Nuclear Proliferation can lead to Peace

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If there’s one sensible policy statement (indicative) that Donald Trump- the presidential contender- has stated till now, it is his take on nuclear weapons.

A few days earlier, Trump told the New York Times, “If Japan had that nuclear threat, I’m not sure that would be a bad thing for us.” Nor would it be so bad, he’s said, if South Korea and Saudi Arabia had nuclear weapons, too. Essentially, Trump is saying that nuclear proliferation among states is not a bad thing. I agree. Nuclear proliferation, as the great theorist of International Relations, the neo realist, Kenneth Waltz, put it, ‘nuclear weapons can be a great equalizer and because of their deterrent effect may even lead to peace.  

Moreover, the efforts that the United States has put into non proliferation, through the use of the NPT regime have not historically been worth the effort: states which were determined to obtain nukes got them. India and Pakistan are clear cut examples.  And, it could be stated, with reasonable accuracy, that peace between India and Pakistan has held because of nukes. That nukes also provide a shield for opportunistic asymmetric war is altogether a different thing. Attributing the latter to the former means getting the causality wrong and mistaking symptoms for the disease.

Given that I am from South Asia, I would axiomatically take my starting point the ‘nuclear race’ between India and Pakistan to put the case for proliferation into perspective. While there were differential reasons for both countries to acquire nukes, India and Pakistan sought to nuclearize themselves essentially in the pursuit of security. The United States- recognizing the dangers of a nuclearized subcontinent- sought to discourage both Pakistan and India to go nuclear by both deterrence and compellence. The instruments that the United States chose were diplomatic isolation, threats and sanctions. None worked. While India’s nuclear program dates back to the early seventies or even earlier (a quest that accrued from the humiliating debacle with China in 1962), and Pakistan’s during the time of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, both went openly and publicly nuclear in the latter half of the closing decade of the 20th century. India and Pakistan had apparently learnt and concluded that the United States would always be motivated by its interests and would not or could not guarantee the security of the two countries. Its ‘ tilt’ would be determined by the structure of the international system, the configuration of forces in a given moment of time and how the country’s interests would fit in these conditions. The obvious choice and path for both India and Pakistan to amplify their security was by going nuclear. They precisely did it and general, apart from what I would call ‘glocalized skirmishes’ (read the Kargil War), peace has obtained between the two arch antagonists.

This equation or condition may hold between other states too. Once there is nuclear “parity” or let’s say an alignment of the “first strike” and second strike” capabilities in a way that affect the decision making calculus of dyadic, or paired states in conflict, it is unlikely that war will break out. Key here, among other things, is balance of power. Saudi’s and Iranians may then be at peace with each other; so would the two Koreas and Japan would be released from the clutches of non-militarism.

Trump’s take on nuclear weapons then makes sense.

However, what is portentous and what can be gleaned from Trump’s nuclear take is that if Trump assumes the highest office in the United States, his administration’s foreign policy would take the United States toward isolationalism. Or, in other words, if Trump follows up on his ideas, then he would be retrenching the United States from the world. Consider an example.

The United States has, by building an alliance and security system, in the Asia Pacific and East Asia, maintained peace and curbed the “security dilemmas’ of many states in the region- Japan, South Korea- by “extended deterrence”. That is, provided a nuclear umbrella to these states and thus guaranteed their security. Proliferation would imply that these states are now on their own- responsible for their security sans the US nuclear umbrella. This would obviously lead to arms racing and what have you in the region but a rough balance of power, which keeps the peace, could also be obtained. The United States would retreat inward, become isolationist in the process and avoid what the historian Paul Kennedy called, ‘Imperial Overstretch”. In a more contemporary idiom, this would also mean managing the nation’s decline with extant resources. Whether, United States’ retrenchment from the world and its isolationism would be good or bad remains to be seen. It, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, falls in the domain of the “unknown unknown”.

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