A treaty on fissile materials

Does blocking negotiations over the vaunted fissile material treaty serve any purpose for Pakistan?


Zahir Kazmi January 30, 2011

Does blocking negotiations over the vaunted fissile material treaty serve any purpose for Pakistan? The international community blames Islamabad for the impasse at the Conference on Disarmament (CD). Things may change as the states that keep a poker face at the negotiating table will break cover if Islamabad runs out of aces. Pakistan will face added economic, political and media pressure. The UN secretary-general’s veiled indication to shift the issue to the UN Security Council and the US-based Council on Foreign Relation’s December forecast, that Pakistan may disintegrate in four to six years, are the two ends of this blitz. Why did Pakistan prefer to stand in splendid isolation on the proposed fissile materials ‘cut-off’ treaty (FMCT) at Geneva? A brief pause to explain the term fissile material is essential.

Disagreement on the definition of fissile material is one of the reasons for stalemate at the CD. Risking oversimplification, highly-enriched uranium and weapon-grade plutonium are the fissile materials that form the cores of nuclear bombs and some states want to include other materials in this category. If we were to destroy all existing stocks of fissile material and promise not to produce them in future, we would be talking of disarmament. Consider the following to understand the magnitude of the threat the world faces today. Countries that have nuclear weapons possess enough fissile material stockpiles to destroy the world many times over. Likewise, enough potentially weapon-usable plutonium has been produced in their civil nuclear power reactors to make tens of thousands of weapons. Hence, it’s easy to conclude that a treaty must take stock of all fissile materials produced to-date.

There are three things that the world can do with fissile materials. A complete elimination is ideal to attain the UN’s long-standing universal disarmament agenda. A complete and verifiable stocktaking of all fissile materials and halting future production is another option. Readers can judge the merit of this proposed mechanism which seeks to halt the production of a few fissile materials but without a verification regime. Such measures carry the risk that as long as there is enough fissile material for even one bomb, the possibility exists of its use by a rational state or an equally ‘rational’ non-state actor.

The idea of the FMCT emerged in the 1950s and is mired, ostensibly, amongst two major camps with competing interests. The first camp desires a halt in future production with a verification mechanism. America initially opposed verification but is now amenable to the idea. Keeping old stocks and halting future production makes President Obama’s ‘Nuclear Zero’ pledge a pipe dream. Non-nuclear weapon states muddle blankly in this arms control camp due to their politico-economic interests. They don’t realise that the risks of exposing their people as the ‘nuclear-haves’ gives no assurance that they won’t use nuclear weapons.

The second camp is a complex mix that prefers a complete and verifiable stocktaking of fissile materials while it decides to go for complete disarmament or otherwise. Many states conveniently hide behind Pakistan and side with the first camp because Islamabad is blocking the FMCT for them and they otherwise retain the option of moving the goalposts. Brazil, South Africa, some European and Arab states, and even India will leave their comfort zone once the chips are down. Hence, Islamabad is not as isolated as it appears to be.

Pakistan wants a fissile material treaty but disagrees on its projected scope. Merely a halt in future production will freeze its stocks asymmetries with India. Unlike Pakistan, India has the advantage of getting fuel for its nuclear reactors from the P-5 dominated nuclear suppliers group and using its domestic resources for making weapons at a fast pace. This exceptionalism is a function of common economic-politico-strategic interests. Conversely, Pakistan is under layers of onion-like export control sanctions. Hence it shouts ‘foul play’ against this neo-nuclear apartheid.

What does the future hold? As the stand-off continues, the states with smaller stocks of fissile materials will be inclined to address fissile material stock asymmetries. The nuclear-haves will try to shift the FMCT agenda to the UN Security Council because they don’t have to worry about consensus. States content with their stocks will bargain on other geopolitical issues before they negotiate a treaty. Russia and China link negotiating the FMCT to progress on the Paros (Prevent Arms Race in Outer Space) concept.

Why would new nuclear powers need more stocks for weapons, as only a few bombs can cause serious damage and deter any adversary? This is a tough question. One can look to old nuclear proliferators for answers as they chose to retain weapons and stocks. The reality is that this is a power maximisation game and a measure to achieve security — some obtain it with weapons and economy, and others with economy or by allying with those countries in the first group.

The consensus-based CD faces three bigger and older challenges than the FMCT. These include nuclear disarmament, Paros and negative security assurances by nuclear weapon states. Progress on the latter three doesn’t fit in the power maximisation agenda. On April 5, 2009, Obama pledged Nuclear Zero and resolved to control all fissile material in four years, yet his administration pursues an arms control treaty on fissile materials. US domestic politics offers an explanation for this volte-face. Any progress on the FMCT augments the Democrats’ domestic political fortune. Success in breaking the logjam at the CD negotiations will improve Obama's approval ratings as his Nuclear Zero and global peace initiatives won him a Nobel.

Islamabad may coalesce on the FMCT if existing fissile material stocks are included in the scope, if there is a promised verification mechanism or if layers of its sanctions-laden-onion are peeled off. Ostracising Pakistan and comparing it to a nuclear armed Congo will bring it under undue pressure and complicate the achievement of universal stability.

The proposed FMCT does not suit a silent majority that will step into the fray if Pakistan is singed more. Pakistan will have to walk the tightrope for the sake of others. Islamabad developed its nuclear programme under great duress but does it have any levers now? Time will tell.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 31st, 2011.

COMMENTS (4)

Majid Mahmood | 10 years ago | Reply A brief, but comprehensive article on a fairly complex issue and comprehensible for ordinary readers. Having said this, the question of "How much more" is an important one. For simplicity , i would argue that both the quantitative and qualitative part of strategic arsenal depends upon factors like targeting policy, ensuring survivability under first strike, keeping an assured retaliatory strike capability such that it can inflict un acceptable damage to the aggressors, mobility of weapons and technical developments in delivery systems. So, contrary to popular believes, its a well calibrated process and Pakistan , like other nuclear weapons states, will continue to review its nuclear posture with regards to evolving threats and make decisions accordingly (e.g. whether to sign FMCT or not ). However, one must avoid to link the economic misery of Pakistan with its nuclear program because there is no link between the two.
Aqab | 10 years ago | Reply It is true that Pakistan has had an especially difficult period over the past decade. However, it's circumstances cannot be divorced from the global & regional geostrategic positioning of multiple parties that have sought to extend their influences beyond their borders in yet another proxy war in conflict ravaged Afghanistan.  There is no doubt that political uncertainty exists within the country. It is, after all, suffering from multiple complex threats, not just on it's eastern border, but also , and more importantly, those from militants and extremists from within and without, as well as environmental and economic.  Furthermore, Pakistan is undergoing a period of political transformation with a fledgling democracy.    There is a progressively growing realisation within the civil-military establishment of the existential threat posed by extremists. Nevertheless, as with all things human, such threats that are diametrically opposed to the conventional thinking that has pervaded Pakistani society throughout it's existence will take time to induce attitudinal change within society in general, and specifically within an institution that has been programmed to direct all it's energies against the very real strategic threat that India has posed to the existence of Pakistan. Recent history is testament to this fact. However, that does not mean that this course is unalterable. But, when working towards a future that would facilitate the mutual and amicable co-existence of both these nuclear armed countries, we can only realistically learn to trust through a rigorous process of verification and accountability.  It does not, therefore, make rational sense to even visualise a nuclear-zero region or world without taking into account the existing stockpiles of fissile material within the FMCT. And therefore, Pakistan's position on the matter. 
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