Double standards over nuclear weapons

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 February, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 February, 1996, 12:00am

THE promise by Presidents Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac to work together for a global nuclear test ban has a statesmanlike ring to it. Whether their own constituents or the international audience at which it was aimed are likely to find it honest or reassuring is another matter.

Mr Chirac's promise sounds particularly hollow given the series of underground tests which France has just completed in the South Pacific. It was the French leader, himself, who stubbornly insisted on going ahead with the tests after the moratorium set by his predecessor, the late Francois Mitterrand. Mr Chirac remains unrepentant despite the international opprobrium the tests brought him - even now, he insists they were a worthwhile exercise which has proved the reliability and value of the French nuclear arsenal.

Having done its testing, France is now happy to stop others following suit. Mr Clinton, although not as blatant about it as Mr Chirac, is guilty of the same double standard. That is a point which Chinese leaders like to invoke to justify their own test programme and defy international calls for a ban. The US and others, they argue, have performed many more tests than China; so Beijing claims a right to catch up before agreeing to a ban.

China and France are existing and acknowledged nuclear powers. If these countries can pursue this kind of thinking, how much more attractive will it be to threshold or undeclared powers like Pakistan or India? Such nations have not been willing to subject themselves to the discipline of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) since it would prevent them from developing their own nuclear capabilities.

India would be delighted to use the excuse of proving the reliability of its arsenal for a spot of sabre-rattling and intimidation of Pakistan. For the same reasons in reverse, Islamabad would be equally happy to continue its nuclear programme without the constraint of international sanctions and disapproval. India's deployment of its nuclear-capable Prithvi missile and Pakistan's angry reaction shows how dangerously close a South Asian nuclear arms race may be.

A test-ban treaty is only as useful as its signatories allow it to be, as are the NPT and the Missile Control Technology Regime which helps limit the transfer of delivery systems technology. Existing nuclear states understand the fearsome destructiveness of their weapons. They would be terrified to unleash them for fear of reprisal and the radiation effects at home. But their commitment to non-proliferation and arsenal reduction stems from fear and cost consciousness rather than genuine moral objection to the weapons.

As a result, their authority - and thus the moral authority of their treaties - carries little weight with the rest of the world. Worse, for all their pious words, they are neither able nor willing to prevent technology or materials for weapons of mass-destruction reaching non-treaty governments or governments whose civilian nuclear programmes give them the ability to build nuclear weapons at short notice.

Australia, despite its anger over French nuclear tests in the South Pacific, is one of the world's leading suppliers of uranium, the basic nuclear fuel. How careful is Canberra in ensuring that its raw material is sold exclusively for peaceful means even to declared nuclear powers? Rogue regimes have often proved capable of getting the material they need whatever the international embargoes. Britain's top-level connivance in secret arms sales to Iraq, before the invasion of Kuwait and despite curbs imposed during the Iran-Iraq war, is proof of the ease with which greed and self-delusion can overcome strategic priorities.

The breakdown of law and the disappearance of any concern with international security in the former Soviet Union has made the trade in nuclear materials even more difficult to police. The danger of nuclear proliferation is ever-present and wide-ranging. Iran is thought to be well on the way to building a bomb; even North Korea has never fully convinced the world of the innocence of its nuclear programme.

For all the world's justified doubts, however, the Franco-American declaration of intent is a welcome step forward. Britain will follow the US lead. Russia and China, as the remaining recognised nuclear powers, should demonstrate responsibility and join in - preferably with a reconfirmation of their support for other international weapons treaties into the bargain.

Unless and until the five non-proliferation treaty powers are prepared to stand together and show real leadership in controlling proliferation at all levels, the dangers of a nuclear build-up in the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East will continue to grow.