Perils of punditry

16 Jan 2014

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US COMMENTARY on nuclear developments in Pakistan and India is usually not well received on the subcontinent. One reason is that cautionary messages sound hypocritical. Pundits from a country that has been guilty of wretched nuclear excess are on thin ice when passing judgement on nuclear arsenals that may barely extend into three digits.

Another reason has to do with the etiquette of pointing out shortcomings. It’s OK when a Pakistani or an Indian writes about negative developments at home, but when a US commentator writes about similar failings, he or she is perceived to demonstrate an anti-Pakistan or an anti-Indian bias. Even when negative foreign commentary is based on inarguable facts, it still feels like piling on. US commentators are therefore labelled as either anti-Pakistan/pro-India or anti-India/pro-Pakistan. Once affixed, these labels are hard to remove.

In addition, Indian strategic analysts are annoyed because China doesn’t figure nearly enough in US commentary. From an Indian perspective, US analysts seem fixated on the nuclear competition between India and Pakistan, when India’s primary threat emanates from China.

This critique has merit because China is a far more formidable competitor to India than Pakistan. But China, unlike the Soviet Union and the US, hasn’t made the mistake of equating strategic power with the size of its nuclear arsenal. Instead, Beijing is moving slowly on its nuclear programmes while focusing on weapon systems that are more likely to be used in combat. In contrast, Pakistan places a very high priority on its nuclear programmes which, for now, keep pace with India. Within a decade, China’s nuclear capabilities will certainly warrant more attention. In the near term, the nuclear competition that matters most is between Pakistan and India, which remain one severe terrorist incident away from a confrontation.

Another complaint — perhaps most annoying to Pakistani and Indian analysts — is that US commentators keep harping on problems of escalation control and deterrence stability, as if leaders on the subcontinent lack sensitivity to these dangers. Indian and Pakistani decision-makers have indeed been mindful of escalatory dangers during prior crises and during the Kargil war. But those who take umbrage at alarums emanating from the US would have a more persuasive grievance if India and Pakistan worked harder at diplomacy to reduce nuclear risks.

Disagreements between US and South Asian strategic analysts are usually not over facts, or even the narrative used to assemble them. Instead, they are over a presumed lack of understanding of regional culture, politics, and security dilemmas. What does the US really know about South Asia? Not nearly enough. But then again, what does South Asia really know about competitive nuclear dynamics? A learning process starts by acknowledging complexities and drawing lessons from mistakes, whether foreign or domestic.

Because US analysts feel chastened by Cold War nuclear follies, they offer cautionary warnings to colleagues on the subcontinent, who then feel put off by messages that feel like scolding or condescension. In return, South Asian strategic analysts project assurance that matters are well in hand, even though their confident projections of deterrence stability after testing nuclear devices in 1998 were wildly off the mark.

Pakistan and India have gone well beyond their early pledges to embrace minimum, credible deterrence. Instead, they are on a treadmill of bilateral nuclear competition that is complicated by China’s strategic modernisation programmes.

As long as relations between Pakistan and India remain strained, with diplomacy in the doldrums, confident assertions of being able to handle nuclear dangers will be viewed sceptically in the US. Another spectacular act of violence directed against India that can be traced back to Pakistan would not come as a surprise. Escalation control in deep crisis is always iffy because leaders may not be able to control events.

Nuclear weapons do not lend themselves to deterrence stability. Washington and Moscow were unable to stabilise their competition despite acquiring massive nuclear overkill. Negotiating treaties helped, but the Cold War nuclear competition ended only when the Soviet Union collapsed. Will China, India and Pakistan be able find stability by modernising their nuclear arsenals without successful diplomacy?

Finding equilibrium in a triangular nuclear competition across unsettled borders is an entirely new challenge. Even if Pakistan’s national security establishment decides to slow down or get off this treadmill to attend to internal security and economic imperatives, India will still compete against China’s rise, and instabilities will persist.

Weapons that cannot be used except in extremis are a poor substitute for military preparedness or successful diplomatic engagement. Diplomatic accomplishments between Pakistan and India, and between India and China have been rare. On what basis can national leaders offer confident predictions of security and stability?

Did that sound preachy or annoying? Or is this a simple statement of fact?

The writer is co-founder of the Stimson Centre and co-editor of Deterrence Stability and Escalation Control in South Asia.