75 years of Hiroshima - Dark clouds gather
75 years of Hiroshima - Dark clouds gather
Hyderabad: The 75th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic weapon on Hiroshima will be observed on Thursday, August 6 this year and it is a matter of considerable satisfaction that there has been no further use of the nuclear weapon after Hiroshima-Nagasaki in August 1945. It was estimated that more than 120,000 innocent Japanese citizens were killed in this nuclear holocaust and many more terminally scarred. In that barren radioactive graveyard that emerged out of the mushroom cloud, it became a tragic truism that the living envied the dead.
75 years have been traversed uneasily since 1945 and after a fumble (during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis) it was a combination of strategic prudence among the major powers – then represented by the USA and the former USSR – combined with luck and some admirable restraint when it mattered most that allowed the world to reach this milestone. No second use of the dreaded ‘nuke’ since Nagasaki was also bombed on August 9, 1945.
However given the prevailing global nuclear scenario, it is difficult to be optimistic that the world will reach the 80th anniversary of Hiroshima with this record unblemished. One of many tangled strands is the latest development – a confidential UN Report submitted to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on Monday (Aug 3) which noted that North Korea (deemed to be a nuclear deviant) has “probably developed miniaturized nuclear devices to fit into the warheads of its ballistic missiles.”
While the veracity of this report will no doubt be examined by the UNSC ( which body India will join as a non-permanent member in January 2021 ), the steps taken by Pyongyang to ensure its own security in a very turbulent region are only the tip of the iceberg. The world’s most powerful and politically salient nations ( the five UNSC members) and the most prosperous (G 20 ) still rely on the nuclear weapon to ensure their security and the doctrinal underpinning is MAD – mutually assured destruction.
At a cognitive level, national security is perceived to have been assured by assuaging complex insecurities in the WMD (weapons of mass destruction ) domain by first acquiring and then increasing the number of nuclear weapons in the inventory. More is deemed to be better if less can provide the same index of security and the quest for sufficiency even among the major powers in the nuclear realm remains elusive. To that extent the insecurity correspondence between North Korea and its more pedigreed nuclear interlocutors (USA, Russia and China) is incongruous – but irrefutable.
At the height of the Cold War the two superpowers had more than 55,000 nuclear warheads between them - both strategic and tactical including the ‘suitcase’ variant. After the disintegration of the USSR in December 1991 and the emergence of the post Cold War world, a major reduction in nuclear weapons was implemented. The nuclear weapon powers were limited to the first five – the USA, Russia (that inherited the Soviet mantle), UK, France and China. India had carried out a nuclear test in 1974 but did not weaponize the capability and had a ‘suspended’ status.
Nuclear stability was ostensibly maintained by the NPT (nuclear non-proliferation treaty) formalized in 1970, an agreement reached between the USA and USSR that sought to keep the global nuclear club limited and exclusive. When mooted, the primary objective of the NPT was to prevent the defeated Axis powers (Germany, Japan and Italy) from acquiring this capability. The dictum was that the major five needed the nuke for their security and that they would provide an umbrella to those who needed it but the world was a safer place if all other nations renounced their right to ever acquire nuclear weapons – however dire their own insecurities.
Clearly this was an untenable framework and in the post Cold War period, India, Pakistan and North Korea became nuclear weapon powers by carrying out nuclear tests to establish the credibility of their WMD profile. Israel attained an opaque status and nations like Iraq, Iran and Libya were differently prevented from going down the nuclear weapon path. In short, the global nuclear club had been expanded by a unilateral assertion of the right to defend national sovereignty and the possession of the nuke became synonymous with a level of impregnable security. And there was no effective treaty or agreement to regulate the increase in nuclear weapons.
During the last few years, many of the major arms control treaties between the USA and Russia have unravelled and the Trump administration’s decision to unilaterally walk away from the 1987 INF (Intermediate Nuclear Force) treaty in August 2019 is case in point. At the time, a former senior US arms control official Thomas Countryman cautioned: “Without the INF Treaty, as well as the soon expiring New START, there would be no legally binding, verifiable limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in nearly half a century.”
In a disturbing pattern, the core mission of the nuclear weapon, which is to deter the nuke of the ‘other’ was diluted over the last two decades – particularly after the challenge posed by global terrorism – as manifest in 9/11 of 2001 and the Mumbai terror attack of 2008. Nuclear weapon enabled terrorism (NWET) has become a complex challenge and the complicity of some state actors muddies the domain further. Further, technological advances have led to a situation where non-state actors could also access fissile material and pose a threat to societal stability.
The world reached the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima without the mushroom cloud appearing again largely since there was a degree of trust between the major powers that the taboo about use of nukes would be respected in word and deed despite the political and security related discord they had along other tracks. Alas in 2020 this is no longer valid and the current tension between the USA and Russia on one hand; and that between China and the USA are both illustrative.
Regrettably many powers now believe that the tactical nuclear weapon is an option and policies are being pursued to acquire the ‘usable’ nuke. To that extent North Korea is not alone in using the nuclear weapon to assuage ‘insecurity’ and the dark clouds gather slowly but surely as the world moves on to the next August 6th.
Global leadership remains impoverished in relation to the lessons of Hiroshima and civil society, now pre-occupied with the COVID 19 pandemic is indifferent to the nuclear genie.