South Asia's nuclearization has transformed the Indo-Pakistani conflict from a regional matter into a global issue. An exchange of 100 nuclear weapons between the two nations could kill 20 million people within a week and could also reduce global temperatures by 1.3 degrees Celsius, putting up to 2 billion additional people at risk of famine.
Realist scholars have long argued that to prevent the use of nuclear weapons in an Indo-Pakistani war, the two countries must achieve stable nuclear deterrence. Achieving this goal has come to seem increasingly difficult, if not impossible, and recent changes in India and Pakistan's nuclear doctrines and conventional strategies have made nuclear relations even more unstable. For example, the Indian Army's Cold Start doctrine involves quick conventional attacks—launched in retaliation for a terrorist attack by a Pakistan-based jihadi organization and intended not to provoke Pakistan into a first use of nuclear weapons. But Pakistan says it would respond to a Cold Start offensive with low-yield nuclear weapons.
The conventional wisdom is that India maintains a "recessed deterrence posture"—during peacetime, nuclear warheads are not mated with delivery systems and warheads themselves are not fully assembled. According to Debalina Ghoshal of the Delhi Policy Group, recessed deterrence contributes to strategic stability in Indo-Pakistani relations. But according to political scientist Vipin Narang of MIT, the belief that India keeps its nuclear weapons in a disassembled state "is largely now a myth. … [I]t seems likely that all of India's nuclear missile systems will eventually be deployed in a near-ready 'canisterized' state, which is a far cry from the prevailing perception that India maintains its nuclear force in a relatively recessed state." Pakistan's nuclear weapons, meanwhile, are apparently ready for use at any time, and authority to use nuclear weapons during military crises with India has reportedly been pre-delegated to Pakistani field commanders since 2000. It's too late now for true recessed deterrence in South Asia, and stable nuclear deterrence is probably impossible on the subcontinent.
The alternatives to stable deterrence are nuclear risk reduction and nuclear arms control. Unfortunately, the two countries have a poor record of implementing confidence-building and risk-reduction measures—and a robust regime for nuclear arms control faces barriers including the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of deep mutual mistrust. The February 1999 Lahore Declaration was an important breakthrough in Indo-Pakistani relations, but the Kargil "mini-war" later that year buried the "Spirit of Lahore." Can that spirit be revived in the era of Prime Ministers Modi and Sharif? Only if the two countries' leaders can overcome the powerful domestic vested interests that support indefinite maintenance of the status quo.
In 2004 India and Pakistan began a peace process known as the "composite dialogue." This process concerned eight baskets of issues, among them Kashmir, terrorism and drug trafficking, confidence building measures, and economic cooperation. The composite dialogue collapsed after the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai and the two countries failed to revive it in 2015. Since then, India and Pakistan have been "thinking about the unthinkable," to borrow the phrase of strategist Herman Kahn. That is, both countries have engaged in doctrinal debates on "escalation dominance." This doctrinal competition significantly increases the possibility of an Indo-Pakistani nuclear conflict.
The danger that nuclear weapons will be used in the next Indo-Pakistani war is very real, but the two countries can take meaningful steps back from the brink of Armageddon. They can establish a permanent hotline between their prime ministers and directors-general of military operations. They can begin a serious dialogue on their nuclear doctrines. They can create nuclear risk-reduction centers staffed by officials from both countries. They can agree to inform each other when missiles are moved within their territories for training purposes. And they can sign a cooperative aerial observation accord, patterned on the Open Skies Treaty negotiated between NATO and the Warsaw Pact states at the end of the Cold War.
But whether the South Asian rivals definitively step back from the brink of Armageddon depends on the prospects for sustainable normalization of bilateral relations (even without a formal settlement of the Kashmir dispute). Normalization seems a rather distant prospect today because of persistent mutual mistrust. Also, the Indian leadership apparently lacks political will to make a second "leap of trust" (a phrase associated with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's 1999 trip to Lahore) by reviving the composite dialogue with Pakistan. Therefore it is crucial that the international community—led by the United States—attempt to reduce tensions and establish nuclear arms control on the subcontinent.
Today, three obstacles block the way to establishing a meaningful Indo-Pakistani nuclear arms control regime: lack of proactive US diplomacy; the subcontinent's "perfection of insincerity" (that is, both India and Pakistan often make proposals that they know the other side won't accept); and, in both countries, domestic opposition to solving the nuclear conundrum. In India, domestic opposition can only be overcome by "an Indian Gorbachev." In Pakistan, opposition will only be overcome when the military loses control of the nuclear weapons program.
However, India and Pakistan do not live on a different planet from everyone else. They are vulnerable to external normative constraints, as shown by their compliance with the global moratorium on nuclear testing and by their adherence so far to the "non-use" norm (even if the nuclear taboo is very brittle in South Asia). If the nuclear taboo could be strengthened at the global level, India and Pakistan could be forced to take it more seriously. Specifically, if the United States (as a major norm entrepreneur) foreswore the first use of nuclear weapons, and also pursued a new, proactive policy of promoting nuclear arms control in South Asia, chances of a South Asian nuclear exchange would be reduced.
The United States should completely revise its approach to the nuclear stand-off in South Asia. It should abandon its current policy of siding with India and instead adopt a balanced approach to Indo-Pakistani relations. This would involve improving relations with Pakistan—though it would be a mistake to offer Pakistan a nuclear deal that would make it a mainstream nuclear weapon state. Rather, Washington should reactivate the nuclear nonproliferation norm in South Asia by renegotiating its nuclear deal with India, imposing constraints on India's nuclear weapons program that the Bush administration failed to negotiate.
The United States should also exert diplomatic pressure on both nations to start serious negotiations on nuclear arms control. At a minimum, both India and Pakistan would formally commit to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (after the US Senate ratifies the treaty). Meanwhile, the humanitarian initiative (a movement that essentially seeks a treaty banning nuclear weapons) could play a crucial role in bringing nuclear arms control back into the domestic political arena in both India and Pakistan. Antinuclear nongovernmental organizations, both local and international, could do likewise.
The India-Pakistan nuclear conundrum allows no quick fixes—but time to address the problem may be running out. Now is the moment for forceful US intervention that could help the South Asian rivals create a robust nuclear arms control regime and could save millions from a nuclear Armageddon.