Tough to be disarmingly nuclear

Almost everyone opposes nuclear weapons even though there is a strong case for saying they have helped keep the peace in many periods, like the Cold War and even between India and Pakistan.

Indians maintain their traditional moral posture regarding nukes.

A poll in 2008, showed 62% of Indian supported nuclear weapons abolition — though this was admittedly over 10 percentage points below the global average.

Publics around the World Favor International Agreement To Eliminate All Nuclear Weapons

Official statements begin with the Nehruvian line of calling for global nuclear disarmament, though privately Indian officials are somewhat dismissive of the idea.

What is interesting is growing evidence that Indians are more concerned about proliferation and nuclear threats, especially in their neighbourhood.

This year’s Lowy Institute India poll showed 92% of Indians saying stopping the spread of nuclear weapons was very or fairly important. India Poll 2013

Large numbers also cited nuclear weaponry as the key reason they perceived China as a threat and the third most important reason they saw a threat in Pakistan.

But the weakening of Indian public enthusiasm for nuclear disarmament and a shift to a more realpolitik sentiment is exactly the sort of thing that is making life difficult for the nuclear disarmament movement.

Here are three reasons why Greenham Common, Ground Zero, nuclear winter and all that are fading terms in the new international lexicon.

One is that talk of global extinction because of nuclear war has subsided tremendously with the end of the Cold War. The US and Russia can still wreck the world several times over.

But the sense of this being likely is now low that I doubt any television network would commission and carry a programme like “The Day After” today.

Two, the rise of a new pantheon of emerging powers has meant nuclear disarmament is now intertwined with a whole set of regional power equations and volatile domestic politics that are almost impossible to untangle.

It is noticeable that India, Pakistan, China and Israel are not party to any regional or bilateral nuclear treaties or even negotiations. It’s a global agreement or nothing at all. But even here none will take a leadership role.

Three, the combination of the two above means political momentum in favour of nuclear disarmament is remarkably weak. In the past, a nuclear summit or arms treaties were the ultimate in global statesmanship.

Today, the sense is that it is one among a half-dozen diplomatic issues of roughly equal importance — on the same level as tackling the global financial crisis or averting a terror strike.

Even a developing country leader like Jawaharlal Nehru made pronouncements in the past about nukes.

Today, almost none of them give more than the most symbolic lip service to the cause. There are no votes to be had at home for such talk.

There is not even a sense that a global leadership role in this business makes much sense for a politician looking for a higher profile.

And nuclear abolition may not even make much sense in their neighbourhood — medium sized countries like Pakistan and Azerbaijan are the most sceptical of nuclear abolition.

Europe remains the strongest hub of support for disarmament, but it declines to invest in the nitty gritty of working out how the new emerging nations can be won over at the domestic and political level. A small country like Israel or Ethiopia invests more in understanding and winning over India than the European Union.

Which is why nuclear disarmament is at an ebb tide in the world today. No one is opposed to it but no one is willing to put his neck out for it. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has been treading water since 1996.

The Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty is being blocked by Pakistan, ignoring the various pressures that could theoretically be brought against it by the West.

It is a good cause, but one that for the most part whose activists are held together through faith rather than the expectation of anything happening soon.

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