Nuclear Crises in the Time of Orwellian Wars

This article was first published in my column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies A longer version of the article can be found here.

[…] The consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.               

 – George Orwell, 1984                           

 The Stalin-Churchill Exchange

In 1946, a fustian exchange of rhetoric between Stalin and Churchill was to set the stage for incessant crises in international relations since. It would take countries to the brink and often over it. In assessing the state of the world and character of relations between nations, Stalin, on 9th February, declared to a Moscow audience, “[…] development of world capitalism does not proceed smoothly and evenly, but through crises and catastrophic wars.” His point was that inequities lead to instability; as perceptions of insecurities in access to raw materials and markets provoke the impulse to redistribute favourable “spheres of influence,” often by employing armed force. The awkward irony is that this state of affairs of an uncertain world fragmented into hostile economic and military camps on the brink in perpetuity is the reality, with the effects of climate change being the only sobering moderator. The inelegant skepticism of the US in the climate change context makes for a deranged future. While Churchill (the former Prime Minister), on 5th March 1946, responded by condemning Soviet policies in Europe and declared in a speech at Westminster University Missouri, “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory. From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

There was a self-fulfilling prophecy in these words as the world knuckled down to the ideological declaration of war by the two belligerent blocs. Stalin’s words were taken to mean the inevitability of conflict between the two; while Churchill’s speech is considered one of the opening volleys of the ‘Cold War.’ With each passing year, heightened tensions between states retreating into the idea of closed dominions, the rise of nations that promote revisionist ideologies, and to add to it all the disrupting role of non-state actors and nuclear proliferation thrust new elements into the cauldron, deepening and making more catastrophic the probability of a global crisis spinning out of control.

Nuclear Crisis Group

Recognising that peril lay in the inability of formal establishments to monitor potential situations of nuclear conflict and that contemporary nuclear security had introduced dynamics vastly dissimilar to the two-bloc confrontation, a crisis group was formed as a sub-sect of the Global Zero Commission. Its mission is to analyse these predicaments, develop proposals for de-escalation and consult with appropriate agencies to diminish the danger of a nuclear exchange. The Group, an international assemblage of experts from nuclear armed countries and supporters, met for the first time on 5th-6th May 2017 in Vienna. (Details of proceedings may be found here.

Wink-and-Nod Perils: Proliferation, Non-State Actors and Orwellian Wars

Dangers of nuclear proliferation and the deranging role of non-state actors accessing nuclear technologies has been well acknowledged but more often acted upon with a “wink-a facetious rebuke-and-a nod.” This selective look-away has consequences. The imbroglio in US dealings with Pakistan in the Afghan war exemplifies the penalties. Pakistan, an acknowledged dishonest American partner was, the US establishment asserts, “living a lie.” Pakistan’s military played “both ends against the middle.” It provided logistic conduits for money, while giving financial, material, intelligence and weapons to the jihadists. Indeed, there have been tactical gains but these pale to insignificance faced by the most conspicuous strategic failure: Pakistan providing sanctuary and sustenance to jihadis.  Combat, over the last 16 years (or 38?) in the absence of genuine strategic impetus, has morphed to an “Orwellian” war. And as war rages, Pakistan remains a haven to the highest concentration of terrorist groups while its nuclear fervour advances undiminished.

China has been central to nuclear proliferation in the region and the Pakistan weapon program; from blueprint of a nuclear device, through testing, to the AQ Khan enterprise and now, to tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). The reasons for China’s profligate orientation may have originally reflected balance-of-power logic. However, the costs are perilous. Are we living another wink?

In strategic persuasion, Pakistan’s military is convinced that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will leave a devastated, warring Afghanistan and an enfeebled insurgency-wracked Pakistan. They envisage a lonely and losing confrontation against the growing economic and military influence of the avowed enemy, India. This had to be countered by persisting with jihadis as the sine qua non of military strategy. While some have suggested that terror organizations may not be under their control, this is denial of the internals of that state where the nexus between the Army, intelligence service and jihadists is as old as the state. Unmistakably, the Islamic State (IS) has been seduced into the sub-continent; can the world, China and indeed this Group now be blind to the looming jihadist access to a nuclear arsenal?

Technology Intrusions and the Cyber Dimension

Nuclear weapons have put us on a razor’s edge, in part because of our powerlessness to control how political events and technology are driving policy. While technology invites covertness; lethality, precision, stealth and time compression that accompanies it demands transparency. This is the dilemma faced by planners: to balance the impact of technology with the need for openness. In the cyber domain, transparency will reduce hazards of unintended actions as nations prepare to use this arena to manipulate command networks.

