Show: FRESH AIR
Date: NOVEMBER 18, 1999
Head: "India's Nuclear Bomb": An Interview With George Robert Perkovich
Sect: News; Domestic
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We're going to look at some of the changes in the nuclear landscape. Last year, India tested five nuclear weapons. At the same time, Pakistan conducted its own nuclear tests. And last summer, the two South Asian countries came dangerously close to using nuclear weapons as fighting escalated over the control of the disputed region of Kashmir.
My guest, George Perkovich, is the author of the new book "India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation." He directs the Secure World Program of the W. Alton Jones Foundation and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The U.S. and other Western countries tried together et India and Pakistan to stop expanding their nuclear programs, through economic sanctions, political disapproval, and pressuring them to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But last month, the U.S. Senate voted against ratifying the treaty.
I asked George Perkovich to explain the treaty's most important points.
GEORGE PERKOVICH, "INDIA'S NUCLEAR BOMB": Well, basically, since 1963, nuclear weapon tests had been banned everywhere except under the earth's surface. And so this treaty would then extend the ban and would say, You cannot conduct nuclear weapon tests of any kind, including under the earth.
Now there's a loophole that allows what are called subcritical tests, tiny, tiny tests that don't even have an explosive yield. You can do them in a laboratory. But beyond that, anything that we kind of picture as making the earth shake and a big boom, that would be now proscribed.
And then on top of that would be created an international monitoring system, with, I think, more than 300 seismic stations around the world to detect whether there are explosions underground that need to be investigated as possible kind of suspicious nuclear tests.
Then there's a whole set of rules then that would go into enforcing and acting upon any doubts that a country has. So basically, it rules out the big boom that we're, you know, used to seeing.
GROSS: What were the main reasons that the senators who voted against the U.S. signing this treaty gave for it?
PERKOVICH: Well, I -- there were two explicit reasons and then there was kind of one underlying reason that became explicit sometimes. The two explicit reasons were, the treaty may not be fully verifiable. In other words, a country might be able to conduct small nuclear tests that would go undetected. Now, that argument has a lot or problems with it, but this was one of the points they made.
And then the second big argument that was made by critics of the treaty was that the U.S. would not be able to maintain its nuclear weapons forever without having to go back and test them, that somehow -- the weapons would degrade in some way, and therefore they would become, quote, "unreliable," and thus we shouldn't rule out testing.
Now, beyond those two explicit arguments, the underlying point that a lot of the critics made was, Look, we're ahead. We have the best nuclear weapons in the world. We got the best nuclear scientists in the world. We're the greatest power in the world. When you're ahead like that, you don't tie your hands behind your back, because you give the other guys a chance to catch up. Use this advantage. So why do we want to restrain ourselves?
GROSS: How many countries have the bomb now?
PERKOVICH: Well, there are five countries that are recognized as having nuclear weapons, the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France. There are three countries that have nuclear weapons but are not legally recognized as such, and that's India, Pakistan, and Israel.
Then there are probably several other countries that are believed to have various ambitions. North Korea, for example, is a country that the United States believes has between zero and two nuclear weapons. And there's an agreement with North Korea that you hear about every few months when there's a dispute in the negotiations, but there's an agreement where by they've frozen their program to build nuclear weapons.
Iraq also had a nuclear weapon program, but as we know, that is -- was hopefully curtailed, and we're bombing Iraq basically every day, in a way enforcing that. And then Iran is believed to have a nascent program trying to acquire nuclear weapons.
GROSS: Let's bring India into the picture. Your new book is about how India developed nuclear weapons and the impact of that on global proliferation. India tested five nuclear weapons last year. What's the impact of India having nuclear weapons in this period where, you know, on the one hand we have nuclear nonproliferation treaty, on the other hand the U.S. Senate just voted down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? Yes.
PERKOVICH: Well, I think the impact of India having nuclear weapons is going to evolve. But one of the things it says to the 179 or thereabouts countries that don't have nuclear weapons, it says to them, Well, wait a minute, now there's one more member of the club. We thought it was going to be limited to five. Now there's six, and then Pakistan makes it seven, and then Israel, which nobody wants to talk about, is eight.
