Indians know that the five nations with veto power on the United Nations Security Council possess nuclear weapons, and conclude that this is the way into the club. Unfortunately, this simple correlation obscures the fact that the membership criteria have changed.
The source of usable power in the 21st Century will be economic clout and leadership in international trade, human rights and environmental regimes. Rather than augmenting a claim to great power, nuclear weapons will undermine India's position.
India has long sought recognition, and in many ways deserves it. A vibrant democracy, a great culture, a talented population, an enormous potential market - these and other attributes are the foundation on which India's status can grow. India's best strategists have recognized that the key to the country's stability and future power is the attainment of at least 7 percent annual economic growth. This economic engine could then push India into the big power club.
However, the newly elected ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has long felt that nuclear weapons offer a quicker ride to the top. Like atavistic nationalists elsewhere, they believe that pure explosive power will somehow earn respect and build pride. "We have shown the nation's strength," one party leader trumpeted. "India Joins Nuclear-Weapons Big League," a newspaper heralded.
Indian officials and commentators argue that security interests dictated the enhancement of nuclear capability, but they do not explain how. If India's major concerns stem from China and Pakistan, how will nuclear weapons lead these two adversaries to the negotiating table to resolve the fundamental issues that must be removed if security is to be gained?
Indeed, the astrategic nature of the nuclear tests is revealed by the fact that they have come before the government has conducted a much-vaunted Strategic Defense Review that was supposed to define India's long-term threats and the means for redressing them.
If genuine strategic analysis guided India, the government would have noticed that nuclear weapons actually will not provide the status or security that India wants. For example, does anyone regard France today as a major global power? Do France's neighbors, let alone the entire world, defer to French positions on global affairs? France's advanced nuclear arsenal brings no usable power. Similarly, China is now a rising global power, but this stems from its economic importance, not its nuclear weapons. Nor is Russia today seen as an effective global power, one that could stop what it perceived as a threatening expansion of NATO toward its borders. It clings to nuclear weapons as to a lifeboat from the Titanic.
As the United States and the international community wring hands and mete punishment on India (and Pakistan, if it follows suit), a larger purpose must be enunciated to enhance security in the aftermath. This process must begin by replacing dangerous illusions with promising realities.
India is not solely to blame for its illusions. The United States and the other four recognized nuclear powers, which include China and Britain, steadfastly have refused to devalue nuclear weapons, allowing the impression that great power resides in these devices and that a system of nuclear "haves" versus "have nots" can last forever.
To disabuse other countries, including India, of the nuclear illusion, we must now categorically devalue these weapons by offering a vision and agenda for their elimination over time. Indeed, this is our obligation under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, one that we have failed to meet even as we demand nonproliferation from others.
At a minimum, and contrary to the inclinations of the Republican majority in the Senate, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty should be ratified upon India's and Pakistan's accession to it. And, negotiations to complete a ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons should begin.
Further, Russia must ratify the START II treaty to clear the way for immediate American-Russian negotiations on a follow-on treaty to reduce nuclear weapons to 1,000 on each side. At this point it would be realistic to engage the three smaller nuclear-weapon states - China, France and Britain - in talks on global reductions.
Beyond manifesting our own devaluation of nuclear weapons, the larger message must be that countries that do not participate fully in the international nonproliferation, trade and human rights regimes will not be granted permanent membership on the Security Council. To ameliorate the double standard stemming from the existing global power structure, China and Russia must greatly improve their own performance in these areas, as the Clinton administration and many nongovernmental organizations have pressed them to do.
Sanctions can help in this regard, especially if they are applied by important non-nuclear weapon countries like Japan and Germany, and designed to hit holders of capital and not the common person. Sanctions also are necessary against India and other states that break the norm against nuclear testing.
Yet, the United States must also have the flexibility to lift sanctions to induce compliance with norms. The Indian people are not fools, even if their government sometimes acts foolishly. If Indians see that nuclear weapons will not satisfy their aspirations, but that the United States and others are prepared to engage them in developing the energy infrastructure, technology cooperation and trade that will gradually lift the burden of poverty, they will elect leaders who offer not illusions but real hope.
Copyright 1998, Newsday Inc. India Errs; Nuclear Power Isn't Real Power., pp A57.