Nuclear nationalism: India and others

Andrei Volodin

Andrei Volodin

“Nuclear nationalism” is a new idiom in the global political discourse. As an international political phenomenon, however, nuclear nationalism has been around at least since the end of the Second World War.

In August 1945, right before the end of World War II, the United States revealed its nuclear capabilities by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively thus posing a dilemma for the rest of the world: either become part of Pax Americana (and thus lose one’s sovereignty) or pursue a nuclear agenda to secure independence and territorial integrity. In the USSR, nuclear weapons development became the main “national idea”, easy for people to grasp and capable of uniting society. (Pakistan went down the same path after its humiliating defeat to India in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, thus developing its own method of nuclear deterrence against its age-old foe.).

Breaking up Washington’s nuclear monopoly became an important watershed in global politics. Walt Rostow (1916 – 2003), an American economist and political theorist, wrote prophetically in one of his last works: “It is now clear in a world of disintegrating power that the notion of the United States as a super-power has been an illusion since 1948 at the least. (What is obviously being referred to here is the Soviet Union possessing nuclear weapons – A.V.). …If the United States seek to do something unilaterally, lacking the approval of the majority of the rest of the world, its might can be easily held in check.”

Nuclear nationalism, as a certain kind of populist ideology, consolidates a country’s political system and – if necessary – its political elite. At the same time, this ideology can also be instrumental in distracting the public’s attention from a country’s ineffective economic policy, should there even be one in the first place.

The “demonstration effect” that global political players brandish through possessing weapons of mass destruction promotes the spread of the nuclear nationalism ideology, indoctrinating people with its simple principles. History shows that nuclear nationalism in this case becomes an effective means of national self-assertiveness: China was catching up with the United States and USSR, India – with China, and Pakistan – with India. Perhaps the same logic motivates Iran’s political elite in its desire to protect their country against Israel, which has significant WMD capabilities.

Meanwhile, the demonstration effect is not the only factor galvanizing nuclear nationalism, the latter of which can also be provoked from the outside, as NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in the spring and summer of 1999 confirmed: the West’s military action strengthened problem countries’ desire to protect themselves and their people in a simple and effective manner by resorting to nuclear weapons.

It is easy to see that if a new group of countries joins the race for unconditional security, the nuclear non-proliferation regime could collapse.

The concept of nuclear nationalism appeals equally to the rich and poor, with nuclear weapons seen as a matter of prestige, a way to become accepted as one of the global elite. Over 95% of the population in both India and Pakistan view nuclear defense programmes as an effective guarantee of national sovereignty. In Iran, the government and its opposition pursue different socio-economic agendas, and yet, the nuclear agenda is wholly supported by the population as an important sign of national and ethnic identity, a central element of the national political consensus.

In some countries, domestic affairs are further complicated by the ideology of nuclear nationalism being successfully exploited by several forces. In Pakistan, for example, political Islamists are vying with the country’s political and civil elites for the role of true and consistent nuclear nationalists.

Spurred by nuclear nationalism aims, Pakistan refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, referring to India’s not having signed it. The probability of Pakistan’s joining the Treaty became even less likely following the signing of a US-Indian nuclear agreement in 2005, which was not supplemented by “symmetrical” proposals for Pakistan, as Islamabad had hoped.

Washington’s wavering policy on Pakistan, which is a strategic ally of the United States, also had an important, if indirect, impact on strengthening nuclear nationalism ideology. This very policy persuaded Pakistan that it has some breathing room in terms of nuclear controls, especially given that any outside pressure on Islamabad automatically strengthens the hand of Pakistan’s radical Islamists and their anti-West agenda. In fact, nuclear nationalism as a means for preserving and increasing nuclear potential, protecting it from foreign (including US) control, became the alpha and omega of Pakistan’s current political regime. At the same time, nuclear nationalism showed itself to be an effective tool for manipulating public opinion, which comes to the forefront during domestic and international crises.