And so if that's the trend, if the number is going to grow -- which I don't think it will, but if it does, that's very unsettling to the rest of the world. And people in other countries may start looking around and say, Oh, we've got to start hedging our bets.
GROSS: You say that U.S. policy makers make certain assumptions about why countries want to develop nuclear weapons, but that India developed nuclear weapons for reasons that the United States doesn't always take into account. What are some of those reasons? And what are the reasons policy makers here usually assume countries want the bomb for?
PERKOVICH: There's a general assumption in the U.S. and in the West that countries seek nuclear weapons for military security reasons. There's some objective threat out there, and people go into a bureaucracy and they make these very careful, rational calculations that we need nuclear weapons to counteract this military threat. It's all a very objective kind of process the way we're taught and the way we assume.
Well, in fact, it's much more subjective and political than that. Personalities matter a great deal. Individuals may want nuclear weapons. And if they're charismatic and they're persuasive and they're well placed, as Homi Baba (ph), the chief Indian scientist in the '40s and '50s was, they might be able to put the country on a course of getting nuclear weapons.
And then there are other dimensions. What's the country's image of itself, of its role in the world? India was just coming out of the colonial history and wanted to be a great power in Asia first, and then in the world. So there was this profound anticolonialism.
And it was seen that nuclear weapons represented modernity and great prowess. And if you could build nuclear weapons, you would have achieved what only the greatest country sin the world had achieved, and somehow by doing that, then you would elevate yourself to that level. And...
GROSS: (inaudible) it gives you status.
PERKOVICH: Gives you great status. And so that was very compelling in India, and I would argue it's compelling potentially in other countries, like Iran, who -- countries where there's a narrative, where there's a story of great civilization and great ambition, and as long as the U.S. and the other so-called great powers have nuclear weapons and refuse to give them up, that elevates this currency or this status and makes it very attractive for countries like India to try to follow after.
And so I think that awareness that there's a lot more kind of at the human level, at the psychological level, at the cultural level, that affects the way people look at nuclear weapons, is important and is generally lost in many of the deliberations in the United States.
GROSS: When a country like the U.S. pressures a country like India to not develop nuclear weapons, how is that interpreted in India? And I'm wondering if you think, like, the race issue comes into play.
PERKOVICH: Yes, I think when the U.S., especially as the leader of the international system, puts a lot of pressure on India, you know, not to develop nuclear weapons, it's basically seen in India as a replay of colonialism. So this whole system, this nonproliferation regime, is in many ways seen as a colonial construct, where the white countries basically try to keep dark-skinned countries from getting nuclear weapons.
And that's totally unacceptable to India because it plays into the whole history that -- you know, where they struggled so hard to overcome this. And there are too many moments where it's seen that the U.S. is being in fact racially insensitive or colonialistic in its approach.
So I have many quotes in the book, for example, where, you know, India does something technologically, and then some -- you know, American scientists or officials says, Oh, they can't really do it, that's a fraud, or -- and, you know, to an Indian, it's then -- and I quote people saying this, Well, you know, these white guys assume a black man or a dark-skinned man can't do this kind of thing. So what else do you expect them to say?
Or, for example, when we put embargoes or block exports of certain technology to India, that's seen straight out as a reimposition of colonialism. They don't want us to develop technologically, they want us to stay poor so we can be a source of cheap labor. They'll buy raw materials from us, but they don't want us to get into manufacturing. Therefore, they won't sell us their computers and other things.
So it comes through over and over again, and you see, for example, this issue even in, you know, Salman Rushdie and Michael Andagi (ph) in their novels, "The English Patient" and "The Nice Children (ph)," there's, you know, mentioning of nuclear weapons, but it's seen as, This is something that, you know, white power used against a brown-skinned people.
And it's vivid when you spend enough time working on this. And I don't know what can be done about it, but at least kind of greater awareness that it is -- it's an issue that's out there, and it's uncomfortable and awkward, but you have to recognize it.
