Archive for the ‘proliferation’ Category

Pakistan’s Nuclear Arsenal

January 11, 2009

And what woe it could breed

The New York Times has a very interesting, lengthy article by David Sanger on problems with Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Although Pakistani officials repeatedly suggest that their weapons are safely secured, they would not allow American or other officials to verify this; thus we are basically left with their reassurances, and unfortunately there’s not much in the past that would help us accept their reassurances. On the other hand, it’s not just the safety of the arsenal that’s the only matter of concern.

Among other things, the article profiles Khalid Kidwai, a general who is in charge of the Pakistani arsenal. Kidwai is a man who knows a lot but will not say much. He was essentially put in charge of the security of the complex after the 1998 nuclear tests. Although Pakistan’s nuclear secrets were supposed to be secure after this, it was just one month before 9/11 in August 2001 that one of Pakistan’s most prominent and eccentric nuclear scientists, Sultan Mahmood, had a meeting with Osama Bin Laden. Mahmood was a chilling emblem of the conflation of advanced technology and religious fundamentalism. Even more than A Q Khan he wanted to build an “Islamic bomb” and was more than glad to await the day of reckoning. Nuclear weapons were undoubtedly discussed in his meeting with the Al Qaeda leader, although the details remain vague. The fact that such a meeting even took place calls into question how safe Pakistan’s nuclear secrets are. Plus, nobody is going to allow American authorities to directly inspect the nuclear complex. Mahmood and A Q Khan have long since been kept incommunicado. We have to take the Pakistanis’ word for accounting of nuclear material and personnel checks.

The article has other troubling details. While the warheads and missiles are apparently kept separate by the authorities, specs on Permissive Action Locks (PALs) are not known. PALs essentially disable a warhead if someone tries too hard to tamper with it. The Pakistanis would not allow American personnel to inspect their weapons and installs PALs. Apparently there was some exchange of design information between the two countries, but nobody would say how effective that exchange was and whether its recommendations were put into effect. More exchange has been thwarted by one of those ironically absurd and ridiculous policies where the US cannot divulge details of PALs to Pakistan because then it would be ostensibly selling nuclear technology to a failed state. Muddle-headed bureaucracy does not get any better than this.

The principal problem as always is that it’s just difficult to trust anything that the Pakistanis say for two reasons. Firstly nothing that they say can be actually verified. But more importantly, Pakistan’s past pronouncements have turned out to be false so many times either because of inside complicity or ignorance that it’s hard to believe them when they say they are a responsible nuclear power. Consider the A Q Khan and the Mahmood debacles. Consider the radicalization of the universities from where the nuclear programs draws its talent. There are 2000 Pakistani personnel with advanced nuclear knowledge and even 1 percent of these wiling to offer their expertise to terrorists is a huge liability. The article also talks about Prime Minister Yousef Gilani’s 2008 trip to Washington where he wanted to assure Bush that he had ordered a raid on a radical Madrassa school in tribal areas where Islamic radicalization was part of the daily curriculum. Apparently the NSA had already intercepted messages from insider elements which warned the school about the raid before it took place so that targeted personnel could possibly leave. Bush knew about this, and yet Gilani tried to assure Bush that it was evidence of how the Pakistani government is trying to weed out radical elements.

As long as there is a total lack of control from Islamabad over fundamentalists in the ISI, in the general populace and in the defence forces, no assurances that the Pakistani government gives the US or the world can be taken too seriously. There are just too many non-state players sometimes in collusion with state players who run amok in the country. Neither the president nor the prime minister nor any single authority controls them; even the more authoritarian Musharraf could not keep them in check. Official promises are not going to stop unofficial actions. And as long as these anarchic elements continue to be part of the unofficial and official outfits of Pakistan, the threat of its nuclear arsenal falling into the wrong hands will always have to be taken seriously. Even if directly pilfering a nuclear weapon may be hard, there are many other ways in which the love of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons can be spread around. When it comes to assessing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, it is important to err on the safer side.

