Opinion: Hoping for a nuclear-free world

Last week US President Barack Obama was in Hiroshima where the US – the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons – dropped an atomic bomb 71 years earlier, killing 140,000 people and three days later another 39000 Japanese in Nagasaki, some instantly and others in slow and painful deaths from injuries and illnesses caused by radiation.

Consistent with the US policy not to make an apology for any of its actions, Obama did not apologise for the colossal atrocity. He seemed to express some regret though as he said, “why did we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in the not-too-distant past. We come to mourn the dead.”

It is worthwhile to note that in a letter they sent President Obama last March more than 70 prominent American scholars and activists urged him to honour his promise in Prague to rid the world of nuclear weapons and to reconsider the “refusal to apologise or discuss the history surrounding the A-bombings, which even president Eisenhower, General MacArthur, King, Arnold, and Lemay and Admirals Leahy and Nimitz stated were not necessary to end the war.” But the US’ trademark arrogance of power stood in the way.

One of his predecessors, George H. W. Bush (the then vice president) had refused to say sorry for something as blatant as the 1988 shooting downing of an Iranian passenger plane by US Navy killing all 274 people aboard announcing “I will never apologise for the United States.

I don’t care what the facts are.” Obama however had inspired hope of a world without nuclear weapons in his famous speech at a US-EU summit in Prague soon after coming to office saying “… if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons in inevitable… As a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used nuclear weapons, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.

We cannot succeed in this endeavour alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.” But seven years on, he has little to show for his efforts to lead the way. The action remains where it has been all these years: on revamp of an aging nuclear arsenal and a modernisation process. Although the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia has brought reductions in the two countries nuclear stockpiles (some of the weapons in any case were too old and too expensive to maintain) between them they still hold as many as 15000 nuclear arms – an overwhelming majority of them are in the US’ arsenal.

An unsavoury reality is that the armaments industry thrives on arms having a habit of getting obsolete, creating a market space for new weapons systems. Nuclear disarmament having fallen by the wayside, the focus now is on a new class of smaller but lethal, stealth and high speed nuclear weapons. The US has announced plans to spend $1 trillion over the next three decades on these new arms and their delivery systems. Its two adversaries, China and Russia, of course were not going to sit around twiddling their thumbs. According to a report in The Economist, the Chinese are perfecting a ‘hypersonic glide vehicle’ which glides at more than a second per mile speed, and can defy anti-missile defence systems.

And Russia has started deploying long-range missiles with four miniaturised warheads. These weapons won’t flatten cities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki but experts point out that whereas the spectre of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War era advised restraint, the smaller and smarter nukes can increase the urge to use them. Obama may have driven the conversation in the right direction but he has not helped advance the cause he so passionately espouses. An evident problem is the influence the powerful military-industrial complex wields over public policy in his country.

But leadership is about the courage to confront difficult challenges and doing what is in the best interest of the largest number of people – in this case all of humanity. The nuclear race is a zero sum game. Whilst the US acquires more and more sophisticated nukes its adversaries have to match or do even better.

The same logic applies to Pakistan and India. As India keeps upgrading its nuclear arsenal, nothing can persuade Pakistan, despite its extremely limited resources, to try and catch up with its traditional rival. Yet this can change if the bigger powers are prepared to lead by example. If Obama sincerely believes in what he has been saying even at this late date, when he has only a few months left in office, he can initiate a meaningful move towards complete nuclear disarmament.

As one of the major powers which signed the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, the US is obliged to pursue “in good faith and to bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” Obama needs to invite Russia to “good faith” talks, and ask China also to join in to work towards a nuclear free world.

Let him insist on starting the process towards change that he rightly said in Prague will take patience and persistence, but that we “must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist.”saida_fazal@yahoo.com –Business Recorder