Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear War in South Asia: An Unknowable Future

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

May 1, 2002

Nicola Machiavelli, Kautilya’s Western counterpart, noted that luck or fortune played a greater role in the course of politics than any other factor. The great military theorists, Clausewitz, wrote about the “fog of war,” the uncertainties that envelope the participants in armed combat. We should draw our inspiration from these maxims, not an excessive faith in the power of reason and calculation to advance a nation’s interests while avoiding catastrophe.

The future use of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan is impossible to predict with any confidence. The most that can be done is to set out a range of futures, and develop policy recommendations, but it would be foolish to assume that a straight-line projection of the present will yield an accurate understanding of the future. This conclusion has three important policy implications. The first is that policies made now on the basis of a firm vision of the future are as likely to be proven irrelevant or misguided as to be correct. The second is that the wide range of possible futures, and the uncertainty as to which will materialize, should lead to a degree of humility among analysts and policy makers. Low risk policies should be favored. The third is that hope is not a policy. Wishing for a good outcome to the inevitable India-Pakistan nuclear arms race—complicated by China’s role as a rival to India and a supplier to Pakistan—is not enough. Leaders must lead, not be driven by events, and the scholarly community has the obligation to be ahead of the policy curve, not trailing behind it.

This skepticism about our ability to foresee the future comes from past efforts to predict it. The nuclearization of South Asia had been anticipated for decades, yet when it came, it was a surprise. Then, it was widely assumed that being nuclear weapons states, India and Pakistan could no longer go to war. Indeed, some argued that the possession of nuclear weapons by both states would eventually lead to a reconciliation of their outstanding differences. These expectations were wrong, as the two countries did become embroiled in a minor war in 1999, and despite their declared nuclear status, are again on the brink of war as they enter the sixth month of an unprecedented crisis, featuring full military mobilization and mutual nuclear threats. Finally, the expert community was surprised, although not shocked, by the revelation that the United States had persuasive evidence that Pakistan had moved its nuclear arsenal during the Kargil crisis in mid-1999—it is possible that Pakistan’s Prime Minister was also surprised when he was told this by President Bill Clinton.