South Asia: Under The Nuclear Shadow

The current nuclear stand off between India and Pakistan is embedded in a much larger matrix of global relations. Capturing this complexity is not an easy task and this is what Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik attempt in their latest book South Asia on a Short Fuse. Bidwai and Vanaik are well placed to respond to the new scenario as they have written extensively in the past on the issue of nuclear disarmament. Their contribution will certainly enrich the current debate that includes Itty Abraham’s The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb, N. Ram’s Riding the Nuclear Tiger and George Perkovich ’s India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation. [i] All these books examine the implications of  Pokhran II  and Chagai , through from different viewpoints.

The book covers a lot of ground — from the global context of nuclear weapons to a history of the Indian bomb and the Pakistani response. The details covered by each of these issues help the readers to locate Indian developments within the larger context.

I will not try and summarise the arguments of the book. Instead, I will focus on the major contentious issues in nuclear discourse today. While this may well mean bringing out differences more sharply than is the case, differences play a more important role in the dialectics of developing ideas, and therefore need to be privileged over agreements.

The best part of the book lies in its critique of deterrence. The authors have shown that deterrence theory is premised on credible retaliatory strikes and therefore based on the use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations. This, the authors illustrate in great detail, is incompatible with fundamental concepts of just wars. If use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable, so is the threat of its use, and deterrence theory is fundamentally flawed in ethical and moral terms. As the authors argue, “The wielders of nuclear weapons and practitioners of deterrence of course mean to use them–reluctantly, in emergencies–but use them nevertheless. By granting some moral acceptability to some function of nuclear weapons means at the least, bestowing legitimacy upon their existence.” (pp.141)

The authors also show that apart from the moral and ethical problem of deterrence theory, deterrence is inherently unstable and dangerous. They give concrete evidence from various sources of how repeatedly nuclear exchanges could have almost taken place during the Cold War. Particularly chilling is the account of the Cuban missile crisis where nuclear weapons were on the verge of being launched at least three times, not due to intent but due to accidents or misreading of the situation. There is overwhelming evidence now that deterrence is always on a hair trigger; and any mistake would lead to a nuclear Armageddon.

The authors give a detailed account of the events leading up to and following Pokhran II. They establish that the nuclear tests had nothing to do with any change in the security environment, and that they were essentially dictated by the ideology of the RSS. They also document how Pakistan was goaded into a nuclear response through continuous threats on Kashmir and talk of a “changed geo-strategic balance.”

A closer look at the concept of deterrence indicates that there are two sets of arguments on which deterrence theory can be opposed. One is that as all nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction and have no defensive capability, their possession — whether as a threat against a first strike (deterrence) or as an offensive use in a first strike — are both immoral and therefore unacceptable. In this argument, the country that threatens another with nuclear weapons and the one  which responds by developing nuclear weapons in order to deter the other, are both guilty of violating the same moral principles. The second argument is that deterrence is inherently unstable, and would lead – sometime or the other – to their use either by accident or design, thereby ending human civilisation as we know it. Bidwai and Vanaik advance both sets of arguments in their treatment of deterrence. In the rest of the book, however, they derive their positions on the red bomb, CTBT, disarmament platform, etc., essentially from the first.

The other plank of their argument comes from their understanding of the “astrategic” nature of nuclear weapons and the belief that nuclear weapons have played no role (or a negligible role) in global relations. Indeed, they go a step further by declaring that the US, the dominant nuclear power today, also accepts that nuclear weapons are astrategic and of little use in structuring international relations. “The decisive reason for the US eventually deciding not to resort to nuclear arms had to do with a) the peculiarly astrategic character of nuclear weapons as a means of providing foreign policy support b) fear of domestic and international public horror, opprobrium and anger” (pp. 18). The obvious question here is whether the US has ever accepted the astrategic nature of the bomb. The authors produce no evidence to substantiate this charitable view of the US and its strategic doctrines.

As Bidwai and Vanaik themselves have documented in this book, the US has considered nuclear weapons central in their strategic doctrines, both in the cold war phase and the post-cold war phase. In each of these phases, the US has emphasised the clear strategic role it saw for nuclear weapons.

During the cold war phase, nuclear weapons were to provide a corrective to the superiority of the Warsaw Pact in conventional forces. Today, the US sees nuclear weapons as a strategic tool for dominating the third world and what it terms as “regional powers,” particularly as Russia is not seen as an immediate competitor. A recent book, Post-Cold War Conflict Deterrence, prepared by the US Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications, has this to say: “The changing nature of the threats to US and allied security interests have stimulated a considerable broadening of the deterrence concept.” [ii] This broadening is then identified as a) moving against US economic and trade interests, b) use of other weapons of mass destruction by any country against US and its allies c) conventional attacks against US and its allies, and so on, all of which need to be deterred. Thus, this broadened concept of deterrence, in simple English, means the use of nuclear weapons (or threats of its use), whenever and wherever the US thinks it fit.

