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Nuclear-free world: A fantasy and reality

By Layeeq Ahmad Sheikh

Ever since the race for the nuclear weapons originated, there have been numerous efforts by both the government and non-government organizations, proliferation pessimist groups to dismantle these dangerous weapons in order to make this world nuclear free. There is also a race among some of the developed and developing countries to stockpile these weapons and reinvent these nuclear warheads for their security measures, in order to project themselves as more powerful in the eyes of other countries. Various NGOs and civil society organizations have advocated from time to time the elimination of these dreadful weapons. But the progress towards this aim, i.e., nuclear-free world, has always been a bumpy and long process; nevertheless, an enthusiasm to achieve this aim has never waned. Yet, there have been a constant proliferation of nuclear weapons and transfer of the nuclear technology by some of the countries.

All the major organizations of the world including the United Nations have continuously raised awareness programs and policies about the proliferation, security and the governability of nuclear arsenals. At times they have proved fruitful but most of the times the nuclear countries have paid scant attention to these questions, continuing to stockpile and transfer the nuclear weapons and nuclear technology to each other either overtly or covertly. While the programs and policies relating to the disarmament of nuclear weapons have been discriminatory towards some countries, they were not according to the terms and conditions of the nuclear weapon states at other times. However, there is a constant campaign towards a nuclear weapons free world. To highlight one among these numerous developments, the Nuclear World Policy encourages a number of countries, commonly known as New Agenda Coalition, toward a nuclear free world. The objective of this coalition is to shape the foreign policy of these countries by making a commitment toward goal of “the elimination of nuclear weapons and assurance that they will never be produced again.” In spite of these policies and programs by several campaigning groups, the question that always looms: shall we be able to see a nuclear weapons free world in future?

Most of the policymakers and peace activists from various organizations today feel that the vision of a nuclear weapons free world can be achieved in future if not sooner. With this aim, an organization, Global Zero, was set up in 2008 in Paris to get rid of nuclear weapons through a multilateral, universal, and verifiable process. This organization is worth mentioning here as it is expected to begin its negotiations on the Global Zero treaty by 2019. Though this is the continuation of earlier treaties and policies of nuclear non-proliferation, it gives hope towards the disarmament process because countries such as the US have taken some interest in this. Though this abolition of nukes may be seen as a moral duty, the realists, neo-realists, and nukes speakers do not accept the fact that there will be peace and stability between rival states by abolishing the nukes. For example, Benedikt Harzl, arguing in favour of nuclear weapons, says that this nuke free world will deprive the countries of deterrent options that some of the big powerful countries may need someday. He further argues that we will most likely still live in a world full of nuclear power plants as well as nuclear waste from nuclear bomb or nuclear programs. Further, a senior fellow in Australia, Hanlon suggests that “the problem with putting off the nuclear-disarmament agenda, however, is that it leaves existing powers in a weak position to pressure would-be proliferators to abstain from the pursuit of nuclear weapons and perpetuates a sense of complacency about the supposed safety of living with the bomb.”

There might be a slim chance of achieving a nuclear weapon-free world in the future. The use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes should be the priority of the world bodies and powerful countries. Some of the fascist and unstable regimes around the world, along with nihilistic terrorist groups, in possession of these weapons can destroy the world without any warning. This threat is becoming real and cannot be ignored in the present juncture because nuclear technology know-how is easily accessible to everyone over the internet and in books. The possibility of a nuclear free world is also a difficult task because the nuclear states often highlight nukes as an element of deterrence and security against a rival nuclear state. Additionally, I will explore many other reasons that make a nuclear free world a distant dream.

