The myth that has gone nuclear

The myth that has gone nuclear

Among modern myths, perhaps none is more fantastic than the notion that nuclear weapons are solely responsible for the absence of war between nuclear-armed antagonists. Many thoughtful intellectuals, such as Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling, consider a world without nuclear weapons more dangerous. In that light, these armaments may then be called “weapons of peace", an argument this newspaper made in a 9 August editorial (“The bomb, 65 years later"). But nothing could be further from reality.

A new study, The Changing Political Utility of Nuclear Weapons: Nuclear Threats from 1970 to 2010, by Samuel Black at the Washington-based Stimson Center, challenges this myth head-on. Black presents two sobering conclusions based on an empirical examination of official nuclear threats made publicly. First, since the end of the Cold War, nuclear-capable states made as many as 56 nuclear threats—more than twice as many during the period 1970-90. Second— and of particular concern to South Asia—Pakistan, the US and India have made the most number of nuclear threats in that order. All of Islamabad’s 16 overt nuclear threats since 1991 were directed at India, while New Delhi’s nine publicly recorded nuclear threats since 1991 were all aimed at Pakistan and none at China.

One could quibble with the methodology of the study, yet there is no contesting the somber finding: States possessing nuclear weapons actually find the political utility of these deadly weapons increasing. Granted, while a threat of use of nuclear weapons is not the same as an actual use, the increasing number of threats also raises questions of the credibility of the threatening state; it could force the state issuing the threat to either lose its credibility in the eyes of its adversary or use its weapons deliberately or through miscalculation.

In the India-Pakistan case, the Kargil conflict of 1999 bears testimony to the dubious ability of nuclear weapons to ensure peace between nuclear-armed enemies. Kargil is often characterized as a “localized" conflict confined to a limited land area, but it had a significant naval component, which had the potential to expand the scope of the war. Besides, its duration of over two months—from early May to mid-July—makes this not only one of the longest wars between India and Pakistan, but by far the longest conventional conflict between nuclear-armed states (in contrast the 1962 Cuban missile crisis between the US and the Soviet Union lasted a mere 13 days).

In a similar vein, India and Pakistan set an unprecedented record of making 15 nuclear threats among themselves during the December 2001 to June 2002 stand-off, with each warning having the potential to spark off a nuclear conflagration. The fact that tense confrontation did not lead to a shooting war had more to do with deft diplomacy than with the presence of nuclear weapons.

Instead, nuclear weapons have increased the potential of both conventional war and asymmetrical attacks. Indeed, New Delhi has consistently promoted its “limited war" and related “cold start" doctrine to prove that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will not deter India from launching a conventional war.

Similarly, India’s nuclear arsenal did not deter terrorist groups with alleged links to sections of the Pakistani security establishment to carry out the Mumbai attacks in November 2008; it is unlikely to do so in the future.

While there is, clearly, a temptation to create the comforting legend of nuclear weapons as manna from heaven that will end the scourge of war for evermore, it is a dangerous delusion. The stark reality is that nuclear weapons by themselves cannot ensure peace. That elusive state of amity is only feasible by not making threats using N-weapons, establishing a code of conduct for managing the nuclear dyad, and lots of good luck. So far India and Pakistan have gotten by with sheer luck.

W Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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