The Eve of Destruction?
Recent headlines have been dominated by coverage of the second summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, which was convened with starry-eyed hopes of securing a North Korean commitment to denuclearization. This was not, however, the only international happening of the past month that involved a pair of nuclear-armed states with a hostile history.
India and Pakistan have had a contentious relationship marked by four wars since Pakistan was separated from India in 1947. Over the past two weeks, tensions have risen especially high — to the extent that fears of imminent war have been rekindled. A suicide bombing by a Pakistan-based terrorist organization last month claimed the lives of over 40 Indian paramilitaries and ignited an exchange of antagonistic maneuvers that included Indian air raids in Pakistani territory and the capture of an Indian pilot. As of the time that this article was authored, the situation appears to have somewhat de-escalated. Nevertheless, these recent events have amplified concerns for the implications of a war with the possibility of nuclear exchange.
Over the past few decades, Pakistan and India have engaged in an arms race of sorts, with the military capacity of the latter clearly proving more formidable. However, India is likely to hold off on employing its full arsenal against Pakistan for the time being, and for good reason. The authority to deploy nuclear weapons in the Pakistani military is assigned to lower-level military commanders, rendering their tactics all the more unpredictable. By decentralizing this decision, Pakistani officials essentially place the responsibility upon India to avoid provoking a nuclear attack. So, when dozens of Indian paramilitaries are killed by a terrorist group that the Indian government believes to be allowed to operate freely by Pakistani officials, the stakes of any response are instantly raised.
Since the world entered the nuclear age, international institutions like the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have largely succeeded in limiting the spread and development of nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, the use of nuclear weapons was prevented by the shared policy of mutually assured destruction by the United States and Soviet Union. Though for many the world may feel safer since the U.S.S.R. collapsed, in some ways it is less stable without the counterbalance of two global superpowers and U.S.’s diminishing international influence. The world has changed, and with it the nuclear game.
Recently, international attention has focused on efforts to curb the extant nuclear programs operated in North Korea and Iran. President Trump’s efforts to address both of these situations have been simultaneously ludicrous and demonstrative of shrinking American influence, from his tweet after his first summit with Kim Jong-un declaring that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat to his withdrawal from the Iran Deal despite evidence of Iran’s compliance. North Korea is expanding its nuclear program, and Iran is continuing to work towards preserving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with European signatories.
For all of the organizations and treaties built around the mission of nuclear non-proliferation, the notion of international nuclear stability is becoming increasingly precarious. Relations and words are heating up, as evidenced by the small exchanges cited previously in this article, as well as Russia’s troubling withdrawal from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the U.S. The most immediate threat, though, as described by Bradford University professor Paul Rogers, might just be a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, which could quickly grow to involve more powerful allies, like the United States and Russia. The globe has entered a new, more dangerous era of nuclear states, and we came uncomfortably close to realizing this during the recent tensions in South Asia.