Perils of preserving the ancien régime

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

The old order changeth yielding place to new… (The Passing of Arthur)

Despite the veracity of this maxim, existing members of the old nuclear order, which is closely intertwined with the world order even today, are challenging the inevitability of this line from Alfred Tennyson’s classic poem. In doing so, the original nuclear weapon states, also permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), are faced with the perils of preserving the ancien régime and the challenges of replacing it.

Nuclear order in the 20th century was based on three crucial and interdependent pillars. First, the possession of nuclear weapons by major powers. Second, the construction of a bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral architecture to, on the one hand, manage relations between major powers (the UNSC is the exemplary institution for this purpose) and, on the other hand, to preserve the order by preventing the wider proliferation of nuclear weapons beyond the original five (the nuclear non-proliferation regime provided the wherewithal for this objective). Third, the establishment of informal export control regimes (notably the Nuclear Suppliers Group) to buttress the formal institutional structures.

This carefully crafted nuclear order has come under growing strain from both within and without, and has led to nuclear disorder in the 21st century. The challenge from within the old nuclear order came when the role of nuclear weapons was expanded to counter new but ill-defined threats—both asymmetrical and conventional—rather than their traditional role to counter only nuclear weapon threats. This dangerously lowered the threshold of use of nuclear weapons. Additionally, efforts to strengthen the old order through the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) were set back when the US and China failed to join the treaty.

The challenge from without the order came not only from rising powers, like India, but worryingly from weak and failing states with a dreadful history of proliferation, such as Pakistan.

The fragile nuclear order was also threatened by challenges from non-state actors (including but not limited to terrorist groups), like A.Q. Khan’s network.

Against this triple assault, three approaches have become evident to deal with the present nuclear disorder. The first, preferred by the original members, seeks to reassert and re-establish the ancien régime through force and diplomacy; the second, led by non-nuclear countries not under the protection of nuclear weapons, is trying to establish a new post-nuclear weapon world order; the third, and perhaps most pragmatic though muddling along approach, pursues a series of ad-hoc and informal bottom-up agreements aimed at moving from a new de facto to de jure order.

The prospects for success of the first two approaches is bleak given the lack of consensus between the original members on how to preserve the old order, and also the lack of consensus among nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states on how to move to a world without nuclear weapons.

The hard-fought India-US nuclear deal (despite its various problems), which epitomizes the third way, is probably the only way of creating a new nuclear order. This is primarily because India, as a rising power, has more stakes in building and upholding a nuclear order that it is part of, than, say, weak or failing states that benefit most from nuclear disorder.

India’s approach to the present nuclear disorder has been a narrow one based on seeking recognition for its own exceptionalism. However, given India’s growing stakes in ensuring an effective nuclear order, it is in its interest to work with other major powers in transforming the ancien régime into a new order. The challenges of how to deal with weak and fragile states with nuclear weapons (one of which poses an existential threat) will be daunting. But the perils of not doing so will be even more dangerous.

This column first appeared in Livemint, on February 14, 2014.