Reality and fantasy in nuclear South Asia

By Mario E. Carranza, November 16, 2016

India and Pakistan are ultimately responsible for resolving their own crises, but the nuclearization of the subcontinent has internationalized their disputes. South Asian tensions are no longer just a regional matter because of the potentially catastrophic global humanitarian consequences of a nuclear exchange in South Asia.

In my second roundtable essay I argued that Washington's ultimate "goal in the region must be denuclearization," as part of a multilateral "effort to reduce nuclear dangers, both globally and in South Asia." My roundtable colleague Rabia Akhtar claims that this is like "living in fantasyland," but there's nothing fantastic about my argument. Since Barack Obama's 2009 Prague speech, "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons" has been official US policy. The goal of a world without nuclear weapons was also endorsed in 2009 by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Akhtar attempts to rebut my "fantasy" ideas by writing that "choices have been made"—meaning, primarily, that India and Pakistan have decided to seek security in nuclear weapons while standing outside the nuclear nonproliferation regime. But such choices are not irreversible. Indeed, India and Pakistan are out of sync with the overwhelming majority of states, which have renounced nuclear weapons, and it's the South Asian rivals that behave as if they were living in a "fantasyland"—a delusionary and dangerous "realist" fantasyland. New Delhi and Islamabad attempt simply to ignore the international social and normative environment in which their mad nuclear competition takes place.

Though the United States may have recognized India and Pakistan as de facto nuclear weapon states, the majority of the international community has not. In 1998, for example, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1172, calling on India and Pakistan "immediately to stop their nuclear weapon development programs." India is already paying a price for ignoring the nuclear nonproliferation regime: Its application for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was rejected in June of this year because—among other reasons—"some NSG members believe India must ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state before being admitted to the NSG."

Akhtar also argues—along with Jayita Sarkar, this roundtable's third participant—that Washington's ability to influence India and Pakistan's nuclear diplomacy is limited. This is only true if the next US administration continues the Obama policy of deference to Indian sensibilities. Washington's influence could be maximized if, as I suggested in Round One, it adopted "a balanced approach to Indo-Pakistani relations" and improved relations with Pakistan. Akhtar may claim that "Washington never had much leverage over India," but alliances always give the stronger partner leverage over the junior partner. The US-India strategic partnership is no exception. If the United States, for example, withdrew support for Indian membership in the NSG, India's prospects for joining the group—already dim—would soon disappear.

The choice that faces the main actors in South Asia's nuclear drama is more of the same or something radically different. More of the same has not worked for Pakistan; arguably, it has not worked for India or the United States either. In South Asia, the United States should move from an exclusive focus on counterterrorism and geopolitics to a focus on conflict resolution and nuclear arms control. It should adopt the bold policy that Obama set out in a 2008 interview with Time—"working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve [the] Kashmir crisis in a serious way." (The Obama administration itself abandoned this sort of proactive approach under pressure from the Indian lobby in Washington.) And though Akhtar claims that I don't exhibit "historical rigor" when I suggest that Washington should boldly encourage India and Pakistan to take nuclear arms control seriously, historical precedent exists for a bold US approach to the India-Pakistan conflict: In 1963, the Kennedy administration sponsored six rounds of negotiations on the Kashmir dispute.

Nuclear weapons won't be eliminated from the subcontinent right away. But South Asia's nuclear dangers can be reduced if the two sides exchange information on nuclear doctrines, improve nuclear and cyber security, and create nuclear risk reduction centers. New Delhi and Islamabad should also pursue urgently needed nuclear arms control measures such as a bilateral no-first-use agreement and a bilateral test ban—and delink them from a final resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Pakistan has strong incentives to pursue such steps first. If today's mad nuclear game continues indefinitely, Islamabad has more to lose than New Delhi, in terms of security and of diverted economic resources. But ultimately it is in the interest of both sides to revive 1999's "Spirit of Lahore"—while also establishing a united front to face all forms of terrorism in the region.


Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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