Published July 1, 1999
To the Editor:
In May 1998, the United States and over a hundred other governments castigated India and Pakistan for conducting nuclear tests, accelerating an arms race, and jeopardizing peace on the Indian subcontinent. The Clinton administration in particular scolded them for flouting the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott characterized as “part of the bedrock of the international system” that had put “a brake on what would otherwise have been a juggernaut of nuclear proliferation” (“Dealing with the Bomb in South Asia,” March/April 1999).
These and other administration statements on the India-Pakistan situation reflect a profound American ambiguity over the morality, possession, and use of nuclear weapons that has been evident since their very inception. The common view that nuclear weapons represent a radically new and evil force in history, however, is only half right: the force was new but not evil. Early in the superpowers’ nuclear confrontation, Winston Churchill correctly predicted that “safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.” His prescience may very well apply to South Asia as well.
The Cold War demonstrated that the moral and political consequences of nuclear arms—like any other military technology—cannot be separated from the purposes they serve. The two superpowers recognized, moreover, that they were simultaneously political adversaries and strategic allies who shared an interest in preventing nuclear war. U.S. presidents generally understood this and rejected the simple demonization of nuclear weapons in favor of deterrence and political prudence.
Talbott dismisses the contention, advanced by both India and Pakistan, that “their tests will usher in an extended period of nuclear stability in South Asia comparable to the one that preserved the peace between the United States and the Soviet Union.” But in February a scant seven months after the South Asian nuclear tests, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee traveled to Pakistan to discuss with his Pakistani counterpart Mohammad Nawaz Sharif the contentious issue of Kashmir–over which the two countries had fought two wars in their first, nonnuclear, quarter-century. The two leaders pledged to “intensify their efforts to resolve all issues” and take immediate steps to reduce the risk of unauthorized use of nuclear weapons.
The Clinton administration has repeatedly implored India and Pakistan to forswear further tests and trade in their nuclear-related technologies. Such abstinence might be admirable were a nation not confronted by hostile nuclear-armed neighbors. But the administration should recognize that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan can serve—indeed, already has served—as a mutual deterrent. Instead of vainly pressing these new nuclear powers to abandon their weapons, the United States should instead encourage them to limit the size and improve the safety of their arsenals and to regard their own “delicate balance of terror” as a compelling incentive to emulate the discipline and restraint that maintained great-power peace during the Cold War.
Ernest W. Lefever
Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center
Washington, D. C