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July 3, 2016

Rethinking deterrence stability


July 3, 2016

Nuclear deterrence has been a central element of Pakistan’s national security policy since the advent of the nuclear age in South Asia. Pakistan’s view of deterrence stability is straightforward: persuade India that the risks associated with any proposed action like the Indian Army’s Cold Start doctrine far outweigh any gains that it might hope to achieve.

To make its deterrence credibility credible, Pakistan has relatively small but the fastest growing arsenal of strategic and tactical nuclear forces. Nuclear advocates believe that the spread of nuclear weapons to South Asia has limited the scope of conventional conflict because victory in a nuclear war between Pakistan and India is too dangerous to fight for.

This view is based on the rational deterrence theory – that states behave rationally at all times and if one state threatens to retaliate with nuclear weapons, the other state will not attack. However, what is generally overlooked is that nuclear weapons decisions are not made by an abstract entity named state. Instead, as a matter of fact, emotional, imperfect individuals make these decisions.

Leaders sometimes have a tendency to rely too heavily on one piece of information and, thus, make hasty decisions based upon their emotional state. In Pakistan, the military has traditionally played its role as a political force in domestic politics. This has caused a total subordination of political forces to military authority, resulting in a lack of civilian control over nuclear policy.

Quite alarmingly, military generals are believed to be more risk-acceptant than civilian leaders. The hostile-aggressive behaviour of some Indian leaders, along with a demonstrated inability to minimise the probability of conflict adds a heavy dose of uncertainty to the evolution of nuclear order in the region.

The deterrence theory was shaped by the bipolar rivalry for world power during the early years of the cold-war period. Cold war focus was almost entirely on deterrence through the threat of retaliation even in the unlikely event of a surprise attack. The cold war is over but the nuclear deterrence preferences of foreign policy elites remain the same.

Nuclear proponents in Pakistan argue that the presence of nuclear weapons have enormous potential to ensure success in political negotiations while preventing all sorts of conventional or nuclear attacks. However, what they fail to recognise is that South Asia’s security environment is fundamentally different from that of the cold-war era. Deterrence in the South Asian context can only work the way it did in the cold war if we have a perfect understanding of what opposing leaders value.

Another problem with deterrence stability is that you can know if it fails but not if it works. Deterrence mostly exists as a psychological phenomenon and there is very little empirical evidence to establish its efficacy. Many theorists agree that it is the one being deterred who decides if deterrence works.

The one being deterred must believe the one trying to deter has both the capability and the will to impose the penalty – this implies they must be aware of the deterrent approach. The penalty has to matter to the country being deterred. The one being deterred must believe that inaction in acceptable.

Deterrence should be based on capability, credibility, and communication to ensure greater effectiveness. Opponents may never have intended to do what you are trying to do. Or opponents may not do it for a completely different reason. Convincing someone not to do something (deterrence) does not mean you can convince then to do something (compellence).

Ward Wilson, a famous nuclear expert and director of the Rethinking Nuclear Weapons Project, is of the view that nuclear deterrence is an unsound basis for the national security policy because it is neither as effective at political persuasion nor as capable of influencing military conflicts as many proponents of nuclear weapons would have us believe.

For total reliance on the nuclear deterrence strategy, it has to be prefect but historical records show that deterrence could work only in a few cases. Even a single case of failure has the potential to lead to a nuclear war. More alarmingly, deterrence threats, due to their inherently uncertain nature, sometimes lead enemy nations to behave in ways that are quite inimical to achieving the goal of deterring aggression.

The Cuban missile crisis is another case often cited to support the idea of nuclear deterrence. It is generally believed that the nuclear deterrent was the main factor that brought back the US and the Soviet Union from the brink of a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. When the information regarding the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba became known, though US President Kennedy knew that by blockading Cuba he would touch off a crisis that could lead to nuclear war, he went ahead undeterred.

The fact is that the Soviet Union’s decision to withdraw nuclear missiles may be regarded as supporting the nuclear deterrence theory but Kennedy’s reaction does not support the theory. In 2008, Michael Dobbs, a British politician, wrote an insightful book titled, ‘One Minute to Midnight’, revealing that the Cuban missile crisis came very close to a nuclear war at least three separate times during those decisive days and nuclear war was averted not by the efficient functioning of nuclear deterrence, but just ‘by chance’.

In a nutshell, the idea of nuclear deterrence is too fragile to be relied upon and the fear of massive nuclear retaliation is not always able to prevent countries from taking the course of action they want. The emerging threat of nuclear terrorism is also a question mark on the efficacy of nuclear deterrence in South Asia because terrorist groups hardly take well–thought-out rational decisions, as states are believed to take.

The continued existence of nuclear weapons is also the reason for their gradual spread. So long as even one country has nuclear capability, others will also want to acquire that status.

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