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Two summers ago, when India and Pakistan tested their nuclear weapons—Pakistan for the first time and India, after a gap of 24 years, for the second time—the U.S. government suddenly discovered the dangers of nuclear weapons. President Bill Clinton, for example, stated: “I cannot believe that we are about to start the 21st century by having the Indian subcontinent repeat the worst mistakes of the 20th century, when we know it is not necessary to peace, to security, to prosperity, to national greatness or personal fulfillment.” The same President Clinton who signed the Presidential Decision Directive 60 (PDD 60) in December 1997, which recommits the United States to policies of threatened first use and affirms that the U.S. will continue to rely on nuclear arms as a cornerstone of its national security for the “indefinite future.” And whose administration has assured Russia in secret talks earlier this year that the two will continue to possess thousands of nuclear weapons under any possible future arms control agreement.
In their book New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament, Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik document not just how nuclear weapons are unnecessary “to peace, to security, [and] to prosperity” but the various ways in which they are positively detrimental to all of these. The authors are two of India's leading journalists and long-time nuclear policy analysts and peace activists. Bidwai and Vanaik's deep commitment and long years of thinking about nuclear weapons and following nuclear developments in India and the rest of the world are apparent throughout the book. Not just through the wealth of detail (resulting in part from their journalistic access) and profusion of arguments against nuclear weapons, but also through their strong political sense that results from being active on a number of struggles focused on a range of issues.
Bidwai and Vanaik attack not only the relatively obviously weak links in the rationales given for the acquisition and maintenance of nuclear arsenals, but also the strongest link in nuclear theology, namely deterrence theory. Examining the efficacy of deterrence is extremely important. As Bidwai and Vanaik put it, “the case for nuclear weapons…stands or falls with the strengths or weaknesses of the arguments for or against deterrence.” To do this, they start with a critique of the system of International Relations thinking called realism. For realists, the state is a unitary and rational actor whose objective is to maximize “national security.” In their conceptual world, the fact that the state and its policies are the result of domestic political battles is of little importance. In the real world, however, these battles are of great importance.
It is these domestic political battles that make deterrence unstable. As Patrick Morgan points out, the multiplicity of individuals, institutions, and interests that shape decision-making could lead to outcomes that would be termed irrational (Patrick Morgan, Deterrence: A Conceptual Analysis, Sage, 1977). Starting from a general critique of realism and the basis of deterrence, Bidwai and Vanaik also list several reasons for why nuclear deterrence is at best an unstable equilibrium and why there are multiple possibilities of failure.
Bidwai and Vanaik's arguments against deterrence form one major component of what must really be described as several books rolled into one. Some of the other components deal with the global history of nuclear weapons, the Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs, the special dangers and specific impacts in the South Asian situation, the immorality of nuclear weapons, and the history and the future of the peace movement. Though at one level this profusion gets a little confusing, it is important to see the arguments against nuclearism as one inter-related package.
Not surprisingly Bidwai and Vanaik focus a lot of attention on the Indian path to the 1998 tests and the dangers specific to nuclear weapons in that region. But their position, needless to say, is not that the brown finger on the trigger is somehow more dangerous than the white finger—a position articulated in subtle or not-so-subtle ways by many U.S. policy makers in this post-cold-war era where “rogue states” and “terrorists” are the new threats that allow for continued funneling of billions of dollars to the military industrial complex. Instead, and quite correctly, Bidwai and Vanaik stress the dangers inherent in anyone possessing nuclear weapons.
In discussing the causes for India going nuclear, the authors correctly stress the importance of the new brand of Hindu nationalism that the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the last 15 years or so has bestowed the country. Drawing on Vanaik's earlier book, The Furies of Indian Communalism: Religion, Modernity and Secularization (Verso, 1997), the authors explore the wider social factors underlying this phenomenon and the corrosive effects of this force. With respect to the nuclear question, the family of Hindu nationalist organizations acts in many ways. To start with, the rise of Hindu nationalism has resulted in a wide-ranging assault on the fundamental principles that underlay Indian foreign policy. Then, with no respect for democracy, the ruling Hindu nationalist government secretly decides to test nuclear weapons in 1998. Following the tests, the goon squads belonging to the family of Hindu nationalist organizations take the lead in violently attacking those opposing nuclear and military programs. This twin-attack pattern is repeated in other arenas of struggle as well—illustrating Bidwai and Vanaik's point that to struggle for the abolition of nuclear weapons, you have to struggle for much more than that.
But the strong emphasis on the role of the BJP obscures to some extent the collusion of different parties in building the infrastructure needed to manufacture nuclear weapons. In his book, The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb (St. Martin's Press, 1998), Itty Abraham has argued that the 1974 nuclear test conducted by India was inherent, though mediated by specific conjectures, in the particular brand of nationalism followed ever since independence by the ruling Indian elite. More recently, George Perkovich, in India's Nuclear Bomb (University of California, 1999), has documented the role of all Indian governments since 1974 in maintaining and advancing the nuclear and missile programs. Rather than the continuity and break dichotomy that Bidwai and Vanaik pose, it may be more appropriate to think of the process as resembling a ratchet. At each point in time, there is no possibility of going back but the forward movements are often small steps, each bringing the country closer to weaponization. The BJP, then, would not take the whole blame. To be fair, Bidwai and Vanaik realize this. Their account of how India turned from being a proponent of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty way back in 1954 to voting against it when it finally came up for signature in 1996 is proof that other governments have played a role in this ratcheting process. The questions that one is left with are: could one conceive of circumstances where other parties may have proceeded to order a nuclear test? And what would the response of the fledgling peace and anti-nuclear movements have been?
Bidwai and Vanaik's book is unusual among books related to nuclear weapons in that it grapples with the hard problems of how to build a peace and anti-nuclear movement. The lessons and suggestions that Bidwai and Vanaik offer are as relevant for the U.S. as they are for India. This is something that progressives, activists, and concerned citizens in this country should pay attention to. With Russia on the verge of economic collapse and the much smaller arsenals possessed by other nuclear weapon states, the only country that is capable of rapid strides towards the abolition of nuclear weapons is the United States. Given the nature of the rulers of this country, their enormous attraction for these weapons of terror, and the extent of the military-industrial complex in the country, it must be obvious to any thinking person that simply offering arguments for why nuclear weapons are bad alone will not do. There is no magic wand that can be waved so as to make nuclear weapons disappear from here. What is needed is to build a social movement that can challenge the very nature of power in this country and the exercise of military force around the globe. As the authors conclude, “if it succeeds there is everything, indeed literally a whole world, to be gained.”
M. V. Ramana is a research associate at the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, Princeton University and the author of Bombing Bombay: Effects of Nuclear Weapons and a Case Study of a Hypothetical Explosion (International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, 1999).