New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


South Asian Stability & Nuclear Weapons Proliferation


This book review appeared in National Security Policy Proceedings, vol. 3 (Fall 2010), at pp. 75-79.  In it, Dr. Ford reviews India, Pakistan, and the Bomb: Debating Nuclear Stability in South Asia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

In India, Pakistan, and the Bomb: Debating Nuclear Stability in South Asia (Columbia University Press, 2010), Sumit Ganguly and S. Paul Kapur offer the reader a brief but valuable exploration of questions of Indo-Pakistani nuclear stability and the future of South Asian geopolitics.  Unusually – and some of the attraction of this book lies in this non-standard format – they approach this question in a point-counterpoint fashion, for the two authors actually disagree about the role nuclear weapons have played (and are likely to continue to play) in the region.

Ganguly regards nuclear weapons as having been an important stabilizing force in Indo-Pakistani relations.  Just as Samuel Johnson once mused that the prospect of hanging tends to concentrate the mind, so Ganguly feels the specter of mutual nuclear destruction has helped prevent that strategic rivalry from spiraling out of control, and argues that it is likely to continue to constrain escalatory possibilities in the future.

Kapur takes a different view.  As he sees it, the Indo-Pakistani crises that have been successfully managed without full-scale war since the two countries each acquired nuclear weapons capabilities were resolved for reasons unrelated to nuclear weapons.  In fact, he sees nuclear weapons as having destabilized the South Asian scene by leading Pakistan into more adventurous proxy provocations using Islamic militants on the assumption that India’s responses will necessarily stop short of full-scale invasion, either for fear of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal or as a result of international pressure predicated upon the risk of nuclear escalation.  According to Kapur, nuclear weapons thus raise the likelihood of conflict, increasing the number of crises the participants have to face and thereby placing dangerous escalatory pressures on their relationship.  Kapur calls his interpretation “strategic pessimism,” and sees it as a more fundamental challenge to “optimistic” theories of nuclear stability than accounts that emphasize the danger of miscalculation or accident, because it envisions nuclear weapons as creating incentives for states such as Pakistan to choose “aggressive, extremely risky policies” that destabilize the environment.

The book is structured as an ongoing dialogue between these competing “optimistic” and “pessimistic” interpretations.  The issue is not resolved, it being left to the reader to assess which author has more persuasively marshaled his logic and his facts.  Methodologically, however, their accounts agree in one important respect: that nuclear stability cannot be understood merely at the level of theory.  Ganguly and Kapur stress their rejection of approaches to strategic analysis that deal with nuclear deterrence only on the basis of “logical and analytic exploration of the strategic consequences of proliferation.”  At that level, both sides of the traditional debate – between optimists who “stress the ultimately stable outcomes of past crises between nuclear powers” and pessimists who “focus on the potentially catastrophic processes by which … crises erupt and escalate” – make valid points: “nuclear weapons may both encourage the outbreak of conflict and encourage states to ensure that violence remains limited.”  The devil is in the details, however, and it matters enormously how and to what degree such dynamics play out in the specific circumstances of a particular nuclear relationship.

Ganguly and Kapur thus seek to provide a grounding for their respective conclusions by seeking to “merge both theory and data” in an examination of the circumstances of South Asia.  This might limit the “portability” of lessons one might learn here, but the authors’ insistence upon contextual rootedness itself offers a corrective to all of us who struggle with nuclear policy.  Details matter, and wise nuclear weapons policy likely admits no “one size fits all” policy prescriptions.

Near the end of the book, Ganguly and Kapur depart from their point-counterpoint approach in order to outline three “points of agreement.”  First, they agree that proliferation to the region will not lead to “the deliberate outbreak of large-scale war” because neither “Indian nor Pakistani leaders wish to initiate a conflict that could end in catastrophic losses or, potentially, national annihilation.”  Second, they agree that India’s acquisition of ballistic missile defense technology would be destabilizing in the particular circumstances of the Indo-Pakistani nuclear rivalry, because it would either tempt India to consider a first-strike or encourage Pakistani arms racing, or both.  Third, they argue that Pakistan’s strategy of encouraging aggression against India by non-state actors (i.e., radical Muslim groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba) has created a “sorcerer’s apprentice” problem, insofar as such provocations could easily lead Indo-Pakistani relations to spiral dangerously out of control, but it is no longer clear that Islamabad can control its jihadist creations.

The authors’ discussion of these “points of agreement” is a strange appendage to the rest of the book,  undermining the distinctness of their competing positions and returning their debate to a much more conventional dichotomy of the sort that they claim they are  trying to transcend.  At the end of the day, it turns out that they agree that nuclear weapons have (as Ganguly argues) precluded deliberate large-scale conflict between the two rival states.  Moreover, they agree that nuclear weapons have (as Kapur argues) helped Pakistan make up for its disadvantage in conventional military power, emboldening Islamabad to support destabilizing provocations by non-state actors.

As a result of these points of agreement, Ganguly and Kapur end up back in a fairly conventional optimist/pessimist dialogue pitting the possible crisis-calming effect of mutual nuclear fear against the crisis-escalating effect of accident, miscalculation, and actions by uncontrollable third-parties.  Nevertheless, their able and articulate treatments of these issues do the reader a service by crisply laying out the competing perspectives.

Indeed, the fact that Ganguly and Kapur offer the reader few clear conclusions on the basic question they address – the aggregate impact of nuclear weapons upon South Asian security – is in itself valuable.  Nuclear weapons policy is an arena in which experts commonly profess all manner of absolute certainties, but such convictions almost invariably outrun the available evidence and argument.  There is therefore something refreshing in the analysis offered in this volume, which lays out the debate clearly, offers many supporting facts, and then declines to pretend that it has “The Answer.”  Such modesty is rare, and should be encouraged.

A reader interested in the potential implications for proliferation beyond the subcontinent, however, should probably be troubled by the few conclusions Ganguly and Kapur do reach.  As noted, they seem to agree that nuclear weapons are tools of special value to countries in asymmetric power relationships with a potential adversary, and that from Pakistan’s perspective, nuclear weapons have been enormously valuable.  India’s decisive use of its conventional military predominance – even in response to notable Pakistani provocations – has in this account been decisively deterred.  An imbalanced non-nuclear relationship, in other words, has been “balanced” by Islamabad’s acquisition of The Bomb, to the point that Pakistan’s nuclear capability has proven empowering, offering it a sort of strategic immunity – a shield from behind which to indulge a predilection for proxy Islamist provocations.

To observers of proliferation challenges in the contemporary Middle East, this particular South Asian conclusion raises interesting questions.  Ganguly and Kapur say nothing in their book about Iran or about nuclear weapons proliferation more generally.  Their account suggests, however, that even if we could “deter” direct weapons use by a nuclear-armed Iran, its clerical regime might be considerably emboldened and empowered in its regional and other troublemaking because it will feel—just as the authors recount Pakistan feeling—that possessing a nuclear arsenal immunizes it from decisive responses from more powerful adversaries.

This also suggests that nuclear weapons proliferation will prove dauntingly hard to stop by merely persuasive means.  In Ganguly and Kapur’s analysis, the saga of nuclear weapons proliferation in South Asia is a narrative of how a weaker power can level the playing field vis-à-vis a larger strategic adversary by acquiring nuclear weapons.  We should not expect other countries around the world to miss this point.  The most developed states may today be enthralled by dreams of nuclear weapons abolition, and one can only wish them luck, but if Ganguly and Kapur are right about South Asia, some may find such devices more attractive than ever.

-- Christopher Ford


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