In her recent policy paper for the Stimson Center, Nina Tannenwald provides an insightful assessment of the nuclear taboo, or the normative inhibition against the first use of nuclear weapons, in South Asia. Coherently structured, the paper examines the nuclear behavior, pronouncements, and doctrines of India and Pakistan since their nuclearization. Based on a rich literature survey, she concludes that the taboo is weak in Pakistan and weakening in India, largely due to certain internal factors, and partly because both have been in possession of nuclear weapons for only a short period of time.
Offering another perspective, I argue that these factors do not support such a conclusion. In fact, the nuclear taboo is neither weak in Pakistan nor under stress in India. Rather, I draw greater attention to her argument that “the taboo appears to be at risk everywhere.” Therefore, in tandem with the global environment, which seems to have become more permissive of certain kinds of nuclear behavior and use of language, there is an appearance of the weakening of the taboo in India and Pakistan too, even though it remains intact in both states.
Before examining individual state approaches to the taboo, a general point needs to be mentioned. The tradition of nuclear nonuse by Cold War superpowers that helped to create the nuclear taboo was aided by the geographical distance between the two ideological rivals and the luxury of fighting proxy wars. Territorial confrontations on their own soil, which could have prompted nuclear use, were virtually absent. Bilateral agreements, “which established some norms and rules of crisis management,” also helped rationalize their arsenals and keep the other from gaining an undue quantitative or qualitative advantage. By ensuring a modus vivendi with nuclear weapons, these mechanisms upheld the tradition of nonuse, and thus strengthened the taboo.
South Asia, in contrast, houses geographically contiguous nuclear powers with historically unresolved territorial disputes. Moreover, support for terrorism by one nuclear state against another adds a new dimension. These complex security conditions significantly raise the possibility of war, including to the nuclear level, which could break the taboo. Yet, a level of restraint has been practiced. This demonstrates an understanding of nuclear risks, and the strength of the taboo, even if no stability arrangements of Washington-Moscow kinds have been concluded.
These complex security conditions significantly raise the possibility of war, including to the nuclear level, which could break the taboo. Yet, a level of restraint has been practiced.
Specificities of Approach to Nuclear Taboo – India
Tannenwald grants that India has a strong sense of the nuclear taboo. However, she identifies two developments to argue that the taboo is weakening in India – doctrinal drift from No First Use (NFU) and the adoption of a more aggressive nuclear posture. However, when contextualizing these developments, this interpretation renders a different conclusion.
The “doctrinal drift” away from NFU identified by Tannenwald is gleaned from statements. Some of these have been made by once influential civilian bureaucrats, military, and political leaders. Now retired, they are freely expressing their personal views, but are no longer in the official decision-making loop. Some prominent standing political leaders are also referenced, such as an August 2019 statement by the current Defence Minister and one by Prime Minister Modi at an election rally later that year. Both these pronouncements stand out because they are uncharacteristic for India, which is not prone to making loose nuclear references. However, these deviations from the norm can be attributed to two factors: first, electoral jingoism, which is common in democracies. The speeches, amidst a national election in 2019, capitalized on the just-ended crisis with Pakistan to showcase the ruling BJP’s resolve to punish terrorism; second, irreverent references to the use of nuclear weapons by leaders of countries not traditionally prone to nuclear bombast. If former U.S. President Trump and Russian President Putin, could become so casual in approach to nuclear weapons, is it surprising that it percolated to others too? Tellingly, the effect of U.S.-DPRK “hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions” was considered one of the reasons by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to set the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight in 2018, and its retention there in 2019. The resultant mood of nuclear permissiveness was echoed in statements from Indian officials.
However, it should be noted that in more sober settings, the Indian government has reiterated its commitment to NFU. For example, in March 2020 during a session at Parliament, the government underscored its policy of NFU, and repeated it in February 2021 during a speech by the Foreign Secretary at the Conference on Disarmament.
