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Nuclear normalcy

April 24, 2014

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NUCLEAR weapons raise many questions and provide few answers. Can Pakistan become a normal state possessing nuclear weapons? How can this aspirational goal be translated into reality? And what is the best way to codify ‘nuclear normal’?

The George W. Bush administration ran interference for India to join the nuclear club by promoting a civil-nuclear agreement which the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) approved. Is this route available to Pakistan, as well?

An important new book by Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London proposes a path to nuclear normalcy for Pakistan. The author is a careful, respected chronicler of proliferation, so his recommendations carry weight. He reasons that Pakistan’s gravest nuclear challenge is its competition with India, and that by signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and by stopping production of bomb-making fissile material, this competition will be tamed. In return for Pakistan’s help, the international community would treat nuclear-armed Pakistan as a ‘normal’ state.

This logic chain is sound, but it rests on questionable assumptions. These treaties could certainly change Pakistan’s outlier status, but many Pakistanis don’t think they advance national security. And how can Pakistan be considered ‘normal’ when the writ of the state shrinks while its stockpiles of weapons and fissile material grow?

Treaties would no doubt help defuse Pakistan’s nuclear competition with India if both countries were willing to sign up. But neither is ready to close the door permanently on nuclear testing, and because they aren’t sure how many nuclear weapons they need. The problem is circular: Treaties can help with security, but powerful domestic constituencies don’t feel secure enough to sign up.

New Delhi will compete harder in the years ahead, which raises the question of whether Pakistan’s decision-makers will, as well, or decide instead that they have enough nuclear firepower to protect against India. The biggest existential threat to Pakistan at present, as noted by civilian and military leaders, is violent extremist groups, not India. Nuclear weapons and fissile material are no help with internal security, and if protection of these crown jewels is not completely foolproof, they could be turned against civil and military authority.

The logic of Pakistan’s nuclear build-up is plain: it can’t compete with India on conventional military capabilities, but it can compensate by building nuclear weapons and their means of delivery. Over time, India will out-compete Pakistan here, as well. If Pakistan continues to compete, would it become safer? Not if internal security problems grow along with its nuclear arsenal.

At present, Pakistan and India are committed to nuclear postures that are almost mirror images of each other, linked in lock-step like flag-lowering ceremonies at the Wagah border. Pakistan and India are only part of what Fitzpatrick describes as a “unidirectional” nuclear competition. Pakistan competes with India, which competes with China, whose nuclear requirements are, in turn, influenced by the US. India will compete with China regardless of what Pakistan does. So Pakistan’s choice is to continue the nuclear competition or to look for other ways to increase national security.

Would an offer of nuclear normalcy help Pakistan decide? Would it shape Pakistan’s nuclear posture in stabilising ways? No offer of normalcy can succeed unless it addresses the underlying reasons for Pakistan’s nuclear build-up. Pakistan doesn’t compete with India in this domain to gain status, and acquiring the status of a ‘normal’ nuclear state won’t lessen requirements until Pakistan feels safe and secure.

Will being designated a ‘normal’ nuclear nation be enough to convince Rawalpindi that it already has enough nuclear weapons? Nuclear normalisation doesn’t seem possible unless and until relations with India are normal. This means that as long as India is perceived as an existential threat, and as long as powerful domestic constituencies see the necessity of competing with India, normality will elude Pakistan.

Nor can Pakistan be considered a normal nuclear state as long as the writ of the state is shrinking. Nuclear normality begins at home and within the region; it cannot be bestowed by the US or the NSG.

Fitzpatrick does not suggest a civil-nuclear deal to signify normalisation, like that offered to India. China has agreed to provide Pakistan with nuclear power plants at highly concessionary terms. No other country or nuclear power corporation will dispense with profit taking, so a civil-nuclear deal would not open up new investment opportunities and is not on the cards. Instead, the path to nuclear normalcy lies within Pakistan itself, by getting its house in order, by improving ties with its neighbours, and by finding non-nuclear ways to increase its sense of security.

The writer is the co-founder of the Stimson Centre.