South Asia Testing May Blast a Hole in 3-Decade-Old Double Standard


For the better part of a generation, the world’s five declared nuclear powers kept themselves on the up side of a global double standard, encouraging other nations to renounce the right to atomic weapons even as they amassed huge stockpiles of them.

This was a reality that the late German Chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger once likened to a bunch of alcoholics persuading others to vow abstinence.

In some ways, it was the height of hypocrisy. Still, it succeeded amazingly well--that is until last month, when first India, then Pakistan, conducted nuclear tests.

Today, amid the political debris of those atomic explosions in South Asia, anxious policymakers and arms control specialists face a single, over-arching question: Can the double standard hold?


Maintaining it is certainly a declared goal of the United States, despite the reality of the recent tests showing that the number of declared nuclear powers is now seven.

It is “clear that what the Indians and Pakistanis did was unacceptable and that they are not now members of the nuclear club,” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated flatly earlier this week.

On Thursday, she conferred with four other nuclear club members--Britain, France, Russia and China--and won agreement on goals that included getting India and Pakistan into a global nonproliferation regime and having them sign, unconditionally, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. That is an accord in which 149 countries--but not India and Pakistan--have agreed to give up the right to test nuclear weapons.

Such moves would be an important step in repairing damage to the existing double standard, but India is unlikely to go along.


The United States, for example, has made clear that New Delhi would have to join as a non-nuclear state, a status that means it would be unable to enjoy perks that the five declared club members have kept for themselves under the treaty. This includes the right to maintain nuclear test sites and conduct low-level “subcritical” tests.

Albright and other senior U.S. officials argue strenuously that, despite such discrepancies, India and Pakistan would be far better off to renounce weapons development and join the test ban as non-nuclear states.

Their new nuclear capability, in fact, will only “make their people poorer and less secure,” President Clinton said Wednesday.

Some U.S. arms control specialists believe that these and other arguments, including the sheer weight of world opinion, should be persuasive enough to repair the damage that India and Pakistan have wreaked on the world’s nuclear double standard.


“It’s not beyond reason to ask them to maintain a position that 185 countries in the world have agreed on,” said Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Washington-based Arms Control Assn.

He referred to those nations that have signed the 3-decade-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires all but the five declared nuclear states to renounce the right to develop atomic weapons.

“The overwhelming majority of the world community has agreed there should be no additional nuclear powers,” Mendelsohn said.

Neither India nor Pakistan have signed this treaty, saying they will do so only when the declared nuclear states agree to give up their own atomic deterrents.


To be sure, some analysts see it as little short of a miracle that the number of declared nuclear powers held at five for so long.

When President Kennedy delivered a university commencement address in Washington 35 years ago, shortly after China detonated its first atomic device, he offered a fearsome vision of an unstable world that all too soon would have as many as 20 to 30 nuclear states.

That situation never materialized, as Argentina, Brazil, North Korea, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and South Africa all but gave up development of nuclear arms or gave up the weapons themselves.

The only country now believed to exist as an undeclared nuclear power is Israel.


But a growing number of experts in arms control believe that last month’s tests in South Asia could mark the beginning of the end for decades of nuclear nonproliferation and the long-held double standard about the dreaded bomb.

“It’s completely untenable for the United States to have 12,000 nuclear warheads and tell others they can’t have one,” noted Joseph Cirincione, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The perceived value of these weapons to a nation’s security can be measured, at least in part, by the estimated $20 billion to $30 billion annually spent by the U.S. to maintain them, he said.

“We spend this amount of money and keep saying they are vital to U.S. national security,” Cirincione added. “So why aren’t they vital to another nation’s national security?”


Not surprisingly, security specialists in South Asia agree.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of security studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, said he believes that the explosions by India and Pakistan have effectively destroyed the world’s nuclear double standard.

“It has been irreparably damaged,” he said. “At the moment, everyone is standing around gaping at the damage, but no one knows how to repair it.”

He dismissed any attempt by the five declared nuclear states to push India and Pakistan into the nonproliferation order as non-nuclear states “an exercise in self-deception.”


For some, such as Cirincione, the only alternative now is for the declared nuclear states to accelerate a reduction of their arsenals--steps that began with the end of the Cold War but that have stalled with the failure of the Russian parliament to ratify the START II treaty. That Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty would reduce the number of U.S. and Russian warheads from a combined Cold War peak of almost 85,000 to 3,000 to 3,500 apiece and set the stage for a further cut under a START III.

“It’s time to get serious about reducing our arsenals to dramatically lower levels,” he said. “The military doesn’t place great value in these weapons, and they cost a lot.”

Further, he said, public opinion studies on the subject have shown broad support for such a reduction.

A recent survey conducted by the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank that focuses on defense issues, found that between 66% to 75% of those Americans asked favor the elimination or reduction of nuclear weapons.


“There’s tremendous public backing for deep cuts,” Cirincione said. “The problem is the pols are scared of these kind of things.”