The Road to Abolishment

The only way to eliminate the risk of nuclear weapons is through abolition. If this is the leitmotif, NFU posture is its first handmaiden backed by reduced reliance on nuclear weapons and the removal of battlefield and tactical nuclear weapons. This proposition, in toto, was unanimously welcomed by the Nuclear Crisis Group (NCG).

Flash Points.  Nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists is the biggest global concern. Discriminating between terror groups and making them instruments of state policy had to be rejected collectively. In addition to this overarching perspective, the Group identified four priority geopolitical dynamics that risked escalation to nuclear conflagration: the Korean Peninsula predicament, US/NATO-Russia meltdown in relations, South Asia conundrum and U.S.-China confrontation.

Korean Peninsula. The NCG aimed for complete denuclearization through negotiations with North Korea balanced against a calibrated end to US military exercises and provocative deployments in the Republic of Korea and easing of sanctions. China’s role in the North Korean problem had to be leveraged (not only has China fought a war on its behalf but provides existential sustenance).

US, Russia, NATO. Crisis instability between the US, Russia and NATO has taken a dangerous turn, triggered by Russian nuclear war fighting doctrine and statements that the US has neither obligation to limit nuclear-arms nor testing. In this circumstance, the impending US nuclear posture review (NPR) will likely cause disquiet given the current turbulence in West Asia, confused war on the IS in Syria, the ‘perpetual’ wars in Iraq and the AF-Pak region, Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, recalcitrant Chinese activities in the South and East China Sea and increased nuclear activity by North Korea. But the real discounted problem in the entanglement is how to device measures that will prevent a slide back to the early Cold War era.

South Asia Situation.  India has a declared nuclear doctrine; at its heart is NFU and generation of a credible minimum deterrent. India does not differentiate between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons on the grounds that use of nuclear weapons introduces an uncontrollable development. To suggest that ambiguity and First Use provide options, is to suggest that nuclear war fighting, in conventional terms, is an option. This is a denial of the nature of nuclear weapons. With Pakistan there are foundational complications; it has no declared doctrine, while the hold of the “deep state” (the military-intelligence-jihadi combine) on the nation is so smothering that dialogue is confounded by the question “who to dialogue with?” Duplicity and denial on issues related to state support, sanctuary and complicity with terror organisations makes confabulations with civilian government a sterile exercise. Continued collusion with China on nuclear weapons production and proliferation is an area that must be seized. If multilateral constraints are not in place then the probability of these technologies falling into jihadi hands is high.

US-China Relations. US-China relations remain fragile as the latter’s growth and aspirations come in conflict with America’s global influence, as is apparent in the sporadic friction that flares in the South and East China seas. China’s revisionist drive in this expanse and its military modernisation plans and policy has not helped to pacify matters. Rather it has increased the probability of escalation. Its surreptitious nuclear proliferatory enterprises have further exacerbated the situation. While China has, over the years, quite steadfastly adhered to its NFU nuclear policy, it is its support of states such as North Korea and Pakistan that is worrisome.

A Half Way Conclusion 

Fragmentation in geopolitics, rise of bigoted revisionist ideologies, nuclear perfidy of authoritarian dispensations and the end of an overwrought global order makes for fragility in nuclear affairs. As nations see themselves besieged by forces beyond control, it is timely that the Group has raised its collective voice to temper the idealistic nuclear agenda of abolition with a dose of realism that first charts a course across two pragmatic way points: No First Use and removal of tactical nuclear weapons.

State of Play: Non-Proliferation, Fissile Material Cut-offs and Nuclear Transparency


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

 Tools that promote a stable nuclear relationship between nations are characterized by a congruence of views on non-proliferation of weapon and vector technologies, fissile material control and strategic transparency; the last makes clear the strategic underpinnings that motivate weapon programmes. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was negotiated in 1968 and entered into force in 1970, is the cornerstone of all international efforts to provide stability within the bounds of a globally ‘iniquitous’ nuclear regulatory system by limiting access to nuclear weapons. The impetus behind the NPT was a stated concern for the safety of a world with many nuclear weapon states. It was recognized that the cold war deterrent relationship between just the United States and Soviet Union was fragile. Having more nuclear-weapon states would reduce security for all, multiplying the risks of miscalculation, accidents, unauthorized use of weapons and the hazards of regional tensions escalating to nuclear conflict. The concept of the NPT process was formulated by Frank Aiken, Irish Minister for External Affairs, in 1958. A total of 190 states have joined the Treaty, though North Korea, which acceded to the NPT in 1985 but never came into compliance, announced its withdrawal in 2003. States that have never joined the NPT are India, Israel and Pakistan.

