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The Meltdown of a Nuclear Crisis: What happened to a highly touted problem that began only four months ago?



Naveen Sunkavally

Four months ago, the world was supposed to be fretting over a nuclear war. India had conducted two rounds of nuclear testing, once on May 11, and again two days later on May 13. Two weeks later, Pakistan responded by conducting five tests of their own, matching the number conducted by India.

At that time, President Clinton responded with anger, calling the tests a "terrible mistake," that would destabilize the region. He levied harsh sanctions against both countries, cutting off virtually all aid except humanitarian aid and restricting exports that could be used for weapons development.

These days, shock and astonishment over the possibility of a nuclear confrontation in South Asia have all but disappeared from headlines. Sure, there are some overriding factors that have made it easier for the United States to forget about India and Pakistan and their nuclear tests last May. For instance, developments surrounding a certain scandal compelled Clinton to reappropriate his time to quell domestic problems. Then, after two embassies were bombed and Clinton delivered his speech on August 17 to the nation, America went ahead and bombed alleged terrorist facilities in Sudan and Afganisthan to thwart terrorism. But I think there are other reasons that the supposed nuclear crisis of this past May has disappeared.

First and foremost, the United States has been exposed as a hypocrite. The U.S. position to give any advice regarding nuclear arms rests on a highly precarious position given the U.S. track record. Here is a country that on one hand has developed nuclear weapons for more than half-a-century, almost obliterated two cities, conducted over 1,000 nuclear tests, maintains to this date the largest nuclear stockpile, and yet has the audacity to dictate foreign policy.

Internationally, other countries have not done as much as the United States initially hoped. Most European countries, such as France, have not levied any sanctions on India despite the actions of the United States. Despite the typical words of condemnation and concern, most countries did not stretch far enough to cut off aid. Most countries realize that Pakistan's and India's actions were security measures, not attempts to go to war with each other.

Clinton has spoken much about closing membership to the nuclear club and keeping the number of nuclear powers to five. But with a certain subset of countries maintaining nuclear weapons and also trying to keep other countries out, the whole world is in danger. The policy must be all or nothing. Either every country has nuclear arms or no country has nuclear arms. Security concerns are first for any nation, and with other countries possessing nuclear weapons and trying to maintain that position, no one is safe.

India and Pakistan face particular threats in that they are each bordered by two nuclear countries and in that they also have little protection from other countries with nuclear weapons. Maybe the United States will help Japan out if Japan is in trouble, but who will rally to the side of India? And at the same time the United States engages in nuclear technology deals with China that threaten India.

The United States has lamented that India, Pakistan, and Israel have not signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty yet. However, India has invited other countries numerous times to sign a treaty forcing all countries to do away with nuclear weapons. The United States, among others already with nuclear weapons, has not agreed. And why would the United States agree? There's always the possibility of nuclear war, and for the United States, as for India, that possibility, however minute it may be, outweighs any other concerns for total peace. And so India continues to withhold signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The treaty is simply not very comprehensive at all.

United States business interests have also had an effect on the disappearance of a "nuclear crisis" from the headlines. Business interests often have had a strong root in American politics, sometimes motivating and determining politics in this nation. Who can forget the power that Tammany Hall, Boss Tweed, Carnegie Steel, and Rockefeller oil have levied on American politics? Today, tobacco and other lobbies play the same role and with the same intent, though seemingly more subdued.

In the current situation in South Asia, America has realized that putting sanctions on India might hurt America more than India. In fact, a San Jose Mercury News investigation revealed that Themis Computer of California supplied India with some of the core nuclear technology necessary for India to manufacture its reactors. In terms of human capital, America and Silicon Valley have a lot to lose in the computer industry. Other companies realize that by cutting off ties with India, they will only lose Indian business to Europe. For example, Boeing has $2.5 billion at stake with Indian airlines, and it is losing business and ground to its archrival in Europe, Airbus Industries. Banks and credit firms, such as American Express and Citicorp, also have lost a lot since bank lending to India has been restricted by U.S. sanctions.

On the flip side, U.S. sanctions do not hurt India that heavily. To start off with, most Indian exports, such as gems, timber, electronics, and industry, are not affected by the sanctions. Second, India is a self-sufficient country for the most part, and any lost U.S. business can be made up in Europe.

The reality of the situation is that the U.S. is suffering from withdrawal symptoms in an age when power has shifted away from the United States towards other countries. The real threat India's and Pakistan's weapons pose is not to each other but a perceived one to the United States and its record of dictating and trying to enforce world policy.