Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Tall Claim, Little Evidence (that Nuclear deterrence keeps India and Pakistan from going to war)

Expand Messages
  • Harsh Kapoor
    The Economic and Political Weekly December 10, 2005 Reviews TALL CLAIM, LITTLE EVIDENCE Fearful Symmetry: India-Pakistan Crises in the Shadow of Nuclear
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 29 4:23 PM
      The Economic and Political Weekly
      December 10, 2005


      Fearful Symmetry: India-Pakistan Crises in the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons
      by Sumit Ganguly and Devin Hagerty;
      Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005;
      pp 223, Rs 495.
      M V Ramana

      In the 1921 film, The Kid, Charlie Chaplin plays a window repairman with
      a partner in business – Jackie Coogan, who plays the Kid. Their modus
      operandi is that Coogan goes around breaking windows and Chaplin comes
      by a few minutes later with a selection of window glass, as if by
      accident, and gets hired to fix them. To those who do not catch on to
      what is happening, it would seem that Chaplin is indeed a saviour.
      According to Sumit Ganguly and Devin Hagerty in Fearful Symmetry:
      India-Pakistan Crises in the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons, nuclear weapons
      play a role in south Asia that is, in many ways, similar to Chaplin’s
      role. What is left out, however, is an examination of how the same
      nuclear weapons also play the role essayed by Coogan.

      Before one examines why this is the case, a brief summary of the book is
      in order. Ganguly and Hagerty attempt to come up with a “comprehensive
      analysis of Indo-Pakistani crisis behaviour in south Asia’s nuclear
      era…comprehensive in the sense of covering all of the crises, major and
      minor”. The authors consider six crises between 1984 and 2002. All but
      one of these were resolved without war; the exception is Kargil, 1999.
      The authors then go on to ask: why have these six crises been resolved
      short of major war? The answer sought to this question is purely within
      the ambit of their chosen theoretical perspective on international
      relations: realism. Realism, by and large, leaves out domestic factors
      in its explanations. According to realists, states are obsessed with
      maximising their “security”, defined almost exclusively in military
      terms. Within this narrow perspective, the authors examine three
      possible strands of explanation: unipolarity theory, nuclear deterrence
      theory and conventional deterrence theory. The authors conclude that
      “the nuclear-deterrence proposition provides the strongest explanation
      for the absence of major war in the region over the last two decades,
      especially in the four crises beginning with that of 1990. US
      intervention in the form of crisis management sometimes played a
      secondary, but important, role” (p 11).

      For a book that promises so much, Fearful Symmetry falls very short. The
      problems with it start early – as soon as the authors state their three
      propositions to be tested (pp 8-10), each of which starts with the
      fundamental but flawed assumption, that the Indian and Pakistani
      governments had “compelling incentives to attack one another during the
      crises under examination”. If one were to examine each of these crises,
      in practically all cases the argument for not going to war is obvious
      (unless going to war is assumed to be sort of the natural and default
      inclination). In none of the cases were there any compelling incentives
      to attack. Indeed the overwhelming incentives were to not attack. That
      most of these so-called crises are dismissed as insignificant by many
      senior political leaders underscores the point that an attack was not
      actively contemplated at the highest levels.

      The lack of incentive to attack is especially true of India, whose
      actions bear a certain resemblance to what historian Paul Kennedy said
      of Britain during the years between the first and second world war,
      “these were the actions of a country with nothing to gain, and much to
      lose, by being involved in war. Peace, in such circumstances, was the
      greatest of national interests” (P Kennedy (1981), The Realities behind
      Diplomacy, Allen and Unwin, London).

      No Evidence

      Even if one were to go along with the authors and assume that there were
      compelling incentives to attack, then what is needed to substantiate the
      contention that nuclear deterrence was the primary if not sole
      preventive factor is evidence of senior policy makers and military
      explicitly pointing to the possibility of nuclear retaliation as the
      reason to call off their attack plans. This kind of evidence is just not
      provided in the book. One might argue that this is setting the bar too
      high – but with an issue as grave as nuclear weaponry, with the likely
      consequences being so catastrophic, less will simply not do. The burden
      of proof rests upon those who make claims about nuclear weapons and
      their capacity to deter war, and the authors do not shoulder this burden

      Take the 2001-02 crisis for example. Was India really planning to go to
      full-scale war in 2002? It would seem that such a course would be akin
      to burning the house to kill the mice. Burning the neighbour’s house, in
      this case. What one does know about mice and burnt houses is that the
      mice do not go away. Similarly, it would be foolish to assume that an
      assault on Pakistan would actually end the problem of militancy in
      Kashmir. This is clear to many senior military personnel. In the words
      of major general (retd) Ashok K Mehta, “the paramount reason for India’s
      “restraint” was the knowledge that any military action would not achieve
      the political objective of stopping cross border terrorism. It would
      inflict punishment but not extract total compliance within the threshold
      of limited war, the gains from which were estimated to be of doubtful
      utility. The cardinal principle of war (which is the failure of
      diplomacy) is that you don’t start it unless you are sure you can end it
      by being better off” (Ashok K Mehta (2003), ‘India was on Brink of War
      Twice’, Rediff on the Net, January 2, also available at

      More important for the purposes of examining the thesis of Ganguly and
      Hagerty, he also goes on to state, “India chose not to cross the Rubicon
      for other reasons. Pakistan’s military and nuclear deterrence was not
      one of them”. Mehta is not the only military leader to make this point.
      Another example is general V P Malik, former chief of army staff, who
      stated that nuclear weapons were largely irrelevant for conventional
      warfare and played no deterrent role during the Kargil war or in the
      2002 crisis.

