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Politics of nuke powerdom - The Indian Express

Hugo Young ()
June 6, 1998

Title: Politics of nuke powerdom
Author: Hugo Young
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: June 6, 1998

Tony Blair's New Labour was built on nuclear weapons. There were
other foundations as well, but the bomb was proof of virtue, and
it had deep consequences. Excluding the Campaign for Nuclear
Disarmament from the aura of the party required the abandonment
of all discussion of Britain's nuclear policy. Hardly any Labour
politician has done so for the past five years.

The tests by India and Pakistan, however, don't permit the
silence to continue. For Britain was an accessory before the fact
of them. Their happening engages Britain as a member of the
nuclear club, but for a more particular reason too.

The argument India used for its five tests was, essentially, the
same Britain has used since she went nuclear 50 years ago. The
critical propellant in both cases was the need for status and
apparent independence. "We will not accept an unequal system,"
said the ruling BJP. "This says we will do what we want to do,"
blurted Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Although the China
threat came into the attendant dialectic, along with the doomed
pre-emptive jump on Pakistan, the dancing in the Delhi streets
celebrated national virility, and the illusion that the bomb
would make India more secure.

India's gambit carries dangers that are far from unimaginable. It
wasn't new technically: we've known for 25 years that India could
make a bomb, and so, with China's bootlegged help, could
Pakistan. But the shameless testing heightens tension, sets a
potent example and breaks a taboo that many other nuclear-capable
countries Argentina, Brazil, Iran, South Africa - have preserved.
Smashing through the elaborate construct of global treaties,
India, followed by Pakistan, justifies itself by reference to the
theory and practice of nuclear powerdom. As a small power,
Britain, in particular, is the model - and now, sermonising to
the sub-continent, the hypocrite.

To this charge, Britain has some answers, but they are far from
perfect. The bomb is the most sacred relic of Britain's past. We
got it because we knew how to make it, and Washington wanted us
to have it. We justified it as an addition to Western defence.
But in the real world, nobody ever took seriously the pretence
that Britain would use it on her own. Its value was as a ticket
of entry, in certain arenas, to the top table.

This continues in the New Labour world. A vast theology has grown
up around the British bomb, which will not be revised. In defence
terms, however, it is fiction parading as unexaminable fact.
Status - the Indian obsession - is what continues to matter most
in Britain. Remaining a player in the Virtual War preserves the
anachronism of Britain's seat on the UN Security Council. The
bomb is a refuge from the national decline so visible on other

Its putative abandonment is therefore protected from any
pressures for an ethical foreign policy. Could there be anything
more ethical than re-configuring defence policy so that Britain
forsakes the nuclear option and destroys the illusion that these
weapons could ever, in any case be prudently used?

That dramatic gesture will not be made. On the other hand,
nuclear powerdom imposes responsibilities. Here, after all, is a
new situation of tinder-box fragility: India and Pakistan are
innocents at operating the deterrent doctrine of mutually assured
destruction. But since they have failed to show restraint, the
nuclear powers must face their own obligations towards

The recklessness of India and Pakistan is shocking, and their
playing with the poverty of the people a savage disgrace. But it
won't be undone Meanwhile nuclear disarmament has stalled. The
enlightened response is no longer to bleat against them but for
the nuclear powers to dedicate themselves to a world free of
nuclear weapons Mikhail Gorbachev proposed a 15-year target in
1986. To resuscitate it would be a plausible international
commitment and the only way, as we may now see, to throttle
nuclear proliferation.

The pledge would require Washington and Moscow to rise above the
sloth of their politicians, and the demands of their military
industries. A strange lack of interest infects the Western
attitude to the nuclear sub continent. This is happening a long
way away. In fact, it's the wake-up call which says the status
quo is hideously unsustainable.

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