The Pakistani Nuclear Weapons Programme and Globalisation in the 1970s

6 Mar

sargent_ASTReading Daniel Sargent’s excellent recent book A Superpower Transformed provoked me to re-assess some of the framework supporting my own research into US-UK and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons project in the 1970s. Sargent manages to crystalise some of the conclusions I was tentatively reaching towards, very handy as I work on the manuscript for my own book. One issue that formed a component of my work – but that I hadn’t made prominent enough – was globalisation. Not just globalisation in terms of markets, but in the emergence of modern transnational movements, networks, and ideas (such as human rights), and the significant role they played in US foreign policy.

Sargent’s thesis forced me to re-appraise the role that globalisation and transnationalism played in US-UK nuclear non-proliferation policy, and in Pakistan’s own clandestine bomb programme. The Pakistani nuclear weapons programme had a lengthy history, but only really emerged as an international issue after the catalytic Indian nuclear test of May 18 1974. This spurred Islamabad into action and gave leaders such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Muhammad Zia ul-Haq the necessary oppositional context to push forward a national nuclear programme.

Pakistan’s programme emerged into a world of multiple nuclear proliferation concerns. The modern non-proliferation regime’s creation in the late 1960s – given form by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty of 1968 – met with immediate challenges. Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, and other states toyed with idea of – if not nuclear weapons programmes – major nuclear investment that could potentially lead to weapons capability.

Détente in the 1970s took the lid off the Cold War pressure cooker, allowing previously suppressed national, international, and transnational forces to emerge. Globalisation also began to hit its stride. International trade tripled from 1964 to 1980, computerisation began to revolutionise communication and the markets, and the oil shocks focused attention on alternative energy sources. Thus, the international trade in nuclear reactors, reprocessing plants, and the other parts of the nuclear fuel and energy cycle had even greater salience.

It was globalisation, the expansion of worldwide trade, and the ability to tap into the intensely competitive global marketplace that allowed Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear programme to flourish. Pakistan’s was the first truly modern, second generation nuclear proliferation effort. Instead of requiring the military-industrial mega-systems that had created the American, Soviet, British, French, and Chinese bombs, Islamabad used blueprints stolen from the Anglo-Dutch-German URENCO uranium enrichment plant, off the shelf parts, and nominally non-nuclear industrial equipment to secretly build the uranium centrifuges that would give it the raw material for atomic bombs.

Although created by and for a state, it used an international array of non-state actors: money-hungry corporations, shadowy intermediaries, shady arms dealers, amoral industrialists, and duplicitous scientists to achieve its aims. Examining the Pakistani case reveals not just the international, state to state elements of non-proliferation, but also the transnational elements. The Pakistani programme simply would not have emerged and developed the way it did prior to the 1970s. And, it was the globalised, transnational elements of the Pakistani programme that made it so difficult to combat.

Pakistan’s efforts to attain uranium enrichment capability by clandestine means were ultimately successful. In 1998, Islamabad carried out its first nuclear tests and joined the ranks of admitted nuclear weapons states. A Q Khan, the man who allowed this to happen by stealing the centrifuge plans in 1975, went on to take increasing advantage of global trade. By the late 1990s, he had sold centrifuge designs to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, with the tacit permission and assistance of the Pakistani state. US-UK cooperation against such efforts continued until the exposure of the Khan network in 2003-04 and Khan’s subsequent arrest.

Returning to where I started, I’d recommend Sargent’s work to anyone interested in post-WW2 US foreign policy. It has certainly been helpful in my research, solidifying many of the more vague elements in my work. I very much look forward to seeing the fruits of all of this appear in print!


2 Responses to “The Pakistani Nuclear Weapons Programme and Globalisation in the 1970s”


  1. The Challenges of Teaching Intelligence Studies | theatomicage - June 28, 2016

    […] different ways of assessing and addressing the issues. In my own work on US and UK policy towards Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme in the 1970s, I lacked UK intelligence reporting. I know the JIC were discussing the subject in detail, but […]

  2. Nuclear Orientalism?: America, Pakistan, and the ‘Islamic Bomb’, 1979-2016 – IAPS Dialogue - March 13, 2017

    […] theft – and the genuine conspiracy that was Pakistan’s international nuclear purchasing project – led to conspiracy theories. Despite him being a Pakistani nationalist, the Guardian newspaper […]

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