Cold War in a Hot Climate

Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin interrupted their tour of St. Petersburg to warn against it. Colin Powell has already been to India and Pakistan to prevent it. Powell’s deputy, Richard Armitage, is now heading off to Delhi and Islamabad as well. Yesterday Pakistan promised to respond “with full might” if attacked by India—and today it tested another ballistic missile. But should we really be worried about nuclear war on the subcontinent?

Or perhaps I should put it differently: Is India’s nuclear rivalry with Pakistan completely unlike the old nuclear rivalry between United States and the Soviet Union—is it so unique, in fact, that Cold-War-style nuclear deterrence between the two rivals is destined to fail? Consider the arguments as to why it is and it will—or maybe not.

1) India and Pakistan share a common border, along which minor conflagrations might easily turn into a major war—indeed, there has been shelling across the border for some days now. The United States and the USSR did not.

In fact, even though the United States and the USSR did not have a common border, NATO and the Warsaw pact shared many common borders, along which there were many minor conflagrations, some of which seemed, at the time, just as likely to develop into nuclear war—the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Berlin airlift, for example.

2) The Indians and the Pakistanis have built up fewer confidence-building measures—hotlines and so on. Therefore, the chances of accidents and misunderstandings leading to nuclear warfare are greater.

In fact, the U.S.-USSR hotline—a direct telephone link between the White House and the Kremlin—was created only in 1963. Both before then and after misunderstandings arose constantly. At the height of the Suez crisis in 1956, NATO radar picked up Soviet aircraft flying over Syria and Turkey. These turned out to be a routine escort for the Syrian president and a flock of swans, respectively. At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, a Soviet satellite accidentally exploded, leading the United States briefly to believe the USSR had launched a massive missile attack. Similar incidents were far more frequent than is usually realized—you can read  a list of the 20 most famous “mishaps that might have led to nuclear war”—yet none actually did lead to nuclear war.

3) The Indians and the Pakistanis have less experience with nuclear weapons and do not fully understand the consequences of a nuclear war.      

This argument, which strikes me as borderline racist, appeared in the British Guardian newspaper, of all places. “The trouble is,” a South Asia military analyst told the paper, “both sides imagine that a nuclear bomb just makes a bigger bang. They have got no concept of the sheer magnitude of the disaster of a nuclear exchange. Radioactive fallout in the Himalayas would mean the death of the subcontinent.” But presumably, if India and Pakistan are technologically sophisticated enough to build bombs, then at least their scientists are technologically sophisticated enough to understand the environmental consequences of the bomb. Indeed, some Indian scientists now lobby against the bomb; so do anti-nuclear movements in both India and Pakistan. Perhaps only a relatively tiny elite understands the full consequences—but only a tiny elite makes decisions about whether to drop bombs anyway.

4) The Indians and the Pakistanis are crazier than the Americans and the Soviets (this argument, an extension of the previous one, is usually put more delicately, but you know what I mean).

To this there is one response: Richard Nixon. He may have conducted a diplomatic breakthrough in China, he may have known a thing or two about foreign policy, but the man was mad as a hatter. As this is not the time and place to discuss his paranoia or his inferiority complexes, I will leave you with one salient fact about him: From time to time, Nixon would suddenly put U.S. forces around the world on high-security alert, scramble the planes, ratchet up the coded transmissions just to keep the Soviets on their toes. Crazy, yes—but even he managed not to destroy the world.

5) Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has begun to use very threatening language. “We do not want war,” he said yesterday, “but if war is thrust upon us, we would respond with full might.”

In fact, threats are as essential to effective nuclear deterrence as the missiles themselves, and we shouldn’t necessarily be put off by them. Indeed, Khrushchev’s boasts about the USSR’s (nonexistent) nuclear prowess actually convinced the United States, at one point, of the existence of a “missile gap.” In the current conflict too, saber-rattling has its uses: If India really believes Pakistan will fight back with nuclear weapons, then it will be less likely to launch a full-blooded invasion of Pakistan in the first place. Pakistan’s ballistic-missile testing falls in the same category: It might prevent war just as easily as it might encourage war.

6) The Indian nuclear arsenal is larger, and the Pakistanis do not pose a credible counter-threat. The Indians might therefore be tempted to use their nuclear weapons first.

At the moment, the Indian army, which is far bigger than the Pakistani army, is committed to a no-first-use policy. India would, by all accounts, win any conventional war rather quickly, so it has no need to use nuclear weapons first. In any case, estimates of India’s “prowess” range widely (from 40 to 250 warheads) as do estimates of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal (from 20 to 150 warheads). What matters, again, is not the sheer numbers, but that both sides fear that the other can inflict huge damages. The projections—12 million dead on the first day of nuclear exchange—are indeed huge and should be enough to make both sides think twice. That is the admittedly insane essence of deterrence: a “balance of terror.”

7) Even so, the United States and the USSR went to the brink of nuclear conflict several times, just barely managing to avoid it. Why should we be so certain that the various accidents and flukes and misunderstandings won’t have a different outcome this time?

We shouldn’t—which is why the situation remains very, very dangerous. My point, in writing all this, is not to deny the hazards of the current South Asian hostilities or to downplay what would be a horrific tragedy if the conflict did come to nuclear exchange. My point is merely that it is too early to forget about the psychology and tactics of the Cold War or to dismiss them as part of another, more irrational era. They are going to be used again—and so far, there is no evidence that Indians and Pakistanis will behave any more irresponsibly than we so often did ourselves.