GROSS: During the cold war, America had all these kind of policies defining how he -- we would use nuclear weapons or describing why we had so many nuclear weapons. You know, there was deterrence. Our nuclear weapons would prevent another country from bombing us, mutually assured destruction. Well, if another country is foolish enough to bomb us, we'll destroy them. And that will prevent them from even thinking about bombing us in the first place.
Does India have any kind of, you know, nuclear theology guiding its arsenal?
PERKOVICH: India is in the process now of thinking through and articulating and writing down what its nuclear doctrine's going to be. What I found most interesting, what actually drew me into studying this subject seven years ago, was at that time, in the early '90s, India had a very unique perspective, very different perspective than we have on nuclear deterrence.
And the basic view they had was, Look, as long as a potential adversary has some doubt about whether they could get away with hitting us without getting hit back with nuclear weapons, that's basically enough. These things, these weapons, are so destructive and so mind-boggling in many ways that as long -- you know, as somebody has uncertainty about getting away with it, that's what you need.
Now, that's very different from the way the U.S. has conducted nuclear operations. Our whole posture has been predicated on absolute certainty. So it's not enough that someone have a doubt, they have to be absolutely certain that within minutes of their even beginning to launch nuclear weapons, they're going to get hit, and they're going to get hit, you know, not in 10 cities, but thousands of targets are going to be destroyed.
And so you had this very kind of hyperactive, what was called overkill, approach to deterrence. And the Indian was very different.
Now in India, there was just released, actually, a draft nuclear doctrine this August, and it sounds alarmingly closer to the way that the U.S. has always approached nuclear weapons, than to the way that India for a number of decades thought about these things, which I would argue was a lot more interesting as an approach to deterrence than the practice of the United States and the Soviet Union was.
GROSS: My guest is George Perkovich. He's the author of the new book "India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation."
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is George Perkovich. He's the author of the new book "India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation."
How far does the development of India's bomb date back?
PERKOVICH: Oh, India began its nuclear program most broadly right at independence, even before, but say 1948, and then I think the architects of that program, including Prime Minister Nehru, had in mind developing a nuclear explosive from at least the mid-'50s on. The kind of explicit work to actually design explosives really began in the mid-'60s.
GROSS: How did the concept for the bomb catch on in a period -- in the period of Gandhi, of passive resistance? And, you know, Nehru was a man of peace.
PERKOVICH: This is one of the paradoxes, and the whole legacy of Gandhi is one reason why I think Indians have always been so ambivalent about the bomb. And I write in the book, you know, that Nehru himself, I think, was very ambivalent on this issue, that he -- you know, he learned at the foot of Gandhi, and he really did want India to be morally different in the world. And he really did abhor nuclear weapons.
But there was this other part of Nehru who was educated at Cambridge, you know, was a very worldly man, wanted India to be a great power. And so that part of Nehru understood, Well, we may need nuclear weapons at some point. And I think he reconciled those two positions by allowing his friend, Homi Baba, the chief scientist, to go forward and develop the capability, quote, "the option," to build nuclear weapons without ever, you know, deciding that this is what we would do, but let us have the option, and we'll see how the world evolves, and we may need it.
And you could reconcile that, that that was reconcilable. I don't want nuclear weapons, but we may get driven to it. Let's have the option. And in the meantime, we will demand that the rest of the world get rid of these things. And so that will be our moral position, that everybody should get rid of these. But if people won't over time, let's then have the option to play it the other way.
And that's what they did.
GROSS: Pakistan -- what was Pakistan's reason for developing a bomb?
PERKOVICH: Pakistan was totally unambivalent about this, because Pakistan's obsession, understandably, is India, and that Pakistan is much smaller than India, feels vastly inferior, kind of militarily, to India. And therefore for Pakistan, this was -- it was strictly to develop a military capability to deter and/or rebuff India. And they've been charging ahead, you know, kind of quietly and secretly in many ways, but very energetically, to develop a military nuclear capability.
