'Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia' review: Asymmetry and influence

With its surveillance and other capabilities, the U.S. is in a unique position to manipulate outcomes in the region

June 16, 2018 09:23 pm | Updated 09:23 pm IST

International relations expert Moeed Yusuf sets himself an ambitious objective, perhaps too ambitious. He examines the U.S. role in three crises in India-Pakistan relations after both countries had conducted a series of nuclear tests in 1998 — the Kargil war in 1999; the 2001-2002 stand-off provoked by the terrorist attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001, aggravated further by the terrorist attack on a bus and an Indian army camp at Kaluchak (Jammu) on May 14, 2002, often referred to as the ‘twin peaks crisis’; and the terrorist attack in Mumbai on November 26, 2008. From these, he teases out “a theory of nuclear crisis behaviour centred on third party mediation” and attempts to “offer lessons for crises between potential nuclear rivals in the Middle East, on the Korean peninsula, and between China and India”.

Unique cases

Such an exercise is too linear and mechanistic — the role and attitudes of the individuals present, the regional and global backdrop and time frames within which a crisis matures and resolves, all these and other factors create a unique dynamic. History may rhyme from time to time but does not always repeat.

The dawning of the nuclear age coincided with the beginning of the Cold War, introducing in its wake an era of bipolarity which lasted for over four decades. Parity, mutual vulnerability and symmetry in terms of nuclear arsenal and doctrinal approaches of nuclear war fighting spawned theories of deterrence. It also gave rise to nuclear arms control agreements which concentrated on the bean counting approach by lowering numbers of specific launchers and warheads. It is estimated that from a high of 70,000 warheads in the 1970s, the number has come down to 15,000, the majority being consigned to reserves in the U.S. and Russia. By all accounts, this should be reassuring but the reality is that nuclear risks are growing. The reason is that stability in the new nuclear age is no longer determined by superpowers but multiple nuclear dyads which are often linked, creating nuclear chains. In an age of asymmetry in terms of both nuclear arsenals and doctrines, the bean counting approach of bilateral arms control doesn’t work.

Having acknowledged that the bilateral deterrence model does not apply to the India-Pakistan crises, Yusuf introduces the theory of ‘brokered bargaining’ in explaining the U.S. role. The chapters that dwell on each of the three crises are the strongest part of the work. Each chapter brings out the differences among the three case studies. For a practitioner, these differences provide important lessons; for an International Relations scholar, the preference is to overlook differences and squeeze out similarities that can lead to constructing a model or framework. The conclusions, therefore, emerge as a somewhat laboured exercise.

It is true that U.S. involvement during the Kargil war in 1999 marked a shift in India’s stand about third country involvement but this would not have been possible without the trust that had been built up between Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott. During 2001-02, the Indian leadership was the same but there had been a change in Washington with the coming in of the Bush administration. Moreover, the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan shifted the U.S. calculus in terms of its dependence on Pakistan for supply routes. In 2008, the Bush administration was on its way out and the big item was the conclusion of the India-U.S. nuclear deal.

Future role

Will the U.S. play a role in a future crisis in India-Pakistan relations? Possibly yes, though it was absent when India undertook its ‘surgical strikes’ in September 2016 as retaliation for the Uri terrorist strike. Developments on the Korean peninsula can hardly be fitted into any theoretical model for nuclear crisis management just as it is difficult to predict the fallout from U.S.’ unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. West Asia, with its layers of conflicts and historical overlays, stoutly resists any attempt to fit it into a model.

Would a Modi government have exercised a similar restraint as the Manmohan Singh government in 2008? Would a Manmohan Singh government have given the same publicity to the ‘surgical strikes’ in 2016 as the Modi government did? These are the counterfactuals of history which render modelling in international relations and nuclear crisis management a hazardous exercise.

Another factor is technical capabilities. Neither India nor Pakistan possess the kind of monitoring and surveillance capabilities that the U.S. can position in the region. This puts it in a unique position to manipulate outcomes by selective sharing and dissemination of information. Nuclear capabilities take time to mature. Pakistan defined its red lines for nuclear use only in 2002 and waited for over a decade to announce full spectrum deterrence. India has maintained its no-first-use policy but is still on its way to building a credible nuclear triad which can effectively back it up. Under the circumstances, seeking space below the nuclear threshold becomes a tricky exercise with unexpected outcomes.

That certainly is one lesson which Yusuf’s three case studies amply demonstrate.

Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia ; Moeed Yusuf, Stanford University Press, ₹5,137.

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