances. His actions suggest pragmatism not absolutism. When he began India's dual-use, three-stage nuclear program immediately after independence the main purpose was to produce cheap electricity, but the fact that he authorized the development of the complete nuclear fuel cycle at additional expense meant that India did also acquire the technical capability to build nuclear weapons. That didn't happen in a fit of absent-mindedness. Even when he called for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1954, which would let nuclear weapon states negotiate some kind of “Standstill Agreement” about testing, his position on disarmament was conditional -- “arrangements about the discontinuance of production and stockpiling must await more substantial agreements among those principally concerned.” (5) That's a clear statement that Nehru never intended India to foreswear weapons eternally unless everyone else did, with no exceptions. He might have hated nukes, but as long the nuclear old boy's club was still stockpiling and producing, he knew better than to tie India's hands on them.

In any case, Nehru's position was premised on a naive belief in pan-Asian solidarity which fractured when China attacked India in the 60s and then exploded a nuclear bomb. China is why successive Indian PMs from Lal Bahadur Shastri onward have all promoted the Subterranean Nuclear Explosion for Peaceful Purposes -- an Orwellism if ever there was one. Indian policy has always been carefully calibrated to the politics of the region and what the great powers were up to. The nuclear states got a pass on disarmament during the Cold War, but now that's over India like the rest of the world asks, what's the excuse? So when the NPT came up for consideration this summer and nuclear states once again conjured up diaphanous reasons why they couldn't strip themselves of their deadly armory while at the same time insisting that, for everyone else, NPT should be hammered into stone for eternity, India refused to sign.

The problem is not the total number of nuclear regimes in the world; it's the relative numbers. It's the relentless concentration of power in some nations that makes others try to right the balance. Nukes-for-me-but-none-for-thee tries to solve a problem of excess power by taking away from those who have less of it in the first place. One result is that if the have-nots don’t have the ability to hew their own way openly like India, then they sneak off to the black market in these things Pakistan, North Korea, Iran) with all the dangers involved in that. But there’s a much greater danger than the possibility of a random madman getting his hands on a bomb. And that's the reality of what “responsible” powers do with the ones already in theirs. Take a look at Bush's Nuclear Posture Review which reserves the right to nuclear first strike, the resumption of nuclear testing, the development of deep earth penetrators or bunker-busters and mini-nukes, and the plans for a “Star Wars”-type space-based Ballistic Missile Defense. Is any of this “responsible”? Does Al-Qaeda merit nuclear spending equal to spending at the height of the Cold War? Bush's nuclear arsenal has only one objective and his propagandists have spelled that out for us, global domination. And whatever Bush's manner of implementing it, that too doesn't stray very far from post-war American policy. Consider that in 1948, the US State Department Planning Chief, George Kennan, a realist but by no means a hawk, had this to say quite openly:

“Our country has about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population...Our real task... is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity... To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming... We [cannot] afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction... We... have to deal in straight power concepts.” (6)

Those “straight power concepts” have always included nuclear arsenals and there has never been a time when the nuclear states have shown a willingness to dismantle those arsenals completely. The NPT was dead long before anything that India did or did not do because it was strangled at birth by the nuclear states themselves.

Peace activists should first come to terms with this real history of the nuclear world rather than retreating into mythology. Nukes are very much a part of the continuum of weaponry, quantitatively but not qualitatively different, and they cannot be addressed separately from it. The use of nuclear weapons -- despite their catastrophic environmental effects -- arises out of the natural needs of the states which use them, from competition for resources and distribution of power. And nuclear force like all force can be opposed also only by force, not military necessarily, but nonetheless force.

None of this sits well with antinuclear fundamentalists who mistake pacifism for non-violence; who fail to see that throwing their weight behind treaties like NPT which legitimize the weapons of the powerful while stripping them from the powerless is not non-violence but acquiescence in pre-existing violence; who refuse to understand that, as Gandhi himself once said, an unjust law -- or treaty -- is already an act of violence and that it would be better to retaliate to it, even violently, than mask our impotence with the cloak of non-violence. Non-violence can never be a forced relinquishing but only a voluntary renouncing. To restrain the horizontal proliferation of nukes in the non-Western world without addressing the earlier and much greater vertical proliferation in the Western world is not non-violence; it is ignorance, apathy, or cowardice at best, complicity in imperial adventurism at worst.

A truly non-violent peace activism cannot start from cowardice. It must first prove itself the product of spiritual courage, not of apathy, by showing its willingness to suffer on behalf of its principles. Where are the activists prepared for that? Except for a handful of brave nuns and priests here, a Kathy Kelly there, a few mostly nameless idealists from

International Solidarity, who is willing to risk federal imprisonment to attack nuclear facilities; who is willing to fly to Iraq and stand up to an unjust war? If not, why intervene to stop the international state system's natural immune reaction against an excess of power?