But an even more important lesson to be learnt is that US policy towards Pakistan needs to be significantly changed. For 50 years the US has supported the country in hopes of first fighting communists and then of fighting terrorists. Both these objectives have bred unwanted repercussions. During this process the government has also turned a blind eye toward Pakistan’s nuclear activities in the hope that their neglect will be compensated for by a greater victory. But there has been scant success in this endeavor. In addition, instead of the US dangling carrots in front of Pakistan, it’s been Pakistan who has inevitably dangled carrots in front of the US. Pakistan’s carrots have been simple and very effective; give us money otherwise we will descend into chaos. Perhaps now the mantra of the US should be- give us the terrorists or we will replace the carrot with a stick. The buck needs to stop here.

The Atomic Pirate- A Cautionary Tale For Our Times

June 16, 2008

The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor
By William Langewiesche
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007

Interest in the Pakistani nuclear marketeer A Q Khan has reemerged recently with news of his rather inane denial of his activities and about the relaxing of restrictions on his movements. Yesterday there was an alarming piece of news suggesting that Khan might have sold blueprints for an advanced nuclear weapon to an international smuggling ring. Incidentally I just finished William Langewiesche’s rather disturbing book The Atomic Bazaar, the majority of which is devoted to Khan’s life, times and deeds.

The book is disturbing because its premise is simple; that nations who choose to get nuclear weapons will get them under any circumstances. This is not only because nuclear weapons provide unparalleled leverage in foreign policy and the greatest bang for your buck, but also because it’s not at all easy for other nations to stop nuclear proliferation. This is because of a complex web of reasons that encompass political problems, economic necessities and personal grudges and perceptions. Note that we are not talking here about whether countries have incentives to acquire nukes in the first place. They may or may not and some have and others haven’t, as has been documented lucidly in Joseph Cirincione’s Bomb Scare. What Langewiesche is saying is that assuming that a country does have such incentives, it’s very difficult to stop it from building such weapons. While the fact that this is technologically not too difficult has been demonstrated before, Langewiesche also sheds valuable insight on other reasons why this may be easy.

Langewische describes Khan and concomitantly Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programs as a typical case of such proliferation. Many facts conspired to make both Khan’s and Pakistan’s success possible. What is galling in case of Pakistan is that countries such as the US turned a blind eye to the weapons program because of other geopolitical interests that were deemed more important, as sometimes they unfortunately well may be.

Langewiesche traces Khan’s development as a nuclear proliferator from his early days working for the European nuclear consortium URENCO in Holland. Khan started out as a metallurgical engineer having no connection to nuclear issues. His speciality was machine parts of the kind that are used in centrifuges. He largely joined URENCO because that was the best job he could find at the time, and also because he had married a Dutch woman. It was an unfortunate coincidence of fate that he ended up working for a company that manufactured centrifuges for uranium enrichment. By all accounts Khan was not a brilliant or exceptional scientist, but a sincere and hard-working individual. He was affable and liked by his co-workers.

Khan’s interest in nuclear energy developed simultaneously and ominously with political developments in Southeast Asia. Ever since India had launched its nuclear energy program, Pakistan had wanted to build a nuclear weapon. India and Pakistan had gone to war in 1965 and India had won that conflict. Right after this event prominent Pakistani politicians started making noises about wanting nukes. Foremost among these was Zia-ul-Haq, later Pakistan’s prime minister. Famously and rather inanely, he said that the Pakistanis would develop nuclear weapons even if they had to eat grass. India’s 1971 war with Pakistan in which Pakistan suffered a crushing defeat further and greatly reinforced Pakistan’s convictions about acquiring them.

It is to be noted here that this set of decisions puts to rest a commonly held myth about the driving force for Pakistan’s nuclear program. It emphatically was not developed only in response to India’s program, although the Indian program certainly expedited its urgent manifestation. Pakistan almost certainly would have developed nuclear weapons even if India had no nukes right up to the present. This was because it was quite clear to Pakistan that it could never win against India’s vastly larger conventional forces, a point driven home after Pakistan’s defeat in 1971. This is emblematic of one of the fundamental reasons why nuclear weapons are so alluring; they can substitute many times for the lack of advantage in conventional forces that a country has and quite cheaply at that, and since most developing and underdeveloped countries lack large conventional forces, this reason alone could be instrumental in their nuclear weapons development, as was the case with Pakistan.

India’s nuclear weapons test in 1974 sealed Pakistan’s decision to proceed with the program. Long before prime minster General Zia had heard of A Q Khan, he had convened a meeting of Pakistani scientists to embark on a nuclear program. The preliminary thrust was in the development of a plutonium-based weapon and reactors were constructed with American and Chinese help whose secret purpose was to transform Pakistan’s generous reserves of uranium into plutonium.

