Indian Ambitions and the Limits of American Influence

By Karp, Aaron | Arms Control Today, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Indian Ambitions and the Limits of American Influence


Karp, Aaron, Arms Control Today


The nuclear detonations in May by India and Pakistan have provoked a new rush for tidy solutions to South Asia's long-simmering nuclear stalemate. Some would rely on draconian sanctions to force both self-declared nuclear-weapon states to comply with international nuclear non-proliferation norms. Others view the tests as a warning to get on with global nuclear disarmament immediately. Such thinking should remind one of H. L. Mencken's quip that for every difficult problem there is a solution that is simple, easy and wrong. Sanctions are unavoidable and global disarmament may be an essential goal, but neither will solve South Asia's nuclear dilemmas.

The greatest hurdle to be overcome now in South Asia is to distinguish between what can be accomplished in the short term without ceasing to emphasize what must be accomplished in the long term. It is tempting to agree with Indian spokesmen who insist that South Asian nuclear disarmament only makes sense in the context of global denuclearization. But the dangers of nuclear competition in South Asia leave no time for wishful thinking; South Asia is the only place on Earth where war between nuclear-armed states is a real possibility today.

For the United States, the short-term agenda is dominated by the need to restore outside influence to avoid nuclear war and any further escalation of the strategic competition in the region. Winning Indian and Pakistani accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the proposed fissile material cutoff treaty would be invaluable, as would any restraint with regard to ballistic missiles. Globally, there is no substitute for a no-first-use treaty to minimize the dangers of nuclear weapons. Modest though they are, even these steps may not be fast in coming. Such steps would require a regional dialogue encouraging India and Pakistan to settle their disputes and India and China to mend their relations.

Before any of these objectives can be accomplished, the United States must find an effective relationship with New Delhi, something that has yet to happen despite a half-century of experience since India's independence. Above all, American diplomacy must appreciate the domestic forces that compelled India to make the leap to become an acknowledged nuclear weapons power. It is these domestic forces-not orthodox assumptions about regional security or global disarmament-which will determine what can and cannot be achieved in the years ahead.

India First

The weapons tested on May 11 and 13 by India and on May 28 and 30 by Pakistan were the result of over 50 years of conflict in South Asia that has defied the best intentions of global diplomacy. These conflicts are bitter ones which must be managed now with more care than ever. Having taken years to get into the current situation, neither India nor Pakistan will retreat in haste. Policy-makers in Washington and elsewhere cannot influence nuclear issues in Islamabad or New Delhi until they first accept that the stalls quo will only yield gradually.

Although both India and Pakistan have tested, resolving their nuclear tensions will require the biggest steps to come from India. Not only did it go first with nuclear testing in 1974 and 1998, but India alone insists that its security requires nuclear weapons. Pakistan is an inherent part of the regional problem, but it is a derivative part with an explicitly reactive nuclear weapons policy. Whereas India absolutely refuses to join the existing nuclear non-proliferation system, Pakistan holds compliance with international treaties as being conditional on what India does. While this does not excuse Pakistan's testing or lessen its obligations, it leaves India the key to unraveling their nuclear confrontation. In the short run, India and Pakistan must be dealt with now more than ever as equals, if only because of their comparable nuclear weapon capabilities. In the long term, however, international diplomacy must emphasize India as the linchpin to hopes for regional nuclear restraint. …

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