By Jonathan Power
There are 29 states which have, at one time or another, set about becoming nuclear weapons powers or have explored the possibility. Most have failed or drawn back. Only the US, Russia, France, UK, China, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea have crossed the threshold.
The common belief that when a state has decided to do so it goes for it as fast as it can is wrong. Sweden, Japan, Algeria, Australia, Italy, Yugoslavia, West Germany, Egypt, Iraq, Switzerland, Syria, Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan, South Korea, Norway, South Africa, Pakistan and India all sought to acquire nuclear weapons, but their pace and commitment were different.
In the end, all but Pakistan and India became convinced to kill their programs. For many years, Indian leaders, unconvinced of their value or the morality of use, stalled the urge of nuclear scientists to step up the pace of research and engineering.
Nuclear weapon possession is usually counterproductive. Vipin Narang, in Harvard’s “International Security” has shown that “on average, states pursuing nuclear weapons face more armed conflict”. In the case of the US and the Soviet Union (now Russia) it led to an arms race that enabled each side to blow up each other’s civilization not just once but many times- and blow up themselves in the process. Now, thirty years after the demise of the Soviet Union, these two nuclear powers are in danger of the war in Ukraine dragging them into a military confrontation, one that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons.
North Korea is today’s hot potato. Clearly, the regime is moving things forward as fast as possible. But in past years—during the administrations of presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump—North Korea was prepared to compromise.
Indeed, at one time—before it had the bomb—it slowed developments right down in return for the US and South Korea building it a light-water nuclear reactor, which is now a hole in the ground. On two occasions, the Republicans in Congress sabotaged all attempts at compromise after the president had fashioned an agreement, and North Korea returned to full-speed ahead. Now it appears to have a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the USA.
Thanks to the research of Narang and many others, India, a military superpower of the not-too-distant future, allows us to look at what can happen behind the curtain of secrecy.
Vacillating nuclear policies
The first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, abhorred nuclear weapons, but in 1948 in parliament, he did say that if he felt India was truly threatened, he would give the go-ahead. In the mid-1950s, although India was not threatened in any serious way by Pakistan and China, he initiated the building of a plutonium reactor bought from Canada and a reprocessing facility at Trombay that could produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Nehru’s successor was Lal Bahadur Shastri who was much more against nuclear weapons than Nehru. Nevertheless, under pressure from nuclear scientists and the opposition he allowed work to continue on peaceful explosions for “development work”. This meant that India would soon possess weapons-grade fissile material. It didn’t mean engineering nuclear bombs. India maintained that it sought world nuclear disarmament, not bombs of its own.
Shastri’s successor, Indira Gandhi, authorized the first peaceful nuclear test. She too, as she spelt out to me in a full-page interview in the International Herald Tribune and Washington Post, hated the idea of India possessing nuclear weapons, but clearly, by allowing the peaceful test, was hedging her bets. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1979/12/30/indira-gandhis-quest/f3a769e0-1460-47b2-b183-5aef8638f960/
Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty
Her successor, Morarji Desai, was anxious to make a deal with the US. If the US signed the Test Ban Treaty and promised to continue to provide enriched uranium for India’s power plants, India would renounce the right to build a bomb. The US, under President Jimmy Carter, refused the deal.
Mrs Gandhi came back to power and then was assassinated. She had felt misled by her scientists and had forbidden any future peaceful explosions. Her son, Rajiv, took over. He kept a tight rein on what his scientists were up to and ensured that all research decisions had to be channelled across the prime minister’s desk.
In March 1988, Rajiv somersaulted. He had received definitive evidence that Pakistan was developing nuclear weapons. (Later on, the US and Europe, wanting Pakistan to help them with the war in Afghanistan, were to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s bomb developments.) He also felt his fingers had been burnt by his failure at the UN to get the big powers to take nuclear disarmament seriously. Rajiv ordered weaponization.
One thing stands out despite the ups and downs: it is possible to persuade newcomers to renounce nuclear weapons. There is always a window of opportunity (but a missed one, as North Korea and India show). There are often successes, as Algeria, Libya, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa demonstrate. But the US, in particular, has to offer something substantial. This is what was wrong with Carter’s diplomacy and with presidents Bush, Obama, Trump—and Joe Biden’s policies right now.