India and the Demise of Global Arms Control Regime

The last few months have been particularly difficult for the global non-proliferation and arms control regime. From Iran to North Korea, from the nuclear black-market of A.Q. Khan to Brazil, new challenges are emerging virtually every other day and threaten to undermine the global arms control architecture. Forced by India’s open challenge to the global arms control and disarmament framework in May 1998, major powers in the international system seem to be re-evaluating their orientation towards global arms control and non-proliferation. Consequently, international arms control today seems to be heading for a slow but long overdue and inevitable demise. 

The origins of this shake-up of the global security environment can be traced to the Indian challenge to the status quo in May of 1998. Indian nuclear tests were the first open challenge to the system, especially by a “responsible” as opposed to a “rogue” member of international community. Some might argue that surreptitious Chinese weapons proliferation and clandestine nuclear programs undercut the arms control regime long before the Indian nuclear tests. Nonetheless, the nuclear tests significantly altered the contours of the existing security architecture already under stress in the post Cold War era. India’s open defiance marked the real beginning of the end of the non-proliferation regime and the consequences for global security have been nothing less than revolutionary. 

The first major blow came in the form of the rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by the US Senate in 1999. Then the US decided to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972. The US argued that the new kinds of threats in the post-Cold War period, especially the ballistic missile threats from the "rogue" states and terrorist groups, made this treaty irrelevant to the changed security needs of the US. It should be noted that the ABM treaty has long been seen as a high point of arms-control success in maintaining international stability during the cold war. The withdrawal of the US from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty paved the way for the US pursuit of its ballistic missile defense (BMD) program without any formal restrictions. The US ordered the deployment of six interceptors for Fort Greely in Alaska and four for Vandenberg Air Force Base in California as part of the first phase of its missile defense system for the 2004 fiscal year. The 2005 budget allows for ten more interceptors in Alaska. Shortly afterwards, the US will deploy a sea-based anti-missile system capable of protecting allies and American troop deployments abroad. Negotiations are currently underway about radar sites and possible defense missile defense emplacements with several European countries.

India and Pakistan continue with their nuclear weapons program, without adhering to a restrictive global agreement. The Clinton Administration tried to bring both countries into the fold of the non-proliferation regime. The recently published memoirs of Mr. Strobe Talbott, Clinton Administration representative in the arms control negotiations, clearly reveal that the US failed to achieve any of its non-proliferation and arms control objectives vis-à-vis India. Moreover, the Bush Administration has not been interested in maintaining the Cold War arms control framework and not looked at South Asia from the old lens of non-proliferation. Instead, it has cultivated both India and Pakistan on the basis of new global realities. India and the US have signed the “Next Steps in Strategic Partnership” agreement that paves the way for mutual cooperation in areas of civilian nuclear activities, civilian space programs, high-technology trade as well as a dialogue on missile defense. Recently, the US, enhanced its nuclear cooperation with India by lifting sanctions against Indian Space Research Organization and by doing so, modified its export licensing policies for a non-NPT signatory like India.

All this occurred even as compliance with the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) by all its members remained questionable. The Wassenaar agreement that replaced previous controls directed at depriving Communist countries of Western military technology has proven more difficult to enforce. It is aimed not only at the former Soviet states but also those states whose threatening nature the industrialized signatories of Wassenaar disagree. China, an emerging military power, is a participant in few arms control agreements and its record of adhering to promises in the realm of arms control is not terribly impressive.

Significant new challenges also have emerged in recent months. Iran seems to be within reach of mastering nuclear weapons production technology. While the US tackled fictitious weapons of mass destruction of Iraq, Iran moved ahead with its secret nuclear program under the guise of electricity production. It rejected a call by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to freeze all its uranium enrichment programs and threatened to drop out of the NPT if the case was taken to the UN Security Council. It argued that the NPT gives it a right to develop peaceful nuclear programs, and that’s exactly what it is doing. Despite a recent nuclear accord between the European Countries and Iran in which Iran agreed to voluntarily suspend its uranium enrichment activities temporarily, the US remains highly suspicious of Iranian motives. 

Brazil has also upped its nuclear ante. It is believed to be enriching uranium by using centrifuge cascades. This might be the beginning of the end of the 1967 Tlatelolco treaty that made South America a nuclear free zone. The Brazilian government blocked portions of the requisite IAEA inspections of a uranium enrichment plant in Resende. This generated a lot of international concern. There is also a fear that Brazil’s intransigence might encourage Argentina which has significantly much more indigenous nuclear technology than many other aspiring states.

Meanwhile, North Korea happily continues the façade of negotiations in order to buy time to reprocess its plutonium into several nuclear bombs. While the US has insisted on group discussions that include Russia, China, Japan, South Korea along with North Korea and the US, the talks seem to be going nowhere. There are indications that North Korea may already have assembled test devices. In a surprising development, South Korea acknowledged that its scientists had secretly enriched uranium and extracted a small amount of plutonium during a 1982 research experiment. Uranium was also secretly enriched in 2000 to nearly bomb grade levels, and the other experiment was optimized to produce bomb-grade plutonium.

