Nuclear Arms and the Future of South Asia

By Krepon, Michael | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Arms and the Future of South Asia


Krepon, Michael, Joint Force Quarterly


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Trend lines have shaped the nuclear past and will shape the nuclear future. But trend lines are usually set by major events, and major events usually have crosscutting effects. The use of atomic weapons to end World War II and the appearance of the hydrogen bomb, close calls such as the Cuban missile crisis, and game-changing events such as the dissolution of the Soviet Union generate countervailing impulses to control the atom and to build bombs.

Alternative nuclear futures exist; some are far better than others. The choice of a nuclear future does not occur in a vacuum or by happenstance. Nor can the future be masterfully engineered by deliberate choice. Game-changing events can waylay the best made plans. Whether the net effect of such events is negative or positive depends on the nature of the event and how national leaders and their publics react to it. These reactions, in turn, will be shaped not only by the shock of the new, but also by the political context that precedes major headline events. If that context is generally positive, the probability increases that damage can be contained and the net effect will be positive. If the preceding context is negative, the headline event is likely to accelerate negative trends.

This article looks initially at nuclear shocks globally and then at shocks and trends in South Asia specifically. Dreadful acts of terrorism occur in this region, although with less frequency than in the past. Acts of terrorism that can do the most damage occur in periods of deteriorating relations, in the context of high infiltration rates across the Kashmir divide and prior incidences of terrorism. If a headline act of terrorism occurs in the context of a deep crisis or border skirmish, it can generate military mobilizations and an escalatory spiral, especially if that act involves a mushroom cloud or, to a lesser extent, radiological material, or conventional explosives are used that produce large-scale loss of life, or an act of terror occurs at a highly symbolic national monument or religious shrine. If, however, a headline act of terrorism occurs during a period when national leaders are working to improve bilateral relations, are making progress, and are seeking a settlement to the Kashmir dispute, there is a reasonable chance that the leaders will redouble their efforts, or at least insulate the process of reconciliation from those who attempt to reverse it.

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Trends can build imperceptibly at first and unmistakably over time. Headline events can accentuate these trends, slow them down, or reverse them. Change will have positive as well as negative elements. Opportunity can flow from misfortune, or it can encourage hubris. Choice matters, especially when confronted by game-changing events. It is easier to predict major events--at least in generic form--than to forecast their net consequences. This article thus focuses initially on the major events that could lie ahead because they are the axes on which the nuclear future may turn. Constructive actions now and in the years ahead--or sins of omission and commission--will shape the trend lines that follow, for good or ill.

This is, of course, a speculative exercise. The difficulty in following George Santayana's famous dictum about being condemned to repeat history is determining which lessons among the large menu of choices bear remembering. Our shared nuclear history will assuredly shape future choices, but as Bernard Brodie, the first great analyst of the nuclear age, observed, "The phrase 'history proves' usually signals poor logic and worse history." International relations theorist Kenneth N. Waltz agrees: "History tells us only what we want to know."

Unpleasant as well as pleasant surprises happen in life, and it would be quite extraordinary if they did not apply to the bomb as well. Some big events make sense in retrospect but still come as surprises. …

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