11 May 1999

Of Nukes and Nonsense

All sorts of terrible things were supposed to happen after last year's tests. None did.

By Gerald Segal

What does not happen in international affairs is often as important as what does. Consider the case of India and Pakistan a year after both countries formally became nuclear powers. India's test last May, and the subsequent Pakistani tests, were supposed to have put the region on a hair trigger for nuclear war and wrecked the struggle against nuclear proliferation. Nonsense. If anything, South Asia, even despite the collapse of yet another Indian government, is a more stable place than it has been for many years. The real loser is the West-particularly the United States-whose noisy diplomatic effort to treat Indians and Pakistanis as pariahs and primitives has failed.

Of course it would have been better if India and Pakistan did not move from their "recessed" nuclear status to being declared nuclear powers. But a year after the tests, none of the fearful consequences have emerged. In fact, one can glimpse some silver linings. We were supposed to see a catastrophic slide into conflict; because India and Pakistan are neighbours with territorial disputes, they would find themselves with conventional war rapidly going nuclear. In reality, the opposite seems to have happened. The tensest stand-off in Kashmir has eased with casualties sharply reduced. Could it be, as Professor Kenneth Waltz argued in a controversial monograph for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in 1981 that "more may be better"-that nuclear weapons can enhance deterrence and stability in regional conflict? The evidence from the sub-continent is compelling.

In February this year, the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers signed the Lahore declaration during a very constructive summit. After 50 years of managed rivalry, these two countries know how far they can go, and how cool they need to keep their most powerful heads. Even more impressive than the "bus diplomacy" that led up to the Lahore Declaration was the "cricket diplomacy" of January. When 35,000 Indian fans cheered Pakistan's cliffhanger victory and the Pakistani flag was taken on a victory lap in a stadium in Madras, you knew that the two countries had a mature relationship. The Indian public in effect had a message for their leaders: India is a more important power than Pakistan; so Indians can afford to be magnanimous.

The second scary consequence of the nuclear tests was supposed to be the headlong rush to modern nuclear arsenals. India and Pakistan were expected to bumble through crises with primitive command and control procedures. The reality has been far calmer. India and Pakistan traded missile tests in April 1999 but reactions were ritualistic and restrained. As it happens, the tests took place while my Institute held a quiet meeting with senior officials from India and Pakistan. Both sides spoke softly, albeit sometimes sardonically about the diplomatic theatre of the tests. They both had prior warning and although they wanted a more formalised warning system to be established (as agreed in principle at Lahore) they were not in a hurry. These are the officials that, despite the fall of the Indian government and the instability that is bound to follow, will sustain professional bilateral relations.

Most encouraging of all is a common attitude: Indians and Pakistanis alike enjoy making fun of Western demands for rigorous command and control systems and explicit discussions of nuclear doctrine. They know they have to do better, but they know they will evolve their own systems in their own time as defence and scientific establishments test new weapons. There is no rush, and little worry that the arms race will be so hectic as to be destabilising. The best part of jointly making fun of American nuclear high priests is that it reinforces regional deterrence and brings new maturity to relations among senior leaders.

Thirdly, it was feared that the tests would spread nuclear tensions to China because; India, after all, had said that it needed to deter China more than Pakistan. Indians say, with reason, that it is unfair to deny them nukes when few dispute China's right to modernise its longstanding nuclear arsenal (in part by espionage in the United States). But Indian officials are now making clear, quietly, that it was a mistake to hype the China threat. India and China will one day have to settle who leads Asia, but that little debate does not need to start for another generation or two. In the meantime India will quietly go about its business in building a deterrent against China.

Finally, the South Asian tests were said to be a massive blow to the global struggle against nuclear proliferation. In fact, India and Pakistan have rapidly agreed to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Both countries now see continued American nagging on the subject as a cover for American embarrassment at the fact that the U.S. Senate will not ratify the CTBT. Indians and Pakistanis correctly argue that the U.S. and the West are naive in their fruitless opposition to the reality that there are now seven nuclear powers. Once the West accepts they cannot rollback history, then there can be serious discussions about the struggle against global proliferation. The dangerous rogue cases are Iraq, Iran or North Korea, not democratic India and Pakistan.

These nuclear realities in South Asia explain why the diplomatic effort led by U.S. deputy secretary of State Strobe Talbott to impose a Western arms control agenda is both futile and foolish. A short, sharp shock of sanctions was no doubt useful to make the point that proliferation has its costs. But the longer the United States clings to its impossible goals in South Asia, the more it will merely reinforce the message that it is a hollow power. The west has not been able to impose its will on the Balkans; sooner or later, South Asians think, the limits of western power on the sub-continent will be similarly apparent.

Segal is the Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.