Written By: Dr. Rizwana Abbasi
Empirical record shows that nuclear weapons have not been employed after 1945. However, in many crises and wars in history, there were possibilities when nuclear weapons could have been used without fear of retaliation. But, states did not use the nuclear use option, even at the higher cost on the theatre of war. This happened despite the existence of many supporting variables that might have prompted employment of nuclear bombs, such as: widespread nuclear weapons in states’ possession internationally; states’ technical efficiency in regard to operationalization of such weapons; transfer of nuclear weapons from old to new proliferators with asymmetric power balance; the centrality of nuclear weapons in states’ national security policies and their strategic doctrines; states’ distinct strategic cultures/traditions and unique politicACal systems and; more significantly, absence of legal prohibition towards possession and use of nuclear weapons. To fully understand the question as to why nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945, Tannenwald in her prize winning account, Nuclear Taboo and T.V. Paul in his Tradition of Non-use of Nuclear Weapons have revised this debate more persuasively and comprehensively than the others cited and commented on.
The more embracing and comprehensive explanation of this non-use puzzle is based on the conventional or realpolitik argument that is based on material factors such as existence of nuclear weapons and ‘deterrence’. Tannenwald believes that deterrence is an important but insufficient part of this explanation for non-use. She challenges the realists’ idea that non-use of nuclear weapons is not only based on material factors (‘state level policy assessment and consideration about nuclear use based on “non-norms” factors: such as fear of escalation of war; retaliation; the military utility of nuclear weapons; weapons availability; and the costs and feasibility of nuclear weapons and their alternatives’) or deterrence. She believes that the normative aspect provides a more convincing explanation for this debate. Her well researched explanation based on constructivist approach is that normative ideas about morality and legitimacy have led to the development of a collectively held, self-reinforcing norm of non-use of nuclear weapons, or a nuclear weapons taboo. She built the argument that taboo (a stringent norm – that is unbreakable) not only constraints the behaviour of nuclear weapon states but also constitutes their identities and interests as civilized nations. Thus, Paul relegates the tradition of non-use of nuclear weapon to an informal norm, for him norms can be modified over time – and does not give much weight to constructivists’ norms-based approach. For him deterrence, the fear of the impact of use of nuclear weapons, and the reputational issues for states arising from the use of nuclear weapons are important in this debate.
The present writer’s contention, drawing upon Tannenwald’s and Paul’s investigation is that ‘taboo’ may be the correct explanation and that the term gains credence because no state has used nuclear weapons from 1945 to the present even under compelling circumstances. To the present writer’s understanding, ‘taboo’ was certainly established by the United States of America, but there were some significant attributes that explicitly or implicitly contributed to the establishment of this taboo. These are guided by and based on U.S.’ national security interests and material factors. Thus, my contention is that a single approach or cultural/normative aspects alone cannot explain the taboo talk. Amalgamation of both material and non-material or ideational factors can explain this question of non-use more clearly.
In the first place, realist and neo-realist theorists argue that states (rational, unitary actors) are primarily concerned with their own survival in the international order; the great powers have dominated the system, and anarchy has been the key ordering principle that has structured states’ behaviour. Thus, it is fair to assume that the two superpowers’ national security interests and their strategic gains remained uppermost in the bipolar world. One, nuclear competition/arms race between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union in 1950s helped them achieve bomb efficiency and sufficiency to maintain their doctrinal force posture and preserve deterrence credibility. The former Soviet Union broke America’s nuclear supremacy and monopoly that certainly regulated the nature of war. Two, the U.S., and the Soviet Union were two leading global powers and they desired to maximize their global political influence. Thus, based on their technological efficiencies and capabilities, they realized that there can be no victory in the nuclear domain. Moreover, the two superpowers had to transcend their power beyond their regions. Thus, they preferred peace/settlement over confrontation/war. Three, the U.S. wanted to establish a favourable world order by preaching peace and minimizing violence. Four, introduction of new conventional technologies, such as Ballistic Missile Defence and missile interceptors, reduced the role and utility of these weapons globally that indeed modified the U.S. behaviour.
Secondly, neo-liberal approach articulates that institutions contribute substantially to the world of politics, especially in the area of state cooperation and behaviour. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union believed that the new patterns of international politics were based on multilateral institutions, which help states see one another through the lens of shared interests. Thus, on the policy side, non-proliferation arrangements were initiated at the system level by the superpowers during the Cold War through negotiations which were somehow successful till 1991. The two bipolar blocs, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact, played a considerably important role in placing constraints on states’ nuclear behaviour through incentives and alliances. The establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was initiated as a system level arrangement based on President Eisenhower’s address to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on December 8, 1953.
