on 23 February 2003
When I acquired this book (2000 edition, HarperCollins Publishers India) I was expecting a dour, dry, treatise on the Indian nuclear weapons program larded with scientific jargon - I could not have been further from the mark. The journalistic background of the author is reflected in the remarkably clear and readable writing style, which makes the topic approachable to those without a scientific background. As much of India's weapons program was conducted informally, alongside civilian programs, many of the author's sources have come from interviews with the scientific, political, and military participants themselves. This adds an additional element of interest, as it helps us to place the program in a human context. It gives intriguing insights into the driving forces, concerns, rivalries, and sheer physical courage of those at the sharp end. It also provides a surprising amount of humour and drama, especially when it comes to testing the weapons for the first time.
Why should anyone be interested in the nuclear weapons program of a developing nation? Well, one look at the current situations in Iraq, and North Korea (possibly Iran?) should be enough to provide the answer. The book reports that Henry Kissinger once postulated that a nuclear weapons program would be too expensive for a developing country (see Ch. 3 "The Shakti Syndrome"). I suspect that he was thinking in terms of the Cold War programs of the US and USSR where Mutually Assured Destruction became the norm. What is demonstrated here is the belief among some that a far smaller program can have at least a limited deterrent effect on other states which may be tempted to strike first; which by definition puts the cost within the reach of even a developing nation.
However, the book quickly demonstrates the paradoxical effect of owning such weapons. What is comprehensively disproven is the belief (hence the title of the book), held by some of those involved in the Indian weapons program, that atomic weapons would make more conventional conflicts impossible. They did not deter Pakistan from launching a proxy war to invade the Kargil region of Kashmir (not long after the nuclear tests of 1999 carried out by both nations). And they have not deterred further attacks since.
The book touches on an interesting topic but fails to develop it sufficiently, perhaps because of its narrow remit, namely: the apparent fundamental schizophrenia in international relations with nuclear powers. Although all of the nuclear powers maintain a "no first use" policy if they are not threatened by similar weapons, they all maintain a sufficient level of ambiguity which suggests that they may reverse that decision at a future date when it would be in their interest to do so. Which in turn drives other states to seek these weapons to ensure their "security". For instance, the reaction of Pakistan's Prime Minister after India's 1974 nuclear test was that they should get the bomb even if the people "had to eat only grass" (Ch. 15 "The Wages of Armageddon") It is within this anarchic international situation that the security of the world depends.
The book goes into great detail concerning Indian diplomatic policy since independence, which has consistently sought global nuclear disarmament as a goal. Failing that, it sought guarantees from the Western powers that they would be protected in the event on a nuclear strike. The guarantees never came, perhaps unsurprisingly, given that India shares a border with China. India eventually huddled under the nuclear umbrella of the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the USSR, India was left to fend for herself. Nevertheless, alongside the idealistic foreign policy, a consistent thread in Indian diplomacy is the determination not to repeat the past invasions and occupations by other powers. Obviously, such a foreign policy also had domestic implications; there is a tension between the demands of economic development and the demands of maintaining national security in the modern era.
A major strength of the book is that it portrays a side of the nuclear debate that is rarely seen in the West. From the viewpoint of a developing nation, efforts to implement test ban treaties and non proliferation agreements seem like attempts by the major powers to enforce their monopoly on the technology - thereby preserving their upper hand in international relations and an advantage in any future conflict. After all, if you cannot test a weapon you have no guarantee that it will work when you need it. One cannot help but get the feeling that the more established nuclear powers are beginning to sense that they may be fighting an ultimately futile battle against non-proliferation. With India and Pakistan, we have already witnessed an expansion of the international nuclear family - there may be more members to come. Whether this makes any sort of international conflict less likely, remains to be seen.
Some minor negative points to get out of the way: a silly mistake in naming the aircraft Gary Powers was shot down in as a B52 instead of a U2 lets down what is a good piece of writing (Ch 10. "Build an ICBM or I'll shut down the lab"). Secondly, there are so many organisations involved in the nuclear program that for non-Indian readers I think this book would benefit from some kind of organisational diagram which illustrates their relationship to each other. Also a brief note may also be useful on Indian numerical terms such as crore (10 000 000) and lakh (100 000).
In all, Weapons of Peace covers plenty of ground on a complex topic and in a way that is still easily accessible. It is difficult to do justice to a book that moves seamlessly between the personalities, institutions, sciences, domestic and international political calculations, and the methods used to fool US spy satellites, in such a limited review. It will make rewarding reading for anyone interested in Indian politics, current affairs, or the nuclear issue generally.