That the US considers nuclear weapons as central to its global strategy is made clear by a study entitled “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence”, prepared by the US Strategic Command, partially declassified and released under the Freedom of Information Act. It says, “Although we are not likely to use nuclear weapons in less than matters of the greatest national importance, or in less than extreme circumstances, nuclear weapons always cast a shadow over any crisis or conflict in which the US is engaged. Thus, deterrence through the threat of use of nuclear weapons will continue to be our top military strategy.”[iii] And lest the world feel that the rational American leadership will never use nuclear weapons, the study also proposes that  “Because of the value that comes from the ambiguity of what the US may do to an adversary if the acts we seek to deter are carried out, it hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially “out of control” can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts within the minds of an adversary’s decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project to all adversaries.”

It is this strategic shift in deterrence that explains the recent decision of the US government to build a National Missile Deference (NMD) against possible nuclear attacks by “rogue” states.  If we disregard the stated objective that the NMD is for the purpose of defence against rogue states, a larger purpose emerges. Both in Iraq in 1991 and in Yugoslavia this year, the US has now put in place its new doctrine of intervention. After the Somalian misadventure, physical military intervention is out. The current doctrine is to use air power and smart bombs to pound a country back to the stone-age if need be, and impose American will with a minimal loss of American lives.[iv] This strategy demands protection against a possible desperate nuclear strike by countries, which are being pounded into the ground. Such a country may have a few nukes and could mount them on missiles and launch them against the United States under extreme conditions. More relevant than the likelihood of such an event, is whether US public opinion will allow for the kind of air strikes that US and Nato performed on Iraq and Yugoslavia, if there is a possibility of such a desperate strike. Thus a National Missile Defence or a “thin shield” is a necessity of this new US strategic doctrine, of US moving from a “weapon rich” (Soviet Union) to a “target rich” environment (Third World).

Unfortunately, Bidwai and Vanaik  do not address this issue satisfactorily; indeed, they make a surprising error in the discussion of American violations of the Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) Defence Treaty.  In their discussion, they say that “new pressures have emerged in the current phase of post-cold war period that are once again threatening the gains of the ABM in the name of constructing theatre (as supposedly opposed to strategic) BMD (Ballistic Missile Defence) systems” (pp. 26). Further, in a footnote: “However, since the ABM Treaty does not clearly define the difference between theatre and strategic missile nor the meaning of ‘capabilities to counter’, this grey area is currently being exploited by the US through the development and testing of two high altitude TMD systems. The Army’s Theatre High Altitude Defence (THAD) system and the Navy’s Upper Tier System” (pp. 33).

This completely overlooks the real threat that has arisen to the ABM Treaty. Reagan’s Star Wars program had strong support among the Republicans who have been clamouring for a national missile defence system as opposed to a theatre missile defence system. In January 1999, William Cohen, Clinton’s Defence Secretary, announced 6.6 billion dollar plan for such a system, to be located possibly in Alaska and complemented by a sea based system as well. These are accepted by all experts as well as the US government itself to be in violation of at least four articles of the ABM Treaty. The US hopes to persuade Russia to modify the ABM Treaty as the shield will be too thin for withstanding a Russian attack, but probably adequate against the other nuclear countries including China, and certainly all potential nuclear countries. Russia is of course aware that once such a shield is established, it can only be penetrated by numbers and has refused to ratify START II, rejected START III, and any further reduction of its stock pile. In essence, the National Missile Defence has unravelled the entire structure of even limited disarmament involved in START I, II, III and the ABM Treaty. The Theatre Missile Defence System that the US is proposing — around Japan and Taiwan, thus clearly directed against China — hardly qualifies as theatre defence. The US is now back to the theory of winnable nuclear wars from that of mutually assured destruction, at least against China and countries it considers “regional powers”.

The additional problem the authors face in asserting that the US regards nuclear weapons as astrategic is that no credible reason can then be advanced as to why the US is keen on persisting with its nuclear arsenal. Its overwhelming superiority in conventional arms today is far more pronounced than in nuclear weapons, where even a small arsenal provides a kind of parity. The far from satisfying answers the authors furnish to this question are “terrible intellectual inertia” and the concept of  “nuclearism.” Nuclearism, shorn of its verbiage, is the fascination that the elite allegedly has for the destructive power of the bomb, some of it spilling over into fondness for nuclear power as well. The problem the authors have is that giving a phenomenon a name may help describe it, but in no way explains it.

