The Paradox of Nuclear Weapons: Through the Lens of the India-Pakistan Conflict

This article was written by Magda Baranowska.

On February 14, the Pakistan-based terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, bombed an Indian  security convoy in Kashmir. The attack killed almost 40 paramilitary police, and has been cited as the “single-deadliest strike on an Indian force” in 30 years.

Kashmir has been disputed territory since 1947, when India and Pakistan were formed under Britain’s “two-state” decolonization project. Communal tensions within the British colonial state led to the decision that the two major religions–Hinduism and Islam–should have their own self-determined states. But the network of communities, of tribes, of religious groups were dispersed throughout the colonial state, and partition ultimately led to mass migration, and with mass migration: the spilling of blood.

Blood would continue to spill, especially over Kashmir, in 1965 and 1991. Pakistan views Kashmir, which has a Muslim majority, as a natural part of its state. But for India, Kashmir is vital to its identity as a multiethnic state. The region is controlled by both India and Pakistan in part, but claimed in full. These claims have killed thousands over the years.

The incident on February 14th, though a legacy of the continuing struggle for Kashmir, unleashed a new threat, spilled a new kind of blood: one saturated with plutonium. Unlike the India and Pakistan of 1965 and 1991, the bitter rivals of 2019 are nuclear powers. The retaliatory airstrikes launched by India on February 25 have unleashed a new fear of nuclear armageddon among global leaders. It is the first time that either of the two powers have used airpower against each other since 1971, but this time, they have sizable nuclear arsenals to fuel our sizable fears.

Studies estimate that regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan could lead to the deaths of some two billion worldwide. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi authorized retaliatory air strikes by the the Mirage 2000 jets, the same type of aircraft that delivers some of India’s airborne nuclear weapons. A retired Pakistani general told his colleagues after the airstrike “that our response should be to escalate and push the envelope of hostilities so that nuclear war is a likely outcome.”

Amid all of this inflammatory rhetoric, pressure has come from the international community to de-escalate. As a gesture of peace, the Pakistani Prime Minister released the captured Indian pilot. India has underscored its “No First Use” nuclear policy.

All of these conflicting responses, both destructive rhetoric and pressure to de-escalate, point to a larger question: Do nuclear weapons create stability or instability? Will nuclear weapons worsen the India-Pakistan conflict, or will they mitigate its consequences? The fears that arise from the latest conflict point to the India-Pakistan crisis as “the latest chapter in a long-running debate about the consequences of nuclear weapons.”

Scholars fundamentally disagree about whether nuclear weapons stabilize or destabilize relations between adversaries.

The traditional school of thought espouses the idea of mutually-assured destruction (MAD), a logic that judges nuclear war as an almost inherent impossibility. The destructive capability of nuclear weapons, their “mutually assured destruction” effects leaders’ calculations, almost entirely precluding the choice of war. Winning in a nuclear war is impossible: the destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons will destroy all: even the loser in the war can bring about unprecedented destruction. Nuclear weapons, then, “purify deterrence.” Afraid of nuclear escalation, rivals with such weapons will avoid arms races, stay out of wars, and generally maintain the status quo.

But even if the logic of MAD is pure and clear-cut, the world often is not. Global leaders are prone to miscalculation under the influence of psychological threat perception and the uncertainty of another state’s actions: what International Relations scholars label “the problem of other minds.” The propensity to misperceive another’s actions is also affected by something that Mark Haas labels “ideological distance.” The greater the difference between adversaries’ worldviews or beliefs, the more likely they are to view their opponent as inherently violent and dangerous. In the case of Pakistan and India, the “ideological distance” is religion, and almost 70 years of bitter rivalry only helps to strengthen their misperceptions of each other.

The logic of MAD is further undermined by a second camp in the literature: the stability-instability proponents. Scholars of this theory, like Glenn Snyder, argue that states with nuclear arsenals may believe that they can safely skirmish at a lower level without fearing all-out war. If countries miscalculate escalation risks–either because they misperceive another state’s intents or misjudge the importance of a region for an adversary–nuclear weapons make conflict more likely and dangerous.

Though the scholarship on the consequences of nuclear weapons is often filled with seemingly detached theories, the conclusions that scholars draw have substantial applications to the situations we have faced in the past and are facing today.

The most accessible application of nuclear theory is undoubtedly the historical record of the Cold War. Though nuclear weapons kept the Cold War “cold” and avoided wide-scale war, both the US and the USSR often exploited fears of MAD to gain bargaining advantages. These fueled a series of proxy wars: conflicts fought by third parties in places like Vietnam, the Congo, and Korea. Even during these “hot” proxy wars, the US and USSR sought ways to escape the limitations of MAD, pursuing military capabilities that could threaten the other’s nuclear forces.

Nuclear weapons, then, have a double-edged effect: they may protect deterrence in the homeland, they may incite the fear of destruction, but with them comes the belief that conflict can be fought under some threshold.

This is exactly where India and Pakistan run into trouble: they are toeing the line of some conventional threshold. In the past, this threshold was low-level exchange of fire at the border between their Kashmiri controlled territories, the Line of Control. After Indian air strikes, after an attempt by the Indian nation to quench domestic thirst for revenge, India has signaled that it will deliberately cross thresholds to punish Pakistan. With its actions, India has shown that it is not only willing to use airstrikes, but to also attack targets in undisputed Pakistani territory. This makes Pakistan more concerned about its deterrent capabilities; the likelihood of a more dangerous crisis increases the next time the two states clash.

But in an age of nuclear proliferation, thresholds cannot be crossed, states do not have the privilege of messing up their calculations. Even if nuclear weapons can stabilize adversaries, their willingness to use conventional warfare may raise thresholds that can inadvertently lead to war. The recent India-Pakistan crisis is especially indicative of this possibility: the stakes have been raised with India’s most recent air campaign.

It is in the world’s vested interest to keep a close eye on both India and Pakistan and to take MAD with a grain of salt. The logic of MAD may order the chaos and fear that come with nuclear weapons, and for the most part, it has held up over the years. But even if it has worked up to this point, MAD may not be a long-term solution. Global powers must realize that the world with more nuclear weapons is inherently a more dangerous and terrifying one. With great power–with sophisticated and extensive nuclear capabilities–comes great responsibility to ensure that they will never used.

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