On the 23rd of May, 2020, the Abolition 2000 Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons held its Annual General Meeting online for the first time due to the coronavirus pandemic. A large part of the meeting was dedicated to reflecting on the implications of covid-19 on the work of nuclear abolition. Dr Suvrat Raju, a physicist with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace in India, shared his views in a pre-recorded presentation. We share it here for readers of Pressenza.
Okay. So my name is Suvrat Raju and I’m a physicist with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace in India.
Thank you very much for inviting me to give this presentation. I prepared a short presentation which I’ll now share with you. Okay, so thank you once again, and the question that we were asked to address was a broad question. And so I thought that I would address some of the broader issues that surround our work on nuclear disarmament.
So, I think one of the first things that I think we should try and remember is that historically both the development and the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been closely tied to broader geopolitical trends, and therefore it is important for us as peace activists to frame our struggle for nuclear disarmament within the same canvas. And I think that one of the most striking geopolitical trends of the past few decades has been the gradual decline of a US-led hegemonic world order, and this gradual decline is something that has been hastened by the Covid19 pandemic. And I think the decline of this US-led empire, accompanied by the rise of nationalistic right-wing forces including in India, where I’m from, poses a set of unique challenges for peace activists, but what I would like to describe in this presentation is that they also offer a set of unique opportunities for the movement for peace and disarmament.
So, those are the essential points which I would like to emphasize in this presentation.
I think if I had to choose one graph to show the decline of US hegemony over the past several decades I would have just chosen this graph which describes how US economic dominance has shrunk slowly but inexorably over the past 50 years, so that US economic output has shrunk from being about 40 percent of world GDP about 60 years ago to now being under a quarter of the world’s GDP. And this is a trend that is found to be hastened by the terrible mismanagement of the covid19 pandemic in the United States and also in Europe.
To be clear the actions of the US government towards its own people are something that I find absolutely criminal but it is also true that the decline of the global influence of the US government is undoubtedly a positive development, and the reason for this that the United States and its Western Allies have for long posed one of the most significant threats to the security of the world’s peoples. And this has directly affected people in Korea and Vietnam, in Syria and Yemen, in Cuba and Venezuela, and we could keep going on and on. And so I think without having any illusions about the governments whose influence in the world stage is rising, it is accurate to say that a more multipolar world would offer more space for peace and for alternative models of development.
However, I think it’s important to recognize that the story is not as simple as that and the reason for that is that there is one arena in which US pre-eminence remains unchallenged, and that is the military arena. And the reason for that is that US military expenditure has stayed constant at about 40 percent of world military expenditure over many, many years and this poses a danger, and the danger is that a declining Empire will strike where it is strongest, and it will do so by encouraging direct or proxy military conflicts and, especially relevant for people in India, it might do so by encouraging an arms race in Asia. This is not a hypothetical concern and the reason this is not a hypothetical concern is that we have seen this playbook before. And this playbook was used precisely in this manner in the Cold War. Under Eisenhower’s so-called “Atoms for Peace” program, the United States and its Western allies deliberately proliferated dual use technology to win the loyalty of several governments around the world. This includes the government of India where the fuel for its first nuclear explosion came from a reactor called Cirus that was built with US assistance. It includes of course Israel where there was French assistance in the Dimona nuclear complex and US diplomatic cover for its program. South Africa, which declassified documents show was directly offered bombs by Israel. Pakistan whose nuclear program relied on US support. And in fact, what people don’t realize is also Iran whose first nuclear reactor, the Iran research reactor, was directly provided by the United States.
And this is a playbook which has also been in play in the past two decades. And for instance the India-US nuclear deal which was signed now about 15 years ago, was deliberately designed with the objectives, and these are not objectives which peace activist outline, but objectives which former US defence secretary outlined, were deliberately designed to win Indian diplomatic support in the Iran conflict which the US did gain, to develop India as a counterweight to China, which to an extent the US succeeded in doing, and to obtain Indian assistance with pressure on Pakistan. Of course the nuclear deal also had commercial objectives with but these were the major strategic objectives.
Now none of these I emphasize have much to do with the welfare of people in the United States but they do have a lot to do with US attempts to preserve its hegemony and this tacit encouragement, that the United States provided to India to arm itself with nuclear weapons, is something that has over the past 15 years, led to an increase in regional tensions. In particular the Indian government has adopted an aggressive local posture while being subservient to larger US designs in the global stage. For instance about a year and a half ago, India completed its nuclear triad by commissioning a nuclear submarine which, as we all know, is a very destabilizing step because it weakens civilian control over nuclear weapons and reduces the threshold for an accidental use of nuclear weapons. Moreover, India’s Cold Start doctrine which threatens a limited invasion of Pakistan under certain circumstances has led Pakistan to deploy tactical nuclear weapons which opens up a direct path to nuclear escalation.
Not all of these initiatives were taken by the Modi government, but the Modi government which came to power about six years ago has dramatically escalated tensions by abolishing Kashmir’s autonomy last year, and moreover successive defence ministers from the Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP, which is Modi’s party have directly questioned India’s no first use policy. In 2018 Manohar Parrikar India’s defence minister asked, why he should bind himself to a no first use contract. And India’s current defence minister, Rajnath Singh, said that India has adopted a no first use policy so far, but what happens in the future depends on the circumstances.
So I think these are all serious challenges, and I think they become even more serious when one realizes that in the current situation the Modi government has badly mismanaged the epidemic in India. And in the past, administrative failures of the BJP have been camouflaged by what could be called electoral militarism. For instance, in the general election last year the BJP launched airstrikes against Pakistan and this almost certainly had a role to play in its victory.
However one thing I’d like to emphasize is that not everything is gloomy, and that’s because the epidemic that we are witnessing has also changed the global discourse in two important ways. One of them is that of course it has emphasized that military expenditure is rather irrelevant for the security and for the welfare of the people of a country, which is a point that many of us as peace activists have made repeatedly, and I think has become very clear to a large number of people.
But secondly I think the epidemic has also emphasized the fragility of the current system and the importance of accounting for risk. This is very crucial because it completely undercuts the premise of nuclear deterrence and an unsaid premise of nuclear deterrence is the fact that the system is extremely stable, and while there are risks, the risks will never come home because the only people who bothered about the risk are those crazy disarmament types. And I think what the epidemic shows us is that this is not the case and that our luck will not always hold and this is the point that I think we should try and emphasize.
So to conclude, I think that we live in a time when the decline of an empire and the rise of right-wing forces throughout the world pose a very serious challenge to the peace movement. The pandemic accentuates this challenge, but I think it also reveals some of the glaring deficiencies in the dominant approach towards global security. I think it is our task as peace activists to use this opportunity as forcefully as we can to press our case for peace and justice, over war and hegemony.
So, thank you very much.