Nuclearism has been used in the West by those who do not want to address the issue of imperialism. The concept has been used not only to avoid addressing the imperialist nature of the US and its allies, but also to bring about a parity between the US and Soviet Union. While Bidwai and Vanaik do not use the same framework, their uncritical use of nuclearism creates a problem. In the discussion on the Nuclear Posture Review (1994) and Presidential Directive 60 (1995), for instance (pp. 40), these are attributed to nuclearism; while the preceding discussion includes both American-led western imperialism and nuclearism. This duality of framework has unresolved tensions throughout the discussions on the global context of nuclear weapons.

This raises an important point regarding deterrence theory. From a contemporary vantage point, deterrence theory is extremely dangerous and inherently unstable. But if we see that even today, its precursor and its strategic competitor is the theory of winnable nuclear wars, we will see that historically it was certainly an advance. In the 50’s, there were serious arguments, particularly in the US that nuclear wars are winnable; the consequence was an enormous increase in warheads – each country had to have enough capability to survive a nuclear first strike and “win”. Deterrence theory arose out of recognition that nuclear wars are not winnable; instead, stockpiles can be reduced. Underpinning such reduction was the commitment of both US and Soviet Union that they will not built defence shields – therefore the ABM Treaty of 1972.

Much of Bidwai and Vanaik’s understanding regarding what they call “Hesitant but New Disarmament Momentum after the Cold War” treats the post cold war scenario as an advance in disarmament terms. The evidence they have produced of an increased disarmament momentum is almost entirely restricted to non-nuclear countries. The only significant evidence of disarmament in nuclear countries, namely the reduction of stockpiles in the US and in Russia, has now come to a stop and is in the danger of being reversed.

On Indian nuclear developments, the authors have three broad classifications. The Nehru years are seen as years of abstinence; the Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and Narasimbha Rao period as one of ambiguity; and the BJP period as one of weaponisation. They hold that Nehru was not in favour of nuclear weapons, and the dual-purpose nature of the nuclear program – weapons capability and nuclear power – is laid at Bhabha’s door. That Bhabha was undoubtedly in favour of the bomb is now quite widely known. In private conversation[v], he was even open about the delivery system being his priority after the bomb, and hence the importance of the space program. However, people very close to Nehru have confirmed that Nehru was fully aware of what Bhabha was doing, and that developing weapons-capability was inherent in India’s nuclear program right from its inception. Nehru certainly was against going over to a bomb building program but evidence seems to suggest that he had been in favour of developing this capability.

The authors pin the decision to develop the bomb on Indira Gandhi in the year 1972. In the reviewer’s knowledge, this decision[vi] was taken in 1964 by Lal Bahadur Shastri. The dates are important: Pakistan took the decision to build the bomb in 1972, and if we accept the Indian date to be 1972 as well, we legitimise the claim of Indian nuclear hawks that the Indian bomb was a response to Pakistan’s decision and not vice versa. Since Bidwai and Vanaik have taken great pains to show that Pakistan’s nuclear program was reactive to the Indian one, the 1972 date for the Indian bomb given by them partially undermines their own arguments.

The questions addressed in the last portion of the book are crucial today. What is the path to global disarmament and what should the peace movement do? What unites the peace movement is abhorrence for nuclear weapons and the belief that the survival of humanity is incompatible with the continuation of nuclear weapons. Bidwai and Vanaik advocate a unilateral disarmament agenda. Given their moral outrage against the bomb, they are not prepared to countenance the possibility of any country ever building the bomb — the Soviet Union, China etc. — or that India should have developed bomb making capability. For Bidwai and Vanaik, unilateral disarmament “is always and everywhere (in any and every NWS) as a morally and politically appropriate principle of struggle.” In the specific context of India, they advocate a variant of the same: bilateral disarmament between India and Pakistan (pp.264).

The problem with the above is that it suggests that there is only one road to disarmament — the royal one they are travelling. If we go back in history, the US had already used nuclear weapons, not once but twice, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in what many have termed as the first act of the Cold War[vii]. They had a clear strategic doctrine that nuclear weapons would be used against the Soviet Union, even in a pre-emptive strike. It is the height of “presentism” to argue that the Soviet Union’s development of the bomb was morally and ethically wrong under such circumstances. The “morality” of allowing the US to bomb the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons, which was a distinct possibility then, must have weighed heavily with the Soviet leaders in their decision to make the bomb. That nuclear weapons do not provide enduring deterrence, as Bidwai and Vanaik correctly argue, does not negate the fact that it may have stopped a possible use of nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. Finally, it is the growth of the peace movement that made the use of nuclear weapons illegitimate, and not American realisation that nuclear weapons are astrategic. It is the Chinese strategic thinking that deterrence does not have to be the ability to destroy the enemy many times over but only inflict unacceptable damage that led to a further development of deterrence theory and the Chinese restricting themselves to a much smaller arsenal. It was the failure of Soviet strategic thinking that they led themselves into a race with the US to produce an arsenal that was to de-legitimise them internationally and bankrupt them domestically.

