NEW YORK: India’s test of five nuclear bombs in two days (setting off three in a day is something new in history) is one of those rare events that redraws the map of the world. A terrifying nuclear arms race in South Asia is likely, with the distinct danger of "nuclear battle" between India and Pakistan. The world now awaits Pakistan's decision whether or not to test the bombs already reported to be in its possession. North Korea is reneging on agreements to yield key nuclear materials. China is contemplating a full nuclear security guarantee to Pakistan, creating a complex, unstable four-sided nuclear stand-off in Asia between India, Pakistan, China, and, of course, Russia. Nuclear war, many regional experts say, is more likely now than it ever was in the Cold War.
Unlike Russians and Americans of that bygone era, South Asia’s peoples actually have been killing each other over the years, by the millions during the partition of India in 1948, and in three wars since then. Moreover, India and Pakistan remain divided by a bitter territorial dispute over Kashmir. But this possibility of nuclear war, horrifying as it is, may not be the most important consequence of India's test. That consequence is the gaping hole punched in the (little known) system the world has relied upon against nuclear dangers in the post-Cold War era. Like sleepers awakened by a shock, people across the globe are startled to discover that they are still living in the nuclear age.
That little noted system of protection is the one mandated by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, signed by 185 nations, which created two tiers of states. The first consisted of the five nations possessing nuclear weapons (America, Russia, Britain, France, and China), which promised (under the Treaty's Article Six) to get rid of them; the second consisted of nations that lacking nuclear weapons, which promised not to get them. The NPT was an abolition treaty, specifying that non-nuclear nations would start at the goal of zero nuclear weapons, and that nuclear-armed nations would commit themselves to reaching that goal. At some point the two tiers would fuse, and the world would be nuclear-weapon-free.
Nothing like this occurred during the Cold War. Nuclear-armed nations built nearly 100,000 nuclear weapons, bearing the explosive power of about a million six hundred thousand Hiroshima-size bombs. With the Cold War’s end, arms reductions began, but the nuclear powers - America in particular - publicly disavowed total nuclear disarmament for "the indefinite future," in the recent words of Robert Bell, of the US National Security Council. The US and the other nuclear powers proposed to keep the two-tier system in virtual perpetuity.