The P-5’s Burden: Discrimination, Ethics, Morality, and Nuclear Weapons

Keep increasing the earth’s burden,

And through it all maintain

That you are the NPT’s agent.

That’s your claim to fame.

And, should your own actions

Come back to haunt you one day,

Retort that only some nukes are okay.


“I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”

Immanuel Kant                         

Why are some nuclear weapons kosher while others are not? Why are they vital for the security of the P-5 states, yet remain a security threat for others trying to acquire them? Oddly, some states are considered more responsible, and can be trusted with nuclear weapons, while others are not. This inherent discrimination of and the resulting demands for fairness in the non-proliferation regime explain why some states still remain motivated to acquire nuclear weapons. It also justifies other states’ refusal to give up their nuclear weapon status, or even the pursuit of greater numbers of nuclear weapons.

From the point of view of the P-5, not all countries should have access to nuclear weapons because they lack the maturity to comprehend what actual use would entail. According to Brice Smith:

“[…] the only country to actually use nuclear weapons in a time of war is one of the central countries claiming that others are not responsible enough to be trusted with these weapons.”

There’s also the condescending notion that only nations with responsible governments have the right to use a nuclear deterrent to ensure their national safety. In a September 1977 article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Nobel laureate Sean MacBride argued the contrary:

Another fantasy, against which we must be on guard, is the idea that responsible governments will never use nuclear energy for war purposes. They have used it once, so how can we sit back and expect that they will not use it in the future?

Almost four decades later, his words still resonate with proponents of a world without nuclear weapons.

Even as P-5 states continue to champion the agenda of non-proliferation, their disarmament goals remain elusive. These states recount the importance of nuclear weapons for their deterrent value, and yet they argue that the same principle of deterrence will not work in a different setting.  In a 2009 Academy of Sciences report titled “Future of a Nuclear Security Environment in 2015, Proceedings of a Russian-U.S. Workshop,” Rosatom’s Lev D Ryabev describes the presence of nuclear weapons in the US-Russia equation: “There can be only one explanation for the significant U.S. and Russian stockpiles that will still exist in 2012: they will continue to serve the purpose of mutual deterrence.” Based on the same principle, India and Pakistan maintain that the deterrent value of nuclear weapons serves as a stabilizer in the South Asian equation too. This argument is, however, not acceptable in both academic and policy circles in the West, arguing that the dynamics of South Asia and the U.S.-USSR competitions are very different and can not be compared.

Evgeny N. Avrorin’s article in the aforementioned report highlights the problem of discrimination in the realm of non-proliferation:

“Double standard policies are practiced more and more widely: the development of nuclear weapons by Pakistan and India and reasonable suspicion that Israel was developing nuclear weapons did not cause any serious sanctions compared with those which applied to Iraq or those which may be applied to North Korea or Iran. Some countries develop nuclear technologies including uranium enrichment without hindrance, while other countries are refused these technologies.”

The discrimination did not remain confined to the stage of development in these countries—it continues even today, albeit a little differently. While Pakistan’s nuclear weapon status has become a cause for major concern, Israel remains protected on account of its undeclared status, and India is being treated as a special case by virtue of the U.S.-India nuclear deal.

Ironically it was India’s peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE) that triggered the South Asian arms race. Notwithstanding arguments to the contrary, Pakistani nuclearization could have easily been “prevented by a courageous and determined nuclear avoidance on Gandhian grounds.” Similarly, the ongoing arms race in South Asia and concerns about Pakistan’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal can be addressed if India and Pakistan are both treated equally.

Like Pakistan, India remains outside the NPT, has not signed the CTBT, and continues to produce fissile material. However, the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and the resulting NSG waiver have helped pave the way for several other nuclear deals for India, including those with Australia, Canada, France, Russia, and the United States. In the aftermath of the recently concluded Indo- Canada nuclear deal, experts warn that Canadian uranium would invariably intensify the South Asian arms race. Criticizing the argument that Canadian uranium would be used only for civilian purposes and verified by the IAEA, Greg Koblentz of George Mason University asserts that “whatever uranium India produces domestically will now be freed up for a military program.” On the issue of verification specifically, Trevor Findlay of Harvard University’s Managing the Atom project said,

“Normally there’s some sort of tracking and accounting system so that Canada would be receiving information from India very specifically about what Canada-sourced material is being used for. In this case, because the agreement (to buy the uranium) is secret, we have no idea whether that’s in place, and it probably isn’t because the Indians have been pushing against that.”