A doctrinal drift from NFU will not come lightly given India’s nuclear doctrine is predicated on its strategic culture, which can be traced not merely to “Gandhian non-violence” but also to a millennia old civilizational history that has refrained from the use of force as a first resort. There is, therefore, a historical alignment of thought with the taboo. The “mileage” that seems to have accrued to India is a collateral benefit of these pre-existing beliefs. It has come along not because it was so intended, but because NFU is believed to be morally and ethically more responsible than a reliance on brandishing first use. In fact, India repeatedly advocates the universalization of NFU as a step towards reducing the global salience of nuclear weapons and move towards a nuclear weapons free world. It wants the taboo strengthened, not weakened.
In support of her second point about India’s adoption of an aggressive nuclear posture, Tannenwald flags that India is “emphasizing higher readiness, and filling out the pieces of its nuclear triad with intercontinental missiles and nuclear-armed submarines.” But, these are capabilities for a credible NFU that India had defined in its draft nuclear doctrine in 1999. It had, at that point in time, identified the need to build “sufficient, survivable and operationally prepared nuclear forces.” With technological maturation, these capabilities are being developed, tested, and operationalized as part of a pre-existing plan.
In fact, given India’s nuclear philosophy, which eschews the idea of fighting a nuclear war, there is no room, nor military sense, in a “limited disarming” of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
Besides flagging these developments, some scholars have hinted that certain technologies being pursued by India, such as “precision strike weapons and target acquisition capabilities” could equip India with a “limited capability to disarm Pakistan.” Tannenwald cites these sources to argue that such moves indicate a weakening of the taboo, even though India itself has never spoken about nuclear counterforce.1
In fact, given India’s nuclear philosophy, which eschews the idea of fighting a nuclear war, there is no room, nor military sense, in a “limited disarming” of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. India has never endorsed the idea of TNWs or MIRVed missiles, as have its neighbors. Secondly, India would rather use precision technologies and better intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) for conventional requirements, á la Balakot air strikes, which were carefully calibrated to minimize collateral damage. Thirdly, India maintains that nuclear weapons are dramatically different from conventional weapons. Tannenwald acknowledges that countries that make a distinction between nuclear and conventional systems have a stronger sense of the taboo. There are no indications that this has been diluted in India given its conscious decision to allocate a nuclear role to only ballistic missiles and keep cruise missiles conventional so as to remove ambiguity and reduce chances of inadvertent escalation.
Tannenwald’s conclusion, then, that the taboo is weakening in India, does not appear to be on firm ground. Indeed, loose and uncharacteristic statements have been made, but in a context explained above. Capability build-up is happening, but according to a long-known template focused on survivability of India’s nuclear arsenal for a credible NFU. Lastly, it cannot be overlooked that for a country that believes in deterrence through punishment, not denial, the taboo will continue to be important.2
Tannenwald argues that Pakistan’s sense of the nuclear taboo is weak because of its nuclear nationalism and perception that nuclear weapons are the state’s only defense against India. Indeed, during crises, from Kargil in 1999 to Pulwama in 2019, Pakistani leaders have employed a deliberate strategy that vociferously draws attention to their nuclear arsenal and brandishes its possible use to deter Indian military retaliation. However, it should not be construed that Pakistan military’s decision to use nuclear weapons would be early or easy, as demonstrated by its own crisis behavior.
The projection of a low-use threshold, or engendering a sense of instability, becomes a compulsion for Pakistan owing to its need to deter a conventionally superior Indian military, while continuing to support cross-border terrorism as a way of bleeding India. If Pakistan were to accept nuclear stability by agreeing, for instance, to the doctrine of sole purpose or NFU, it fears a subsequent conventional conflict with India. Since avoidance of such a situation is the precise purpose of its nuclear weapons, Pakistan prefers to heighten risks through deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, and creation of entanglement dilemmas through dual-use missiles. This does not mean the taboo is weak but rather that projecting instability is perceived to bring greater deterrence benefits than vocal support for the taboo.
