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Our Misguided South Asia Nuclear Policy


More than three months after India and Pakistan shocked the world with a series of nuclear weapons tests, it is time for the Clinton administration and the Congress to dispense with an illusory policy of ineffective sanctions and face reality. Failure to do so risks forfeiting U.S. influence in an important and increasingly dangerous part of the world.

This is a critical juncture for re-examining U.S. policy toward South Asia. Time is running out if the United States is to head off further destabilizing developments in the nuclear realm. Intense U.S. diplomatic contacts with India and Pakistan have approached a decisive point. Congress will be in session for only a few more weeks; the president must decide soon whether to go ahead with his planned trip to India and Pakistan in November.

It was this combination of factors—enormous stakes and great urgency—that prompted the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations to convene this summer an independent task force co-chaired by the two of us to chart a new course for U.S. foreign policy toward India and Pakistan. The resulting report, which argues that the United States does not have the luxury of disengaging from the region because it disagrees with the nuclear tests, is to be published this week.

Unlike the long standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, stability based on nuclear deterrence is not immediately applicable to India and Pakistan. It took the superpowers decades to develop the elements of deterrence: the ability to assess clearly the other side’s forces, the erection of reliable safeguards against unauthorized or accidental use and, finally, the capability to assure devastating retaliation should the other side strike first—so-called second strike capability. In addition, U.S.-Soviet competition was buffered by a considerable geographic separation and a tacit acceptance of rules that discouraged direct military confrontation. Even so, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to war more than once.

In contrast, India and Pakistan are immediate neighbors, disputing not just a border, but the status of Kashmir. They have a history of armed conflict, having fought three major wars between them in the last 50 years. Neither possesses accurate intelligence or warning systems, nor do they have the ability to assure a second strike. As a result, the possibility of a nuclear conflict in South Asia—by design or by accident—cannot be entirely excluded.

This is not to suggest that the recent nuclear tests—five by India, then six by Pakistan, all in May—must lead inevitably to nuclear war. There are other destabilizing developments to be considered, such as the actual deployment of nuclear weapons, an escalating nuclear arms race or the transfer of nuclear technology to third parties. Arms transfers are particularly worrisome in the case of Pakistan, which has had close military ties with Iran. Because the dangers are real, the United States must make it a priority to forestall such deterioration.

In addition to nuclear concerns, the United States has important interests in both India and Pakistan. These include preventing war of any sort in South Asia, promoting democracy and internal stability, and expanding economic growth, trade and investment. The United States also has a stake in developing political and military cooperation on a host of regional and global challenges, including terrorism, drug trafficking and environmental degradation. In fact, both India and Pakistan are potential strategic partners of the United States.

U.S. policy should not sacrifice its many interests in South Asia to promote unrealistic aims in the nuclear realm. Particularly quixotic is any hope of a complete rollback to a non-nuclear South Asia. What India and Pakistan learned from the recent tests cannot be unlearned. For the foreseeable future neither country will eliminate its stockpile of fissionable material or declare itself ready to sign the Nonproliferation Treaty. That would be imaginable only in the context of unprecedented strides toward total global nuclear disarmament and fundamental improvements in India’s relations with both Pakistan and China.

Unfortunately, present U.S. policy is almost certain to complicate the challenge of promoting the full range of American interests. That policy, defined by legislation, requires the introduction of economic sanctions for an indefinite period as a result of the nuclear strivings of India and Pakistan. The first casualty will be U.S. economic interests, but it is likely that other stakes will be adversely affected.

The unintended consequences of U.S. sanctions are particularly pertinent to Pakistan, which is far more dependent on international assistance than is India. Sanctions could actually weaken political authority in Pakistan, a state already burdened by political, social and economic problems, including massive foreign debt and negligible foreign exchange reserves. A stable Pakistan in possession of nuclear weapons is reason enough to worry; an unstable Pakistan would be that much worse.

Advocates of punitive sanctions argue that the nuclear tests pose a major challenge to the global nonproliferation regime—even though neither India nor Pakistan is a party to the Nonproliferation Treaty or has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—and that it is important that India and Pakistan be seen to suffer lest other countries conclude that they can follow suit with impunity.

Although it is important that India and Pakistan be seen as paying a price (and certainly not be seen as being rewarded) for their decision to test, reliance on economic sanctions for this purpose makes for questionable policy. Apart from sanctions, India and Pakistan will indeed pay a price for what they have done. Beyond living with an increased risk of catastrophic conflict, both societies will have to bear the large financial weight of maintaining nuclear capabilities, especially if they decide to develop secure arsenals.

Full-fledged nuclear programs—programs that include the intelligence, delivery systems and communications support needed for robust deterrence—tend to be terribly expensive and economically unproductive. The tests and the resulting uncertainty will further detract from economic growth by discouraging foreign investment. There will be a political price to pay as well. India cannot hope to attain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council any time soon. More generally, both countries will learn that possessing nuclear weapons and great power status are two very different things.

So what needs to be done? Congress, before it adjourns, should provide the president with broad waiver authority so that sanctions and incentives can be used to support U.S. diplomacy rather than thwart it. In a context in which India and Pakistan are taking constructive steps to cap their nuclear programs and improve relations with each other—and amid signs that sanctions are working against U.S. foreign policy goals—the executive branch should exercise the authority we are urging Congress to grant and remove the bulk of the remaining sanctions. It should keep in place only those measures that block the transfer of technology, material and equipment that could advance Indian and Pakistani missile and nuclear programs.

The United States generally needs to move away from a light-switch approach—where U.S. reaction is automatic and without nuance—and toward a modulated use of sanctions. Congress has already suspended some of the sanctions, and there are signs that it is prepared to give the president the authority to waive more, or even most, of them. This trend is to be applauded. Making it last will require the administration to explain its evolving policy and engage in genuine consultations with Congress on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, there is no reason that a realistic policy toward India and Pakistan need encourage proliferation elsewhere. The United States can use other tools on a case-by-case basis to frustrate nuclear proliferation. These include security commitments, sales of conventional arms, diplomacy that abates the source of conflict, sanctions, economic incentives, export controls, a stronger International Atomic Energy Agency, covert operations, preventive military strikes, and arms control agreements.

None of this represents a fundamental or dangerous departure. The United States has carried out a differentiated non-proliferation policy for more than 40 years now with considerable success, viewing the nuclear programs of Israel, India and Pakistan as something distinct from those of so-called rogues. Such discrimination—and realism—is what a successful foreign policy requires.

Richard Haass, who served on the National Security Council staff during the Bush administration, is director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. Morton Halperin, who served in the Pentagon and on the NSC staff in the Clinton administration, is senior vice president of the Century Foundation.

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