Nuclear Ways to Modify Behaviour
The Indian National Security Advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, made a few brief remarks about India’s nuclear weapons programme at the Indian Council for World Affairs on 21 August.
Menon said he would explain why India was both an advocate of nuclear disarmament and a possessor of a nuclear weapons arsenal. In the end, he really spent most of his speech rationalising why India has nuclear weapons.
He gave two reasons. One was that they genuinely contributed to India’s security in “an uncertain and anarchic world.” He said that on “at least three occasions” in the period before 1998, “other powers used the explicit or implicit threat of nuclear weapons to try and change India’s behaviour.” Menon then argues since no other example of blackmail has occurred since the nuclear tests of 1998, there is empirical evidence that the tests have ensured India no longer has to worry about nuclear blackmail.
The other reason was, and this was a bit convoluted, “in order to promote real nuclear disarmament.” India spent nearly a quarter of a century promoted universal nuclear disarmament. But it was ignored. When the world began to tighten the non-proliferation regime in the 1990s, “it became clear that possession of nuclear weapons was necessary if our attempts to promote a nuclear weapon free world were to be taken seriously and have some effect.”
There is little doubt about the first bit. India tried to avoid seeking a nuclear deterrent even after the first Chinese nuclear test. It asked the United States and the Soviet Union to provide it a nuclear umbrella. When this was refused, it reluctantly began seeking its own weapon. And a fear of China was at the heart of the decision.
Menon doesn’t mention the three cases, but they were the USS Enterprise deployment in 1971 and two explicit threats by Pakistan in 1987 and 1990. After talking to some of the Indian players involved some of these incidents, I am not sure I buy the first case. Carrier deployments were a common US way to send signals and the 1971 war wasn’t important enough to break a very strong Cold War taboo against the use of nuclear weapons. But it was likely an implicit nuclear threat was perceived by New Delhi.
However, India’s nuclear weapon I don’t think played much of a role in any of these crises. Or any of the others that followed. The link to the 1998 tests is even more tenuous.
Nuclear weaponisation meant less that India was resistant to blackmail but more that such international pressure transmuted into other forms. Once both India and Pakistan were accepted to have nuclear weapons capability by about the late 1970s, the two sides adopted nuclear deterrence as their strategic postures. This shift took place well before the 1998 tests. In other words, the point of a nuke is that it should not be used and all players concerned modify behaviour to ensure that usage doesn’t happen.
Pakistan switched to attacking India through insurgents and militants. Another example of how nuclear weapons keep conflict below a certain threshold but do not actually stop conflict is the confrontations that India and China experienced along their border, most notably those in the mid-1980s. China’s occasional bouts of belligerence and Pakistani action like the Kargil incursion were cases of strategic blackmail, designed to force India to change its behaviour. They were only designed to remain under the nuclear threshold.
As for the US, I am not sure nuclear blackmail ever occurred in the first place. But US attempts to pressure India on its foreign policy are not in doubt. If they have fallen off today, the reason is that the Indo-US strategic relationship is simply different.
While I don’t oppose the 1998 decision to test. I don’t think it led to India being less vulnerable to nuclear blackmail. That vaccination was given by the 1974 nuclear test. The shift to low-level confrontation and unofficial warfare that followed continues to this day.