Nuclear Saber-Rattling Helps Blow Off Steam

Published June 4, 2002

The Los Angeles Times

Strange as it may seem, a little nuclear saber-rattling over the Kashmir conflict may be a good thing. During the last two weeks, the leaders of India and Pakistan have brandished their nuclear-tipped missiles and made veiled threats to use them. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee have felt compelled to look and act fearsome.

Like animals that show their fangs or inflate themselves with air to appear more menacing to adversaries, both men have resorted to this hallowed ritual of political rivals, which more often than not has prevented a deadly showdown.

Leaders of the U.S., Britain, Russia and China have warned of a possible 12 million immediate deaths in a nuclear exchange. India’s nuclear force is substantially larger than Pakistan’s, though each has the capacity to destroy one another’s capital. To underscore their concern, Washington and other governments have ordered or strongly recommended the evacuation of their nationals from India and Pakistan. With all this noise, sometimes bordering on hysteria, one might conclude that we are on the verge of a catastrophic nuclear war. But we are not. The well-documented history of the nuclear era–and virtually all other evidence–suggests that such a war will not erupt. The provocative words on both sides are part of an elaborate ritual.

Now, as always, leaders confronting a crisis communicate with one another not only through quiet diplomatic channels but also by a public ritualized code. This coded confrontation is often a substitute for lethal conflict, a kind of foreplay that can end in a fragile peace if not in a mutual embrace.

Such brinkmanship has had an honored place in the nuclear era. Over the weekend, brinkmanship began to bear fruit in the softened rhetoric on both sides.

Musharraf said that nuclear war was unthinkable. Neither “side is that irresponsible,” and no “sane individual” should even think of initiating such a war, “whatever the pressures.”

He called for a no-war pact with India and the elimination of nukes from South Asia.

The Indian prime minister said India will not use nuclear weapons first, but he saw no immediate need for a face-to-face meeting with Pakistan’s president.

For its part, Washington is dispatching Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other officials to the region to caution restraint. Though not publicly announced, they will also recommend ways for each side to tighten its control and safeguard systems to minimize an accidental launch.

More important than the immediate posturing by India and Pakistan is the fact that both sides are increasingly aware of the lessons learned by Washington and Moscow since the dawn of the nuclear era. Many of those who studied in the U.S. have adopted the esoteric vocabulary of the nuclear balance. Among the understandings they learned are these:

* The atom-bombing of Japan in 1945 was a one-time measure, tragic but justified because it ended a brutal war and saved up to a million lives, mostly Japanese.

* Shortly after the Soviet Union acquired the atom bomb, both Washington and Moscow realized that the basic purpose of their respective stockpiles was to prevent their use. As it turned out, the delicate nuclear balance of terror also prevented a conventional war.

* The 1962 Cuban missile crisis demonstrated the stabilizing impact of nuclear deterrence and reinforced the tendency of the superpowers to rely on less-lethal means for managing conflict. Further, President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev negotiated by deeds without the necessity for face-to-face talks.

* After the Soviet Union fell, the threat of nuclear war receded even further. Both sides increasingly recognized the merit of minimum deterrence, the view that each side needed only enough nuclear weapons to make a first strike against it too costly to the other. What rational Kremlin leader would initiate a nuclear attack if he assumed millions of his people would perish in retaliation?

To what extent have the leaders of India and Pakistan internalized these vital lessons? And do they have the requisite attributes–common sense, prudence and courage–to resist the passions of the moment? I believe they do.

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