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SAFETY IN NUMBERS
- The Indo-US nuclear deal might end up as a dead proposition

It has been, some will say, an exceedingly good wind; the outcome of the mid-term poll in the United States of America is going to induce fresh possibilities in several directions. A huge number of Indian citizens — barring, what a pity, the country’s prime minister — will have their particular reasons to feel delighted. In the altered situation, the Indo-US nuclear deal that George W. Bush wanted to ram through — notwithstanding, or probably because of, the rushed vote in the Senate — is likely to end up as a dead proposition. The newly constituted American Congress would be in no mood to pay heed to New Delhi’s sensitivities on certain key issues; as a result, India might be able to continue with its independent nuclear development programme. This should bring enormous cheer not only to the scientific community here, but also to millions across the globe currently at the receiving end of White House insolence.

That old fox, Karl Marx, had got it right as early as in the 1870s: “It is not the weakness of the strong, but the strength of the weak, that changes the shape of history.” Consider the strange case of North Korea. Till as long as that country’s government did not succeed in testing a nuclear device, the world’s mightiest power was roaring like a lion. The US and its close buddies were free to carry out nuclear experiments. But not North Korea; the American administration kept marshalling all the forces it was capable of marshalling to thwart the nuclear ambition of the Pyongyang regime. The latter chose to defy President Bush and has now attained its prime objective: independent nuclear capability.

Once it has done so, the US stance has undergone a qualitative shift. The routine condemnation of what the North Koreans have achieved is of course there. In addition, the United Nations security council has been persuaded to pass a resolution imposing a number of restrictions on transactions which the northern county is permitted to carry on with the rest of the world. What is noteworthy though, the sanctions are more or less of a formal nature, and not of a comprehensive character. The regime in North Korea is not terribly concerned. It knows fully well that, given the compulsions of global geo-politics, the People’s Republic of China will bail it out in extremities without bothering too much about the provisions of the security council resolution. The security council, after all, has no teeth; it is in no position to discipline China.

Despite their obsession over the non-proliferation treaty, the big five constituting the inclusive nuclear club — the US, the United Kingdom, Russia, France and China — have to grin and bear the challenge thrown at them by Pyongyang. Their monopoly had already been breached, in some manner or other, by India, Israel and Pakistan; North Korea is merely an extra name in the list of proliferators. That apart, the North Korean feat will now make life easier for Iran too. American browbeating did not deter Pyongyang. Tehran could now be expected to take the cue and cock a snook as much at the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN security council as at the mighty US.

Ideologues admittedly exist who will be saddened by the unfolding events. They are no admirers of the nuclear hegemony which the US is seeking to establish on a global scale. They are, at the same time, gravely concerned — their sincerity in the matter is beyond question — over the prospect of an emerging global order where dozens of country governments sit merrily on top of an impressive stockpile of nuclear weaponry; any of these governments might, at some moment or other, come under the spell of a Doctor Strangelove who could, in a mood of stark madness, destroy the human race. The anti-nuclear missionaries have therefore been campaigning unceasingly to rid the world of the nuclear menace. They immensely dislike American hauteur; even so, they would prefer more and more nations to sign the NPT. Not surprisingly, they are disappointed no end by the North Korean development, and keep appealing to the other nations itching to join the nuclear queue to think and think again.

By all means, the point of view of these well-meaning men and women should be accorded respectful consideration. But what about giving a hearing to those others too who look at the issue from a slightly different perspective' The descent from the high horse by the US administration in the wake of the North Korean conquest of the nuclear technology and its sudden keenness to sit down at the negotiation table with Pyongyang emissaries provide a vindication of what Marx had said a century and a quarter ago: authoritarians stop bullying only when confronted by a force which has the ability to launch a bout of counter-bullying. Following North Korea, Iran too, should it produce its own nuclear devices, would, it is a fair supposition, get away with just a mild reprobation. And the story is hardly going to end there. The nuclear NPT is bound to be rendered into an anachronistic document as more and more countries begin to opt out of it. If everything else gets globalized, it would be absurd to assume that nuclear technology would not transform into a free-market commodity. Once nuclear proliferation proceeded at breakneck speed, give or take ten to fifteen years, as many as fifty countries — all members of the UN — would each perhaps come to acquire sizeable quantities of nuclear weapons.

Will it be a more perilous world then' Two alternative hypotheses are conceivable. Under one, with the explosive increase in nuclear proliferation, the risk of the number of countries that are both nuclear and led by irresponsible and irrational persons is likely to go up; in consequence, the danger of the world being blown up any day could mount. There can, however, be a contrary hypothesis based on the statistical theory which lays stress on the inertia of large numbers: in a big universe, the propensity of some constituents to move in one particular direction is neutralized by the propensity of other constituents to move in the reverse direction, so much so that the existing equilibrium remains undisturbed.

If credence is lent to the second hypothesis, nuclear proliferation need not lead to inexorable disaster; the denouement could be quite of a different kind, the exercise of restraint on the part of everyone involved, thus contributing to a condition of global stability. This, of course, does not preclude the freak possibility — often describe by statisticians as a ‘stochastic’ occurrence — of a frighteningly unbalanced individual coming to command the affairs of a country and who, all of a sudden, goes totally berserk. Such a disastrous accident could, however, happen irrespective of whether the number of nuclear nations is large or small. For instance, even were the US the only nuclear country on earth, the vagaries of democratic elections could foist on the American people a president who was both comprehensively demented and indescribably arrogant.

Imagine, for a moment, what might have ensued had, through some happenstance, a Joe McCarthy or a Spiro Agnew come to occupy the White House and was, therefore, the sole decision-maker with respect to the disposal of the world’s stock of atomic and hydrogen bombs. The common saying of there being safety in numbers would seem to pack a lot of wisdom.

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