The NPT is, unfortunately a flawed treaty, while its origins pre-dates the Cuban crisis, it was the fragility of the existing fraught relationship between the two super powers that pushed leadership towards a pact that restricted possession of nuclear weapons. Based on a ‘bargain’ that traded denial of nuclear weapons for peaceful use technologies, it distinguishes between three categories of states: nuclear-weapon states (the US, Russia, the UK, France, and China), non-nuclear weapons states and thirdly states that are not signatories of the Treaty in possession of nuclear weapons (India, Israel and Pakistan). Many of the non-nuclear weapons states agreed to forego nuclear armament because the nuclear-armed states made a promise that in return they would work towards nuclear reductions with the ultimate aim of abandoning all nuclear weapons and because the nuclear have-nots had been promised support in making strictly peaceful use of nuclear energy. The system has not evolved to find a status for the last category of players whose security needs was neither addressed nor any remission given.

Western thinking (by which is implied the nuclear Haves) on the matter is, regrettably, dominated by only two issues: how best to retain the power exclusivity of the ‘Nuclear Club’ and the situation in the Middle East. Questions related to nuclear proliferation, hazards of non-state actors gaining access to nuclear weapons and stability of nuclear relations; on the other hand, have taken a back seat. The US and Russia, as the states with by far the biggest nuclear arsenals, have neither shown the imagination nor the will to formulate a new dispensation that holds nuclear stability as a function of enforceable transparency and an acceptance of No First Use as an inviolable first step towards disarmament.

On the ground, the US accuses Russia of violating the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) treaty that commits both sides to abolishing their intermediate-range nuclear arms; there is no progress in matters of multilateral nuclear disarmament; the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is a distant illusion as the US has still failed to ratify the treaty; there are no negotiations or an agreed agenda over stopping the production of fissile material for military purposes; the Geneva Conference on Disarmament that is intended for this purpose cannot agree on the principles that will govern the Treaty. While transparency in arsenals and doctrines has been rendered opaque as nuclear weapon states have found new reason to enlarge and modernise. In this mileu ‘Global Zero’ remains a Utopian ideal.

The ‘cardiac’ arrest in the nuclear disarmament agenda is more symptomatic of the growing perception that in an uncertain world, nuclear weapons provide a persuasive argument for strategic stability. During the Cold War, strategic doctrines relied heavily on nuclear weapons for their deterrent effect; it resulted in a veritable freeze in the probability of war in Europe. Today, while the picture may have changed due to tensions of the multi polar and the competitive tyranny of economics, the need to underscore the boundaries of interstate behaviour remains an imperative. In the absence of globally accepted regulatory regimes not only are conflictual situations likely to arise and have indeed arisen, but there is also a necessity that these conflicts remain restrained; this is where the deterrent value of nuclear weapons play a role till such time that an alternate disincentive can be devised. It is also for this reason that nations are increasingly demanding reliable extended nuclear deterrence. The escalating friction in the South and East China Sea; the war in Ukraine where a nuclear-armed Moscow has arrogated Crimea (and parts of eastern Ukraine) in defiance of the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum; the seemingly irrational nature of North Korea’s nuclear threats; the continued existence of nuclear black market networks of AQ Khan notoriety; the appearance of non-state actors into the equation and China’s programme of nuclear proliferation which has nurtured and continues to sustain and enlarge Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, are all demonstrative of the current apocalyptical state of play. For many nations, this has reinforced the impression that possession of nuclear weapons adds-up-to strength, protection, and inviolability; while foregoing nuclear weapons can threaten the very existence of the State. As the importance of nuclear weapons increases in a geopolitical environment of uncertainty, the prospects of stability becomes bleaker.

An appraisal of the contemporary universal state of nuclear affairs will suggest that the three pillars of global nuclear stability, namely, non proliferation, control of fissile material production and transparency of nuclear arsenals are wobbly for lack of foundational support. And in the truancy of global foundational support the answer may well lie in establishing a regional framework of détente.