Spectres Of Nuclear ‘MAD’ness: Between Deterrence And Survival – OpEd


With the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in place, is there an optimistic scenario of a nuclear-weapon free world? This might certainly be a difficult but persistently challenging question the world has been grappling with ever since the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by atomic bombs, way back in 1945. 

Spectres of nuclear holocaust have been haunting political communities across the world even after the end of Cold War. While the world’s most powerful nuclear-weapon states (NWS) have been locked in a military logjam—often characterised as ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD)—a few states in Asia (including threshold states like Iran) still get absorbed in the logic of ‘limited nuclear deterrence.’ India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel are harbouring a notion that nuclear weapon is a currency of power that can recalibrate regional balance and strategic equations given their long-term conflicts with adversaries, far and near. This is at a time when the big players in the nuclear club are under pressure to scale down their nuclear arsenal. Inevitably, debates on ‘vertical and horizontal proliferation’ have assumed a new dimension today with TPNW is in force as a legal international instrument. 

The age of nuclear weapons began in a catastrophe in the Asia-Pacific region in the last century with the bombing of two cities in Japan. The two episodes of massive killing in Japan clearly showed how dangerous, disastrous and inhumane these weapons would be. Seventy-six years since then, the distressing scenario today is that the danger of nuclear disaster is as critical as it has ever been, and the goal of realising their elimination from the world is as distant from accomplishment as it has ever been. Treaties and agreements put in place from time to time for nuclear arms control have been made ineffective or meaningless by the NWS. With hardly any effort underway for negotiations, global commitment to non-proliferation or a total ban would remain problematic. 

Nukes Accumulation 

Paradoxical it may seem, the Asian continent has again become a hotbed of global nuclear threats with several nuclear-weapon states now spanning fault lines running through East Asia, in the Korean Peninsula, China’s eastern and southern coastline and across the Himalayas in South Asia and West Asia–and all of them presently recalibrating their nuclear profiles. And the share of Asia in the ‘horizontal proliferation’ is quite significant. As per the data brought out by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the NWS—the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Kore—together have in their arsenal an estimated 13,080 nuclear weapons at the beginning of 2021. While Russia (6255) and the U.S. (5550) possess more than 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons, China has 350 weapons in its inventory, followed by France (290), UK (225), Pakistan (165), India (156), Israel (90), and North Korea (40-50). 

Apparently, the total inventory of nuclear weapons is falling.  Yet, the rate of decline is slowing over the years, according to SIPRI estimates. Whatever reduction we are witnessing in total global stocks is due to the dismantling of retired warheads (of the earlier years) by the U.S. and Russia. But in terms of operational military stockpiles, the total number is on an increase. While France and Israel have fairly stable inventories, Russia, China, India, North Korea, and Pakistan are reportedly enlarging their nukes profiles. Moreover, all the NWS seem committed to modernizing their nuclear weapons, putting in place new categories and expanding the function they perform. 

Nuclear Ban Regime 

The efforts seeking a legally mandatory instrument to ban nuclear weapons have long been underway. However, they have found a new relevance in the past decade with the increasing awareness about the humanitarian and environmental costs of use of nuclear arms. Several conferences and meetings were held during the first half of the last decade addressing the humanitarian impact of use of nuclear weapons. These deliberations—coordinated by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) with the participation of several states and international non-governmental organisations—brought forth demands for immediate action and negotiations for prohibiting nuclear weapons. Earlier, the 2010 NPT Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of nuclear weapons had also put valid arguments across for necessary action in this direction. This culminated in the passing of a resolution (71/258) by the UN General Assembly in 2017 to negotiate a legally binding instrument to ban nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination. And the Conference was held from 27 to 31 March and from 15 June to 7 July in New York which led to the TPNW.   

The Treaty envisages a broad set of regulations for prohibition on partaking in any nuclear weapon programmes and activities. These regulatory clauses stipulate that the signatories shall “not develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.” It also forbids “the deployment of nuclear weapons on national territory and the provision of assistance to any State in the conduct of prohibited activities.” The Treaty also makes it mandatory for the signatories “to provide adequate assistance to individuals affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons, as well as to take necessary and appropriate measure of environmental remediation in areas under its jurisdiction or control contaminated as a result of activities related to the testing or use of nuclear weapons.” 

TPNW was adopted (by a vote of 122 States in favour, with one vote against and one abstention) at the United Nations on 7 July 2017, and opened for signature by the Secretary-General on 20 September 2017. Following the deposit with the Secretary-General of the 50th instrument of ratification or accession of the Treaty on 24 October 2020, it entered into force on 22 January 2021 in accordance with its Article 15 (1). 

‘Consensus’ For Opposition! 

TPNW, which currently has 86 signatory states, has been totally ignored by the NWS and NATO member states. ‘Consensus’ among the NWS in regard to their opposition to the Treaty could also be a grim reminder. For example, in a joint statement made at the First Committee of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly in October 2018, Russia, China, UK, U.S. and France had informed that they would not sign the TPNW. The statement says: “We will not support, sign or ratify this Treaty. The TPNW will not be binding on our countries, and we do not accept any claim that it contributes to the development of customary international law; nor does it set any new standards or norms. We call on all countries that are considering supporting the TPNW to reflect seriously on its implications for international peace and security.”  