Even as the international community tries to come to terms with these developments, the US conducts research on more usable nuclear weapons and Russia declared its intention to conduct more nuclear tests to strengthen its deterrent. The non-state actors further muddy the nuclear waters as chillingly demonstrated by the discovery of the worldwide nuclear black-market run by A.Q. Khan. The global arms control regime has so far been a rather impotent observer of these developments with no significant influence on the course of events.

Is the failure of the arms control regime surprising? Or is it that all arms control must fail. If arms control is needed in a strategic relationship because the states in question might go to war, then it will be impractical for that very reason of need. However, if arms control should prove to be available, it will be irrelevant. This has been called the arms control paradox. The record of Cold War shows that the US and the former Soviet Union have been equally responsible for reneging on their arms control promises. Not only did both of them attempt to gain nuclear superiority during the Cold War despite a plethora of arms control agreements, but also were equally responsible for encouraging proliferation. As the great powers try to maximize their share of power, their interests inevitably come into conflict with the arms control and this causes arms control agreements to unravel.

Disenchantment with arms control has been growing since 1980s. After a brief period of détente in the1970s, the two superpowers resumed their antagonism. This affected all the arms control measures agreed to during the détente. The signing of a plethora of arms control agreements during the détente was seen as a success of arms control rather than a reflection of the relaxation of tensions. Arms control was credited with maintaining strategic stability and creating norms of international behavior. Despite this fact, the CTBT, one of the most in-depth agreements in terms of details of provisions, verification measures, and regime strengthening, was rejected by the US even though it faced no great power as a rival in the near term. This is significant because if even one of the strongest arms control measures is not deemed worthy of acceptance, then there is a problem with the very idea of arms control rather than its specific provisions.

In the post-Cold War era this tendency has been more prominent. There have been numerous proposals for universal disarmament without any real evaluation of the impact on international security. There are significant strategic, political and technical obstacles to nuclear disarmament. Countries facing formidable national security obstacles will be disinclined to give up their nuclear weapons so long as the international system retains its anarchic nature. Also, there is a perception in some countries that nuclear weapons enhance their status in the international system. While this might not be the case so long as the nuclear weapon states cling to obscenely huge nuclear arsenals, it would be difficult to convince otherwise. Furthermore, the problem remains of how to convince states that the huge amounts of weapons-grade fissile material would not be used by any state after disarmament. An international agency cannot make countries hedge their bets against future uncertainty in international politics.

Even if these obstacles can be overcome, the larger question remains: is universal disarmament desirable? It may seem odd, but the huge nuclear stockpiles during the Cold War maintained international stability. Indeed, it was also important in the rather slow rate of nuclear proliferation since their huge arsenals allowed the two superpowers to provide extended deterrence to their client states, and reducing the value of nuclear weapons

In the post-Cold War international system, universal nuclear disarmament can be highly destabilizing, as the nuclear threat has transformed with greater proliferation and access to nuclear technology. The probability of the use of nuclear weapons may increase manifold as conventional wars may rapidly transform into nuclear wars by the losing side. In the absence of a third power capability to force restraint the situation might deteriorate into a nuclear exchange. Therefore, any arms control or disarmament measure needs to be evaluated on the basis of its impact on international stability as opposed to the perceived impetus it provided in creating a utopian international society of states.

However, this does not justify the status quo. Obsolete ideas about the value of massive nuclear arsenals need to be discarded by the policymakers in the US and Russia, and a heightened awareness about the dangers of unauthorized attacks and nuclear proliferation needs to be developed. Bold steps to reduce nuclear inventories to much lower levels would enhance American and Russian national security along with international peace. In fact, it has been recommended that the US and Russia should adopt minimum deterrence strategies and force structures containing 200-500 weapons each.

Meanwhile, new issues are changing the global strategic landscape. There is a possibility that the US pursuit of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) combined with the reductions in the Russian nuclear arsenal might be a recipe for nuclear instability. Russia will be forced to adopt a more offensive nuclear posture in order to neutralize the advantages of a BMD. The Chinese reaction to the American BMD remains unknown. Nonetheless China continues its plans for military modernization. How this affects the US-China relationship and impacts China's immediate neighborhood will also determine the future of international stability.

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that great power attempts by great powers have at best been useless and at worst can be highly destabilizing. However, world powers have deftly used various arms control provisions to constrain the strategic autonomy of other states in the international system. Indian nuclear tests were the first direct challenge to the great powers and the result has been a complete overhaul of the international security environment. The demise of the international arms control is a small part of that overhaul. India has always been dissatisfied with the global non-proliferation and arms control regime because it constrained autonomy to make foreign policy decisions as dictated by national interests. India argued that an inequitable regime that gave only a few countries the permanent right to nuclear weapons, and denied others this right was inherently unstable. There are reasons for India to feel vindicated by its long-held stance on these issues. Today, as the global arms control regime crumbles under the weight of its own contradictions, India can rightfully claim that it was one of the first states to draw the attention of the world community to these challenges.

A radically new global security architecture is needed to tackle the emerging problem of proliferation and terrorism. The old security structure has failed and it is time this gets recognized if the world hopes to tackle the emerging challenges. India along with older nuclear powers should rise to the challenge and offer ideas on a new framework for international security that is suitable for the 21st century. Typically, world powers not only challenge the status-quo that is inimical to their interests but also provide responsible alternatives to managing the challenges facing the globe. It is time for India to respond to its rising global profile.

The writer is a Research Fellow at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana (USA).