In Holland, Khan was quietly observing these developments and seething with rage at Pakistan’s humiliating 1971 defeat. What I find upsetting was his religious fundamentalist resentment for the “Hindu bomb” and an overweaning ambition to answer with an “Islamic bomb”. In fact Pakistan, as the first Islamic nuclear actor, has been a role model for countries like Iran, a perception that’s hard to erode from the minds of many fundamentalist Muslim citizens around the world.

Since Khan was in the centrifuge business, he quickly saw that he could contribute to the Pakistani program. Boldly he scheduled a meeting with General Zia himself who he quickly convinced. The General decided to play it safe for the moment and instituted a parallel uranium enrichment program essentially in competition with the plutonium program which was under the auspices of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission.

What happened next is disconcerting and points to the kinks in systems for keeping nuclear proliferation at bay. For one thing, security at URENCO was rather lax, with employees free to appropriate spare centrifuge parts. Khan casually took blueprints and parts home and noted information about them in Urdu, aided by his wife. Even when an alert co-worker who was a friend became suspicious, Khan quite brazenly continued his activities. It was only when the co-worker talked to the Dutch authorities that URENCO began to investigate Khan. Even then they could come up with no substantial evidence against him. And by 1975 Khan left for Pakistan for good, armed with enough information to jump-start a uranium enrichment unit in his home country.

The next disturbing part of the story is how Khan slowly built up his nuclear empire in the next few years. One problem with stopping nuclear proliferation is that, apart from nuclear material itself, most other equipment used for building either nuclear reactors or weapons is dual-purpose. Most of the parts needed for building centrifuges can be bought from companies making machine tools or parts. You can put a ball bearing in a juice blender or you can install it in a uranium enrichment centrifuge; it’s a fundamental aspect of technology. Khan banked on this fuzzy nature of the nuclear market and placed orders for parts from European companies that had no explicit nuclear connections. Over the years, he formed a network of trusted suppliers that could ship him large and readymade orders of equipment. He himself set up companies in Dubai and Malaysia that were false fronts for backdoor equipment transfer. Most of the companies he dealt with could be vaguely suspected of taking part in nuclear proliferation but their dual-use capacity made them part of a gray market, hard to explicitly label as black, and hard to garner strong evidence against. Many businessmen and officials in Europe were complicit in these transactions; their true numbers and identity may never be known. Khan deftly exploited this fundamental gap in manufacturing and legislation and finally set up a vast network of uranium centrifuges. Pakistan started churning out its first batches of weapons-grade U-235 in the early 80s.

Perhaps the most galling part of the whole story is how the United States did not and in fact could not stop Khan and Pakistan even when they knew about their activities. Through the 1970s there were some American agents and journalists who knew about Khan’s shenanigans. They managed to convince the US government to keep a tighter watch on US companies who might correspond with Khan. Strict laws did stop US companies from doing this. But in Europe it was much more difficult. For one thing European laws and policies were not as strict as those in the US. But more importantly, and I find this point crucial, European governments were cynical of US efforts to curb proliferation when the US itself possessed upward of 20,000 nuclear weapons. It was again about credibility, the same factor that’s keeping countries such as Iran today from taking the US seriously about stopping nuclear proliferation. Khan himself despised the five nuclear powers from preaching non-proliferation when they themselves were continuing to build vast arsenals.

In the 1980s, Khan started essentially running his nuclear material pipeline in a reverse direction, looking around for customers who wanted the same kind of technology. There were eminently many who jumped at the opportunity to buy a readymade nuclear plant or even better, a small nuclear bomb shipped directly to their doorstep. As we know now, North Korea, Iran and Libya were all eager customers of Khan. In turn they paid Pakistan not only in cash, but in complementary technology, like the North Korean missile technology that’s now installed in Pakistan’s missiles. Khan personally gained an enormous amount too; he now was one of the most respected men in the country, he spent lavish sums on palatial mansions, fleets of the latest cars, and on charity. He took pleasure, as many politicians in corrupt countries do, in building luxurious houses in places where construction was formally banned by law. He dined with the prime minister and held parties for Pakistan’s most affluent at his houses.

