New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Mistry and Ford: A Colloquy on South Asian Nuclear Stability


In response to Dr. Ford’s January 20, 2011 posting on the New Paradigms Forum website on “South Asian Stability and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation” – which was itself a book review of India, Pakistan, and the Bomb, by Sumit Ganguly & S. Paul Kapur (Columbia University Press, 2010) – Dinshaw Mistry wrote NPF to offer this commentary.

Dr. Mistry is associate professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Cincinnati. He specializes in international relations, security studies, technology and politics, and Asian security, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, and was previously a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, and the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University.

NPF is grateful to Professor Mistry for his feedback.  Chris Ford’s comments follow below.

A Response to the NPF Posting on South Asian Stability and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation

by Dinshaw Mistry, Associate Professor, University of Cincinnati

[Christopher Ford’s] review of India, Pakistan, and the Bomb: Debating Nuclear Stability in South Asia makes several interesting points.  Three issues in particular are worth exploring. These concern: (a) the lessons for other countries who may be thinking about acquiring nuclear weapons; (b) U.S. policy options in regional crises between nuclear powers; and (c) whether nuclear weapons would change Iran’s behaviour.

By way of background, India and Pakistan were involved in two military crises after their 1998 nuclear tests.  In 1999, the two sides fought a limited war in the Kargil region of Kashmir that caused over one thousand fatalities.  In 2001-02, they mobilized a million troops on their borders and were prepared for a wider conflagration. Eventually, these two military crises did not escalate into larger conflicts, and optimists argue that nuclear deterrence kept the peace in South Asia.

I. Lessons for Other Countries

Ganguly and Kapur draw different lessons from South Asia’s crises.  As [Ford’s] review points out, Ganguly and Kapur “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.”  This makes for a “narrative of how a weaker power can level the playing field vis-à-vis a larger strategic adversary by acquiring nuclear weapons.” However, the follow up point that “We should not expect other countries around the world to miss this point” about the potential utility of nuclear weapons, and that “some may find such devices more attractive than ever,” essentially depends on how one reads the history of nuclear South Asia.

An alternative history would suggest that nuclear weapons emboldened Pakistan’s strategic establishment to pursue limited military provocations (the Kargil incident in 1999) and a more general militant-terrorist campaign against India (especially for some years after 1999), but this worsened Pakistan’s security in many ways.  For one, the terrorist groups came back to haunt Pakistan.  Also, Pakistan’s militant-backing strategy hurt prospects for peace with India (that could have advanced after the February 1999 Lahore dialogue), and caused military tensions with India. These ensured that Pakistan’s military expenditures remained high, and the high military expenditures set back developmental priorities. This alternative history would make the case that, instead of being attractive, nuclear weapons are extremely unattractive for countries seeking to enhance their security and development, because nuclear weapons embolden security elites to pursue risky and costly security strategies.

II. The U.S. Role in South Asia’s Military Crises

A major aspect of the Pakistan-India crises was not nuclear deterrence but the U.S. role.  A closer look at these crises suggests that, as I have written elsewhere,

South Asia’s military crises ended because of nonnuclear factors rather than because of nuclear deterrence. A larger war was averted not because-as supporters of nuclear deterrence theory would suggest-the threat of Pakistani nuclear retaliation deterred Indian military action against Pakistan.  Instead, war was averted because of U.S. diplomatic efforts that restrained the parties from military escalation.” *

The two policy implications of this observation are worth exploring, and I quote several paragraphs from my earlier writing on the same:

“One policy implication concerns the question of how the presence of nuclear weapons could stabilize and keep the peace in regional security environments over the long term.  Here, two effects should be considered.  First, in a region where deterrence optimism is not well supported, and Washington cannot have confidence that crises between nuclear rivals will not militarily escalate, it would be more inclined to become heavily involved in such crises.  Thus, while regional nuclear powers may be involved in crises, this first effect suggests that Washington or other external powers would repeatedly intervene to ease the crises.

“Second, and in contrast, the consequences of the first effect are that regional nuclear powers may be more inclined to resort to, and not easily back down in, military crises because they anticipate Washington would enter such crises (in anticipation that U.S. intervention will be to their advantage).  Thus, the first effect that supports proliferation optimism – the fact that nuclear weapons could bring about substantial U.S. diplomatic intervention preventing military escalation – may have a second, negative effect, one that results in repeated military crises between regional nuclear rivals.  Further, in any future crisis, there is little assurance that Washington would always be able offer face-saving ways for the participants to back down and ease the crisis.  It should be acknowledged that India-Pakistan relations improved since 2004 [until another terrorist attack in 2008], but the evidence from 1999 and 2001-02 still raises concern about the behavior of these states, should their relations again deteriorate, and new nuclear states.  The concern, arising from the second effect, is that nuclear proliferation may not result in a stable and peaceful regional security environment as the optimists anticipate but could result in repeated military crises between regional nuclear rivals, crises that hold the distinct possibility of military escalation.