If Pakistan’s nuclear nationalism is turned exclusively against its historic foe, the ideological nuclear motivation of the “world’s largest democracy” has evolved significantly and no longer looks so straightforward. Back in January 1946, more than 18 months before receiving its independence, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru spoke out for the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and also for India’s defense needs if necessary.

Initially, though, Nehru believed that global policy could indeed be based on the mutual consent of concerned parties – a consensus model which helped India gain its independence in 1947. Yet a series of extremely unfavourable geopolitical events, including the Indian-Chinese border conflict of 1962 and China’s nuclear test in 1964, ruined the idealistic (as it was called at that time) vision of Nehru and his supporters on the nature of international relations and different countries’ global ambitions. This led to shifts toward more conservative thinking in both upper and lower classes, and shortly after India launched its nuclear project, which resulted in its running a nuclear test in 1974. Despite the threat of US sanctions, five tests of more powerful and refined nuclear weapons took place in May 1998. Shortly after that, in February 1999, Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif met with his Indian counterpart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in Lahore, Pakistan to sign agreements on measures to strengthen mutual trust (including providing due notice of ballistic rocket launches, extending a nuclear test moratorium, etc.).

Meanwhile, a public consensus on nuclear development, including for defense purposes, has taken shape in India. Indian experts see Pakistan and China (the latter of which has an estimated 180 nuclear charges, according to US defense experts) as two potential strategic threats. India currently has between 60 and 80 military weapons, according to western experts, while local researchers and defense specialists say that 100 to 120 warheads (with an improved ballistic delivery system) will be enough to deter India’s western and northern neighbours. The arguments used by Indian generals to advance the country’s nuclear potential strike a chord with ordinary citizens: over the past 50 years, South Asia has seen five wars and at least three major regional crises. There have been more calls recently to keep some nuclear weapons in submarines to save the former ones from a potential nuclear attack.

A nuclear industry is developing rapidly within India. A nuclear plant in Kudankulam (Tamil Nadu) has been built with Russia’s help, and there are more joint nuclear projects underway. India also cooperates with France and Canada in this area and plans to build nuclear power plants in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat with American support.

As South Asian countries’ experience shows, nuclear nationalism has performed two major functions since 1999: 1) effective protection of national political systems; 2) heightening the countries’ international status with the help of military and political measures, often without the respective modernisation shifts in national economic structure.

Nuclear nationalism has proved an effective tool for ruling groups to consolidate power in the face of real or imagined external threats. North Korea, which has one of the world’s least open political systems, is a good example, with its strictly centralised and regulated government; until recently, political control penetrated all pores of North Korean society.

Observers say that South Korea’s ill-calculated policy (in terms of its possible consequences), on the one hand, and North Korea’s attempts to consolidate its political system at any cost, on the other hand, could prove fatal for the security of the entire Far East. Finally, by naming North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” (along with Iran and Iraq), the United States made it easier for North Korea’s ruling groups to turn their country into a besieged fortress, while also impeding the evolution of North Korea’s political system, through internal conflicts, towards greater openness and predictability.

The nuclear nationalism ideology does not grow and develop in a social and cultural vacuum, rather during the emergence of a new world order based on a more complex hierarchy than a unipolar or bipolar world. In particular, the global system’s increasingly complicated structure is reflected in the geopolitical importance of new regional leaders (including Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, South Africa, Venezuela, Argentina, and Mexico, the last of which is beginning to diversify its geopolitical strategy). These countries are increasingly seen the pillars of the new world order that is replacing the unipolar world.

New regional leaders, in understanding nuclear-weapons proliferation as being a chief destabilising factor, are very inclined to have a stable world order. Leading global players, including the United States and Russia, think along the same lines. The movement towards “nuclear zero” will involve a constructive dialogue with the new regional leaders, returning the world to the policy of development, that is, economic growth based on industrial development, maximum employment, and even the distribution of national income. This is the only way that the thick weeds of nuclear nationalism can be plucked out.

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