The political cloud produced by India's and Pakistan's nuclear tests has one silver lining. The outside world is finally being forced to take seriously both the security concerns of the regional nations and the bitterness of their rivalries. But will the response be adequate? This will largely determine whether the aftermath of the tests is progress toward resolving the root causes of conflict in South Asia or instead the start of a dangerous and unpredictable Second Nuclear Age.
For three decades, the world rested with the false comfort that there were only five nuclear powers, each with other claims to international power and permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council. Yet it was long presumed that India and Pakistan either could build nuclear weapons rapidly or had already done so and needed no tests before using them, at least as a last resort. Each quietly took account of the other's potential, while proponents of nonproliferation chose to ignore the obvious in the interests of stemming a broader spread of nuclear weapons.
What India and Pakistan have done is thus less about creating new military capabilities than turning speculation into certainty. But why? For India, prestige was a factor, the desire to be taken more seriously on the world stage. Yet much more had to be involved. "Going nuclear," in fact, imposes major burdens, in part because it frightens neighbors in all directions and draws the wrath of the current nuclear states. For both India and Pakistan, the answer lies in their rising concerns with national security. And the outside world's response must take full account of that fact.
For India, the end of the Cold War included the loss of its Soviet patron, which served to balance both China and America. Now China's ambitions toward the subcontinent are growing, and they are expressed in part through military support for Pakistan. Islamabad, meanwhile, continues working to make Afghanistan a client state rather than a regional buffer. For its part, Pakistan labors with the memory of two disastrous wars with India since partition--one of which robbed it of what is now Bangladesh--and it knows it cannot match India's conventional military power. Pakistan also sees the rise of Indian ambitions, including Delhi's creation of a blue-water navy and pretensions to dominate the Indian Ocean. At the same time, the conflict over Kashmir continues and, at a less rational level, the role of religion in both states' national politics reinforces tensions between them.
All these risks to stability in the subcontinent existed before the recent escalation in both nuclear weapons and the critical means of delivering them. But these weapons do make things different, and not just because of their power and the complex and politically demanding doctrines of deterrence and decision-making that attend their possession. Even if India has demonstrated its nuclear capability primarily because of China, Pakistan could not ignore the added risk to itself. In turn, Pakistan's actions have increased security fears elsewhere, including in next-door Iran, and they could even resurrect concerns about an "Islamic bomb," with implications throughout the Middle East. And the West is being shocked out of its post-Cold War assumption that great distance from South Asia permitted great indifference.
Against this background, it is not surprising that political appeals and moral suasion from around the globe had no effect on either Delhi or Islamabad. Nor are after-the-fact economic sanctions of much benefit, since both India and Pakistan knew full well--and obviously discounted--what the U.S. response would be. In fact, congressionally mandated sanctions, while understandable, inhibit direct U.S. engagement with both countries in trying to keep them from completing the work of creating nuclear arsenals, including the most dangerous ability to threaten each other's weapons.
The five traditional nuclear powers, meeting in Geneva on Thursday, pressed India and Pakistan to accept limits on what they do next and to begin accepting the responsibilities demanded of nuclear states. But these nuclear imperatives must not deflect the great powers from the more basic work of dealing with underlying security issues. Only the United States has the reach and the resources to take the lead, and it must do so. It needs to foster international engagement with both India and Pakistan and with all their affected neighbors, including the full range of security concerns that reach across the far-flung but interconnected region from the Middle East across South Asia and into China--an area two decades ago dubbed the "arc of crisis" and that is now living up to that dubious distinction. With India, this will also require a special effort to overcome the strange but persistent history of American and Indian surliness in dealing with each other.
The current crisis requires a coherent strategy and sustained, long-term effort that encompasses all these countries and critical factors of security. Each of the major regional states must be brought to understand the reciprocal security needs of its neighbors. Conventional as well as nuclear arms control must be pursued. The first steps should be taken toward creating an inclusive regional security system. Kashmir should become a major object of great power, including U.S., mediation.
In addition, President Clinton should change his agenda for his forthcoming visit to China and be prepared to launch a strategic dialogue with Beijing, beyond appeals for restraint in its own actions, as part of a far-reaching, comprehensive strategy that is carried simultaneously by U.S. Cabinet officers to Delhi, Islamabad, Moscow and other capitals. This is the necessary beginning of efforts to deal with the corrosive, root problems of security and power across South Asia and to forestall the Second Nuclear Age.