Whereas India was much more ambivalent and wasn't militarizing its nuclear capability. It was more a scientific project in India than a military project. In Pakistan, it's been a military project.
GROSS: India and Pakistan have been fighting over control of Kashmir virtually ever since the partition of India in 1947. Things really escalated over this past summer. And you say that you think things actually got closer to nuclear war than we even know, you know, than was reported. What's your evidence?
PERKOVICH: Well, the concern about the conflict in Kargo (ph) was that India was not in a position to see whether Pakistan in that conflict was preparing nuclear weapons and mobilizing missiles for potential use. And similarly, Pakistan couldn't see what India was doing, because neither of them possessed the kind of satellites that we're used to from Tom Clancy novels and all of these movies, where, you know, everybody sits around in the CIA and watches what's happening on the ground.
Well, in India and Pakistan, those capabilities don't yet exist. So you have this military conflict going on, and India is feeling aggrieved, understandably. And there was a lot of pressure on the Indian government to go and cross the -- what's called the line of control in Kashmir and interdict forces from Pakistan on the other side.
And then the situation became, Well, if we go across that line, do we risk prompting Pakistan to escalate potentially to using nuclear weapons? And we in India, the people who are making this decision, we won't know if they're going to escalate. We won't be able to see it coming. And so this was a very daunting moment, and people were very concerned about it within India. They felt their hands were tied on one level, and that was calming at some level.
But on the other hand, there was no real confidence in how Pakistan would respond, and in many ways one can say that Pakistan may have been tempted to start this conflict last summer precisely because they now have nuclear weapons, and they felt like they could start this low-level conflict, and India would be deterred from escalating it because of the threat of nuclear weapons.
And therefore you kind of get away with it. And then when you have that logic going, India is in a position where its leaders have to say, Well, wait, we can't let them think they can get away with this. And this is why it's very destabilizing.
GROSS: Last month, there was a military takeover in Pakistan. What went through your mind after it happened, knowing that Pakistan probably has a nuclear weapon?
PERKOVICH: Well, the military takeover in Pakistan raises all sorts of implications. And so when it was first announced -- and it wasn't a great surprise, because there was so much trouble in Pakistan -- at first there -- I had a certain sense of relief, and I'll tell you why. It's that there is at least an element in Pakistan that's responsible for building nuclear weapons and missiles there that's out of control, and it's led by a certain scientist who is kind of an egomaniac guy who's very difficult to control.
So one thought was, Well, if the military finally at least could put this guy under control, where the civilian prime minister may not have been able to do, and so I still believe that's true, I just don't know whether the general's going to want to try to put him under control. And so that's much harder to figure out.
The other concern, obviously, was that this was the military that had basically instigated the conflict with India only six months ago. And so did they still harbor that general feeling that this kind of aggression was useful or not? And if they did, it was going to be problematic.
But I do think it's important to emphasize that for now, anyway, the nuclear weapons in Pakistan are under tight military control, and the military there has no interest in kind of losing control of those things.
GROSS: George Perkovich is the author of "India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation."
He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with George Perkovich, author of "India's Nuclear Bomb." And we remember writer Paul Bowles with a 1993 interview. He died today at the age of 88 in Tangiers, Morocco.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with George Perkovich, author of "India's Nuclear Bomb." It looks at the secret history of India's bomb and considers what that can teach us about global proliferation. Perkovich directs the Secure World Program of the W. Alton Jones Foundation and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
An article in which you were quoted described you as being known in think tank circles as the father of non-weaponized deterrence. So now you have to explain what that means.
PERKOVICH: Well, non-weaponized deterrence was a phrase I coined to describe what India had in 1992 when I first went there. And that is, that they basically had developed a nuclear capability so they could put nuclear weapons together if they needed to and could then deliver them by aircraft against Pakistan. But they didn't put it -- they didn't have them kept together. They had the basic capability but they didn't put it all together.