“A second policy implication concerns U.S. options for managing nuclear regional security environments. Given the two effects mentioned above, what U.S. policy would lessen the likelihood of military crises between regional rivals over the long term?  One U.S. approach would be to more clearly signal that the United States would not be drawn into military crises between regional nuclear rivals (for example, by refraining from substantial diplomatic intervention in the next military crisis between regional nuclear rivals). In the absence of such a U.S. approach, the second effect mentioned above may become more prominent – the proliferation of nuclear weapons may lead to an increasing frequency and intensity of regional military crises because the parties resort to, or do not back down in, crises as they expect U.S. intervention to their advantage.

“And yet such, a U.S. approach is very risky. If Washington does not significantly intervene in a serious crisis, the crisis could well escalate. As this article shows for the cases of 1999 and 2001-02, in the absence of a crisis-ending U.S. diplomatic intervention, the parties are very likely to militarily escalate, and nuclear deterrence may not be sufficient to prevent such an escalation into a larger war. Thus, in any future crisis, Washington may well have to give preference to the short-term goal of averting a larger conflagration between nuclear rivals and intervene heavily in a crisis, even though this U.S. approach may be detrimental in the long-run (due to the second effect discussed above). To summarize, Washington may have no good policy options for dealing with future crisis-related consequences of nuclear proliferation.  A less interventionist U.S. policy may be necessary to lessen the tendency of regional powers to become involved in crises. Yet the short-term considerations of averting a larger war between new nuclear powers make it very difficult for Washington to adopt such a policy” **

Simply put, as stated in my earlier writings, “a better scholarly understanding of the 1999 and 2001-02 crises and of the difference between deterrence optimism and proliferation optimism has two sobering policy implications: the spread of nuclear weapons could result in repeated and serious military crises between regional nuclear rivals, and Washington may have no good policy options for mitigating these consequences of nuclear proliferation.” ***

III. A Nuclear Iran?

It is worth exploring whether [as Ford’s review suggests] a nuclear-armed Iran “might be considerably emboldened and empowered in its regional and other troublemaking because it will feel – just as the authors [Ganguly and Kapur] recount Pakistan feeling – that possessing a nuclear arsenal immunizes it from decisive responses from more powerful adversaries.”

Here, Tehran’s “regional and other troublemaking” is essentially a strategy of arming and empowering groups (e.g., Hamas, Hezbollah, and others elsewhere in the region) to exercise Iranian influence in the region.  Yet this “troublemaking” has been going on for years, and taking place at a time when Tehran has not been nuclear-armed.  A nuclear umbrella is not necessary for Tehran to pursue troublemaking strategies.  Nor is it clear that Tehran needs a nuclear umbrella to increase the level of trouble-making, for example by supplying more or increasingly sophisticated weapons to its regional proxies and encouraging them to behave more provocatively-these can be undertaken even in situations where Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.

I offer the above three points to add fresh perspectives to the debate about South Asian stability and nuclear weapons proliferation.

-- Dinshaw Mistry


*   Dinshaw Mistry, “Tempering Optimism about Nuclear Deterrence in South Asia,” Security Studies, vol. 18, no. 1 (2009), at 148-192.

** Id. (internal citation omitted).

*** Id.


Many thanks to Professor Mistry for his thoughtful responses, which I’m pleased to post on NPF.  Let me offer some comments.

I. Lessons from South Asia

Professor Mistry questions my speculation that other would-be proliferators (e.g., Iran) might draw proliferation-encouraging lessons from Pakistan’s arguable success in deterring conventional invasion by the more powerful and numerous Indian military.  In place of this lesson from South Asia, Mistry offers an “alternative history” whereby “instead of being attractive, nuclear weapons are extremely unattractive for countries seeking to enhance their security and development.”

