Nuclear Brinkmanship Is Not Deterrence

“Be ready for sacrifice. Your goal should be victory. It’s time to fight a decisive battle.” Thus spoke India’s Prime Minister Vajpayee on May 23, 2002, four years to the month since India’s nuclear tests shook the world but excited dancing in New Delhi’s streets. So much for nuclear weapons as a deterrent against war. General Musharraf, for his part, said that Pakistan did not want war, but “if war is thrust upon us, we would respond with full might.” Full might, when there are nuclear weapons on both sides, could mean tens of millions of people dead and severely injured, with India devastated and Pakistan essentially wiped out. What, then, would be left of Kashmir to fight over?

As both sides built up their forces along the Line of Control and fired off missile tests (the modern equivalent of saber rattling), senior officials and diplomats from Britain, Russia, the United States, et al rushed over to explain the evils of going to war equipped with nuclear weapons. The double standards were gaudily arrayed, and did not go unnoticed. George Fernandes, India’s Defense Minister, complained of sanctimonious attitudes implying that “Bombs are safe in our hands, but after they cross the Arabian sea and move eastward, they are not.” Naturally, the Cuban Missile Crisis came to mind, with nuclear annihilation avoided only by a hair’s breadth, more by luck than judgment. And what of the accidents, badly stored bomb materials, and contaminated production sites, not only in Russia, though its security problems are the most acute, but in all the nuclear-weapon states. Safe in whose hands?

President Clinton made a revealing remark after the 1998 nuclear tests: “I cannot believe that we are about to start the 21st Century by having the Indian Subcontinent repeat the worst mistakes of the 20th Century, when we know [nuclear weapons are] not necessary to peace, to security, to prosperity, to national greatness, or to personal fulfillment.” This was a bluntly honest recognition of the truth, before the spin doctors tidied things up so that those in the nuclear club could distance themselves from the interlopers and then emphasize the dangers of the new boys’ hot-headed border clashes and inadequate command and control arrangements.

What are the main security threats these days, for India and Pakistan, as much as for the world? Terrorism and fundamentalist violence; environmental degradation and climate change; poverty, hunger, and epidemics like AIDS; social/state disintegration and civil war; crime, criminal gangs, warlords armed to the teeth; trafficking in drugs, arms, people… Where among these threats is one that can be addressed with weapons of mass destruction? Yet the U.S. nuclear posture review, readily echoed by Britain’s Defense Secretary, Geoff Hoon, now threatens pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons in scenarios involving countries without nuclear weapons, on the supposition of an imminent threat based on the calculations of discredited intelligence agencies–those same agencies that recommended bombing an aspirin factory in Sudan, targeted the Chinese Embassy using outdated maps of Belgrade, and are now desperately trying to compensate for missing pre-September 11 warning signs.

Both India and Pakistan have grave, real security problems. Their nuclear posturing does nothing to solve those problems, serving only to exacerbate the brinkmanship across the Line of Control. The issue is not about the concept of deterrence per se–we incorporate deterrence-based communication to enhance our security every day, in our personal lives and in international relations, through a mix of precautionary, preventive, and power-projecting techniques and behaviors. The issue is whether nuclear deterrence, which requires a credible threat of devastating use plus the knowledge that use would mean suicide, can ever be a sensible or effective basis for security.

When Pakistan backed down from its adventurism in the Kargil mountains in 1999, there were voices quick to credit nuclear deterrence, where U.S. political muscle and checkbook diplomacy would have been nearer the mark. If, as I fervently hope, the threat of nuclear war in South Asia this time around diminishes soon, let no one be fooled into thinking that nuclear deterrence saved the day. Regional tensions have dramatically increased since the 1998 tests. The perverse new “status” and illusory “strength” bought with nuclear weapons has already come at a heavy price, impeding the dialogue and trust necessary for constructing neighborly relations and peace.

The conflict over Kashmir is a festering sore left over from colonialism’s carve-ups, and until a political solution can be found, it will continue to poison relations and attract fundamentalists in search of a cause. It also serves as a convenient, Orwellian device to cement nationalism and distract Indians and Pakistanis from their leaders’ failure to address the crises of underdevelopment fuelled by the waste of militarism.