UNLIMITED DAMAGE - It is very likely that the nuclear taboo may soon be broken
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- Published 10.09.02
The author is currently visiting professor at the Academy of Third World Studies, Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi
There are genuine fears that the anticipated American war on Iraq might lead to such an explosion of hostility towards the United States of America that somewhere down the line, over the next few years or decades nuclear weapons might be used by terrorist groups or by the US itself. Such a prognosis no longer seems unreal. The world remains very much under the nuclear shadow. Barring the first few years after the end of the Cold War (when genuine steps tow- ards actual nuclear disarmament and not just arms management were being taken), in the post-Cold War period now unfolding, the dangers of nuclear war are even greater, albeit different, from what they were during that past. Then the justified fear was of a global holocaust. Now it is of a regional or “limited” nuclear war or exchange.
Supporters of nuclear weapons in India do not want to believe this. On the contrary, they want to use the example of that Cold War past as reassurance that we need not fear the use of nuclear weapons now. Deterrence assured peace then, so it will do so now! Actually, the world came close to nuclear use on a number of occasions during the Cold War, especially in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962.
Nuclear peace was not the result of deterrence but much more that of the existence of a nuclear taboo established by the very horror of what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki 57 years ago. Despite US governments contemplating the use of nuclear weapons during the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as on other occasions, the White House was fully aware that even the American public would not condone such use except in circumstances where the homeland territory itself was threatened.
The longer this taboo lasted — and credit here must go to the much derided peace movements and to the general public sentiment that viewed these instruments of war as uniquely evil — the more difficult it became to break the taboo. Now, it is a very different situation. There are four possible contexts in which this taboo might finally be broken. Moreover, were this to happen the world would not come to an end. There would most likely not be a nuclear winter and much of the advanced and prosperous world would escape the consequences of these regional or “limited” holocausts were they, as is most likely, to take place in the “third world”.
As much as the Indian bomb lobby, in particular, might wish to deny it, the first scenario of such possible use involves south Asia and the India-Pakistan face-off. The US and the former Soviet Union were not territorially contiguous. They did not have a foundational dispute (like Kashmir) existing from their very inception as independent states. They never suffered from the growing ascendance of communal or religious extremist forces promoting the kind of hatreds and demonizations of the “other” that are so prevalent in south Asia today. They never had direct conventional wars, or the near-wartime situations that belong to the history of India-Pakistan relations and which create the most favourable contexts for escalating hostilities to the nuclear level. Their respective military-technology systems were never as ramshackle as those in south Asia, that make the chances of an accidental triggering of nuclear exchanges so much greater here.
There are three possible positions one can take regarding the prospects of a nuclear war in south Asia arising from an India-Pakistan conventional military conflict escalating into a nuclear exchange. The first view, widespread outside India and Pakistan among both pro-nuclearists and anti-nuclearists, is that such an exchange sometime in the future between the two countries is almost inevitable. A second view is that the danger of this is so small it is negligible. This is certainly the position of most of those in India who supported India going nuclear. Interestingly, among Pakistani supporters of the bomb there is a greater degree of pessimism, who even as they support Pakistan’s acquisition of the bomb are fearful that there could well be a nuclear exchange between the two countries. The difference in perspectives between these two bomb lobbies is not difficult to understand. Pakistan’s tests in 1998 were a reaction to India’s tests. The Pakistan bomb has always been India-specific, motivated by fear of India. India’s tests, however, were not motivated by fear of Pakistan (no matter what the occasional rhetoric) but was motivated by more grandiose visions of enhanced global and regional status and the desire to be taken more seriously as a major power.
Prospects of growing regional insecurity or nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan have always been more casually dismissed on the Indian side. There is, of course, a third position that is far and away the most sober one — the possibility of a nuclear exchange is not negligible or inevitable but in-between; that is to say, it is a real-case scenario, not just a worst-case one, and that its likelihood varies depending on how serious conjunctural tensions are between the countries.
The second context in which a “limited” or regional nuclear conflict might break out is easy enough to visualize. India and Pakistan have “got away” with having nuclear weapons. This inspires others. In a few more years, Iran could well do the same and this would certainly be followed by an open declaration of nuclear status by Israel dramatically raising nuclear dangers in west Asia, with nuclear-capable countries like Egypt aiming to follow suit. Does anyone, even among those worshipping at the altar of nuclear deterrence, think west Asia would become safer were this to happen?
In the third scenario, terrorists attack the US with a “suitcase” nuclear bomb or a dirty bomb (explosive dispersion of radioactive materials but no nuclear chain reaction) or attack a nuclear reactor plant. Such is the mindset of the US elite and much of its population after September 11, that the first would be virtually certain to lead to a serious nuclear retaliation somewhere by Washington, while even the second or third kind of terrorist attack might push it to break the taboo against the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
In the fourth scenario, the US deliberately initiates the use of tactical nuclear weapons. The US today is much more aggressively unilateralist in its behaviour and nuclearly ambitious than ever before. Its nuclear policies and practical preparations (for example, the ballistic missile defence systems) aim at establishing a unilateral dominance over all other countries; at developing a range of tactical weapons, even mini- and micro-nukes; at extending their possible use (against selected countries deemed to have biological and chemical weapons); at completely blurring the distinction between such weapons and conventional ones. The latest nuclear posture review makes both part of the same military operational strategy to support the US’s general foreign policy perspectives and ambitions.
There are a great many powerful people in and around the US government who want to break the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, since these would be “confined” to places far away from the homeland and against forces that have no capability to retaliate against it. As for the threat of a possible nuclear terrorist attack against the US, the prior use of tactical nuclear weapons against some perceived enemy is, itself, seen as providing the most powerful deterrent example to prevent such an attack happening in the future.
Short of again creating a disarmament momentum, it will be folly to think that over the next 57 years, nuclear weapons will not be used.