I very much hope the lesson of South Asia is indeed that nuclear weapons proliferation is, at the end of the day “extremely unattractive.”  And I hope Iran learns this lesson.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that Mistry does seem to agree with Ganguly and Kapur that nuclear weapons possession did embolden Pakistan, encouraging it to undertake regional provocations by “immunizing” it against potential responses that India would otherwise very likely undertake.  (As Mistry puts it, the Pakistani case shows that “nuclear weapons embolden security elites to pursue risky and costly security strategies.”)  He then argues that these provocations themselves ultimately redounded to Pakistan’s detriment, with the net effect that nuclear weapons haven’t really done Islamabad any good.  This might be true, all things considered.

But it was precisely my point that nuclear weapons possession can – and in Pakistan’s case, apparently did – “embolden security elites” to pursue strategies that destabilize their region.  Professor Mistry does not contest that they do.  Indeed, his argument about why nuclear weapons were ultimately disadvantageous for Pakistan seems actually to depend upon the fact that nuclear weapons enticed provocative behavior.  It is as a result of its having undertaken such provocations that Mistry thinks Pakistan has suffered, with its support of terrorist groups under the nuclear umbrella, for instance, having “come back to haunt” Islamabad.  It is just these dynamics that worry me vis-à-vis Iran.

I hope that it will be clear to everyone that proliferation has not, on balance, been beneficial to Pakistan, and that – by implication – it will not truly help Iran either.  But decision-makers in neither country, nor in other current or would-be proliferator states, seem to see things this way yet.

Just this week, for instance, media reports have appeared claiming that Pakistan has recently doubled the size of its nuclear stockpile, and now having managed to build an arsenal larger than that of India. Meanwhile, the latest round of diplomatic talks aimed at resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis seem (again) to have achieved nothing in the face of Iran’s determination to proceed with fissile material production.  North Korea, having last year conducted its second nuclear test, recently revealed that it has indeed been secretly pursuing uranium enrichment on a large scale – a program that now includes a sophisticated 2,000-unit cascade of gas centrifuges (apparently built with help from Pakistan!) – even as it has been engaging in serious military provocations against South Korea.  According to reports published last summer, moreover, even impoverished and dysfunctional Burma is these days interested in developing nuclear weapons.  I would love the world’s would-be proliferators to hurry up and learn Mistry’s lesson about how nuclear weapons actually aren’t beneficial, but they don’t seem to be listening yet.

So I agree with Professor Mistry that the Pakistani case demonstrates that nuclear weapons possession can indeed “embolden security elites to pursue risky and costly security strategies” – at least with respect to the weaker party in a deterrent relationship.  (I haven’t heard anyone suggest that India has behaved in this fashion, which might tend to suggest a lesson that nuclear weapons are not necessarily intrinsically “extremely unattractive,” but that is perhaps a discussion for another day.)  But even if Mistry is right that nuclear weapons have ultimately made Pakistan worse off, Pakistan shows no buyer’s remorse, and Iran and others seem bent upon following Islamabad’s proliferation path anyway.  That’s pretty bad news for the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula, and elsewhere.

II. The United States’ Role

In the second part of his comments, Professor Mistry paints a depressing picture of tension in South Asia between the need for crisis-deescalatory outside pressures (most obviously from the United States) and the longer-term problems that reliance upon such outside involvement may create.  In the latter regard, Mistry highlights the possibility that outsiders’ crisis-management involvement will at some point be unsuccessful, especially if it is called upon repeatedly to manage recurring problems.  (Who, after all, is confident that we will always get the diplomatic recipe right?  Or that there will always be a workable solution to be found?)  He also suggests, in effect, that the anticipated availability of outside crisis-management pressures can create moral hazard problems by encouraging participants to engage in riskier behavior than they might otherwise undertake.  As a result, foreign diplomats are caught between a short-term need to intervene and the longer-term problems created by the expectation of such intervention. Mistry suggests that this tension may not really be manageable: he concludes by noting that that “Washington may have no good policy options for mitigating these consequences of nuclear proliferation.”

He might well be right about this.  It may be the case that U.S. pressures contributed powerfully to keeping past Indo-Pakistani crises under control and preventing nuclear escalation.  And Mistry may be quite right that South Asia’s arguable reliance upon such outside involvement is dangerous, because if crises continue, outside help will at some point either fail to materialize or simply be unequal to the challenge of preventing escalation. And I share his concern with the potential moral hazard problems of international diplomatic intervention. In the “moral hazard” scenario, the likely prospect of outside diplomatic intervention in the name of peace-seeking crisis management could itself encourage escalation, as the weaker party might have reason to suspect that the stronger party will be pressured into restraint by outside powers, almost no matter what the weaker one chooses to do. This diplomatic moral hazard problem is much like the “emboldenment” argument we’ve already discussed, except that the danger here is rooted less in any direct “deterring” effect of nuclear weapons than in foreign fears of nuclear escalation and a concomitant international diplomatic desperation to press for restraint in not responding to provocations.

