Henry Porter 29 May 2002
We always knew it would be something like this - two peoples myopically locked in ancestral loathing and equipped with nuclear weapons rush to war before the rest of the world has time to prevent the disaster. Deterrence may just work this time. We must pray that it does but meanwhile it is imperative to realise how the world came to the point where a nuclear exchange became an admissible rather than an unthinkable possibility.
Since September 11 the world has changed dramatically and in ways that we have so far yet to understand. If India and Pakistan had come to this pass last summer there would have been a far greater diplomatic effort to bring the nations to their senses. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan would have been shuttling between Islamabad and Delhi or standing on the border in Kashmir (which incidentally is where I believe he should be now), and America would have been galvanised by the crisis, putting its full might into making sure that these two countries understood that the nuclear option is unacceptable to the whole of humanity.
But since 9/11 the processes of conflict resolution have been diminished and the norms of international behaviour have been degraded. Al-Qaida's attacks not only terrorised the west, they also coarsened us and narrowed our ability to engage in a pro bono diplomacy. While Pakistan and India were mobilising these past few days, the Bush administration has been completely diverted by the president's tour of Russia and Europe and the continuing agenda of how to respond to the threat of al-Qaida.
Every emergency and every event is now passed through a new and dangerously egotistical filter that was erected by the Americans last autumn and is designed to see events exclusively in the context of American security and peace of mind. We have, to some degree, been converted to this process, for American security does matter to us all even if we don't like to admit it - but it means that situations which do not appear to have an immediate bearing on US concerns fade from our attention. Kashmir, although just under 500 miles from the theatre of war in Afghanistan, has been almost completely neglected as an important issue because the US and Europe were primarily concerned about President Musharraf's assistance in toppling the Taliban.
In other words, the understanding of an entire region, its complexities and competing needs, has been swept aside in the pursuit of one western priority.
As important as this is, it is remarkable how little we have seen of Annan and how powerless and negligible his contributions have seemed in respect of the wars on Afghanistan and in the Middle East. In these times of crisis he has turned out not to be the statesman that we were all certain lay beneath that collected exterior of his, but a rather slight and inoffensive figure.
Admittedly his influence has been in part reduced by the sheer force of American unilateralist military action. The arguments for retaliation were compelling last year, at least to the US and British governments, and the UN more or less went along with them. But the UN has since failed to rise above the shock of September 11 and provide vision in this new era of disorder. For example, although the security council has voted 14-1 against possible military action in Iraq, there is no sense that this features in American calculations, no sense that Annan has any power to impress upon America the importance of the vote. If America's perception of the world's needs has been subsumed by its own powerful sense of injury and outrage, then it was for Annan to develop a rhetoric which goes beyond one nation's interests. That is what he and the UN are for.
As Malcolm Rifkind said on Monday's Newsnight, it is astonishing that the security council is not in permanent session. It is also remarkable that there is not a greater sense of international alarm at a situation which approaches the Cuban missile crisis in its gravity. Annan should be in the subcontinent conveying a compelling message to the Indian and Pakistani people which is that the world will not contemplate such vast destruction and pain. Instead he talks to the leaders by phone and issues weak statements from UN headquarters which nobody takes the slightest notice of. How different things would be if America had not got itself into a muddle with Pakistan - on one border an ally of US's war against terrorism and on another a sponsor of Islamist insurgency. It could then back Annan with all its conviction and might.
American intelligence estimates put the toll in the event of a full exchange of the two nuclear arsenals at 12 million dead with maybe seven million wounded - an instant slaughter unprecedented in the history of mankind. But despite the movement of missiles yesterday and the tests which took place in Pakistan over the weekend, the possibility of nuclear warfare still strikes the west as either remote or not really very important. British newspapers carried these figures on their inside pages, if at all, and the general impression is that India and Pakistan have got a nerve to distract us from the exciting run-up to the World Cup.
Possibly that is summarising things a bit flippantly but there is, I think, a failure to understand the scale of the threat . We admit this terrible possibility and allow the contemplation of the figures and the crossing of a threshold where this horror becomes part of our record. Why are we guilty of such drift, of such apathy? Have we forgotten how the second world war ended in Japan, or is there maybe something more sinister at work, a voice which is saying, "If there is a going to be nuclear war to remind us all of the utter horror, it might as well be in south Asia?" Or is it simply part of our collective nature to expect these large-scale exterminations once every couple of generations?
If similar hostilities menaced Europe the concern would be a great deal sharper. Few of us would be able to concentrate on our lives, let alone on the World Cup. But as it is this stand-off is taking place many thousands of miles away and one has to consider the possibility that there is a racist element in our thinking which quietly suggests the two countries could easily afford to suffer 19 million casualties. I hope not, but how else do we explain our own disengagement?
One columnist, writing in the Daily Mail, raised the issue that it might be racist to have reservations about Indian and Pakistan controlling nuclear weapons because they cannot be trusted. This is to miss the point profoundly because the objections to these two countries developing weapons of mass destruction was because they have gone to war three times since partition in 1947 and their relations are characterised by congenital mistrust. The second and perhaps more subtle reason is the differential that exists between the capabilities and understanding of the Indian and Pakistani masses and the regimes which have acquired these weapons. It is plain, at least in Pakistan where up to two thirds of people are thought to be near illiterate, that there is very little understanding of the consequences of a nuclear exchange. In effect it would be the end of their nation. Clearly Musharraf and the Pakistani elite see that, but under a military dictatorship all that stands between the people of Pakistan and catastrophe is the balance of one man's mind. It is hardly racist to observe that neighbouring countries with convulsive politics and deep loathing should be discouraged from the development of these weapons.
This is important because there must be much greater international efforts against nuclear proliferation. It is all very well America and Russia agreeing over the weekend to reduce their arsenals, but their pact makes no difference whatsoever to the security of the very large amounts of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium that is available in Russia. In 1998, for example, Russia's federal security service foiled an attempt to steal 18 kilograms of HEU - nearly enough for a bomb - from a weapons laboratory in the Urals. In 2001, six grams of plutonium were found hidden in a ship in a Latvian port. In the past six years rods, pellets and plates of radioactive material have been smuggled out of the former Soviet Union. This requires our concentration and the focus of international effort. But what did the Bush administration do when it arrived in our lives? It proposed a cut in the non-proliferation budget of the energy department of $41m (£28m).
The fact is that material is out there, both illicitly and with legitimate regimes, and the west continues to endorse this situation by trading in components and conventional weapons. As Jack Straw pleads with both sides to see reason in Kashmir his case is eroded by the history of British arms sales to the subcontinent. We are anything but pure in this matter and some time soon we have to grasp that the trade in arms with these countries is no way to effect peace.
If the two sides withdraw and we are able to get on with life, the thing that we must take away from the situation was the failure of the international community, of American diplomacy and of Europe's cohesion. The dispute developed right under our noses, yet only this week was anything like a response produced, and that was well below par. I suppose in the end what we are talking about is lack of leadership and vision in the UN, US and Europe, but there has also been a failure of imagination. Opinion counts for something in these matters and we are at least equipped with the knowledge to form those opinions and express them. Our disengagement up to now has been regrettable.