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Setting an example - Mid-Day

Hugo Young ()
June 8, 1998

Title: Setting an example
Author: Hugo Young
Publication: Mid-Day
Date: June 8, 1998

New Labour was built on nuclear weapons. There were other
foundations as well. but the Bomb was proof of virtue even
earlier than One Member One Vote, and it had deep consequences.
Even to mention the abandonment of Britain's nuclear policy as a
matter worth debating was to defile oneself. Hardly has any
Labour politician 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.

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 testing heightens tension, sets a potent
example, 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.

A vast theology has grown up around the British bomb, which will
not be revised. The Trident subs that carry it sail on, war games
seek the new enemies against whom it might be launched. 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 our seat on the UN Security Conned. The Bomb is a
refuge from the national decline so visible on other fronts since
we got it. Its putative abandonment is therefore protected from
any pressures for an ethical foreign policy. Could there be
anything more ethical that reconfiguring defence policy so that
this country forsakes the nuclear option, sets an example to the
world, withdraws from India, Pakistan and other rogue states some
off their plausibility, 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 hands,
nuclear powerdom imposes responsibilities. Here. after all, is a
new situation of tinder-box fragility: two border powers,
readying their fissile material, unrestrained by decades of
sophisticated dialogue that built a species of gruesome trust
between the US and the erstwhile USSR - which even then witnessed
several catastrophic episodes when the world came close to frying
in a nuclear accident. 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
face their own neglected obligations towards disarmament.

The Asians' recklessness 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 US and Russia
have lost the energy to improve on a regime that will leave each
of them with 3,500 warheads finely targetted on the other's
cities in 2003, and maybe 2,500 in 2008. The US, as the sole
super power, is proving especially dumb in its refusal to start
the process of disarming down towards a fraction of those
figures, the maximum required to perform the virtual task that
any war-game requires of them.

The enlightened response to India and Pakistan is no longer to
bleat against them, or even simply to sanction them, but for the
nuclear powers to dedicate themselves to a world free of nuclear
weapons, abandoning the illusion that such weapons any longer
prevent war, if they ever did. A mind-cracking task for the
generals.

But Mikhail Gorbachev had proposed a 15-year target for that in
1986. To resuscitate it as something achievable by, say, 2020
would be a plausible international commitment, and the only way
to throttle nuclear proliferation. Non-proliferation is currently
pursued under an anequal treaty which legitimises the nuclear
status of five states.

The pledge would require Washington and Moscow to rise above the
sloth of their politicians, and demands of their military
industries. But Britain, a prime agent provocateur in this
matter, has her own opportunities, if watered-down ethics can be
allowed to prevail.

Mainly, however, we have the choice between activity and
inerthia: pushing the nuclear debate, or continuing to bury it by
default. A strange disinterest infects the western attitude to
the nuclear subcontinent. This is happening a long way away. In
fact, it's the wake-!w message which says the status quo
worldwide is hideously unsustainable.

(Hugo Young is a columnist with the London-based Guardian)


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