And that that was conscious, because they didn't think they needed to. They thought it was sufficient to have this knowhow and wherewithal, but that there were a lot of risks associated with putting it all together, and a lot of expense associated with putting it all together. And they wanted to avoid that, which I thought was very enlightened.
And so I thought it should be at least put across in a way and conceptualized in a way that people in the U.S. would start thinking about it, because we had a very different approach to nuclear weapons, that somehow you didn't have nuclear deterrence if you didn't have thousands of these things, you know, based on submarines and on airplanes flying around all the time. Anything less than that didn't count, which seems not true to me.
And so I kind of coined this phrase to describe a different approach that India had followed.
GROSS: So that would enable -- that would have enabled India to say, Well, we don't have the bomb, but if you bomb us, we'll punish you a little later.
PERKOVICH: That's right, exactly. And again, I thought, and still think, that there was wisdom in that, especially in the context of a rivalry with Pakistan, that you don't -- that no sane leader would want to do something that risked his country or major cities in his country being hit with nuclear weapons, whether it's 10 minutes or two days after the fact, that this is not worth the candle, especially in the end of the 20th century.
And so as long as that was true, then what India did was a very effective thing, I thought. And for insane leaders, you can't deter them anyway. So don't talk about it.
I thought there was a lot of wisdom to it. And one of the reasons why, you know, I'm dismayed and saddened by some of the developments in the last year in India is that they're moving away from that to an explicit kind of mimicry of the way that the United States has approached nuclear weapons, and that that's, I think, too bad. It's also going to cost them a lot.
GROSS: Many of us who grew up during the cold war in the '50s and had to go through those, like, nuclear drills in school and watch all the bomb shelters being built and everything, grew up having, like, nightmares about the possibility of nuclear war. And we were exposed to all the horror movies about, you know, radioactive monsters as a result of atomic explosions and so on.
So we were just, like, programmed to fear nuclear war. And it's been, you know, decades that there have been nuclear weapons. There haven't been dramatic accidents, there haven't been dramatic nuclear wars. And I think a generation or two is growing up without the kind of fear that the first post-nuclear generation grew up with. And I'm wondering if you think that that sounds sort of, Well, hey, we've got them, and things have been OK so far, is affecting the debate either in America or around the world about nuclear weapons.
PERKOVICH: I think that's a very good point, and I think there must be something to it, that there's a kind of a reassurance. You know, after all, you don't see nuclear weapons when you drive to work unless you're out in North Dakota or happen to be at a submarine base. So they're not present. And they haven't been used.
Now, there are a number of instances where they were almost used by accident, so there have been many dangerous moments. But again, those are only found out years after the fact by getting declassified, you know, government documents and doing interviews. And then it doesn't make a lot of news. So people don't know how dangerously we've been living, but the result has been so far, so good.
And I think there is an element of reassurance in that. But it's again the question of, you know, will that go on forever. And if you don't do more things to explicitly devalue nuclear weapons, and if you don't do more to reduce their number, and lower the pace at which they're operated, then over time, the chances of more and more people getting them or wanting them grows. And as that happens, the probabilities go back up.
And finally, I should say that though we're sanguine, there are big problems in Russia having to do not with Russian strength but with Russian weakness, and the whole question about their control over their fissile materials from which you can make nuclear weapons, their warheads. We don't know how many tactical -- these are small nuclear weapons -- they have, by, you know, by thousands we don't know how many.
And so there are real concerns about that. And it's possible that that becomes a metaphor for the danger in the future.
GROSS: President Clinton is planning on visiting India in the year 2000, and that would make him the first American president to visit India since Carter went there in 1978. What is the significance of this visit? What do you think might happen?
PERKOVICH: Well, I think the significance of President Clinton's visit to India is actually great, in the sense that Indians very much want to be recognized as an important country in the world and to be celebrated as they should be for having maintained democracy with, you know, a huge and diverse population.
And they want this acknowledgment, especially from the United States, as the most powerful country in the world, but also as a country where, you know, many of the Indian, you know, elite send their children, you know, to school, where there's a great potential for trade in the computer industry, where there is a great legacy of kind of scientific interaction.