After President Kennedy’s prediction in 1963 that “15 to 25 states would obtain nuclear weapons by 1975,” the U.S. opened discreet channels of communication with the Soviet Union, the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament (ENDC) and its NATO allies. Thus, negotiations on disarmament brought the two superpowers together to draft another arrangement to prohibit further nuclear weapons proliferation. Subsequently, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was finalized and was opened for signature in 1968 that came into force in 1970, with a range of obligations on the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) and Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) based on three bargaining pillars – non-proliferation, right to peaceful use of nuclear technologies and disarmament. Later the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and export control regimes were introduced that tend to give an important status to the NPT and overall non-proliferation efforts.
In 1961, President Kennedy’s administration sought to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons and to develop more flexible and conventional alternatives. The initiatives that were initiated during the Cold War, such as introduction of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), arms control arrangements, Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Soviet Union in 1972, and extension of nuclear states negative security assurances to non-nuclear states in 1978 also contributed to resilience of this taboo. These formal and informal treaties and regimes that are directed to promote non-proliferation laid down the concealed and robust foundation for nuclear taboo, thereby containing states’ behaviour not only towards development of nuclear weapons and arms control, but they also promoted the spirit of non-use. The purpose of these arrangements was to establish a rule-based mechanism against proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world and create trust among states.
Thirdly, constructivist approach based on ideational factor thus helps one to endorse Tannenwald’s taboo debate. The former two models based on political and self-interest grounds helped modify states’ normative and social behaviour during the Cold War. President Truman’s contribution by assigning non-military or political role to nuclear weapons was based on fear factor or horrendous consequences of use of nuclear weapons. Strategic thinkers’ contribution based on their scientific inquiry at the RAND; such as, Bernard Brodie, Thomas Shelling, Albert Wohlstetter, Henry Kissinger and Herman Kahn; injected vigorous strategic thinking at the political and strategic levels on the role of the nuclear weapons hence verifying the fact that there is no victory in the nuclear war. Indeed, American reputation was widely damaged due to employment of nuclear weapons that certainly set the new discourse/direction in regard to the role of the U.S. as a leading power in the world order. In parallel to this, the fear factor and consequences of use of nuclear weapons generated human rights debates, civil society movements, anti-nuclear weapons pressure groups in the U.S. and Europe. In this process, common public perception in the West was much more developed with respect to the horrific effects resulting from the use of nuclear weapons, and an increased sense of responsibility at state level had emerged in this respect.
Resilience and Fragility of Taboo in the Present Century: Resilience of Taboo
In the first place, it goes without saying that slower proliferation of nuclear weapons, contrary to Kennedy’s prediction – that was widely anticipated – has not come to pass yet. Two, discernible decline in number of arsenals between the U.S. and Russia has strengthened non-proliferation framework and spirit towards disarmament. Three, the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 and the treaty’s membership that has reached up to 190 states, are hallmark developments. Four, the introduction of New START by President Obama, announcement of diminishing role of nuclear weapons in the U.S. national security policies, Global Zero Movement and President Obama’s efforts are great steps towards the survival of taboo talk. Five, arrival of smarter conventional technologies such as Global Prompt Strikes (GPS), missile anticipators and shifting power centres, global integration/interdependence and regionalism have reinforced the spirit of non-use taboo, thereby minimizing the utility of nuclear weapons.
Fragility of Taboo
However, the taboo remains fragile in the present century. The taboo holds no legitimacy and there is no legal prohibition on possession and use of nuclear weapons. Thus, the taboo talk demands a new nuclear taboo against proliferation of nuclear weapons via major fixes, thereby plugging the gaps that exist in institutional arrangements and agreements directed to promote non-proliferation. The major institutional arrangement with highest membership within the non-proliferation regime is the NPT that requires major improvements.
Despite its successes, the regime has failed in achieving its desired goals based on its three pillars which constituted a grand bargain. One, under the NPT, five countries are recognized as NWS, while the rest of the Treaty’s signatories are regarded as NNWS and barred from acquiring nuclear weapons. Such an arrangement has raised global criticism against this regime’s efficacy and it underscores great powers’ interests. Two, there is a problem of non-universal nature of the NPT that needs to be addressed. Three, another issue is that in Articles III and IV, the vaguely defined Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has been used to give waiver to states to transfer nuclear technology. Arguably, the U.S. waiver (2008) to India and U.S.-India Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) have evidently damaged the essence and spirit of the taboo by complicating regional politics between India and Pakistan. Thus, it goes without saying that India’s and America’s shared interests have created regional imbalance and mistrust. States’ interests at the system level are indeed damaging the set institutional norms, thereby making regional politics highly complicated. Against this backdrop of existing realities such as: the growing reliance of India and Pakistan on nuclear weapons; absence of an arms’ control regime; non-existence of CBMs; existence of ambiguous doctrinal strategies and contingency plans; and aggravated arms’ race in South Asia powerfully advocate the fragility and vulnerability of taboo.
