By Vijay Shankar*
“…the consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.” — George Orwell, 1984
The Stalin-Churchill Exchange
In 1946, a fustian exchange between Stalin and Churchill was to set the stage for incessant crises in international relations since. On commercialism, Stalin declared “… development of world capitalism does not proceed smoothly and evenly, but through crises and catastrophic wars.” The awkward irony is that an uncertain world fragmented into hostile camps on the brink is today’s reality. Condemning Soviet policies, Churchill professed, “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory. From Stettin…to Trieste …, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” The exchange was self-fulfilling as the world knuckled down to an ideological declaration of war. With each passing year, heightened tensions, rise of bigoted and revisionist beliefs marked relationships; to add to it, the disrupting role of non-state actors and nuclear proliferation thrust new elements into the cauldron.
Nuclear Crisis Group
Recognising that peril lay in the inability of formal establishments to monitor potential situations of nuclear conflict and that contemporary nuclear security had introduced dynamics vastly dissimilar to the two-bloc confrontation, a crisis group was formed as a sub-sect of the Global Zero Commission. Its mission is to analyse these predicaments, develop proposals for de-escalation and consult with appropriate agencies to diminish the danger of a nuclear exchange. The Group, an international assemblage of experts from nuclear armed countries and supporters, met for the first time on 5-6 May 2017.
Wink-and-Nod Perils: Proliferation, Non-State Actors, and Orwellian Wars
Dangers of nuclear proliferation and the deranging role of non-state actors accessing nuclear technologies has been well-acknowledged but more often acted upon with a “wink-a facetious rebuke-and-a nod;” this selective look-away has consequences. The imbroglio in US dealings with Pakistan in the Afghan war exemplifies the penalties. Pakistan, an acknowledged dishonest US partner was, the US establishment asserts, “living a lie.” Pakistan’s military played ‘both ends against the middle’. It provides logistic conduits for money; while giving financial, material, intelligence and weapons to the jihadists. Indeed, there have been tactical gains but these pale to insignificance faced by the most conspicuous strategic failure: Pakistan providing sanctuary and sustenance to jihadis. Combat, over the last 16 years (or 38?) in the absence of genuine strategic impetus, has morphed to an ‘Orwellian’ war. And as war rages, Pakistan remains a haven to the highest concentration of terrorist groups while its nuclear fervour advances undiminished.
China has been central to nuclear proliferation in the region and the Pakistani weapons programme; from the blueprint of a nuclear device, through testing, to the AQ Khan enterprise and now to tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs).The reasons for China’s profligate orientation may have originally reflected balance-of-power logic; however, the costs are perilous. Are we living another wink?
In strategic persuasion, Pakistan’s military is convinced that the US’ Afghan withdrawal will leave a devastated warring Afghanistan and an enfeebled insurgency-wracked Pakistan. They envisage a lonely and losing confrontation against the growing economic and military influence of the avowed enemy, India. This had to be countered by persisting with jihadis as the sine qua non of military strategy. While some have suggested that terror organisations may not be under their control, this is denial of the internals of that state where the nexus between the army, intelligence service and jihadists is as old as the state. Unmistakably, the Islamic State (IS) has been seduced into the sub-continent; can the world, China and indeed this Group now be blind to the looming jihadist access to a nuclear arsenal?
Technology Intrusions and the Cyber Dimension
Nuclear weapons have put the world on a razor’s edge, in part because of the powerlessness to control how political events and technology are driving policy. While technology invites covertness; lethality, precision, stealth and time compression that accompany it demand transparency. This is the dilemma faced by planners: to balance the impact of technology with the need for openness. In the cyber domain, transparency will reduce hazards of unintended actions as states prepare to use this arena to manipulate command networks.
The Road to Abolishment
The only way to eliminate the risk of nuclear weapons is through abolition. If this is the leitmotif, the no first use (NFU) posture is its first handmaiden backed by reduced reliance on nuclear weapons and the removal of battle field nuclear weapons and TNWs. This proposition in toto was unanimously welcomed by the NCG.
Nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists is the biggest global concern. Discriminating between terror groups and making them instruments of state policy had to be rejected collectively. In addition to this overarching perspective, the Group identified four priority geopolitical dynamics that risked escalation to nuclear conflagration: the Korean Peninsula predicament, US/NATO-Russia meltdown in relations, the South Asia conundrum and US-China confrontation.
The NCG aimed for complete denuclearisation through negotiations with North Korea balanced against a calibrated end to US military exercises and provocative deployments in the Republic of Korea and easing of sanctions. China’s role in the North Korean problem had to be leveraged (not only has China fought a war on its behalf but provides existential sustenance).
US, Russia, NATO
Crisis instability between the US, Russia and NATO has taken a dangerous turn, triggered by the Russian nuclear war-fighting doctrine and statements that the US has neither obligation to limit nuclear-arms nor testing. In this circumstance, the impending US nuclear posture review (NPR) will likely cause disquiet given the current turbulence in West Asia, confused war on the IS in Syria, the ‘perpetual’ wars in Iraq and the Af-Pak region, Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, recalcitrant Chinese activities in the South and East China Seas, and increased nuclear activity by North Korea. But the real discounted problem in the entanglement is how to devise measures that will prevent a slide back to the early Cold War era.
South Asian Situation
India has a declared nuclear doctrine; at its heart is NFU and generation of a credible minimum deterrent. India does not differentiate between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons on the grounds that use of nuclear weapons introduces an uncontrollable development. To suggest that ambiguity and first use provide options is to suggest that nuclear war fighting, in conventional terms, is an option. This is denial of the nature of nuclear weapons. With Pakistan there are foundational complications; it has no declared doctrine, while the hold of the ‘deep state’ (the military-intelligence-jihadi combine) on the country is so smothering that dialogue is confounded by the question, “who to dialogue with?” Duplicity and denial on issues related to state support, sanctuary and complicity with terror organisations makes confabulations with civilian government a sterile exercise. Continued collusion with China on nuclear weapons production and proliferation is an area that must be seized; if multilateral constraints are not in place then the probability of these technologies falling into jihadi hands is high.
US-China relations remain fragile as the latter’s growth and aspirations come in conflict with US’ global influence as is apparent in the sporadic friction that flares in the South and East China seas. China’s revisionist drive in this expanse and its military modernisation plans and policy have not helped to pacify matters. Rather it has increased the probability of escalation. Its surreptitious nuclear proliferatory enterprises have further exacerbated the situation. While China has over the years quite steadfastly adhered to its NFU nuclear policy, it is its support of maverick states such as North Korea and Pakistan that is worrisome.
A Half-Way Conclusion
Fragmentation in geopolitics, rise of bigoted revisionist ideologies, nuclear perfidy of authoritarian dispensations and the end of an overwrought global order make for fragility in nuclear affairs. As states see themselves besieged by forces beyond control, it is timely that the Group has raised its collective voice to temper the idealistic nuclear agenda of abolition with a dose of realism that first charts a course across two pragmatic way points: NFU and removal of tactical nuclear weapons.
* Vijay Shankar
Former Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command of India