A lot of this was known to the US, but by this time, they needed Pakistan’s help in fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Reagan, Bush and Clinton all turned a blind eye towards Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal because they wanted Pakistan as an ally in fighting their enemies, a mantle they inherited from their predecessors, a favored policy pursued for almost 50 years in the interests of geopolitical strategy. Some agents were asked to keep quiet, others were transferred to other cases. The consequences are there now for everybody to see- a monster that was nurtured in the form of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and a black market of nuclear proliferation that has been unprecedented in its scope. Today the US essentially continues its financial and political policy towards Pakistan while the country continues to provide a safe haven for fundamentalists and terrorist training camps.

The trends continue and the whole story seems to have a strange and ominous air of inevitability to it. Iran seems to signify the same convictions in acquiring nukes as Pakistan did, and it seems difficult to make the Iranians change their course. After all, the nuclear strategy worked well with North Korea and the Bush saber-rattling has been much more moderate towards that country. Iran has a good lesson to learn there.

We can sum up four principal reasons quoted by Langwiesche that lead to the rise of the “nuclear poor”:
1. The age-old incentive especially for poor countries to acquire relatively cheap nuclear weapons that will provide the biggest bang for their buck and quickly make up for the lack of an advantage in conventional forces.
2. The gray nature of the nuclear market and the dissonance among international trade laws that allows proliferators to cleverly skirt regulation and acquire much needed nuclear material.
3. The personal relations and rivalries that prevent countries from cooperating and fighting the proliferation genie together; the European inertia about not heeding the US’s urgent warnings to heel in their corporations is a good example.
4. As a related and very important point, the geopolitical interests that sometimes inevitably bind a nation’s hands and make it difficult or impossible for it to enforce strict policies to stop proliferation. In this case, the US deemed its relationship with and support for Pakistan so important that it turned a blind eye to Khan’s activities.

So what is the solution to stop the nuclear poor from flourishing? For one thing, as I noted earlier, the nuclear poor will get their hands on a nuclear weapon only if they want to. What we need to to is to convince them that they would genuinely be much better off without nuclear weapons. For that, and this point really cannot be reiterated enough, the nuclear powers of the world and especially the US must have credibility. As of now, the US has the least amount of credibility among all the powers. In the current scenario it’s inevitably going to be extremely difficult to convince Iran or any other country to disarm. If he does get elected, the new President Obama will hopefully bring about drastic reductions in the current arsenal, while I don’t see the new President McCain doing so.
It is a very simple element of foreign policy that a country’s safety can only lie in the safety of its enemies, a principle that the US has largely neglected in the last eight years. Whether it’s Iran or North Korea, it is a simple fact of human nature that they are are not going to feel secure if they continue to see the US saber-rattling and engaged in messianic rhetoric.

Secondly, there can sometimes be very simple incentives for countries to give up the idea of nuclear weapons. The country that led to the fall of Khan, Libya, is a shining example. Khan was almost about to deliver a readymade weapon to Libya’s doorstep when Quadaffi realized that here was his chance to gain significant political leverage as well as financial benefits from announcing the existence of this secret atomic bazaar and to give up his nuclear ambitions. If a country truly realizes that its security and self-interest lies in not possessing nukes, it could give up its nuclear ambitions in a heartbeat.

All hope should not be lost. If nations decide to build nuclear weapons, then it’s disturbingly possible for them to do so. But much can be gained if we can work together to convince everyone that the best kind of nuclear weapon is not just one which is never used, but one that’s never had.

Richard Rhodes@Google

February 8, 2008

As part of the Authors@Google talk series that Google has organised, everyone’s favourite nuclear historian Richard Rhodes gave a talk at the company, partly on general nuclear history and policy and partly about his new book (which I reviewed here). In the end, he asked the bright folks at Google for advice about how best one could possibly implement an international system of tracking nuclear material.There were several interesting points about both history and current policy that he made that I think are worth noting as summaries (for those who may not have the time to watch the entire one hour talk)

1. Paul Nitze was a highly influential official in the State Department who served through six administrations, advising presidents on nuclear policy. After surveying the damage caused by atomic bombs in Japan and comparing it with the damage caused by strategic bombing, he erroneously concluded that atomic weapons are not much different in their effects from conventional incendiary bombing. He set the tone for policy partly grounded in this belief in 1950 when he drafted a key document named NSC 68 which outlined George Kennan’s containment doctrine and advocated increasing nuclear weapons building as the best way to counter the Soviets. Although the report was opposed for its exaggerated tone by some, the Korean War that began that year sealed the deal, and the report more or less set the tone for US nuclear policy for the next six decades. Nitze could well be called the “father of threat inflation”

