Op-Ed: How the nuclear weapons taboo is fading
A year ago this week, I was at a press conference in London alongside the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the former Pakistani foreign minister Salman Khurshid. On the eve of Barack Obama’s landmark visit to Islamabad, I was asked to join the US and Pakistan delegations for an audience with the Pakistani premier, Yousaf Raza Gilani.
I found Gilani to be a very gracious host, and he and his government have long been friends of mine. He was a man whose principles were known throughout his country. But I felt that we had to take a few moments to talk through what it would mean should the US and Pakistan ever seek to confront each other’s nuclear arsenals.
If you have read the New York Times over the last few weeks, you’ll know that the US has been seeking—and is understood to be seeking—to build a missile defence system in Pakistan that would give it the capacity to protect itself against nuclear attacks. Pakistan has long sought such a system; Gilani has been a strong advocate of it.
That last sentence was written a few days after Gilani became prime minister. If you think about it, the two are not really that much different. Both are seeking to control their own nuclear arsenals. Gilani, in the meantime, has been in the news for his strong support for Israel in its conflict with Hamas in Gaza, and for the many attacks he has made against Pakistan’s arch-enemy India. He has been a strong supporter of Pakistani military action against Islamist militancy in the state of Balochistan, which Pakistan accuses Islamabad of supporting.
The difference is that, in Pakistan, Gilani is a man who has sought—and was able to achieve—to avoid a face-off with the US, who it is thought, would be willing to use a Pakistan-US showdown as a pretext for war. In America, by contrast, this is not about avoiding a clash; it is about finding a way of avoiding a clash—a way of preventing the two sides from ever confronting each other with a mutual-exchange-programme of nuclear strikes, which would lead them to a full-scale war.
A year has now changed the calculation for the nuclear-weapons states. America has sought to build a missile defence system that would give it the