What is going on with relations among nuclear-armed states these days? Last February, the United States was threatening a “bloody nose” attack against North Korea. This February, India actually conducted airstrikes against Pakistan. Next February, well, that’s anyone’s guess but odds are it won’t be anything good. Does no one read The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution anymore??
Robert Jervis’ seminal book and other classics of nuclear strategy argue that survivable nuclear weapons fundamentally change the nature of statecraft, with a number of implications for the behavior and outcomes we should expect between nuclear powers. Jervis writes:
If nuclear weapons have had the influence that the nuclear-revolution theory indicates they should have, then there will be peace between the superpowers [the pair of nuclear-armed adversaries on which he was focused], crises will be rare, neither side will be eager to press bargaining advantages to the limit, the status quo will be relatively easy to maintain, and political outcomes will not be closely related to either the nuclear or the conventional balance.
To drastically simplify an immense and rich body of work: Nuclear weapons mean everybody should just be cool already. So why are we seeing all these nuclear powers threatening and even using armed force against one another?
The standard counter-argument is that nuclear weapons can be good not just for deterrence but also for compellence — convincing others to change their behavior. The logic is pretty straightforward, if a bit farfetched. A nuclear-armed state facing a non-nuclear adversary can demand: “Do what I want or I could nuke you, and you can’t threaten the same back.” And that nuclear state can make demands of even a fellow nuclear power if the latter’s arsenal is perceived to be “inferior”: “Do what I want or I could nuke you, and you can’t threaten as much devastation in return.” In theory, this rival school of thought could explain recent instances of aggression between nuclear powers.
But, by this logic, the side making the demands and even committing the aggression should actually get something for its efforts — i.e., “win” — and that’s clearly not happening in South Asia. Pakistan hasn’t been able to convince India to cough up Kashmir, despite sponsoring militancy geared towards that end for decades, and India hasn’t been able to convince Pakistan to stop that sponsorship, despite a wide range of efforts that have recently expanded to include kinetic strikes. Thus, neither the proponents of the nuclear revolution nor their critics seem able to explain what’s going on in the region. What are we missing?
Both sides in the current debate are focused on nuclear weapons’ usefulness in achieving various foreign policy objectives. But risking nuclear war can be useful in terms of states’ domestic environments, too. And once domestic considerations are allowed to play a significant role in foreign policy decision-making, we’re in a very different ballgame. The range of issues about which states might be dissatisfied can expand, the depth of that dissatisfaction can deepen, and the value of escalation as a tool can correspondingly increase.
Each of these three developments was on display in the most recent Indo-Pakistani crisis. And while analysts have noted a number of individual factors — e.g., India’s increasingly jingoistic media, New Delhi’s break with longstanding policy, the “commitment trap” set for both sides — these discrete developments are part of a broader story, one that likely extends well beyond South Asia.
Without some change in the current trajectory, crises and even conflicts among nuclear powers will keep happening, with greater and greater levels of risk, but without actually achieving any of the participants’ objectives. While Jervis allows that extreme dissatisfaction with the status quo and increased salience of domestic politics can short-circuit some aspects of the nuclear revolution, digging into when and how that short-circuiting is likely to occur can help us predict and manage the consequences.
The Risk of Deliberate Escalation is Real
One implication of the recent India-Pakistan confrontation is that certain pathways of escalation are becoming more likely. Scholars have typically worried most about “inadvertent escalation” in a crisis — when one party takes an action without realizing how seriously the other side will view it. That’s certainly how the last Indo-Pakistani conflict kicked off, in 1999, when the Pakistan Army sent paramilitary forces across the Line of Control to capture territory around the Indian town of Kargil. The Pakistani generals assumed — quite incorrectly, as it turned out — that Indian leaders would simply accept the land grab as a fait accompli.
But we now need to pay at least as much attention to the incentives for “deliberate escalation.” In this pathway, one side takes an escalatory action knowing full well how the other side will view it. That’s what happened in February, when India launched airstrikes against Pakistan after an Indian Kashmiri with ties to a Pakistan-based militant group drove an explosives-laden car into a convoy carrying Indian security forces, killing over 40. This was the first time in almost 50 years that India had used offensive airpower against Pakistan or had struck targets in Pakistan proper — i.e., beyond Pakistan’s portion of the disputed region of Kashmir.
Pakistan responded in kind, launching retaliatory airstrikes against India. This was Pakistan’s first time using airpower against its rival in almost 50 years, too, as well as its first time responding with force to Indian actions on its territory in the context of the Kashmir insurgency. Pakistan did limit its strikes to the Indian portion of Kashmir and to uninhabited areas, but both sides still deliberately crossed thresholds they hadn’t previously crossed.
In theory, deliberate escalation should be rare among nuclear powers. Joseph Nye has referenced the “crystal ball effect” that nuclear weapons supposedly produce. According to this line of thinking, the terrible consequences that would so obviously result from any nuclear use will (or should) chasten even the most revisionist states, causing them to behave with relative restraint in crises. But nuclear weapons don’t seem to be having this effect in South Asia, where revisionism is running rampant on all sides and fueling crises between India and Pakistan.
Revisionism Isn’t Limited to Territory – or to Pakistan
As with escalation, there are multiple pathways to revisionism. “Revisionism” refers to states taking actions in hopes of changing a status quo that doesn’t satisfy them. So “revisionist” states challenge some aspect of the status quo while “status quo” powers are content with things the way they are. Although these terms are simply descriptive, “revisionism” and “revisionist” tend to carry negative connotations while “status quo” carries positive ones.