The nuclear weapons have always worked as a deterrent and a power check to the countries who possess nuclear warheads and other chemical weapons. The nuclear states are scared to use these weapons as they believe that other countries also possess these weapons. A massive retaliation will be destructive. In the Huffington Post, Wallen Russ writes, “the threat of the nuclear-armed state to use its nuclear weapons in defense of vital interests….is almost inherently credible. They thereby greatly enhance stability. The potential costs of aggression against a nuclear-armed adversary would be ‘paid up front’, as opposed to over a long period of mutual attrition and are thus clearer to decision makers.” He further writes that “a secular arsenal has the effect of ‘sanctuarizing’ the states that possess them.” Here we might add how two nuclear weapons countries in South Asia – India and Pakistan – act as a deterrent to each other. Though there have been low scale wars in the past, the two countries have not used any sophisticated warheads and chemical weapons because of the fear of nuclear weapons.

There is another reason why achieving a nuclear free world is still a distant dream: the profit behind these weapons and nuclear energy. We have seen in the past how the nuclear weapons states have transferred nuclear energy and technology to the non-nuclear states and other developing countries. One of the major aims of this nuclear technological transmission is to make profit or garner other resources in return. As is the case with the arms market, the nuclear energy and nuclear arms are a profitable business, too. Nuclear energy is one of the most sought-after energies in the world and its market grows every day. It provides an ample opportunity for the big firms (nuclear industry) and businessmen to transfer this energy to developing countries and even to some non-state groups. Consequently, some of these players use this energy for peaceful purposes and some others use them to produce weapons, ultimately taking the nuclear arms race to a different level.

The possession of nuclear weapons has made some states act as a big brother to their alliance partners and other smaller countries in the region: the US and the U.S.S.R during the cold war and India and Pakistan in contemporary times. India has always tried to build a powerful image through the development of nuclear weapons in order to control the behavior of the smaller neighbors in the region. After May 1998, Pakistan has tried to get the leadership role of the Muslim countries around the world with the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The Pakistani nuclear scientist, A. Q. Khan, even tried to help other Muslim states like Iran and Libya acquire nuclear knowledge through his clandestine network. We also know how both the superpowers (US and Russia) during the cold war and other developed countries (the UK, France and China) tested and obtained new and more sophisticated and powerful nuclear weapons to dominate other regions. This process of getting nuclear weapons and projecting themselves as more powerful against their competitors have severely affected the aim of achieving a nuclear free world. As long as the possession of these weapons raise the status and prestige of the countries, more and more states will try to get these warheads at any cost.

We have seen in the past that there have been many policies and steps adopted by different countries and organizations for reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons. However, they have been hardly successful due to numerous factors. Some authors argue that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is itself flawed in nature and is responsible for the proliferation of nuclear weapons because it allows nuclear weapon states to have nuclear cooperation with non-nuclear weapons states for civilian purposes that eventually result in the acquisition of nuclear warheads by some states. The other reason is nuclear nationalism that motivates the states to acquire nukes for pride and status. The profits gained from selling nuclear equipment to the receiving countries by the nuclear industry, especially in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia, Canada, and China, cannot be disregarded. The nuclear commerce has thwarted the goal of making the world free of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons remain morally reprehensive and impractical because they pose a dangerous risk. The process towards the elimination of these weapons is hindered because of a lack of political will from the countries which possess these nuclear warheads and its technology. In addition to this lack of political will, the above-mentioned reasons hinder the goal of a nuclear free world. However, we should keep in mind some of the nuclear weapons conventions backed by a strong system of verification and political will from leaders of the nuclear countries so that this fantasy can be realized in the coming years. The problem in accomplishing this objective is summed up by Hanlon: “there is also a technical reason to view reconstitution as a real future policy option, even short of such extreme circumstances. Simply put, nuclear weapons will always be within reach of mankind, whatever we may wish. Verification methods will almost surely be incapable of assuring us that all existing materials are dismantled or destroyed, even as verification improves in coming years. Moreover, demands for the nuclear-power industry make it likely that bomb-grade materials will be salvageable from nuclear fuel or nuclear waste.” After reading Hanlon’s pessimistic approach, we can conclude that the possibility of seeing a nuclear free world is bound to be a challenging task in the near future. However, we can make sure that these weapons, nuclear energy and technology will be managed more efficiently and with utmost care.

Photo: Northwest Catholic

Layeeq Ahmad Sheikh is pursing Ph.D. at Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, India.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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