Monday, January 21, 2008


I had been invited to write a book review for Joseph Cirincione's "Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons" in National Interest Review's Pragati magazine and here it is. During the process of writing, I gradually came to terms with the fine art of brevity, something that I was not exactly known for. The January issue of Pragati is here.

"RIGHT NOW, the United States has around 10,000 nuclear weapons. Roughly half of them are on a 15-minute alert. Russia has more than 15,000. Other countries around the world have several hundreds. Together, this destructive force can destroy our planet many thousand times over. Those who lived through the Cold War would find this scenario all too familiar and at the same time surreal. If we pass this age with the preservation of our sanity, future generations will no doubt look back and wonder and ask; what happened? And how will we live with this legacy in the future?

Joseph Cirincione, one of America’s foremost experts on weapons of mass destruction, tries to answer these questions in this succinct and well-informed book. He shines in analysing the reasons why states may or may not acquire nuclear weapons. Interestingly, the same reasons that may propel nations to possess nuclear weapons may convince them to give them up. In case of Britain and France for example, national prestige definitely played a role in weapons development; both proud nations wanted in some part to redeem the historic role they had played in the world over past centuries. Prestige and patriotism fuelled by the BJP was also a reason for India's nuclear tests in 1998. But the same reasons also encouraged South Africa and South Korea to give up weapons development; both thought they would set a model example in front of the world.

The most common reason touted for possessing nuclear weapons-security-can also be a reason to not have them. While Iran could want them for security, some states like South Korea, Brazil and Argentina think that they appear much less antagonistic when they don't have these weapons. Countries certainly can also abandon such programs because they fear military aggression and political instability. In fact, promise of military assistance from the US can be important in convincing such countries to give up their own programs, like it did for Germany and South Korea. Security on the other hand clearly played a role in the Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons programs.
Economic factors constitute yet another major reason for weapons building. Countries may decide to abandon nuclear weapons in the face of fear of economic sanctions and as a playing card for getting economic benefits, as Libya did for example. One hopes that North Korea will be such a case. However, the case of India is also interesting in this context. It is now known that nuclear pioneer Homi Bhabha downplayed the cost of building reactors and bombs that encouraged the Indian government to provide funding and facilities for nuclear development.

Cirincione’s key argument is that nations can be induced to give up their nuclear ambitions by using the right combination of sticks and carrots.

It is instructive to examine Cirincione’s prescriptions in the context of the current debate over Iran’s programme. He makes it clear that Iran’s development of nuclear weapons will depend on its perception of US plans to possibly effect regime change. Iran thinks that developing a nuclear capability could deter the US from contemplating regime change. Ciricincione argues that diplomacy and gradual pressure through sanctions are likely to induce Iran to forgo its nuclear ambitions. Iran could also be given an incentive to pursue only some parts of the fuel cycle, such as converting uranium to uranium hexafluoride gas. The gas could then be shipped to other countries like Russia to be enriched and fabricated into fuel rods. But clearly measures like inspections cannot work by themselves because you can inspect and inspect, but it takes only a handful of plutonium to make an effective weapon.
Quite significantly, Cirincione thinks that Iran would also be encouraged to give up nuclear weapons building if it does not face a nuclear threat from what it considers to be its biggest enemy in the Middle East---Israel. The nuclear balance in the Middle East is always going to be contingent on the political atmosphere in that politically and historically volatile continent, and Israel is a key player in these developments. While Israel giving up its nuclear program may sound utopian, Cirincione is optimistic that Israel with its vast and superior conventional forces could be encouraged to incrementally reduce or even eliminate its nuclear capability, perhaps starting by shutting down its production reactor at Dimona.

In the end, economic incentives would be as lucrative as political ones for countries to give up nuclear weapons. This fact has precedents in the past, when nations found it too expensive and unnecessarily so to build nuclear weapons. In today’s era, incentives based on mutually beneficial economic transactions may be the key. Cirincione cites a 2005 recommendation by a group spearheaded by former CIA director John Deutch that proposes an “Assured Nuclear Fuel Services Initiative”. Under such an agreement, countries that currently are trying to pursue fuel generation and enrichment would give up these activities in exchange for assured cradle-to-grave services by countries that already have such capabilities. These services would involve contributing to all parts of the fuel cycle, from the shipping of fuel to the final containment and reprocessing of fuel rods. Countries that provide such services would get revenue. All transactions would be subject to IAEA safeguards. One of the most attractive parts of the proposal lies in the incentives that commercial entities would get for brokering such transactions. Thus, the proposal also aims to breathe new life into the nuclear industry which has been through many bad times in the last few decades.

Finally, Cirincione deals with whether and how we can break through the pall of nuclear destruction. Even if we cannot completely eliminate these weapons, it is not utopian to imagine a world where most countries don’t have them and feel secure, and those who do have a dozen each for deterrence. First and foremost, Cirincione has prescriptions for the US to lend credence to its suggestions to stop nuclear proliferation. Writing in 1993, McGeorge Bundy estimated a maximum of 1500 nuclear weapons that would be necessary for deterrence. Far fewer than this number are actually necessary, because all that is required is for a dozen warheads--- even three or four---to get through to cause untold destruction. The US is far behind achieving such goals and its and Russia’s reluctance to cut down on its arsenal is one of the major obstacles in trying to convince other nations to give up their arsenals.

In Cirincione’s view, the US clearly has to improve its image as a safeguarder of peace and also as a nation that truly desires it by working together with other nations. During the Cold War, Mikhail Gorbachev understood and espoused the very fundamental premise of ‘common security’ which says that you can be secure only if your enemies feel secure. Whether it’s Iran or North Korea, countries like the US cannot achieve security by making them feel insecure.

The most crucial issue of today's nuclear era is that of nuclear terrorism. Deterrence does not work for terrorist groups who clandestinely acquire nuclear material and then post a deadly package to another nation without a return home address. While this problem is hard to solve, its resolution crucially depends on securing nuclear material in states, an endeavor clearly dependent on international cooperation.

The existence of nuclear weapons was conceived by collective human brilliance, and their future will depend on collective human wisdom. This future is deviously intertwined with the rise and fall of governments and civilisations. To secure such a future, we all have to work together, as Cirincione clearly documents in this slim, readable volume.

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