2. Most of the estimates about nuclear weapon targeting made during the Cold War or at least during the early years were underestimates because they neglected the effects of fire. Fire effects and the resulting strong winds cause a firestorm in a nuclear attack, and they can contribute up to 60% of all the effects. Most initial calculations only included blast effects. In a somewhat dramatic illustration, Rhodes showed the possible blast and fire radius of an attack on Google with a 300 kT weapons. The fire radius is much larger than the blast radius, and in addition fires can spread far and wide depending on vegetation.

3. In another telling illustration, Rhodes showed the nuclear winter that would result from a “limited” exchange of about a megaton between India and Pakistan. Within a few months, the simulation shows that the average temperature of the world could drop by 5 degrees, a catastrophic result. One can scarcely comprehend the nuclear winter that would have resulted from an estimated exchange of 10,000 megatons between the two Cold War superpowers. The illustration showed that even a small regional war waged with nuclear weapons could have extremely serious global consequences.

4. The real problem with nuclear proliferation is that like any complex machine, the system can go haywire and is subject to “normal accidents”. More accounts than would make us comfortable exist of nuclear weapons accidentally armed or delivered somewhere instead of conventional weapons.5. Rhodes also noted that both the Indian and Pakistani nuclear arsenals don’t have Permissive Action Locks (PALs). This makes the situation uncomfortable. I am interested in knowing his sources for this information.

5. Rhodes again outlined an ambitious plan by many former US experts including Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and Sam Nunn for universal disarmament. These gentlemen were early advocates of security through minimal deterrents. But after 9/11, they realised that nuclear terrorism makes only universal disarmament an ideal goal to be pursued for securing peace. Rhodes makes the accurate observation that nuclear proliferation can be stopped only by satisfying nations’ security needs. However, I disagree with his projection for Pakistan’s nuclear disarmament. Senior Pakistani officials have ostensibly said that they would disarm if India would disarm. But I doubt it because the Pakistani arsenal (about 40 weapons) is as much a deterrent against India’s conventional forces superiority as it is against India’s nuclear arsenal (about 60 weapons), and India inherently has the conventional advantage because of its size and resources. I don’t see how this could stop being seen as a threat by the Pakistanis.

Now will you stop?

December 28, 2007

One of the key ideas in stopping nuclear proliferation is to actually help countries enrich their nuclear fuel and monitor the entire process. A country like Iran which threatens to use its own facilities to enrich fuel can be lent assistance by another country. The goal would be to allow such a country to engage in some preliminary steps of fuel processing (eg. converting uranium to uranium hexafluoride gas). The preliminary processed materials can then be shipped to another country for further processing and enrichment and the enriched fuel could then be returned to the other country. Thus, countries which claim that they want to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes should then have no problem in accepting such an arrangement, and it will be much harder for them to then justify indigenous fuel enrichment. Russia seems to be working on such an agreement with Iran, and leading arms expert Pavel Podvig writing in The Bulletin is optimistic about it. Surprisingly, it also seems to have received a semblance of a blessing from His Majesty George Bush the Second:

“It’s possible that by delivering the first 180 fuel assemblies to the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran on December 16, Russia scored a critical victory for the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Early acknowledgement of the event’s importance came from an unlikely source–President George W. Bush. Commenting on the Russian shipment, he publicly urged Iran to now suspend its controversial enrichment program, arguing that with Russian fuel, Iran no longer needed to enrich uranium on its own. Of course, it’s unlikely that Iran will stop its centrifuges–at least not any time soon. But if Washington accepts the shipment of rector fuel to Bushehr as legitimate–despite the continuing controversy surrounding the Iranian nuclear program–it will set an important precedent that should help build a workable system of fuel supply guarantees.” 

