By Sheel Kant Sharma
August is the month of remembrance of the ghastly tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Such remembrance is far from a mere annual routine of some ritual happenings – there is no dearth of moral, ethical, legal or humanitarian condemnation of those two atomic bombings. Even at the risk of being repetitious, these occasions merit every word uttered, every gesture shown, every action demanded and visions invoked, inspired by the memories of those towns and their people who were eviscerated. The contrived relief of non-repetition of that horror falls flat when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists displays its doomsday clock close to midnight.
The best and brightest of the last century who took part in that Manhattan Project before 1945 had serious qualms as the days progressed in July 1945 to the Trinity Test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, which would turn the ‘gadget’ into a ‘bomb’. They were, most of them, opposed to its use against Japan; and their revulsion has been detailed in numerous books.
As for India, it is a peculiar coincidence of history that even though it was trapped in the chains of a dominion struggling for independence in 1945, lacking its formal say in the then comity of nations, an ardent scholar in the person of the father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, invoked India’s cultural heritage of the millennia past. Oppenheimer, as is widely known, recited a shloka from the Bhagavad Geeta on seeing the ‘gadget’ explode in the Trinity test in July 1945: ‘brighter than a thousand suns’ was the metaphor from the Bhagavad Geeta; and a science historian, Robert Jungk, titled his account of the Manhattan Project with this metaphor. “I am become Death, the destroyer of the worlds” recited Oppenheimer from the Bhagavad Gita.
There is another quote from Indian scriptures in Sanskrit which Oppenheimer translated and read to another physicist on 11 July (five days before the Trinity Test):
“In Battle, in forest, at the precipice in the mountains
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him.”
This was reflective of the inner torment of the scientist who, nine years later, would pay for his sanity and sincerity in the McCarthy era; when he was humiliated and incarcerated as a security risk. Those times are recalled to point out how uncertain and unfounded the claims were of those who came to justify the bombing of Japanese towns in the face of revulsion from the great scientists. In fact, as the history of that period shows, practically every danger that is attached to nuclear weapons today, including nuclear terror, was visualised even in that period just after World War II.
It has become conventional wisdom to speak about deterrence theories in the context of nuclear weapons. It is taken as almost a given that nuclear weapons deter nuclear weapons because resorting to their use has not been repeated since 1945. Study and analysis of deterrence doctrines and theories has generally proceeded basically from a rational, game theoretic process, the provenance of which can also be traced to military procurement, deployments, logistics and inventory control during World War II that preceded nuclear bombs, and such provenance is rooted in the technology of that era. On the other hand, the unravelling of the nuclear age has brought to the fore a difficult diversity about approaches, technologies, compulsions and purposes for acquisition and amassing of nuclear weapons. This diversity is not amenable to simplistic norms, understandings or solutions.
In the disarmament lexicon enormous weight is placed on ‘universalisation’ or universal acceptability. However, a reality check tends to show that among various nuclear-armed states, both existing and potential, the underpinnings of nuclear deterrence theories are scarcely universal. They vary according to countries, regions and situations. In fact the march of history in recent decades has catapulted well-worn concepts and theories of deterrence into an expanding universe, as it were, where the seekers find convergence progressively more and more elusive. Theory therefore faces today big challenges and severe limitations in the actual realm of various nuclear deterrents. The spectre of deterrence failure persists and cannot be banished until nuclear weapons are abolished.
Even after acquiring nuclear weapons, for example, a State need not automatically achieve autonomy of decision-making because the security contexts, stakes and inter-play of diverse priorities that are inherent to its international situation and its political economy may differ substantially from what may be applicable to others. On the one hand there is the original war-time motivation and military exigency of developing a weapon – to end all wars – which lay behind the advent of the nuclear age. On the other hand, the subsequent evolution of the pursuits of that deadly weapon by multiple nations lacked that war-time exigency. The more the nuclear age sank into the great divide between East and West, and thence to MAD doctrines of ‘total war’ and extermination of the enemy, the more it moved away from the acute and intense phase of conventional war-fighting (eg in the Pacific after April 1945). The theoretical constructs to justify nuclear weapons after the war delved into conflict planning and management, crisis prevention, escalation control, and gaming consoles, and thus a whole architecture of national nuclear deterrents. In each of these dimensions closure on complex issues got more and more rooted in the political economy of the States concerned, thereby eluding the tight grasp, say, as was held by the military leaders at the inception of nuclear armament. The scientists, historians, economists, business, industry, political parties, and a whole spectrum of interest groups inevitably developed direct stakes and came to influence decision-making. This, as records coming out of the former Soviet Union also show, applied even behind the Iron Curtain, albeit with far less transparency. While the Cold War still offered an overarching compulsion to downplay and hide divergences within each block, the end of the Cold War and the fall of the USSR had taken away that overarching and compelling force from the dynamic of deterrence planning, notwithstanding the continuance and expansion of NATO.
Latter day theoretical constructs and inventions such as discriminate deterrence, or the ‘war on terror’, struggled to lend a semblance of totalisation to an inherently uncontainable universe of deterrence discourse and arms competition. Technology has played its role in confusing the picture and offering illusions of breakthroughs via the pursuit of invincibility. But each such illusion has led to more complex and interactive competition and theoretical abstractions. Missile defence is the most prominent example of this complexity, but the push of technology does not stop at missile defence alone and an entire range of futuristic options, such as cyber warfare or hypersonic missiles or global prompt delivery vectors are jostling for the attention of the most advanced economies. However, at a different level of technological advance and in an altogether different setting, this evolution mutates in other forms.
Take the subcontinent. Its main arms competitors a decade ago were approaching nuclear stockpiles of roughly 45-60 according to some estimates. Were they less secure than today when that magic figure may be over 100? In what way has that figure of 100 granted more operational manoeuvrability or control on the use of the oft-parroted strategic assets to further essential national interests or defend them? Regardless of the received wisdom of deterrence theories from older nuclear weapon States, the inherent features of the political economy of newer weapon States render their weapons in varying shades of purpose or uselessness. In the case of Pakistan, the politico-military elite may struggle to view its assets in triumphal terms and may, as is widely believed, treat them as a certain guarantee under which it seeks to pursue and promote jihad. This is entirely different from India’s case where its domestic challenges of poverty and comprehensive economic development, and of transcending social tensions and exclusion within a democratic polity find no panacea in nuclear weapons – which remain a categorical imperative rooted in the vulnerability flowing from its external security environment. The dialogue between the two remains mired in a hopeless predicament given the elusive grasp of each other’s motivations and compulsions. Moreover, this predicament belongs to a universe orthogonal to or detached from the space within which they articulate their deterrent doctrine or posture and justify their build-up.
In human history, wars, weapons and their exigencies came and went over time but nuclear weapons have created powerful illusions of permanent presence and need – the sustenance of which hardly squares up with the political economies of the States involved. Hence, probably, the quest for non-proliferation sometimes mutates into a desperate quest for ‘regime change’ as part of strategies for non-proliferation. This is also because the idealists and rationalists find no rationale for the pursuit of nuclear weapon capability except as obsessions of particular political groups or regimes. Be that as it may, so long as nuclear arsenals are in the possession of powerful countries, there will always be others who would aspire to possess them – alas!
Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative to UN Office in Vienna & IAEA