When the cold war was finally drawing to an end, many world leaders offered the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. During the early 1980s, former US secretary of state George Shultz confronted the critics of nuclear disarmament, asking, “What is so good about a world where you can be wiped out in 30 minutes?”
Experts have generally termed the first half of the 1990s as ‘the golden age of nonproliferation’ because that was a time when all major nuclear powers including the US and Russia started disassociating themselves from cold war-era nuclear norms.
The governments in France and the UK ordered significant reductions in their nuclear forces and the final move toward ‘ground zero’ seemed conceivable for the very first time since the beginning of a nuclear arms race in the early 1950s. With the sudden increase in NPT membership during this period, complete nuclear disarmament seemed to be a winning proposition.
However, the euphoria over a worldwide move towards the ultimate goal of a nuclear-free world dissipated soon when India demonstrated its nuclear weapon capabilities, bringing an abrupt end to years of speculations regarding its covert nuclear programme.
On May 11 and 13, 1998, the world was taken by complete surprise when India declared itself a nuclear weapons state by conducting five underground nuclear tests in the Pokhran range in the Rajasthan Desert. The nuclear tests provoked widespread condemnation and renewed security concerns in the region, prompting Pakistan to carry out its own tests less than three weeks later.
Unfortunately, when the whole international community was rallying around the nuclear disarmament agenda, the paranoid fears that had blinded the Indian nuclear establishment led to a dangerous nuclear arms race on the Subcontinent, which continues to the present day. Through nuclear testing, India and Pakistan both made it public that their ability to inflict unimaginable damage to each other was beyond question.
Almost seventeen years after the tests, nuclear experts are still discussing the motivation for India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and its regional security implications. Many Indian scholars argue that national security concerns were the primary motives underlying India’s pursuit of nuclear weapons but there is a consensus among US strategic experts like George Perkovich and Scott Sagan that domestic politics and the symbolic importance of nuclear weapons were the dominant factors driving the role of the Indian nuclear and missile establishment at that point in time.
I have argued at length previously on that national security concerns can hardly be a logical reason for explaining India’s decision to go nuclear because India’s leadership started showing its intentions to develop nuclear capability immediately after 1947 when the China factor was almost non-existent.
Since the 1998 nuclear tests, the nuclear future of South Asia has been the subject of intense debate. Nuclear advocates argue that nuclear weapons have stabilised the region by making mutual conflict between Pakistan and India ‘prohibitively risky’ but, given the Subcontinent’s troubled history, proliferation of nuclear weapons has done nothing to reduce the probability of conflicts in the region.
The conventional view propounded by strategic thinkers like Kenneth Waltz that war between nuclear powers is ‘highly unlikely’ is not applicable in the South Asian context. The dangers of miscalculation or accident have made escalating a small conflict into a full-scale nuclear war a real possibility. Both states continue to engage in an unstoppable nuclear arms race, raising international concerns about the future of regional security. However, paranoid leaders on both sides of the border remain largely oblivious to this fact.
Another factor that helps explain why nuclear weapons have further destabilised the region is that the powerful establishments of both countries continue to pursue their agendas while ignoring the larger national interests of their respective countries.
Over the past decade and a half, both neighbours have adopted offensive military postures, unveiling military strategies like the new Cold Start doctrine and the use of tactical nuclear weapons. These policies might be able to gain the support of a handful of analysts known for toeing the establishment’s line in both countries but such offensive war doctrines are bringing the two nuclear-armed neighbours closer to nuclear conflict with every passing day.
Scott Sagan rightly acknowledged many years ago that “India and Pakistan face a dangerous nuclear future…Imperfect humans inside imperfect organisations…will someday fail to produce secure nuclear deterrence.” It must be accepted that nuclear South Asia is not like cold-war Europe because of the many differences between the Indo-Pak nuclear calculus and the dynamics of nuclear deterrence between the US and the USSR during the cold-war period. The bitter animosity between India and Pakistan originating from the unfinished business of the 1947 partition still has profound impacts on the decision-making approach of the leaders in both countries despite the passage of more than 66 years.
On the other hand, there were no such inherent feelings of hostility between the US and the Soviet Union during the cold-war period. In addition, because of high terrorism risk in South Asia, terrorist networks like Al-Qaeda have the potential to bring the region to the brink of a nuclear war by using militant organisations to launch attacks in India.
There is strong evidence to suggest that India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons has not only destabilised regional security but has also created incentives for both countries to behave like ‘arrogant nuclear powers’. Will the people of India and Pakistan continue to live in the shadow of nuclear annihilation or will they move forward to rein in their paranoid establishments?