Pakistan has long been recognized as a revisionist state in the enduring Indo-Pakistani rivalry. Observers note that Pakistan initiated two of the three wars the countries have fought with one another, as well as the one “near war.” Each time, Pakistan’s goal was to take control of all or part of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir that the departing British awarded to India in the run-up to the two South Asian states’ independence, in 1947. Once an insurgency broke out in the Kashmir Valley in the late 1980s, Pakistan moved quickly to sideline the militant structure that had developed indigenously and replace it with groups and leaders more amenable to Pakistani interests and control. Attacks staged by these Pakistan-supported groups have in turn sparked a number of crises between the two countries.
This understanding of revisionism and the underlying status quo that states might seek to revise is all about territory. Pakistan wants to change who gets to own what pieces of land, so it is viewed as a revisionist state in the conflict. India, on the other hand, appears content to make a permanent border out of the Line of Control, so it tends to be viewed as a status quo power.
But revisionism isn’t limited to territory alone. While Pakistan may be deeply dissatisfied with the territorial component of the status quo in the region, India is equally dissatisfied with the behavioralcomponent of that status quo — one in which Pakistan continues to support militant groups that continue to conduct attacks against Indian targets. Indian leaders are at least as interested in compelling Pakistan to curtail its sponsorship of groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba as they are interested in deterring the groups themselves from conducting further attacks. Until recently, Indian efforts in this respect have focused on non-kinetic approaches.
Domestic Variables Are the New Coin of the Indian Realm
That all changed once the Bharatiya Janata Party (“Indian People’s Party,” or BJP) came to power in India. The BJP was elected in 2014, following 10 years of governance by India’s other major political party, the Indian National Congress. BJP leaders regularly criticize the Congress for not taking harsher action against terrorism and Pakistan, particularly after the devastating attack on Mumbai in 2008. The change in administration thus suggested India would respond more aggressively to any large-scale militant strikes linked to Pakistan.
And the BJP got its chance in 2016. In September of that year, militants attacked an Indian Army installation near the town of Uri, killing almost 20 in what was then the deadliest attack on Indian security forces in decades. Eleven days later, India claimed it had launched “surgical strikes” against “terror launching pads” across the Line of Control. Small teams of Indian special forces allegedly struckup to two kilometers into Pakistani territory, targeting a number of camps belonging to multiple militant groups. Pakistan, for its part, simply denied anything had happened.
The strikes were hugely popular in India. Parties from across the political spectrum lauded the armed forces’ actions, and the body governing India’s institutions of higher learning called on students across the country to celebrate September 29 as “Surgical Strike Day.” India’s motion picture producers association announced a ban that barred Pakistani stars from working in India’s large film industry, and, more recently, a movie made dramatizing the strikes did extremely well at the box office.
Congress Party leaders had conducted similar operations in the past but kept them covert. Explaining the shift toward publicized strikes, former Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon suggested that domestic drivers trump strategic considerations for BJP leaders: “Covert operations were not announced to the country [during the Congress years] because the primary goal was to pacify the [Line of Control] and cut down infiltration and ceasefire violations, not to manage public opinion at home.” The BJP’s approach proved successful, as the country, including the media and Bollywood, rallied behind Modi, whose handling of the crisis may have won him some voters.
What Does It All Mean?
Three interrelated shifts are unfolding in South Asia. First, the risk of deliberate escalation — not simply the risk of accidental, unauthorized, or inadvertent escalation, on which scholars have tended to focus — is very real. Twenty years ago, Pakistan stumbled into a near-war with India and the two sides became only the second pair of nuclear-armed adversaries to fight a large-scale conventional conflict with one another. Earlier this year, India and Pakistan engaged in a very different, very deliberate kinetic exchange with one another, becoming the first pair of nuclear-armed adversaries to trade airstrikes on one another’s territory. Both sides will likely feel compelled to respond even more forcefully next time.
Second, a newly revisionist India represents a major change in and for the region. While Pakistani leaders have long pursued proxy warfare against India in hopes of changing the territorial status quo, India has only recently abandoned its longstanding policy of “strategic restraint” in dealing with Pakistan’s provocations. Starting in 2016 and continuing in 2019, Indian leaders are openly using military force in hopes of changing the behavioral status quo in the subcontinent. So far, India’s efforts to compel Pakistan to stop its support for militancy have been as unsuccessful as Pakistan’s to compel India to give up its portion of Kashmir. As with Pakistan, though, India could simply use failure to justify even more aggressive measures in the future.
Finally, the role and nature of the domestic landscape in India have evolved as well. Domestic considerations appear to be playing a larger role in New Delhi’s decision-making, and popular preferences appear to be increasingly bellicose. Anti-Pakistan sentiments have increased steadily among Indians during the BJP era and are highest among Indians who support Modi. The hawkish BJP leader’s recent landslide reelection suggests India will continue to “select into” crises and that those crises will be increasingly severe.
Classics of strategy among nuclear powers have little to say about these trends. Nuclear-armed rivals aren’t supposed to deliberately push each other, seek to overturn the status quo, or allow domestic concerns to play a large role in decision-making. Recent Indo-Pakistani crises have challenged all three of these aphorisms, however, and the resulting risks clearly aren’t limited to South Asia. Such off-ramps from the nuclear revolution merit increased study if we’d like to see the current nuclear-strike-free era extend into its 75th year and beyond.
T. Negeen Pegahi is the director of the Mahan Scholars research program at the U.S. Naval War College and a non-resident fellow at the Stimson Center. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.