‘Nuclear Weapons, Costs and Myths’: In Response

16 Sep, 2013    ·   4123

Ruhee Neog takes forward the arguments presented by Chinmaya Gharekhan in an Indian Express article

Ruhee Neog
Ruhee Neog

In ‘Nuclear Weapons, Costs and Myths’, an article that appeared in The Indian Express on 27 August 2013 (http://bit.ly/15eEaYK), Chinmaya Gharekhan, India’s former permanent representative to the UN, asked whether ‘nuclear weapons have made us more secure against potential adversaries’. This article will pick up from where Amb Gharekhan left off, and fill in perceived gaps. 

Referring to India’s adoption of Cold War vintage nuclear strategy, the article points out that India and Pakistan have no parallels with the Cold War US-USSR equation. The Cuban Missile Crisis is forwarded as an interesting case of the ‘failure of deterrence’. Admittedly, this argument has its merits. Moments from the Cold War period such the Falklands War demonstrate that countries were not in fact deterred from waging war against nuclear-capable adversaries. However, and with particular reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis, it must also be recognised that despite the brinkmanship, peace was ultimately maintained. As Ward Wilson says, this was achieved if not with the effectiveness of deterrence then at least through the practice of caution because of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. This is more than what can be said for the level of violence witnessed during the two World Wars.

Cold War nuclear strategy may not be ‘reproducible in our region’ but this should not be the basis of the denunciation of the ‘usefulness’ of nuclear weapons and the applicability of deterrence theory to South Asia. The primary function of nuclear weapons rests on the applicability of deterrence. It could therefore be more constructive to debate how deterrence can be adapted to the present scenario instead. A first step would be to distinguish between ‘usefulness’ and ‘usability’. By censuring the nuclear weapons on the basis of military use alone, the political symbolism of nuclear weapons is done a disservice. Their possession is seen as a symbol of status and a deterrent not just against actual physical conflict but also the tendency of a ‘have’ to push around a ‘have-not’. While this is a contentious debate – many say that popular understandings of deterrence often lend themselves more favourably to notions not rooted in evidence, such as nuclear weapons being guarantors of ‘international prestige’ - it also holds that if the arguments in favour of deterrence are significantly and repeatedly flaunted as the truth, they become truisms. Therefore, unless there is momentum to question these truisms, the analysis must start from the considered adaptability of deterrence in South Asia.

The concept of the ‘survivability’ of the deterrent, which originated during the Cold War, is also taken issue with. It is precisely because of a first strike’s potential ability to damage a state’s nuclear command and control structure that a nuclear deterrent demands that the latter be maintained comprehensively and at all times, thereby ensuring ‘survivability’, threatening massive retaliation and preventing a first strike altogether.

The South Asian nuclear deterrence situation is best explained by the stability-instability paradox: a state in possession of nuclear weapons might be encouraged to conventionally vex its adversary and take greater risks in the knowledge that said adversary would not respond via nuclear means. The 1999 Kargil War has been cited as a significant example of the failure of deterrence. However, Kargil did not escalate to a nuclear level. This example is of course notwithstanding the presence of sub/non-state actors in South Asia, who can derail deterrence – which in any case makes a point not for the failure of deterrence but rather its adaptation to the peculiarities of South Asia. However, this point is not raised.

In addition, it is also said that during Kargil, ‘it is Pakistani nukes that restrained us from using our conventional superiority to drive away the invaders. We were deterred by Pakistan's nukes’. The problem therefore seems to be with India conceding its conventional advantage by adopting a nuclear stand, and not deterrence in general. However, it must also be acknowledged that while nuclear weapons may have allowed Pakistan to foray into Indian territory, it also deterred them from coming to the rescue of their troops when they were targeted by Indian ground and aerial attacks. Restraint was visible on both sides.

Should India ‘consider a freeze’ on its stockpile ‘even if it is only with reference to Pakistan’? Here, the foregone conclusion is that nuclear war with China is unlikely given their level of advancement and concomitant refusal to acknowledge India as a nuclear adversary, but given the potential escalation in case of conflict with Pakistan, time has perhaps come to agree to a limit on their respective arsenals. How is this scenario envisaged if China keeps its options open? Second, as also stated by Bharat Karnad in his critique of Amb Gharekhan’s article, a move such as this is amounts to voluntary recognition of Pakistan’s strategic parity with India, which the Indian government would surely be absolutely unwilling to do. Third, there has been widespread discussion on how China’s rise is not ‘peaceful’, and its entitled behaviour has not gone unnoticed. This definitely asks to be factored into the discussion.

Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which have been referenced at different points in the article, there exists a state of nuclear taboo. It is unlikely that either Indian or Pakistani establishments would be willing to risk breaking this taboo and consciously invite universal indictment. This calculation however of course does not include the role of non-state actors.

Nuclear deterrence holds as long as nuclear weapons are not used - this paradox is central to the problems posed by nuclear weapons. To question this in the specific context of India and Pakistan, and to then suggest a freeze on stockpiles so as avoid nuclear usage does not answer the question. A freeze on stockpiles, given the presence of variables such as non-state actors, does not make us anymore secure against potential adversaries.  Closer to the mark would be a debate on how deterrence can be tweaked so as to be a good fit for South Asia. Non-usage can only be guaranteed through complete nuclear weapons abolition, which is a debate for another time.