Fighting Nuke Threat is No Joke

Published: 01st May 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st May 2014 01:28 AM   |  A+A-

A recent article published in this newspaper (Obama’s Nuclear Joke, April 4, 2014) pronounced a strong indictment of the just concluded third Nuclear Security Summit at the Hague. Describing the gathering of 53 nations and four international as well as nearly 130 non-governmental organisations on March 24-25 as a “joke gone too far”, the article recommends that “India ought not to be part of this circus”. This is unfortunately a very myopic view of the issue at hand. A more considered analysis of the significance of the summit process and the specific benefits it has brought to India is seriously called for.

The series of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) started in 2010 at Washington and has since travelled to Seoul in 2012, the recent meeting at the Hague, and the next one, perhaps the last, will be again hosted by Washington in 2016. The main idea behind these gatherings of the highest political leaders has been to address the challenge of nuclear terrorism, thereby “making the world a bit safer”.

President Obama initiated this effort having reached the conclusion that the risk of nuclear terrorism was real and urgent for his country. In fact, the US Nuclear Posture Review of 2010 ranked this threat ahead of any other, including the possibility of a nuclear exchange with America’s “near peers” such as Russia and China. So, he sought to garner international cooperation in securing nuclear material worldwide and to improve security at all nuclear assets and facilities.

This was a welcome development for India. In fact, India’s experience with cross-border terrorism well predates the US awakening to the threat. Since the end of the 1990s, India has faced terrorism, sponsored and executed from Pakistan. Obviously, the threat of nuclear terrorism has been of utmost concern given that nuclear weapons (and an increasing stockpile of highly enriched uranium and plutonium and the possible addition of tactical nuclear weapons in the future) and terrorism coexist in Pakistan. Therefore, the most important gain from these summits is that they have brought global attention to nuclear terrorism.

By demanding national action and responsibility for securing nuclear and radiological materials, the summits have universalised a threat that India was fighting a lonely battle against. Attention to these issues at the highest political level across countries has ensured their inclusion in national priorities and the allocation of necessary resources to turn commitments into reality. Heads of governments at the summits have individually and collectively pledged to taking measures to secure nuclear material on their territory according to certain accepted international benchmarks. That Pakistan, too, has taken several measures in this direction is evident, and this is good news for India. India could not alone have been able to persuade or demand such actions from Islamabad.

Having secured a degree of success in this direction through international action, it is only natural that India (through the external affairs minister who represented the country at the Hague) raised another issue of particular national concern at the third summit. He sought to focus international attention not just on the threat posed by the possibility of non-state actors acquiring nuclear material to cause nuclear terror, but also on the need for state accountability in combating terrorism, dismantling its support structures or its linkages with weapons of mass destruction. This is not a stray statement. It raises the crucial nuclear challenge that India faces where a nuclear-armed state that believes in the policy of terrorism becomes a complicit partner in an act of nuclear terrorism. Is it not worthwhile then that India has used the platform of the NSS to voice a national concern before an international audience, thereby demanding responsible behaviour from nations (particularly Pakistan in case of India)? Is it not the task of diplomacy to blunt threats facing a nation in pursuit of national interest? And, did India not do right to utilise the summit for this purpose?

Of course, the summit process is not perfect. Few things in life are. Just this one effort alone cannot get all nations to uniformly recognise the enormity of the threat or even adopt the same rigour in implementation of their efforts. In any case, there is no punishment for non-compliance and many smaller nations have opposed the rise in need for reporting as burdensome and distracting from other national priorities. But this shortcoming does not in any way take away from the fact that the forum has generated a certain momentum on nuclear security and got nations sensitised to a shared responsibility and a sense of collective stake-hood in a global challenge.

Nuclear security is not the requirement or demand of one nation. The fact that a country as militarily capable as the USA has felt the need for collective effort in this direction proves that it is a shared risk and hence a shared responsibility that must be carried by all if we are to minimise, if not obviate, the possibility of nuclear terrorism. India’s participation in the NSS is indeed an opportunity to seek collective redressal of an individual threat, and also a contribution to international security—a win-win proposition.

Finally, the summit process gives India the opportunity to be engaged in the non-proliferation regime without carrying the baggage of its non-membership of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Even though India has managed to marginalise the treaty for itself as a result of the exceptionalisation that it earned from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the more India participates in multilateral non-proliferation instruments, the less will India’s non-subscription to the NPT matter.

The NSS is not a panacea for all of India’s nuclear challenges, which are indeed many and unique, stemming as they do from states (individually and in nexus) and non-state actors. But to the extent that it addresses some of these concerns it is useful. India should exploit the opportunity and the platform to its benefit, as it adroitly has. Nuclear terrorism is no laughing matter and India should join the international community in every forum that brings global spotlight on the issue in general, and to the threat we face from our neighbourhood in particular.

The author is an Indian Council of Social Science Research senior fellow at the Centre for Air Power

Studies, New Delhi.

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