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A TOAST TO QADEER KHAN
- The nuclear black market is the true indicator of market realities

After Iraq, for each of George W. Bush’s pronouncements, the instinctive urge is to record something to the contrary. The Pakistani nuclear proliferator, Abdul Qadeer Khan, is, in the judgment of the American president, an international criminal. Because he says so, should not Khan deserve to be hailed as a major benefactor of the human race'

There is more to it than frivolity. Bush, in condemning Khan, has tied himself up in knots. Khan is castigated because the latter has turned out to be the principal sponsor of the global “black market” in nuclear arms. But in terms of the philosophy that the American president and his administration wear on their sleeves, the black market is the true indicator of market realities and accordingly deserves to be respected in all seasons. The mantram that the hyperpower has sought to indoctrinate the poorer nations of the world with is that it is immoral on the part of the authorities, whoever they are, to impose restrictions on the production and distribution of commodities, just any commodity.

If control is enforced on supplies or an artificial price is set for the commodity in question that is way out of alignment with market demand, the inevitable consequence is the black market. To impede the free movement of goods and commodities is sin. The black market is society’s design to extricate itself from that sin. The black marketeer should therefore be hailed as a saviour, and not damned as a criminal.

For more than half a century, the administration of the United States of America and its cronies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have spread this message, extolling the black market and condemning the folly of price and supply controls, to the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Abdul Qadeer Khan can legitimately claim to have applied the philosophy of the free market to the arena of nuclear weaponry. That philosophy, which is against monopoly and for total freedom of trade, should be equally relevant for the trade in nuclear arms. Considered from this angle, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty deserves to be disapproved of.

The half-a-dozen-or-thereabouts countries, who have formed a closed shop of stockpiling nuclear weapons, are naturally not interested to see the business proliferate: that would diminish their clout; they want to have a monopoly of the clout. This attitude cuts athwart the universality of the free market principle and is against all that the US administration, on the face of it, stands for. Should the US and Bush, nonetheless, insist that the tribe of Abdul Qadeer Khans be cashiered, they would prove themselves to be hypocrites and frauds. If one swears by Milton Freedman, one must have the catholicity to greet Khan as a great liberator. An international market exists for nuclear weapons and the technology for assembling such weapons. Khan has chosen to ensure supplies for this market and he can quote the American moral code: catering to the needs of a market is no crime; it is, on the other hand, an essential modality to satisfy a specific global need.

As long as there is pent-up demand, supply from clandestine sources is most unlikely to dry up. That is, after all, the first lesson in market economics. The matter can be pursued, with equal felicity from the demand side too. Again, after Iraq, those amongst the poorer nations who are tempted to go for a nuclear stockpile are bound to be in a cynical frame of mind. Not accumulating weapons of mass destruction did not save Saddam Hussein; what the heck, one might be hanged as well for a sheep as for a lamb. The superpower will overrun their territory, kill their people, demolish their buildings, burn their fields, irrespective of whether they possess or do not possess weapons of mass destruction.

Having arrived at this conclusion, many countries around the world, who do not have nuclear capability of their own, may not mind buying on the sly such weaponry from international merchants like Khan. The US sponsored proliferation security initiative will hardly impress them. It, in effect, proposes to supplant the prerogatives of the International Atomic Energy Authority by deemed representatives of God’s Own Country; it will imply the establishment of a global nuclear empire presided over by the US, and the US alone. But post-Iraq, the Americans can offer no guarantee to a country that it would escape unhurt if it did not stockpile deadly weapons, including nuclear warheads. Placed in this predicament, the leaders of these countries will make a bonfire of their inhibitions, and go ahead and buy nuclear weapons in the black market. Were they in possession of such weapons, they, it will be argued, at least stand a somewhat greater chance to avert American aggression, for they could seek the advantage of a surprise first strike.

The rape of Iraq, even when American and British intelligence were not at all confident that Saddam Hussein was in actual possession of weapons of mass destruction, demolishes whatever rational case the exclusive nuclear club had earlier claimed for nuclear non-proliferation. Which is to say, the Americans cannot defend the nuclear monopoly either on the basis of the free-market philosophy or on straightforward ethical grounds. The members of the nuclear club cannot pretend to be trustees, because they cannot be trusted. The so-called black market is really the principal instrument to save the world from the threat of nuclear annihilation of the weaker nations by the stronger ones.

Should this conclusion sound as so much hokum, please consider the prospects that lie ahead. At the rate at which technology, including nuclear technology, is progressing, the production of nuclear arms could soon be rendered into a cottage industry. Once the problem of the scale factor in atomic fission is overcome, assembling a nuclear bomb could almost be child’s play; not just small countries, even mafia groups could begin to flaunt nuclear armoury. Regulating technological progress is marked by the same difficulty as visits nuclear arms control. The superpower abhors the idea of proliferation of nuclear technology and wish to put a muzzle on it; thanks to market reality, it would however be impossible to translate the wish into an act.

This is a nighmarish thought. At the same time, is this also not the last ray of hope for those who pine for a nuclear-free world' The permanence of nuclear monopoly or oligopoly is an impossibility, for it cannot be enforced. Where there is a demand, there will be a supply and a black market will flourish. If you suppress it at this spot, it will rear its head somewhere else. The only means to rid the world of this menace, therefore, lies in the emergence of a concordat whereby both members and non-members of the nuclear club agree to destroy all their weapons of mass destruction, together and at the same time, under the auspices of an international agency in which all countries, big and small, hold equal weight.

A concordat of this nature hinges on the creation of conditions which frighten out of their wits the existing nuclear powers; and they could be frightened out of their wits only if some of the hitherto non-nuclear nations take advantage of the black market in nuclear materials and technology, and proceed to manufacture one or two bombs on their own. A stray maverick, or a couple of such mavericks, could blackmail the nuclear powers into total de-nuclearization. Come to think of it, Khan has shown the way how this can be done. A toast to him.

Purists may hesitate to join the toast; their queasiness will be because Khan has made some private money from his deals. So what' Does not the free-market philosophy preach the maximization of one’s profits'

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