Whether we accept Gandhian non-violence as workable or delusional, it was not passive acceptance. It was not world-denying inwardness. It was not weakness or fear of suffering but an active force that refused to compromise on fundamentals of justice. Does current anti-nuclear fundamentalism measure up? In any case, Gandhi did not act in a vacuum but on a soil prepared by years of political organization and action, of non-violent and violent resistance. We forget that before Gandhi there were the Lajpat Rais and the Aurobindos, who went to jail for anti-British terrorism. And it was Aurobinodo, a veteran of both non-violent and violent resistance, who saw most clearly through the cant of all oppressors:

“When you have disarmed your slaves and legalised the infliction of bonds, stripes, and death on any one of them who may dare to speak or act against you, it is natural and convenient to try and lay a moral as well as a legal ban on any attempt to answer violence by violence...” (7)

Aurobindo, who shares his birthday with Indian independence, repeatedly articulates the distinction between what is self-defense and moral and what is aggressive and immoral, a distinction lost in morally inchoate pacifism.

It's utterly fruitless to engage in spiritual or symbolic action, in marches, sit-ins, prayer, speeches, if we are not also willing to advocate petitions, boycotts, strikes, demonstrations, imprisonment and finally if all else fails, physical resistance. For if the major powers refuse time and again to dismantle their doomsday arsenals while preaching disarmament to others, then it is prudent, in fact imperative, that all other nations, even while speaking softly, pack a few big sticks.

A strictly defensive nuclear arsenal, unthinkable as it seems, may be one of them. Activists claim that the NPT was what restrained proliferation these many years. Some restraint. Among the nuclear states, warheads metastasized uncontrolled. And among the non-nuclear states with true nuclear potential, (that is money and technology), Germany and Japan alone signed and they did so only after six years of arm-twisting by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Switzerland abandoned nuclear weapons for financial reasons. Tonga, Zambia, and other looming threats to world peace were among those who signed in 1968 but most nations with the technology to manufacture nukes and many which had them already did not sign or if they signed did not ratify at the time, including Brazil, Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Egypt, France and China. Egypt ratified more than a decade later in order to obtain nuclear technology, South Africa in the 1990s, Brazil only in 1998 while China and France joined in 1992 after having expanded their arsenals a great deal. Countries like Australia moreover share close cultural and political ties with nuclear states like the UK and USA, that enable them to forego nuclear weapons without running the risk that a third world nation without powerful allies might. There is another problem as well. Since the NPT allows full access to technology for the production of nuclear energy and the process is very similar to that needed to produce weapons, there are enormous difficulties in verification. In practice, all energy programs can be converted readily into weapons programs. In effect, this leaves non-nuclear states under the NPT in positions of ambiguity that are easily exploited by the nuclear states whenever needed. It provides easy grounds on which to accuse states of violations that call for military intervention.

The self-evident and undeniable fact is that no state that has nukes has ever had its borders seriously attacked by another nation. Having nukes may not have ended war, but so far at least, it has ended nuclear war and war involving nuclear states. Witness the savagery in store for those countries without nuclear weapons, from Korea to Iraq. Both superpowers did not hesitate to foment wars -- either directly or by proxy -- that obliterated them. And they did it without nuclear weapons.

Fact: As the nuclear arsenals of the two Cold War antagonists became more equal, they became more restrained. (8)

Fact: Even Stalin and Mao, perpetrators of horrors far greater than all “terrorists” and “madmen” put together proved restrained and rational in their use of nukes. (9)

Non-proliferation fundamentalists have to digest this little pill of reality -- the only time nukes have been used offensively has been when only one state had them and this one state was not the legendary madman or terrorist of nuclear romanticism but the “leader of the free world,” the US. And it was proliferation not non-proliferation that diverted nukes from this supreme offensive use to its current status as weapon-of-last-resort.

If NPT is dead forever, so be it. Let every country learn from its collapse and set about strengthening its defenses in whatever way it can. If that acts as a wake-up call to the nuclear mafia that the world is no longer hoodwinked by mandated one-sided disarmament and forces them at long last to take verifiable steps to dismantle their bloated arsenals and roll-back foreign adventurism, proliferation in the short-term may well do more for peace than another 35 years of a hypocritical self-serving non-proliferation treaty.

Lila Rajiva is a free-lance writer in Baltimore and the author of The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media (Monthly Review Press, September 2005). She can be reached at: Copyright (c) 2005 by Lila Rajiva

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(1) “U.S., India May Share Nuclear Technology,” Dana Milbank and Dafna Linzer, Washington Post, July 19, 2005.

(2) “The Final Settlement,” Strategic Foresight Group of the International Center for Peace Initiatives in Mumbai, New Delhi, March 2005.

(3) Michael Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (Yale University Press, 1987).

(4) “Nuclear Treaties in the Age of Pentagon Capitalism,” Vijay Prashad, TrinColl Journal, November 1996. Even anti-nuke activists dubbed it the “rightly-hated NPT”: Praful Bidwai, “CTBT -- To Be or Not to Be,” Media Web India, 1996-7.

(5) “India's Nuclear Program from 1946-1998,” M. V. Ramana, Bulletin 16, INESAP, Transnational Institute, Amsterdam. 

(6) Policy Planning Study 23, George Kennan, written for the State Department planning staff in 1948.

(7) “Its Necessity,” Aurobindo Ghosh, Bande Mataram, April 13, 1907.

(8) “Thinking about the Unthinkable, Politics and the Arms Race,” Drew Middleton, The Atlantic, August 1976, pp. 54-57.

(9) “Could We Be Wrong?” Donald Clark, Air and Space Power Chronicles, Sept-Oct, 1978.