Maybe Ken Waltz was right

(Credit: Emad Hajjaj)
(Credit: Emad Hajjaj)


While we were distracted earlier this week by the Michael Cohen show on Capitol Hill and the failed Trump-Kim love fest in Hanoi, two nuclear-armed rivals tiptoed up to the brink of war and then … stepped back.

On Tuesday, India launched airstrikes into Pakistan, targeting a training camp belonging to the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, in retaliation for a suicide bombing on Feb. 14 that killed 40 Indian soldiers on the outskirts of the city of Srinagar, in the Indian-controlled territory of Kashmir. JeM is a Kashmiri separatist group sponsored by the Pakistani government.

A day later, Pakistani jets crossed into Indian territory, then shot down at least one of the Indian fighters that scrambled in pursuit. The pilot was captured by Pakistani forces. Amid all this, news reports indicated that both sides had activated and reinforced their heavy armor formations along the Line of Control that separates Indian from Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. Troops exchanged fire across the border.

By Thursday, leaders on both sides began to acknowledge just how much danger everyone was in:

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a televised address that the two sides could not afford a miscalculation “given the weapons we have”.

“We should sit down and talk,” he said.

“If we let it happen, it will remain neither in my nor [Indian Prime Minister] Narendra Modi’s control.

“Our action is just to let them know that just like they intruded into our territory, we are also capable of going into their territory,” he added.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj also said “India does not wish to see further escalation of the situation.”

Today, Pakistan handed their captured Indian pilot over to his own government. The crisis seems to have abated.

So what does this episode tell us? It might tell us that nuclear deterrence actually works.

India and Pakistan each have about 140 nuclear weapons that can be delivered by short or medium-range missiles, cruise missiles, or aircraft. Both are working to develop submarine launched nuclear missile systems. Both countries’ nuclear doctrines emphasize deterrence, promising to deliver an unacceptable level of punishment against anyone that dares attack.

Forty years ago, political scientist Kenneth Waltz argued that nuclear arsenals like these would have the desired effect of forcing caution on states that might otherwise be tempted to escalate a crisis like this week’s between India and Pakistan to full scale war. I wrote about this a month ago in the context of discussing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Given the catastrophic damage that nuclear weapons can inflict, even if used in relatively small numbers, Waltz writes that nuclear weapons make “both sides more cautions and the tensions between them less likely to lead to anything more than a skirmish.” Miscalculation, which Waltz rightly says has historically been an important precipitant of war, become less likely under such conditions due to the disastrous consequences of getting it wrong.

Put it all together, and nuclear-armed rivals like India and Pakistan have every reason to quickly de-escalate any crisis that threatens to get out of hand. India and Pakistan have fought three major wars since each won independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over the disputed territory of Kashmir. But since both became nuclear weapons states, their clashes, while troubling, have stayed contained.

When my students read Waltz’s arguments on the virtues of nuclear weapons, they often come away doubting the logic. And it stands to reason. Our human sensibility argues strongly that the last thing we should want is to see more of these weapons in the world. And yet, we have to acknowledge the reality that nuclear weapons, so far, have only been used in anger once. By us. Before any other countries had these weapons.

More nuclear weapons in the hands of more countries has not led to more use of nuclear weapons. So maybe Kenneth Waltz was right. Maybe nuclear proliferation is good.


  1. says

    My counter-arguments center on assumptions made in Waltz’ theory and recent developments in India’s nuclear posture.

    Waltz’ explanation assumes states as unified and minimally rational, or at least oriented toward self-preservation. However, Pakistan is not unified as a state. There are civilians, both in parties and bureaucracies, who differ vehemently on: military domination of politics; the role of religious extremists; and on rapprochement with India. There is the military, which is also divided on: generational lines; the role of the ISI; and the role of religion; and interference in politics. What keeps the military united, to an extent, is antipathy towards India. For the civilians, even this isn’t enough. Nawaz Sharif realized that the Indian bogey man is manipulated by the military to dominate politics, and sought rapprochement, but was betrayed by the Kargil War and then deposed by a coup.

    Then, there’s the rationality aspect underlying self-preservation. While the Pakistani Army and Civilian leaders will demur from escalating to nuclear war, the Islamic extremist groups and/or elements may not be thus inclined. Given militant Islam has acquired sympathizers within the military, what prevents triggering incidents like the Pulwama terror attack and Balakot air strike being followed by rogue Islamist officers in the Pakistani Armed Forces launching nuclear missiles? Chris Fair’s 2014 book Fighting Till the End reveals the extent to which the Pakistani Army’s weltanschauung has been shaped by Jihadi ideology. Also, recall that Pakistan has the only military that controls nuclear systems sans any civilian oversight. This is the classic “Dr. Strangelove” scenario.

    In terms of India’s nuclear weapons’ use policies. Analysts and scholars long thought that despite Pakistan’s nuclear first use strategy, India had a ” no first use policy”, which reduced the problems of nuclear war. That policy is increasingly becoming ambiguous, as evaluated by Clary and Narang’s ” India’s Counterforce Temptations” (Feb. 2019, IS). According to them, India’s embracing a “pre-emptive strike” doctrine would encourage a regional (conventional and nuclear) arms race and instability during crises.

    Finally, India and Pakistan are not in a dyad, but in a triad with China. A nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would grievously harm India, but utterly destroy Pakistan. However, doing so would make China the regional hegemon by default. Thus, given China’s continued support to Pakistan including its nuclear program, India may seek to retaliate against China during a nuclear exchange. I am loath to discuss this angle further in a public forum.

    Caveat: I am not an expert on nuclear weapons and policy in general, as well as specifically on South and East Asia. Thus, I stand to be corrected by my betters on all of the above.