Nuclear Security Summit: It’s the Subtext Which is Disturbing

Nuclear Security Summit comes in the backdrop of serious security concerns being faced globally, by C Uday Bhaskar.

5 min read
Nuclear Security Summit: It’s the Subtext Which is Disturbing

The fourth and last global Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) will be held in Washington DC on March 31– April 1. It is part of an Obama initiative that followed the US President’s Prague speech in 2009, wherein he had focused on the many existential nuclear dangers to global security. For this stellar speech, Mr Obama received a Nobel Prize and whether any real progress was made remains a moot question. Be that as it may, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be a part of this NSS, along with many other leaders.

However, Russia has conveyed its inability to join and this is part of the subtext of the many complex dissonances that muddy the management of the global nuclear domain. This domain remains characteristically opaque since the August 1945 clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki first made the world aware of the apocalyptic potential that had been unleashed.


Tense Backdrop

Previous summits were held in 2010, 2012 and 2014 respectively and the current meeting acquires heightened relevance due to two other unrelated developments. First – the terror attack in Brussels (March 22) has left West Europe in a state of deep shock, and recent investigations have revealed a possible link between the ISIS and an attack on Belgium’s civilian nuclear facilities.

It is understood that in 2012, two employees of the Doel nuclear power plant joined the jihadist movement in Syria and later ‘drifted’ towards ISIS. One of them was later convicted in Belgium of terror-related charges in 2014, and the possibility of other insider sympathisers is being investigated.

The second development that is more rhetorical (hopefully) is the propaganda video released by North Korea (March 26) that has a graphic image of a submarine-launched ballistic missile destroying Washington DC. The banner warns ominously: “If the US imperialists budge an inch towards us, we will immediately hit them with nuclear weapons.”

Paradoxically, this four-minute video is titled ‘Last Chance’ and that phrase could well be extrapolated to the summit being convened by President Obama. There are multiple ways of reviewing the world’s troubled nuclear history over the last 70 years since the genie was released from the bottle but a central feature is the manner in which Washington and Moscow have dominated the course and sought to regulate this capability.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, second left, holding a moment of silence for the victims of last Tuesday’s attacks at the site of the Maelbeek metro station in Brussels, March 30, 2016. (Photo: AP)

When India was Ostracised

For India, the nuclear issue has been a complex and contested one both in the domestic context – and in relation to the larger global strategic framework. While India championed the cause of the civilian nuclear sector and concurrently supported  global nuclear disarmament, it was kept outside the privileged Nuclear Club of 5 (USA, former USSR and now Russia, France, UK and China) and its estranged relationship with the USA for decades stemmed from the fundamental divergence over how this capability is to be regulated.

While India was ostracised and kept under US-led global technological sanctions after the PNE (peaceful nuclear explosion) of 1974, the Shakti nuclear tests of May 1998 during the tenure of PM Vajpayee led to a gradual rapprochement with the US. This began with the Clinton visit to Delhi in March 2000, and the high-point was the conclusion of the bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with the Bush administration in late 2008. That agreement enabled a more conducive engagement with the US over the management of the global nuclear domain.

The years following May 1998 have been punctuated by a number of nuclear-related developments that shed light on the many interrelated challenges that augur ill for global security – but the irony is that many of them are unlikely to be addressed with the candour they warrant in the DC deliberations on March 31.

Will it Yield Something Substantive?

  • The Nuclear Security Summit comes in the backdrop of the Brussels terror attack and the imminent threat from the Islamic State.
  • India’s estranged relationship with the USA post-Pokhran points towards complicated discourse in the nuclear domain.
  • The years following May 1998 have been followed by many interrelated challenges that augur ill for global security.
  • North Korea’s threat to nuke the USA, points to yet another disturbing element of the sub-text of the prevailing global nuclear discourse.
  • It is unlikely that NSS 2016 will be able to address this disturbing sub-text with the objectivity and candour it warrants.

The Pakistan Factor

Over the last decade, the most startling revelation was the existence of a global nuclear WalMart run by Dr AQ Khan with the tacit connivance of the Pakistani state. This was made public in February 2004 and, in a rather blasé manner, this HUGE transgression was brushed under the carpet as the ‘greed’ of one Pakistani scientist. Then Pakistani supremo, General Pervez Musharraf, with his chutzpah was able to persuade the US and the global community to let the matter ‘disappear’ from public memory.

The global anxiety about the use of nuclear weapons to enable terror (NWET) by a deviant regime had already been demonstrated by the US in its ill-advised attack on Iraq in 2003 – the greater irony was the fact that Rawalpindi, the GHQ of Pakistan, was already fine-tuning this covert NWET strategy and was the proverbial elephant in the global room that no major power wanted to acknowledge.

A man watches a TV screen showing file footage of the missile launch conducted by North Korea, at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, March 18, 2016. (Photo: AP)

Global Nuclear Discourse

China’s complicity in this endeavour remains one of the more intriguing unanswered questions with reference to the muddy nuclear domain – but this linkage again has been glossed over by the US-Russia combine due to realpolitik compulsions.

The North Korea threat to nuke the USA , however ‘unreal’, points to yet another disturbing element of the subtext of the prevailing global nuclear discourse – the rather routine manner in which some nuclear weapon states refer to the use of tactical nuclear weapons to deal with asymmetric security threats. Again, Pakistan leads this group and the example set by both the US and Russia in refining the quality of their nuclear weapon capability and subtly referring to their possible use, erodes global nuclear stability.

It is unlikely that NSS 2016 will be able to address this disturbing subtext with the objectivity and candour it warrants. The goals are laudable – an improvement in nuclear security behavior, and strengthening the global nuclear security architecture.

Alas, the high desirability and low feasibility of these objectives being realised in a consensual manner are inversely proportional. Pyongyang may be prescient – for this could well be the ‘Last Chance.’

(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies.)

Also read:

Brussels Terror Attack: Stoking Latent Islamophobia is ISIS’ Plan

Pakistan’s Nuke Revelations, an Eye-Opener for the USA Too

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