The Chinese advance in deterrence theory, judged from a contemporary standpoint, may again appear to be seriously flawed. However, both the Soviets and the Chinese positions have to be examined historically, as should the Indian decision in the 50’s to embed nuclear weapon building capability in the nuclear power program. Weaponising today, with the last 50 years of history with its record of the danger of deterrence behind us, makes little sense.

This brings us to the two contentious issues. One of course is Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); the other, the disarmament trajectory. The CTBT debate has had two different premises. In one framework, CTBT is looked upon as a test explosion ban treaty, in the other as an extension of NPT. The bomb lobby in India has used both these arguments. Before Pokhran II, they argued that India should not sign the CTBT and participate in the global discriminatory nuclear regime. Now the same “strategic experts” are promoting the idea that as India has conducted enough tests, there is no harm in signing this treaty and joining the nuclear powers in the same discriminatory regime. Thus, for the bomb lobby, the signing of CTBT is for legitimising India’s status as a junior member of the nuclear club.

Bidwai and Vanaik  regard CTBT as test explosion treaty and gloss over the fact that it is an integral part of the NPT regime – a regime they themselves consider illegitimate. Even though CTBT places the same obligations on all member signatories in formal terms, the effects of such obligations are profoundly different on the nuclear and non-nuclear countries. Signing the CTBT without a time-bound disarmament commitment by nuclear powers, will not lead to any additional pressure on the US to disarm and will help countries fall in line with the global objectives of US. The US’s cavalier treatment of the binding obligation of Article VI of NPT, signed in 1968, (that nuclear states should disarm), as well as their reneging on the guarantee given before the extension of NPT in 1995 to non-nuclear states, (no use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states) show little belief in the success of such a disarmament strategy. The proposition that Bidwai and Vanaik have to seriously examine is that American acceptance of disarmament will be effected only through moral outrage and hard bargaining. Bringing only moral outrage to the negotiating table will achieve little.

One of the weaknesses of the book is Bidwai and Vanaik’s construction of positions of others and presenting it as if these are their stated positions. Thus, the organised left – according to the authors — is supposed to believe in “nuclear imperialism” and allegedly supports India’s bomb making capability due to misguided “nuclear nationalism”. No source is cited for the above claims for these left “beliefs”, nor is any attempt made to explain to the reader that this is the authors’ interpretation of the left position. The straw man thus created, can then be “demolished”, at least to the satisfaction of the authors, even if such a process of argumentation is patently unfair.

The argument for nuclear sanity that Bidwai and Vanaik advance makes it imperative that the subject is treated with fairness. Leaving out some important events and presenting major positions such as astrategic, nuclear imperialism, etc., without supporting evidence, does mar somewhat an otherwise excellent effort. A more tightly edited account would have taken care of some repetitions and enhanced the value of the book. But these blemishes do not obscure the importance of the book for either peace activists or those interested in international relations. In today’s troubled times, against the backdrop of India’s descent into nuclear madness, Bidwai and Vanaik remain important and sane voices.


[i] The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb, Itty Abraham, Zed Books, London and Orient and Longman, 1998; Riding the Nuclear Tiger, N.Ram, Leftword, New Delhi, 1999; India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation, George Perkovich, Univ. California Press, 1999.

[ii] Post-Cold War Conflict Deterrence, Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications, 1997, pp 1.

[iii] Nuclear Futures: Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and US Nuclear Strategy, British American Security Information Council (BASIC), BASIC Research Report 98.2, 1998, Appendix 2, pp. 33.

[iv] The New Military Humanism, Noam Chomski, Common Courage Press, 1999.

[v] The reviewer has had detailed discussions with Dr. Arun Ghosh who was in the Indian Embassy in Washington at that time. Bhabha had told him that after the bomb, was the need for a delivery system and therefore his next interest in developing the space (and therefore the missile) program.

[vi] Unfortunately, the source for Bidwai and Vanaik as well for the reviewer for the two dates are same. This is private discussions with the late P.N.Haksar. However, the reviewer’s 1964 date is based on the decision by Lal Bahadur Shastri clearing an underground nuclear explosion; it is also mentioned by K. Subramanyam in his piece in Nuclear India, Jasjit Singh (ed.), Knowledge World, 1998. Subramanyam says that Shashtri cleared a proposal by Dr. Bhabha on investigating a Subterranean Nuclear Explosion Project ( pp. 27). 1964 is also widely used in Western documents on the Indian nuclear program as the decisive date.

[vii] The Meaning of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, N.D. Jayprakash, Delhi Science Forum and Kerala Sastra Parishad, 1990.