Nuclear weapons hang over humanity like the sword of Damocles. Catastrophic destruction is held back by the slender thread of the nuclear weapon states' non-decision to ‘use' this apocalyptic capability again — since the devastation of August 1945.
Nuclear weapons are back in global focus for more reasons than one. The United States President, Barack Obama, has infused the much-needed political traction to the global disarmament effort and his April 2009 Prague speech is a case in point. But time will tell if there is substance and sincerity of purpose in what he said. Concurrently, there are deep anxieties about the non-state entity acquiring nuclear weapons or fissile material and the revisionist manner in which a rogue regime may behave. The current turbulence in Pakistan only heightens these concerns.
T.V. Paul, a distinguished academic (of Indian origin) at the McGill University, Canada, has made a valuable contribution to exploring the historical experience of the non-use of nuclear weapons and the challenges now faced globally. His book on the subject was published first in 2009 by Stanford University and the current volume is its South Asian edition.
Paul builds on Thomas Schelling's 1960s formulation of the “tradition of non-use” of nuclear weapons and makes a nuanced distinction between ‘tradition' and ‘taboo' in a very rewarding and illuminating semantic detour. The central argument advanced is that the tradition of non-use has been shaped by two factors. One, the sheer destruction caused by the use of a nuclear weapon; and second, post the advent of the hydrogen bomb, “the negative reputational effects its use would generate...”
Appropriately textured, the argument draws upon other theoretical propositions, from both the rationalistic/materialistic and normative/ideational schools. But as the author says, his effort is “to offer a richer analysis and not to create a grand theory but an intermediate theory, in order to explain the puzzle of nuclear non-use.”
The analysis is comprehensive and, predictably, more focussed on the U.S. experience under President Truman to President Clinton. Israel, India, and Pakistan are addressed as part of the second generation nuclear states and their ‘use' of the nuclear weapon is briefly delineated. Pakistan will remain a complex puzzle for the academic and the ambiguity that accompanies its WMD posture may merit a more detailed study. Is deterrence the main purpose of the Pakistani nuclear capability, as it ought to be normatively speaking, or is it to bolster “its continued resort to asymmetric warfare to wrest territory from Indian control?”
This is where a more holistic interpretation of what constitutes ‘use', when it comes to nuclear weapons, would have embellished the rich and insightful analysis. The existential dimension of nuclear weapons and how this ominous reality impacts the behaviour of the ‘other' in any nuclear dyad — the current U.S.-Pakistan tussle for example — is yet another strand that warrants some interrogation. It is arguable that Pakistan's contribution to the ‘use' of nuclear weapons is NWET — nuclear weapon enabled terrorism — and here both the U.S. and China have specific relevance. This subject may have to await another major work by the author.
The second book under review, Complex Deterrence, deals with some very complex issues apropos nuclear deterrence in a lucid and easy-to-comprehend manner and should be of interest to the specialist and the lay person having an interest in such arcane, albeit life and death matters. Edited jointly by three scholars of repute, the 12 chapters explore deterrence conceptually and in relation to non-state actors, smaller powers, and the major powers.
In a must-read introduction to deterrence per se, Paul posits that complex deterrence can be defined as “an ambiguous deterrence relationship, which is caused by fluid structural elements of the international system to the extent that the nature and type of actors, their power relationships, and their motives become unclear, making it difficult to mount and signal credible deterrence threats in accordance with the established precepts of deterrence theory.” The contributors to this substantial volume are eclectic and include men of eminence such as Robert Jervis and Janice Gross Stein.
Both books are valuable additions to the existing scholarship on nuclear weapons and the fine-print of deterrence, as it is opaquely interpreted and uneasily practised in this century, with the certitude of the bloody 20th century as the foundation. These are subjects that warrant objective and informed deliberations by both state apex and civil society representatives.
The Baruch plan (1946), the Rajiv Gandhi U.N. proposal (1988), and the Obama Prague speech (2009) need to be threaded and taken forward step by step, till the world attains that utopian global zero, and we must all hope fervently that deterrence — whether complex or otherwise — works, in this interminable interregnum.