      It is also worth pointing out the contradictory nature of the claims
      made about the efficacy of nuclear deterrence in south Asia (Achin
      Vanaik (2002), ‘Deterrence or a Deadly Game? Nuclear Propaganda and
      Reality in South Asia’, Disarmament Diplomacy, September, (66). On the
      one hand, prime minister Vajpayee claimed that the 2002 crisis showed
      that India had, in effect, successfully called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff.
      On the other hand, Abdul Kalam claimed that nuclear weapons had averted
      any kind of war. (Embarrassingly, this was in essence the same claim as
      that made by Pakistani president Musharraf and contrary to what prime
      minister Vajpayee was saying). Military leaders like V P Malik, as
      mentioned, felt nuclear weapons played no role.

      There is a corollary to all this counter-evidence about the irrelevance
      of nuclear deterrence. Despite knowing fully well that the other side is
      armed with nuclear weapons, capable of inflicting immense damage, the
      fact that senior military personnel and political leaders do and did
      contemplate war suggests that nuclear arsenals do not come with some
      objective property called deterrence. (Aside: Those who speak of a
      “deterrent” are guilty of reification, treating an abstraction as if it
      substantially existed as a concrete material object.)

      Raising the Ante

      Realists try to get around this problem by asserting that wars in the
      presence of nuclear weapons will only be limited ones, with clear
      thresholds that are not crossed. Again the weight of evidence is against
      them: if circumstances demanded it, each and every threshold will be
      crossed. Within the south Asian context, senior military officers have
      sought to “up the ante” on many occasions, and succeeded in the task on
      some of those occasions. For example, on p 154, the authors describe the
      events between May 18 and 24, 1999, during the Kargil war, when the
      Indian army sought the help of the air force. On May 18, the cabinet
      committee on security (CCS) recommended against the use of airpower,
      since it constituted an escalation and an enlargement of the scope of
      the conflict, and refused permission. A few days later on May 24, after
      visits to army headquarters in Kashmir, the army chief tried again and
      this time was successful in persuading the CCS to escalate the conflict.
      The air force carried out the first air strikes on May 26. While
      Pakistan did not respond in kind, partly because it was anxious to keep
      up the deception that the attackers were Mujahideen, under other
      circumstances it may well order air strikes of its own.

      Though nuclear weapons cannot be credited with preventing war, they are
      certainly responsible for destabilising the region and provoking crises.
      India and Pakistan have had more military crises over the last 20 years
      than any other 20 year period. This propensity for crises among nuclear
      weapon states is what was alluded to when discussing Jackie Coogan’s
      role in ‘The Kid’. Even realists sometimes admit to this property; the
      best known formulation is Glenn Snyder’s Stability Instability Paradox
      (a paradox only if nuclear weapons are assumed to induce stability).
      What realists are generally loath to admit is that some of these crises
      may develop into a major war, either because events spin out of control
      or because of accidents, which are especially prone to be misinterpreted
      as acts of war at times of crises.

      In south Asia, nuclear weapons can take credit for more than causing
      crises – their presence was responsible for the Kargil war, estimated to
      have cost at least 1,714 Indian lives and 772 Pakistani ones. Plans for
      a Kargil-style operation had been hatched by the Pakistani military much
      earlier; in 1996, military officers were confident enough of these plans
      that they presented it to Benazir Bhutto, the prime minister of
      Pakistan. But she vetoed the idea. With the 1998 tests and the presence
      of a nuclear arsenal in Pakistan demonstrated beyond doubt, the
      operation could not be vetoed, even by Nawaz Sharif, who was politically
      much stronger than Benazir Bhutto when it came to dealing with the army.

      Fearful Symmetry shows what shaky and flimsy foundations underlie the
      theory of nuclear deterrence, the nearest word to gospel truth in the
      minds of realists. One can be sure that among the converted, this book
      will be cited as having demonstrated that it is nuclear deterrence that
      keeps India and Pakistan from going to war, when the book offers little
      concrete evidence of that claim. Already, some of the high priests of
      the church of realism, including Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer,
      have given the book their blessings, praising it highly. It is therefore
      important that books like this are adequately and widely criticised. If
      not, such ideas will quickly become common sense (not to be confused
      with good sense).


      An informal information platform for
      activists and scholars concerned about
      Nuclearisation in South Asia

      South Asians Against Nukes Mailing List:
      archives are available @ two locations
      May 1998 - March 2002:
      Feb. 2001 - to date:

      To subscribe send a blank message to:
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.