Experts have also warned against special treatment for India, as not only will it set a wrong precedent but also spell greater trouble for the South Asian region. Responding to these developments, Pakistan has increased its efforts to acquire greater nuclear capability in terms of both quality and quantity. Notwithstanding the outcry in the West about Pakistan’s growing nuclear capability, there is a strategic rationale for Pakistan’s policies that needs to be understood in the backdrop of certain developments. These include the U.S.-India nuclear deal, NSG exemption for India, its efforts to develop missile defense capabilities, and nuclear deals with different countries.

Nuclear weapons, whether in the hands of the P-5 states, India, or Pakistan, remain dangerous. Even as the United States continues to advocate disarmament, it plans to spend $18 billion every year from 2021 to 2035 to upgrade its nuclear arsenal. Similarly, the French, Russian, and Chinese remain engaged in enhancing their respective nuclear weapons capabilities. Perhaps it’s time for the non-proliferation regime to revisit the 2006 Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission Report, which rejected the very notion that “nuclear weapons in the hands of some pose no threat while in the hands of others they place the world in mortal jeopardy.”


Image: Andrew Harrer-Pool, Getty

Posted in , India, Negotiations, Nonproliferation, NPT, NSG, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, US, USSR

Amina Afzal

Amina Afzal is a Canada based researcher. She holds an MA in Non Proliferation and Terrorism Studies from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and a Masters in Defence & Strategic Studies from Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad. She has more than ten years of experience working at various Pakistani think tanks.

Read more

Continue Reading

Stay informed Sign up to our newsletter below

6 thoughts on “The P-5’s Burden: Discrimination, Ethics, Morality, and Nuclear Weapons

  1. Nicely articulated……NSG was a response to Indian nuclear test of 1974 and now India is member of it…and Pakistan whose survival is threatened by neighboring hegemonic India should not maintain deterrence…surely its a double standard….this double standard is the main reason of arms race in South Asia and problems in Middle East (By supporting Israel)…..

  2. Doubts will continue being aired about the utility of maintaining nuclear weapons. All nuclear weapon States must reach an accord to eliminate them within five years. If they fail to reach an accord, the United Nations General Assembly must force them to give written commitments of NO FIRST USE.

  3. Waqas Khalil…Is “strategic depth” out of vogue in Pakistan? I guess “hegemonic India” is the new in-word there.
    It is historical fact in south asia, whoever had the upper hand played all-in. for eg. In 1965 Paksitan thought it had a clear a advantage over India and it tried to play aces(Gibraltar and grand slam) which turned out to be double fault than aces eventually. Now, it our turn, helped along the way by the Pakistan military and polity.

  4. “Ironically it was India’s peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE) that triggered the South Asian arms race.” Thats factually incorrect, its your ocean deep friend that triggered the nuclear race in this part of woods.

  5. Amina,
    Well stated.
    The pursuit of nuclear non-proliferation without the pursuit of nuclear disarmament will result in a dual failure.

  6. Rohit if China provided the impetus for India’s nuclearisation, Pakistan’s was surely prompted by the 1974 Indian peaceful explosion. If Indian decision making was influenced by the events of 1962, Pakistan initiated its programme after 1971. About India’s PNE triggering the South Asian arms race being factually incorrect – geographically China is not part of South Asia. I agree that China’s role in South Asia can not be dismissed entirely but if we talk about the nuclearisation of South Asia India certainly did have a major role to play. Moreover the acquisition of nuclear weapons by one state invariably lead to their acquisition by the “other.” For example the Soviet Union’s nuclearisation figured heavily in President Truman’s 1950 decision to develop the hydrogen bomb. USSR in turn was influenced by developments in the US as was China. India responded to China and Pakistan to India. Therefore my argument about the need to end the dichotomy in the global non proliferation regime still remains valid. The notion that some states are “sober and serious” and that others” have no such experiences” is as wrong today as it was fifty decades ago. In the words of Pope Francis states need to “set aside partisan and ideological interests, and sincerely strive to serve the common good,” to ensure that future generations will live in a peaceful world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *