Nuclear Deterrence Is a Western Illusion

Edward M. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington

Can deterrence prevent a nuclear war between India and Pakistan? After all, it did even more than that for the United States and the Soviet Union. The latter avoided not only a nuclear war but even the smallest armed clash throughout the Cold War, in their shared fear that any fighting might escalate out of control. Unfortunately, that most reassuring precedent is irrelevant.

Some differences are obvious. There was no history of past wars and popular hatred between Americans and Russians. True, the ideological confrontation was intense until the 1970s, but both communism and democratic capitalism were optimistic ideologies that promised global victory without need of war.

By contrast, the very existence of both India and Pakistan as separate states is the result of popular hatred between Hindu and Muslim. And they have fought three wars as well as countless border skirmishes. Also obvious is the geographic difference: The United States and the Soviet Union had no common border, let alone any fierce territorial disputes. There was therefore no possibility of an automatic escalation from border clashes to local warfare leading to nuclear war.

India and Pakistan not only share a long common border, but their territories actually overlap in the high mountains of northern Kashmir. The entire vast territory of Jammu and Kashmir is claimed by both sides.

But perhaps the less obvious differences are more important. Nuclear deterrence requires a peculiar reversal of normal human attitudes. To be dissuaded by the fear of nuclear retaliation, potential aggressors must be prudent calculators, and prudence is not the normal characteristic of aggressors. Potential victims, on the other hand, must be fanatically determined to punish a nuclear attack by retaliation, even after it cannot possibly save themselves from catastrophic destruction.

One reason why American and Soviet leaders were able to play this very demanding game was that both could make strategic decisions in a deliberate and calculated manner, shielded from mob pressures or military challenges to civilian rule. The American political system had the ironclad stability of an intensely legalistic constitutional democracy. The Soviet system did not, yet was amazingly stable: During the Cold War, four out of five Kremlin chiefs died in office of old age--security of tenure can hardly exceed that ultimate limit. (The exception, Nikita Khrushchev, was removed precisely because he had failed to act in a sufficiently deliberate and calculated manner.) Moreover, the state structures of each side also were secure, neither being threatened by separatist violence, incipient civil wars or even social fragmentation.

Finally, during the earlier years when the Cold War was new and potentially most dangerous, leaders on both sides had just had the supreme education of waging a world war--and on the same side. All this meant that leaders could act prudently in crises without being driven out of office by mobs or insurgent generals; for that matter, they could act as boldly as John Kennedy did during the Cuba missile crisis, without being forced to desist by a terrorized public.

By contrast, the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party of India, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Home Minister L.K. Advani, as well as the non-BJP Defense Minister George Fernandes, have no real foreign policy experience, and they evidently ignore the advice of their highly professional soldiers and diplomats--most opposed the nuclear tests. Moreover, BJP is very deliberately extremist: Only by maximizing external conflict to muster a forced national unity can it remain in power, having won only 46% of the parliamentary seats with only 25% of the popular vote. In fact, the BJP itself is deeply divided along caste lines, and in recent years caste rivalries have led to much violence. That India remains on the whole a solid and democratic state is of little help to avert a slide to nuclear war now that it is governed by recklessly aggressive leaders.

As for Pakistan, its leaders seem far more prudent, but that too is of little help because its entire ruling elite is demoralized by pervasive corruption and extreme factionalism. Moreover, Pakistan also is deeply divided on regional lines, with superimposed ethnic and religious animosities that often erupt in deadly violence. Hence even prudent leaders must operate in a climate of extreme instability. They evidently cannot resist mob demands and are vulnerable to a military coup if they show weakness toward India.

All this makes an uncontrolled escalation from border clashes to local and then general war all too likely. Or if Pakistan breaks up into regional states, there may be no organized war with India, but its "Islamic bomb" still might be used--or sold--by whatever group remains in control of the nuclear installations.

The post-Cold War era of reduced danger has turned out to be short indeed.

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