Tannenwald is right that the risks created by Pakistan’s posture could heighten with each passing crisis. While Islamabad believes that it can manage instability, the problem arises when India deviates from an assumed response, as it did with surgical strikes in 2016 and air strikes in 2019. In doing so, India chose to manipulate the phenomenon of risk escalation, a behavior normally adopted by Pakistan. This resulted in both sides showing an unprecedented willingness for risk-taking. But, it is important to note that both states were hesitant to deliberately increase the risk that escalation would spiral out of control. Pakistan took retaliatory action but whether it was a pre-planned move not to deliberately hit military targets but only to “lure Indian fighters,” or a case of luck that the bombs did not fall on Indian Army installations, another round of escalation was avoided.
Were India and Pakistan constrained by the nuclear taboo? Will they be in the future? While this cannot be stated definitively, and the sentiment on the taboo generated at the global level will matter, it remains true that the taboo is a factor of consideration. Of course, it can never be the only factor, and hence, its influence on this dyad, as on any else, cannot be overstated.
The constraining influence of the taboo in South Asia remains unchanged. India accords it significance and has said so; Pakistan does too, but compulsions of its nuclear strategy do not allow a full-throated endorsement.
Impact of the Global Nuclear Environment
Perceptions of the strength and weakness of norms related to nuclear use evolve with collective enforcement by all stakeholders, and not by length of period of its existence in one specific dyad. Therefore, I differ from Tannenwald’s view that “the taboo is inherently less powerful in the newer nuclear states,” like in India and Pakistan, because their tradition of non-use is only 23 years old. Instead, the salutary effect of the taboo, including in South Asia, arises from its global enforcement. But, both the U.S.-Russia mistrust that “normalizes” an offense-defense spiral and the U.S.-DPRK nuclear jingoism have created adverse perceptions.
Tannenwald is right that strengthening the nuclear taboo is in the interest of India and Pakistan, as it is with all nuclear nations. Her recommendations are meaningful, but not just at the narrow regional level. A global reinforcement of the taboo through joint political statements by all, or as many leaders as possible, would be more useful to strengthen the taboo everywhere. Similarly, refreshing public memory about the disastrous consequences of deterrence breakdown through movies that graphically depict the impact on socio-politico-economic-environmental “threads” the day after nuclear use would also be helpful in building public opinion against nuclear use and imposing pressure on leaders to take steps towards risk reduction—steps that would strengthen the taboo.
With regard to the specific suggestion on India-Pakistan nuclear arms control (NAC), this is difficult not only because of the current state of the bilateral relationship at the political level, but also the more troublesome issue of how to include China, which casts a definite shadow over Indo-Pak nuclear dynamics. Beijing’s aggressive behavior throughout 2020 and growing military strength has added to India’s threat perceptions. It is therefore pertinent to assess China’s perception of the taboo. Given its habitual disdain for global norms, how does it perceive the constraining influence of the taboo? This is a question for further research.
Meanwhile, though NAC is absent in Southern Asia, India and Pakistan do have in place some progressive nuclear Confidence Building Measures (CBMs): the 1988 agreement on non-attack on nuclear facilities, pre-notification of ballistic missile tests and creation of hotlines initiated by the 1999 Lahore Memorandum of Understanding, and, since 2007, notification of the other in case of nuclear weapons related accidents. These make for substantive CBMs, but the persistence of elevated threat perceptions has not fostered confidence in the other’s nuclear behavior.
The constraining influence of the taboo in South Asia remains unchanged. India accords it significance and has said so; Pakistan does too, but compulsions of its nuclear strategy do not allow a full-throated endorsement. For both countries, though, as for others, the perception of the strength or weakness of the taboo is shaped by the nuclear behavior of others, especially that of major states. Of course, nuclear behavior of India and Pakistan also adds to this perception. Therefore, the calculation of the taboo’s weight in any region cannot be done in isolation from the global context.
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Image 1: Pxhere
Image 2: RAVEENDRAN via Getty Images
- For more on this, see Manpreet Sethi, “Perceptions of India’s Nuclear Capability Build-up: Ghost Hunting and a Reality Check”, The Diplomat, Apr 2, 2019.
- For understanding concepts of deterrence by punishment and denial, see Michael J Mazarr, Understanading Deterrence, Perspective, RAND, 2018. Available at https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE200/PE295/RAND_PE295.pdf.