Moscow said that the Treaty “does not contribute to nuclear disarmament, undermines the NPT and provokes growing contradictions among its Parties.” China also voted against an UN General Assembly resolution since 2018 that welcomed the adoption of the Treaty as it “not accept any claim that (the treaty) contributes to the development of customary international law.”  The U.S. had led a multi-nation boycott of the Treaty’s negotiation in 2017, and made it clear that it would “not sign, ratify, or become party to it.” Washington has also been modernising the three wings of its nuclear triad.  The country has also invested a substantial amount of money “to warhead modification, update and life extension projects.”   

The two sensitive states in South Asia—India and Pakistan—have taken more or less the same position. While India was unwilling to participate in the negotiations on the TPNW, it “consistently made it clear that it will not become a party to the Treaty” and “shall not be bound by any of the obligations that may arise from it.”  New Delhi believed that the TPNW “does not constitute or contribute to the development of customary international law; nor does it set any new standards or norms.” Pakistan said that “None of the nuclear-armed states, including Pakistan, took part in the negotiations of the treaty which failed to take on board the legitimate interests of all the stakeholders.” Pakistan’s Foreign office said that “the right of each state to security should be kept in mind, and at each stage of the disarmament process the objective would be undiminished security for all states at the lowest possible level of armaments and military forces.” 

Japan—the only country to have ever been devastated by the nuclear attacks—has also refused to sign the Treaty. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stated that Japan would not join the Treaty which he made clear in his remarks at a press conference after the peace memorial ceremony marking the 76th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He also referred to “the increasingly severe security environment” surrounding Japan, and said the country will not ratify the nuclear weapons ban treaty, a report quoted. However, Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui urged world leaders to shift away from “nuclear deterrence to trust-building dialogue.” Matsui demanded the Japanese government’s “immediate signing and ratification” of the U.N. Treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Last year also, during the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima day, the mayor had pointed to the Japanese government’s hypocrisy in not signing the Treaty. However, Matsui said: “The road to abolition will not be smooth, but a ray of hope shines from the young people now taking up the hibakusha’s quest.”  He also called for the Japanese government to sign and ratify it in order to carry out “productive mediation” between nuclear and non-nuclear-weapon states.  

Between Deterrence and Survival 

In his The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (1989), Lawrence Freedman says, “The Emperor Deterrence may have no clothes, but he is still Emperor.” David Barash adds: “Despite his nakedness, this emperor continues to strut about, receiving deference he doesn’t deserve, while endangering the entire world. Nuclear deterrence is an idea that became a potentially lethal ideology, one that remains influential despite having been increasingly discredited.” In his last major speech to the House of Commons in March 1955, Winston Churchill spoke about the threat of nuclear holocaust but ended with a note of optimism: “we shall by a process of sublime irony have reached a stage in this story where safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.” 

Just before his demise in 2018, Stephen Hawking had warned: “Humans need to leave Earth or risk being annihilated by nuclear war or climate change.” Hawking wrote that climate change and the possibility of nuclear war were “putting humans in grave danger, adding that of nuclear war is likely the biggest threat to humanity.” 

The scary vision of a possible future comes from several studies about how nuclear war could destroy the world. Scientists also continue to warn about a ‘nuclear winter’ that researchers forecast would follow a nuclear war, fought by major or minor NWS. They all agreed that the nuclear menace is rising—from North Korea to Iran, from Israel to India and Pakistan. 

Way back in 1955, the well-known Russell-Einstein Manifesto had warned of the perils of nuclear weapons. This declaration put across what Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein called “the stark and dreadful and inescapable” problem of the nuclear age: “Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?” Given the continuing proliferation tempo, both vertically and horizontally, peace loving people across the world can never abandon the dream of achieving the elimination of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. The risk of catastrophic misuse of nuclear weapons, deliberately or―more likely―by accident or miscalculation, is as grave and immediate as it has ever been. And the existential threat nuclear weapons pose to life on this planet is as significant as those of climate change and global pandemic, and in many ways more immediate.   

*The author is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala who also served as Dean and Professor of International Relations, MGU.  He can be contacted at [email protected]  

K.M. Seethi

K.M. Seethi, ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Academic Advisor to the International Centre for Polar Studies (ICPS) and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India. He was earlier Professor of International Relations and Dean of Social Sciences, MGU.

One thought on “Spectres Of Nuclear ‘MAD’ness: Between Deterrence And Survival – OpEd

  • August 9, 2021 at 7:31 am

    The scenario of horizontal proliferation is even frightening. Countries like Pakistan and Iran will trigger the process in more sensitive regions like Central Asia. Don’t know how long will we have to wait for a nuclear-free world. Hawking’s forecast is not a mere wild conjecture. Threat is so imminent.


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