Dialogue between Nuclear Weapon States


By Tanvi Kulkarni

In the joint statement issued on the 8th November 2010 at the conclusion of President Obama’s three-day visit to India, the leaders of the two countries expressed “the need for a meaningful dialogue among all states possessing nuclear weapons to build trust and confidence and for reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs and security doctrines.” Multiparty nuclear dialogues are not new. Yet, the freshness in this idea arises from the suggestion to engage the existing nuclear armed states on a common forum irrespective of their regime commitments.

What is the need for such a dialogue? What could be implied as a ‘meaningful’ nuclear dialogue? And what could it offer its participants beyond rhetoric? These are some basic questions that could be addressed.

Several forums exist already to discuss nuclear issues. But they unfailingly only reiterate the nuclear policies of the nuclear weapon states in the NPT. Undiminished arsenals, clandestine ventures and attention seeking actions by nations like North Korea remain worries, despite several discussions in large forums. The lack of communications and miscommunications has heightened fear and distrust among nuclear weapons states, and no concrete results have resulted on the nuclear disarmament front.

At present, nine states possess nuclear weapons. A nuclear dialogue must involve all the nine states. The challenge begins here. China remains disinclined to have any nuclear dialogue with India. Israel expressed discontent with the NPT RevCon 2010 resolution which singled it out to join the NPT for establishing a Middle-East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. The grim problem is North Korea. Since the freezing of the Six Party Talks in April 2009, all efforts to re-start the dialogue with North Korea have failed. The US approach of imposing stricter sanctions has been greeted by Pyonyang’s more aggressive actions. On the other hand, Kim Jong II has repeatedly suggested the possibility of dialogue on North Korea’s nuclear developments. An ‘all nuclear-armed nations’ dialogue could be utilized as an opportunity to re-establish talks with Pyonyang.

The agenda of this envisioned nuclear meeting would have to go beyond other forums. Nuclear disarmament and arms control, safety and security of nuclear arsenals, and non-proliferation remain at the heart of any nuclear dialogue. The Obama – Singh statement hints at generating confidence and building mutual trust at the multilateral level and to make commitments towards reaching disarmament.

A meaningful nuclear dialogue would require acknowledgment that there are nine nuclear weapons states in the world; moreover, there will always be potential nuclear weapon seekers. Often, confidence building measures (CBMs) are restricted to bilateral or trilateral dialogues. These include issues like mutual non-aggression and non-aggression against non-nuclear weapons states, understanding of nuclear doctrines and policies, better communication links and strengthening conventional CBMs. Such measures could also be undertaken at the multilateral level between all states possessing nuclear weapons, along with security building measures on safety and security of nuclear arsenals.

There is a need for all the nuclear weapons states to sit together and exchange views on nuclear policies and related issues like missile defence systems, cyber security, and environmental threats from nuclear calamities. There is also an opportunity to insist that the P5 cannot keep reiterating their commitment to nuclear disarmament without showing progress on this same front, beginning with the New START. Moreover, nuclear weapons states like India, Pakistan and Israel would be engaged as dialogue partners in the same way as engaging any other NPT signatory state.

The dialogue should not be premised on individual agendas or fighting diplomatic battles. It cannot be projected as a dialogue between the regime members and non-members; the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys. Neither should it be projected as a new-regime building exercise. Such an image would be disastrous and might encourage potential nuclear weapons seekers.

For India, this dialogue would be an individual triumph, not only for being the co-founder of the idea, but also for being a responsible nuclear weapons state. India has been campaigning for universal No First Use of nuclear weapons, a stand which China supports. The multilateral discourse would allow for a Track-I level nuclear dialogue with Pakistan and China. India has taken initiatives in the past to shape a nuclear weapons-free world. The Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan was one such brave effort. The plan was deemed utopian as it contained the concept of total nuclear disarmament. But, there is an opportunity now for building confidence between states with nuclear weapons, providing an opportunity to seek incentives for nuclear disarmament.

The idea is still nascent. Taking advantage of its rise to the high table, India should pursue the idea further with vigour.

Tanvi Kulkarni, Research Intern, IPCS, and may be reached at [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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