Power to save the world…in two ways

November 20, 2007

As it is with other important issues, the debate about nuclear power has always been mainly political and not technical. Along with the added benefits of nuclear energy and the drastically reduced risks of this energy source compared with conventional sources of energy, the problem of nuclear waste which has been the biggest bee in everyone’s bonnet has also been largely technically solved. The problem has been political; politicians and reactionary anti-nuclear environmentalists comparing nuclear power and nuclear weapons in the same breath and dissuading the nation from adopting the single most important source of power that can solve our energy crisis. Thus the pro-nuclear scientists and citizens who were arguing on technical grounds- a sound and honest strategy- nonetheless failed to see the political arguments that they would have to combat in order to get their message across. This is gradually changing now, and pro-nuclear citizens are also pointing out special interest and political strawmen in the anti-nuclear energy arguments. But there is still a long way to go in educating the general citizenry for whom the word “nuclear” is deeply rooted in fear and untrustworthiness.

I have just received my copy of a new book by Gwyneth Cravens, Power to Save the World: The Truth about Nuclear Energy, which makes a passionate yet reasoned plea for nuclear energy. Cravens is a journalist who was previously part of the anti-nuclear movement. As she researched the topic however, she realised that almost all her fears about nuclear energy were misfounded or exaggerated. Touring various nuclear sites in the country, she reached the conclusion that nuclear energy is the single best solution for combating our global energy crisis. I will review the book as soon as I finish.

But I realised that this issue also relates to the issue of proliferation I was talking about in the last post. The idealist position advocates a little proliferation everywhere. A much safer and more rewarding view would be to advocate giving technology for nuclear power to energy-hungry nations. Not weapons but technology. In fact this was the central point suggested by the report filed by Robert Oppenheimer and others (The Acheson-Lilienthal report) after the end of World War 2. In its new incarnation, it seems it is being rewritten by a group that George Schultz and Senator Sam Nunn have set up. Sam Nunn is one of the world’s foremost experts and a longtime advocate of non-proliferation.

Details of the group’s report and plan have not yet been made public. But in a recent lecture recorded by CSPAN, historian Richard Rhodes said that Nunn has a plan in mind wherein every country in the world would have nuclear technology, but would be at least one year away from making a nuclear weapon. This is a sound and significant plan and sounds very similar in spirit to the Acheson-Lilienthal plan. Let an international body give countries nuclear material and technology, but only that which can be used for generating nuclear power. For example, material provided should be Uranium enriched only to reactor grade (4% U-235) as well as reactor grade Plutonium. Both these materials need to be significantly processed (Uranium to greater than 90% U-235) in order to make them weapons grade. In case of reactor grade Plutonium, the only way it can be used in a bomb is to use relatively large amounts of it. Any such diversion of material for weapons and the technological infrastructure needed to process it can be easily detected by a system of international monitoring, where countries have to keep detailed records of what goes in and comes out.

But for such a development to take place, countries first have to embrace nuclear energy as a solution to their energy problems. At some point or the other, every country in the world, whether fundamentalist or democratic, whether capitalist or socialist, is going to need a novel source of energy to replace fossil fuels, the deleterious effects from which affect everybody. It is only when they see great promise in nuclear power can they become amenable and even eager to partake of nuclear energy without wanting to build nuclear weapons.

Thus, the idealist position of providing nuclear technology to all nations in my opinion is intimately related to the desire of all nations to want that technology in the first place. Thus, the case for nuclear energy should become a mainstay of the case for non-proliferation of the kind that policy makers are trying to advocate. It is only by including the beneficial effects of nuclear energy in their proposals, that proponents of non-proliferation will make it easier for other countries to want to accept nuclear energy and give up nuclear weapons.

To proliferate or not?

November 20, 2007

One of the central questions debated among nuclear policy thinkers- perhaps the central question- is whether the world will be a safer place by allowing a little nuclear proliferation or by aiming for complete disarmament. This is essentially a debate between realists and idealists the way I see it. The idealist approach is not wrong. But the realist approach may be more feasible.

The realists say that nuclear weapons are here to stay. But they put great faith in the concept of deterrence and contend that if every nation in the world has a few nuclear weapons, all of them will be deterred and the threat of nuclear war will actually reduce. The realists also think that the potential threat from nuclear weapons can also limit the extent of conventional warfare.

The realist way of thinking is not new. After the Second World War, Robert Oppenheimer, AEC Chairman David Lilienthal and Secretary of State Dean Acheson convened meetings to discuss and propose a daring plan called the Acheson-Lilienthal plan. Their report started out by saying that nuclear technology can be obtained and used by anyone, no matter how much the United States would like to think of it as a secret. In such a scenario, it is better to provide the know-how to states and then have an international body keeping an official watch on these states so that such a situation is much safer than states developing such technology clandestinely. The existence of an international nuclear energy watchdog who kept a check on all states was key to the proposal.