Such outside pressures may indeed already have been a factor in South Asia in connection with the Pakistan-based attacks on India’s parliament in 2001, or in Mumbai in 2009.  It is quite conceivable that Pakistan feels more free to indulge its sympathies for the perpetrating groups because foreign pressure has, so far successfully, elicited Indian restraint.  Similar dynamics may also be present on the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea clearly felt more free last year to attack South Korea with artillery or submarine torpedoes than Seoul and its U.S. ally have in responding to such acts of war. According to South Korean sources, even mere joint U.S.-South Korean naval exercises in response to the torpedo attack were delayed “in a bid not to unnecessarily antagonize neighboring countries” after China complained about them.

Nor do such dynamics necessarily require any immediate possibility of nuclear escalation, as Iran has shown repeatedly in its protracted confrontation with the international community – in which it has practically become a trope of Western diplomacy that essentially any outcome is better than war.  Indeed, one can perhaps see here a more general phenomenon: the peace-seeking diplomacy of third parties can be a tool of asymmetric advantage for the most brazen risk-manipulator in a conflict.  As Mistry seems to hint, well-meaning crisis-management may itself encourage risk-taking by the party least subject to diplomatic pressures, thus potentially undermining the long-term chances for peace.  (Thus is the road to Hell paved.)

This is a long-winded way of saying that I agree with Professor Mistry that we face something of a Catch-22, caught between the need to manage the crisis du jour and the longer-term moral hazard challenges that such intervention can help create.  Accordingly, it may indeed be that Washington has “no good policy options for mitigating these consequences of nuclear proliferation.”

The window Mistry’s analysis offers us into the unmanageability of crisis stability under nuclear proliferation scenarios, however, may itself be an important lesson.  We should bear it in mind as we contemplate what risks we are willing to take, and what burdens we are willing to bear, in order to prevent proliferation.

III. Iran

With regard to Iran, Professor Mistry rightly points out that Iranian regional troublemaking “has been going on for years, and [has been] taking place at a time when Tehran has not been nuclear-armed.”  He also notes that Iran may well be able to “increase the level of trouble-making … even in situations where Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.”  This is, alas, quite true. I’m not persuaded, however, that this is any reason for optimism about the impact of Iran’s possible future possession of nuclear weaponry.

The degree to which Iranian provocations have continued and even escalated even without Tehran’s nuclear-weapon-fueled “emboldenment” is quite shocking.  Not content with supplying Hezbollah terrorists for their 2006 conflict with Israel, for example – an operation that seems to have included the grotesque use of Red Crescent ambulances to smuggle weapons – Iran has now re-armed Hezbollah with scores of thousands of ever longer-range rockets for another full-scale war against Israel.  (Iran is also supporting that organization’s subversion of what remains of Lebanese democracy.)  Iran has engaged in political subversion of its Gulf neighbors, and has provided arms, training, and advice to guerrillas and terrorists killing Americans (and many others) in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Clearly, I agree that Iran doesn’t “need” nuclear weapons to be a challenge to international peace and security.

My point, however, was not that Iran would for the first time become a threat to its neighbors, to U.S. interests, and to regional peace if it acquired nuclear weapons.  It was, rather, that in such circumstances Iran might well – and probably would – become an even worse threat in all these respects, as indeed Ganguly and Kapur contend that Pakistan has done vis-à-vis India through its support for nonstate actors such as Laskhar-e-toiba and its willingness to engage in operations such as that in Kargil.

Unfortunately, I don’t see anything in Mistry’s analysis that would reassure me on this score.  He offers no reason why Iranian threats would not at least continue, and in fact his logic suggests that they would probably increase significantly if Tehran got nuclear weapons.  (Such weapons “embolden security elites,” remember?)  At the same time, other parties’ ability to respond to such challenges would presumably decrease. That’s a bad combination, and it’s just the sort of thing my earlier NPF posting suggested should concern us.

All in all, therefore, I think Professor Mistry and I disagree less than he may have assumed.  (In fact, we seem to agree on the most basic points.)  Nevertheless, I think that even if he’s right in the specific claims he makes, we probably have a great deal to worry about.

-- Christopher Ford

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