And so they welcome this kind of recognition that would be reflected in the president's visit. And I think that is overdue, that in fact many American presidents have not paid enough attention to India, and not as much as India has deserved.
So that's great. Now, I think the reason for this visit is that the president genuinely wants to go, so he's been chafing at the bit to go, and the bureaucracy at various points has, you know, for good reason, said, Oh, wait a minute, the time isn't right, or, you know, maybe we can't afford to, you know, seem so eager to go after they didn't sign the test ban treaty. Of course, now that we haven't signed it, that argument goes away.
But the president personally wants to go, and he -- this is not going to be just a business visit. I mean, he really wants to see India and spend time there.
GROSS: You spent time in India, interviewed a lot of people for your new book on India's nuclear bomb. Tell us a good story about interviewing somebody who told you something very revealing about the Indian nuclear weapons program.
PERKOVICH: Well, there were a number of fun stories. And a lot of this happens, you know, drinking too much, because there are a number of people who were involved in these programs who -- kind of in the British tradition, many of them were educated in Britain, like to have a Scotch at night, or more than one.
And so sometimes you would, you know, get into these things, you know, in frank ways. And I think there was -- there were a number of stores, but, you know, one that was revealing was, the former prime minister talked about basically, you know, why India wanted nuclear weapons and why it was opposed to the test ban treaty in '96, and he talked about meeting with President Clinton in New York at the U.N. a couple of years ago.
And recalled walking by the Security Council room, and sign said, you know, Security Council. And he said, you know, that he recalled to the president, you know, There's a saying that we in India have a third eye. And when my third eye looks at that sign for the U.N. Security Council, it says another sign below it that says, Reserved for Very Rich Countries or Countries With the Bomb. And Mr. President, it's very hard to get very rich.
PERKOVICH: And I think that there was something to that, that the bomb for them was a shortcut.
There's actually -- one of my favorite stories was, or most illuminating stories, was in Pakistan, where I was having dinner with a very high-level military official in Pakistan. And we were having dinner in this Chinese restaurant, and a bunch of security people and the driver kind of off to the side.
And after we ate, he said, you know, Let me take you around Islamabad. So we got in his car, and it was all darkened in the back. And the only light was coming from his cigarette, kind of this orange glow. And we're driving around and talking, and somehow the conversation got onto nuclear weapons. And, you know, why they were so important to Pakistan.
And he said, he said, George, look, when the average Pakistani looks out the window or his door, he sees utter corruption, he sees economic failure, he sees pollution, he sees poverty, anything he looks at, basically, doesn't work. The only thing that we've done that's been great is build nuclear weapons. And this is the only source of light in an otherwise incredibly bleak and dismal picture.
And so we're just driving around on this quiet night. And I think there was a lot to that. And it stuck with me, in a sense, that we have to understand that kind of feeling towards nuclear weapons as well.
GROSS: You understand it, but I doubt you feel very good about it.
PERKOVICH: No, because it's -- you know, that story that, you know, it was disproved in a sense by the need for the coup they just had. I mean, in fact, you know, yes, they have nuclear weapons, but basically everything else is falling apart. And so it's a false sense of kind of wonder and accomplishment. And I think that is tragic.
And I think, you know, in India there's a better sense of proportion about it, because India has actually accomplished more and is accomplishing more. It has an economy that's growing it has, you know, brilliant universities and science and technology, has a great software industry. And so there is a sense that the nuclear weapon isn't all that they have. And it's actually that sense that I think has to be built upon in order to get beyond this.
GROSS: Well, George Perkovich, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
PERKOVICH: Thank you.
GROSS: George Perkovich is the author of "India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation."
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Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: George Robert Perkovich
High: International security expert George Robert Perkovich, author of "India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation," discusses India's 50-year secret nuclear program, and the forces internal and external that led to their detonation last year of five nuclear test bombs.
Spec: India; Nuclear Weapons; World Affairs
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End-Story: "India's Nuclear Bomb": An Interview With George Robert Perkovich
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