All weapons are lethal because they are meant to kill but some are more lethal than others. Guns and bullets kill individuals but chemical, biological and nuclear weapons not only kill on a mass scale, they also cause ill effects that linger on for decades. People in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still suffering the consequences of the two atomic bombs dropped by the US in 1945. There were no military or strategic reasons for doing so; the Japanese were already discussing the terms of surrender. By dropping nuclear bombs on two cities, the Americans wanted to send a message to would-be rivals, especially the Soviet Union, that the US was now the unrivalled power in the world. The other aspect revealed by dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese was racism. The “yellow” Japanese were incinerated but “white” Germans were not. Little has changed in US official thinking since then.
In 1945, the US was the sole possessor of nuclear weapons. Others — the Soviet Union (August 1949), Britain (October 1952) and France (1960) joined the club later. In October 1964, the People’s Republic of China also became a nuclear-armed state. These five are recognized as nuclear states in the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) first proposed in 1963. They also happen to be permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and are exempt from inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that subjects other signatories to the NPT inspections regime.
The NPT was opened for signatures in 1968. Initially, the US, Soviet Union, Britain and 59 other countries signed the treaty. Subsequently others have done so but not Israel, India and Pakistan. North Koreawithdrew from the treaty in 2003 and has since tested a nuclear device. While Israel is believed to possess more than 200 nuclear weapons, it has not conducted any of its own tests except perhaps with the South Africans in September 1979. The latter, too, had a nuclear program that it voluntarily abandoned after apartheid ended in 1994. India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in May 1998, Pakistan following India two weeks after Delhi exploded its nuclear devices. The Indians had also carried out a nuclear test in May 1974 but they called it a ‘peaceful’ nuclear explosion. Everything about the Indians is peaceful and non-violent, including their bombs. The world readily accepted this designation as it went about preventing Pakistan from acquiring an ‘Islamic’ bomb!
Since the nuclear genie was let out of the bottle, efforts have been made to put it back in again, with little success. The two principal nuclear weapons states — the US and Russia —not only possess 95 percent of all 25,000 nuclear weapons and warheads in the world today, the additional 3,000 tons of fissile material in 40 countries would be enough to produce another 250,000 nuclear bombs. Clearly, there is much to worry about in this world bristling with devastating weapons. And given Washington’s propensity to use them — first in Japan and in recent decades in Iraq in the form of depleted uranium shells — there is growing concern that the world could be subjected to a nuclear holocaust if either fired a nuclear-armed missile accidentally. This is not mere conjecture. Both American and Russian forces are on trigger alert and on several occasions have come close to launching missiles against each other based on false alarm, once by a flock of geese mistaken for an incoming missile!
Thus when leaders of the two major global powers — albeit one a declining superpower and the other a has-been — met last month in Moscow to discuss not only their frosty relations but also reduction in their respective nuclear stockpiles, it aroused more than passing interest. For two days (July 6–7), US President Barack Obama tried to repair the damage in relations caused by his predecessor, George Bush’s brusque policies that seemed to have irritated the Russians immensely. Russia, too, has a new president — Dimitri Medvedev — although his predecessor and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is seen as the real power.
Both Obama and Medvedev renewed their countries’ mutual commitment to getting rid of 34 tons each of weapons-grade plutonium, an initiative started in the 1990s but never completed. Even before this, both leaders had announced last April they were committed to a world free of nuclear weapons. But it will require a massive concerted effort to turn rhetoric into action. There appears to be growing support for a nuclear free world. In January 2007, for instance, two former US Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger andGeorge Shultz, former Defence Secretary William Perry and former chairman of US Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Since then, this call has been joined by two-thirds of all US secretaries of state and defence as well as advisors on National Security Council.
The Washington warlords have not suddenly become peace activists or seen the error of their ways. There are more pressing issues affecting their thinking, the most important of which is the irrelevance of nuclear weapons in determining the outcome of wars the US wages globally. History also shows that nuclear weapons cannot guarantee success. The Americans were soundly defeated in Vietnam, the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Israeli Zionists in Lebanon and the serious challenges facing the US in Iraq and Afghanistan today. There are also costs involved although Washington is not constrained by such considerations even if its military adventures have bankrupted the country. Its annual military budget of $550 billion is more than the defence budgets of the next 50 countries put together including Russia and China. If with such massive outlays, the US cannot win, what use are nuclear weapons?
The thinking in Washington is that if the two biggest nuclear-armed states were to reduce their stockpiles, this would encourage others to do likewise, ultimately leading to the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Further, this would also be leveraged to prevent non-nuclear states from acquiring them. The clear target is Iran whose peaceful nuclear program is deliberately misrepresented as aimed at making nuclear weapons. If Iran were to embark on such a course, it would have sound logic behind it. After all, the US attacked Iraq in March 2003 precisely because it did not have a deterrent nuclear weapon. North Korea that walked out of the NPT in 2003 and has tested nuclear weapons has not been touched. So nuclear weapons do have a utility: as deterrents against would-be aggressors. This is also the logic driving Washington policy-planners. They have argued that the US should keep about 1,000 nuclear warheads, down from the current level of about 10,000, to deter any would-be aggressors from attacking the US.
The Americans are developing more lethal conventional weapons such as deep penetrating bunker bombs that could destroy nuclear facilities buried underground. Their use also does not carry the stigma attached to using nuclear weapons. Reduction in nuclear weapons by whatever numbers would be a welcome start in the right direction. The world is already unsafe with billions of weapons in the hands of unsavoury characters that have engulfed the world in conflicts ravaging the most vulnerable people on earth.