The plan looked radical then; it would unfortunately be viewed as radical now. Naturally given the antagonistic political atmosphere of the times, the plan was not accepted without a great deal of modification by the administration and not surprisingly, promptly rejected by the Soviets.

The idealist way of thinking says that no matter if the realistic position works to some extent, it has fundamental flaws. The first flaw is that even if the probability of a nuclear war is extremely low, what if a madman decides to use his weapons? The very existence of nuclear weapons means that we will have to face the consequences of them being used, even if the probability of such a use is low. Secondly, the distribution of nuclear weapons does not exactly solve the problem, but pushes it under the rug. The peace such a situation entails can only be an uncertain, strained peace.

I have always been in two minds when it comes to this debate. I agree to a large extent that nuclear weapons are here to stay, and that it better to have an states possess them and then have an international body keep an official watch on them, rather than to have states clandestinely develop them. Right now, about 30 countries have the material and technology to build a crude nuclear bomb virtually with their bare hands. This knowledge cannot be taken away from them. I also think the realist position is strengthened by the existence of something that the original realists did not have to consider- nuclear terrorism. In the light of this plausible catastrophe, it becomes even more important to stop states from developing nuclear technology clandestinely and passing it to terrorists. We have seen several instances of such proliferation involving Iran, North Korea and especially Pakistan. Pakistani scientists have been known to have briefed Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri on WMDs. A. Q. Khan’s nuclear black market is well-known. From the realist point of view, it is far better to have nuclear material accounted for and officially distributed and tracked to stop it from falling into terrorist hands. The problem with the realist plan is that it depends on an unbiased system of international cooperation where countries don’t browbeat or lobby the international body to advance their interests. As we know from the examples of the UN and the IAEA, this seldom happens and more often than not such a policy results in the existence of certain nations who wield even bigger influence than the international body on key matters. Realism will also, just like the idealistic scenario described below, need the US and Russia to largely dismantle their nuclear fleet to level the playing field.

On the other hand, the idealistic position if it can be realised sounds blissful indeed. A world free of nuclear weapons. The idealists have a point when they say that only a world free of these weapons would have gotten completely rid of the possibility of them being used, no matter how small. Also, the idealistic scenario is not completely idealistic. After all, many countries have renounced their nuclear programs for various reasons. They have felt comfortable with their conventional forces, have decided to send out positive messages to other nations, have prospered in trade with nations that otherwise would not trade with them, and have obtained reassurances that the nuclear powers will help them out in case of an imagined emergency. The idealistic position seems to call the realistic position of assuming that nuclear weapons are going to be inevitable into serious doubt. The idealistic position also seems to minimize the risk of nuclear terrorism.

For the idealist position to succeed, many problems would have to be solved. Treaties, viewed as unrealistic by many and condescendingly rejected by others, will have to be enforced. Countries will have to become much more cooperative. The illusion that only by having more nuclear weapons than your neighbor would make you safe needs to disappear. Most importantly, the two countries which have the largest numbers of weapons, the US and Russia, need to start on an expedited program of dismantling them. This program needs to have the urgency of the arms reductions programs in the late 80s. Such programs should aim to bring down the number of weapons on each side to perhaps a thousand, a goal that seems very far from the tens of thousands of weapons currently in their arsenals.

But the idealist position is on the table precisely because for many it does not sound idealistic. Former Secretary of State George Schulz and Senator Sam Nunn are drafting a radical proposal, perhaps similar to the Acheson-Lilienthal plan, to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The proposal necessarily needs to have a crash program for reducing US and Russian arsenals down in a few years. Then only will it gain enough weightage to dictate what to do in the rest of the world.

In the short term, the realist proposal seems to be feasible. Unfortunately, it will completely defeat the idealistic proposal of having a weapons-free world. I wish we could in fact implement the idealist plan. It might even be feasible to a limited sense. I think events in the next few years will dictate if it seems feasible or not. As of now, I am leaning more towards the realistic plan. In any case, international cooperation will be necessary, and the discussion of conditions for this to happen goes much beyond the limited issue of nuclear proliferation.