There is something dreamlike about our contemplation of the drift to war in Kashmir. While India and Pakistan move their missiles into position, in Britain our concerns are focused on the evacuation of our own citizens, the destination of the likely refugees, and the possibility that the Indian cricket team might be prevented from visiting England at the end of this month. That 12 million people could be vaporized if the war begins in earnest is viewed as regrettable, but nothing to do with us.
In the United States, the sense of detachment is even more palpable. On Sunday, President Bush told the nation that "we cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systematically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long." But he was talking not about India or Pakistan, but about rogue states which might one day attack the US. He mentioned "South Asia" once, but only as an example of a region whose leaders had been recruited to his cause.
In waging war, Bush and Blair were tumid with moral leadership and purpose. In waging peace, they display only vapidity and irresolution. Deputies are dispatched on half-hearted missions to ask the two governments to negotiate, but no one is proposing the measures necessary to prevent what could become the most lethal conflict since the second world war. The "moral imperatives" so often invoked during the bombing of Afghanistan turn out to be nothing more than old-fashioned power politics. Now, with few clearly formulated domestic interests at stake, the new world order's moral leaders are looking the other way.
Even if Britain, the US and the other western powers had no prior involvement in this conflict, our moral duty to help develop an effective international response would be unquestionable. But we are up to our necks in it. The subcontinent's dispute is our dispute, and to turn away from it could constitute the greatest collective dereliction since the failure of both the German people and the allied powers to intervene in the Holocaust.
In 1947, the Maharajah of Kashmir, a Hindu installed by the British, decided neither to seek independence nor to join Pakistan, despite the fact that the majority of his people were Muslims, but to surrender the territory to India. The British governor-general, Lord Mountbatten, insisted only that a referendum or plebiscite of the Kashmiri people be conducted. This never happened, and Britain, which could have asked the UN to demand that the promise was kept, left India and Pakistan to tear the place apart.
More recently, both states have drawn strength from the effective license granted to them by the US. In 1998, President Clinton announced a "quantum leap" in US relations with India, which the government there interpreted as a permit to resume nuclear testing. Last year, the nuclear sanctions levied on Pakistan were lifted in return for its cooperation in the war on terror. President Bush described General Musharraf (who enjoys the same degree of democratic legitimacy as Saddam Hussein) as a "man of great courage and vision", and promised a new $200m aid package. Musharraf relaxed his grip on the militants slipping into India.
But at least the US has blocked new arms sales to India and Pakistan. The United Kingdom, by contrast, has done everything in its power to promote them. Blair, who refuses to dirty his own hands, has sent the defense secretary and the deputy prime minister to Delhi to sell Hawk aircraft. The UK has continued to supply the spare parts for the Jaguar jets (built under license from the British company BAE), which India may use to drop the bomb. Our moral leader deputizes his officials to explain that if we don't do it, someone else will.
More pertinent still, the nuclear weapons programs in both India and Pakistan were initiated with the help of the west. As the Nuclear Control Institute has documented, both programs emerged from the civilian industry, which was kickstarted with the help of the US "Atoms for Peace" scheme. India's first nuclear device used plutonium produced by a Canadian research reactor and extracted in a reprocessing plant built with the help of the US. Germany supplied tritium, beryllium, heavy water plants and reprocessing components; France delivered uranium and fast-breeder technology; Norway sold heavy water; the US provided enriched uranium and several commercial reactors; and the UK distributed fuel, furnaces and the country's first research reactor.
Pakistan's heavy water plants came from Canada and Belgium; its uranium enrichment technology, beryllium, tritium, furnaces and milling machines from Germany; its research reactor from the US; and its reprocessing technology from France and the UK. All of these components have potential uses in nuclear weapons programs; most appear to have been deployed for this purpose by India and Pakistan.
Britain and the US point out that much of the new nuclear material the enemies are using comes from China. This is true, but China also appears to believe it has a license to operate. In 1998, Clinton approved a US-China nuclear cooperation agreement, despite intelligence briefings showing that China was supplying both Iran and Pakistan with nuclear components, in direct contravention of this treaty. Within a month of the signing of the agreement, China began shipping heavy water to Pakistan, in far greater quantities than its civilian program could have used. The agreement stood.
There are plenty of instruments the international community could use to prevent a nuclear war. It could explain to India and Pakistan that if either nation escalates even the conventional conflict, its leaders could expect to face a war crimes tribunal. It could not only discontinue all arms sales but also apply punitive sanctions to any company assisting the weapons industry in either nation. Most importantly, it could send peacekeepers to hold the lines apart and supervise disarmament. Blair and Bush should both be in Kazakhstan right now, helping Putin to knock heads together.
But there is no peace industry commensurate with the world's war industry. There are no vested interests to appease, no campaign contributions to be gained from preventing rather than encouraging the use of weapons. As a result the hundreds of thousands of peacekeepers whose deployment is required in Kashmir do not exist. While wars are plotted in loving detail, there is no global peace plan for the territory, despite 55 years of conflict.
In the new world order of which Bush and Blair have spoken, international support for a war pursued for domestic purposes is a moral imperative. Preventing two nations from vaporizing each other's civilians is a moral luxury, rather less pressing than the jubilee tea parties or the next visit by the Indian cricket team. Faced with the frightening and complicated task of waging peace rather than war, moral leadership turns to moral flight.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002