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India: Analysis From Washington -- Nuclear Tests Generate Political Fallout

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 13 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- India's decision to declare itself a nuclear power effectively transforms the international system: It provokes a new and dangerous arms race with Pakistan.

It is likely to lead other countries to consider trying to develop a nuclear capacity. And thus both directly and indirectly, it will limit the ability of the great powers to restrict conflicts in the post-Cold War world.

The most immediate political fallout of the New Delhi declaration is its impact on Pakistan. No Pakistani government could fail to respond to such a step by its longtime foe to develop nuclear weapons, and the authorities there have signaled that they will respond in kind.

If they are successful -- and there are good reasons to believe that they will be and quickly -- two traditional regional enemies will face each other with the most destructive weapons ever devised. And both may be more likely to use them than the current nuclear states that have had more time to reflect on just what having and using these weapons means.

A second and far more frightening consequence of the Indian action is that other countries are now far more likely to consider building their own nuclear weapons or at least acquiring the nuclear fuel and technology needed to make them quickly should their neighbors decide to do so.

By violating a fundamental rule of the international system that non-nuclear states should remain non-nuclear and by highlighting the limits other countries have in countering such a step once a country takes it, India serves as an object lesson to other countries around the world that they can consider doing the same.

Given that India is likely to suffer from sanctions and other diplomatic actions, few countries are likely to take this step immediately. Indeed, the harsh international reaction so far may dissuade some from considering it at all.

But given the level of distrust in the international system, many governments are likely to assume that they must gain the ability to take this step even if they do not choose to cross the line right now lest their neighbors beat them to the punch.

And such calculations, far more likely now than before India acted, will themselves have serious consequences -- and nowhere more than on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Many states may seek to acquire both nuclear materials such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium from whatever sources they can and to hire the expertise needed to assemble them into a bomb. As any number of studies have indicated, the largest stockpiles of such materials and the largest number of possible experts possibly available for diversion in such directions are located on the territories of the post-Soviet states.

Consequently, even states that may not have decided to go nuclear anytime soon may now enter the black market for such materials and people in these countries, a step that would challenge the ability of governments there and elsewhere to control the situation and that could even threaten the stability of the countries there.

But the most severe political fallout of this Indian action is likely to be on the international system as a whole. For a generation, the five nuclear powers have effectively frozen out other states from acquiring such weapons and thus kept for themselves the ability to prevent regional conflicts from escalating into far broader ones.

Because these countries have had a monopoly for so long, they more than other states have had the chance to focus on just how terrible such weapons are. And for that reason too, they have sought to keep these weapons out of the hands of others and even pursued policies of nuclear regulation and disarmament among themselves. But now that system has broken down. An outsider has acquired these weapons, and as a result, more countries may do so in the future unless the current leaders of the international system find a way to force India to back down and to agree to give up its weapons or to place them under international supervision.

That will not be easy. Putting pressure on any country that has nuclear weapons is a far more difficult and dangerous undertaking than putting pressure on countries without such system. The five members of the nuclear club up to now know that very well about each other.

But so do the Indians, and they can be expected to act on that knowledge. To the extent they do and succeed in gaining the acceptance of the other greater powers -- something their nuclear capacity is likely to aid them in doing -- other countries are likely to reach the same conclusion.

And that will leave an international system far more dangerous and unstable than any the world has known since the explosion of the first atomic bomb in 1945.