Four, no progress has been made in the implementation of Article VI prescribing disarmament by the NWS. In particular, the NPT extension conference referred to Article VI of the NPT and obligations of the NWS to pursue efforts in good faith towards total elimination of nuclear weapons. Five, export control regimes, particularly the NSG, are under immense stress against the backdrop of globalization, rising demand for energy security in developing countries of Asia and shifting global energy trends from fossil to non-fossil fuel – especially clean energy. Thus, the NPT clauses on non-proliferation and peaceful uses require major changes.
The taboo against use would remain under strain until and unless we establish a new taboo against proliferation of nuclear weapons. To strengthen the new taboo, it is imperative that we universalize the non-proliferation regime/agreements and arrangements, hence relating them to the states’ behaviour at the domestic level.
Pakistan and Nuclear Taboo (Non-Use)
How resilient is the taboo in Pakistan’s context? I have investigated the extent to which Pakistan’s security considerations and its nuclear behaviour were factored into the regional strategic environment/thinking or global non-proliferation regime/norms; and to what extent non-material/ideational attributes/factors would have an impact on Pakistan’s use or non-use decision?
Pakistan’s nuclear behaviour is motivated by two main factors. First, it is India-centric Pakistan’s behaviour, which became evident after 1965, is more adequately explained by the realist model: the threat to its security arising from its immediate neighbour, India, and the actions of India towards the acquisition of a nuclear capability which appears to be the main motivation behind Pakistan’s own drive towards acquiring a nuclear capability in response. Pakistan wars with India in 1965 and 1971, when it received no help from its allies, led it to rely less on alliance systems and to turn instead to self-help. Pakistan was left with no choice but to acquire nuclear weapon capability after the Indian so-called Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) in 1974, which challenged the strategic equation in the South Asian region. India’s unconditional hostility and its tests again in 1998 changed Pakistan’s cautious and restrained nuclear policy into one of weaponization. Pakistan thinks strategically and realistically when its national security and survival is threatened. Pakistan’s policy decisions in relation to nuclear weapons, its doctrinal strategies, contingency plans are directed to neutralize Indian actions, its conventional and non-conventional postures and operational plans directed toward Pakistan. However, Pakistan is vigilant on Indian conventional and non-conventional defence build-up, its contingency plans and future policies. Pakistan has included tactical nuclear weapons in its inventory to counter Indian Cold Start Doctrine, thus minimizing probability of war in the region.
Second, it was found that Pakistan’s behaviour is influenced by the non-proliferation regime which in the long term failed to secure Pakistan’s cooperation. We cannot deny the fact that on normative ground, though from the outset, Pakistan sought to be aligned with the global community, particularly the U.S., sometimes on bilateral grounds and on other occasions as a part of trilateral or multilateral alliances. Pakistan’s behaviour in the period from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, shows its cooperation based policy when it was a part of global alliances such as Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). Pakistan refrained from nuclear weapons development in this period and relied instead on international alliances.
In 1974, on normative grounds, Pakistan had proposed to establish a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) in South Asia; and in 1978, it proposed to India a series of measures which it rejected. These included a joint Indo-Pakistan declaration renouncing the acquisition and manufacture of nuclear weapons, mutual inspections by India and Pakistan of nuclear facilities, simultaneous adherence to the NPT by India and Pakistan, and simultaneous acceptance of IAEA’s full-scope safeguards. However, all these proposals were rejected by India.
In its national security interest, Pakistan decided not to sign the NPT: First, it has serious reservations about the structure of this Treaty that maintains a division between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states on selective basis and has led to arguments that the NPT is primarily focused on safeguarding the interests of the P-5 states. Second, the NPT has made no progress towards disarmament, thus perpetuating the crisis of trust. Third, the NPT did not offer any incentive to Pakistan towards safeguarding its national security interests against existential threat coming from India. Fourth, the NPT failed to constrain states’ behaviour that legitimize and maximize their absolute gains thereby compromising the spirit of the Treaty. The Indo-U.S. nuclear deal is a significant case in point. Fifth, there exist considerable ambiguities and confusion between the clauses on non-proliferation and right to peaceful use of nuclear technologies that put substantial pressure on the applicability of the NPT in the 21st century.
On Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), Pakistan insists that negotiations on all four items agreed to in the Shannon Mandate of 1995, be pursued simultaneously. Pakistan proposes: One, the FMCT needs to be a non-discriminatory and universally verifiable treaty. Second, it does not agree with the term “cut-off” as it does not cover the existing stockpile/fissile material. Third, the FMCT should be conceived as a legitimate disarmament measure, not devoted merely to the goals of non-proliferation. Four, non-inclusion of existing stockpiles of fissile materials puts Pakistan in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis its adversary, India. Five, Pakistan believes that the U.S.-India nuclear deal and the NSG’s special waiver to India have unquestionably given India an advantage.
There are many reasons for Pakistan not to take a unilateral approach to signing the CTBT: One, it is unclear whether India would follow suit, given its intention to build hydrogen bombs. Two, Pakistan will not be recognized as a nuclear weapons state by the world community even if it signs the CTBT. Three, Pakistan may not secure substantial support for its peaceful nuclear programme, unlike India. Finally, if Pakistan were to join and quit because of India’s possible tests, such a reversal would have a huge costly strategic impact on Pakistan.
Being not a member of the NPT, Pakistan has instituted a laborious and robust export control and nuclear security regime. Pakistan follows the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540; it is a party to the Convention on Nuclear Safety; the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials and Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism; the Container Security Initiative, and the IAEA’s Incident and Trafficking Database. Moreover, Islamabad has established its independent regulatory authority – Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority – that works closely with the IAEA.
While, in general, the arguments presented here subscribe to this viewpoint, the reality in the case of South Asia is that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by two rival powers has in fact had a stabilizing effect on a volatile region. India and Pakistan have fought three major wars before they gained a nuclear deterrence capability. Nuclear deterrence has prevented both a full conventional war and a nuclear war. U.S. mediation has strengthened the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons which demonstrates the relevance of the constructivists’ arguments here. For example, two major crises (Brasstacks in 87–88 and the Kashmir crisis in 1990–91), as well as the Kargil crisis in 1999 and the long period of armed confrontation following the attack on the Lok Sabha in December 2001 have been resolved or contained through U.S. mediation (that is not guaranteed in the future).
It is possible that the U.S. would not have intervened had both states not been nuclear armed. Equally, U.S. mediation might not have been accepted by the parties – principally by India, which rejects third party mediation in most cases – had not the risks of nuclear conflict been very great. Thus, it is argued that the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons has been recognized globally, but it still holds weak recognition in the South Asian context because of regional complexities and distinct political direction of two new nuclear weapon states. India is focused on projecting power beyond the region, whereas Pakistan is focused on maximization of its own security.
The problems of the state of Pakistan in the context of use and non-use cannot be explained based on ideational factors such as norms/identity/culture or dealt with in isolation from problems related to regional strategic environment or problem within the non-proliferation system. One, Pakistan and India are developing countries and their societal factors cannot be compared with the super and great power of the world; two, illiteracy rate and level of tolerance and human right debates are fairly weak in these societies; three, there are no strong indigenous civil society movements and public awareness on the consequences of employment of nuclear weapons; four, distinct politics directions of India (seeks global role) and Pakistan (maximization of security) is delaying the peace process; five, both countries are not willing to compromise on the Kashmir issue.
Therefore, the argument generates a further debate: to fully understand Pakistan’s nuclear policy, the Indian case must also be considered. To alter Pakistan’s behaviour, it is necessary to change India’s behaviour first. To change India’s behaviour, there is a need to change the behaviour of the NWS overall. This is why it is only a change in the behaviour of states at the system level that can lead to a change in the behaviour of states at a regional level. A change in regional behaviour would lead to a change in Pakistan’s behaviour internally.
In the regional nuclear setting of South Asia, nuclear competition and mistrust is not bilateral, but triangular. India reacts not only to Pakistan but also to China. China supports Pakistan, but also has an uneasy relationship with the United States, which views it as a potential enemy. Therefore, the conclusion of this debate does not support the hypothesis that the solution in South Asia lies in bilateral negotiations between India and Pakistan or Pakistan’s behaviour on non-use phenomenon can be modified internally or on cultural basis. The argument is that the security dilemma of South Asia is sufficiently deep-rooted on realist thinking in both countries (India and Pakistan), and the prevention of risks and tensions between India and Pakistan is sufficiently problematic. This requires international institutions’ intervention and the non-proliferation regime itself to play a role in possible conflict resolution and to prevent use of nuclear weapons in crises and wars.
Today’s global problems are sufficiently complex and interrelated that require global solutions based on a multilateral and collective approach. International institutions need to be strengthened to counter the emerging threats to global security. In the future, if states operate in isolation and solely according to self-interest, the interests of all assuredly will suffer. Cooperation is possible in case in which gains are shared equitably. Thus, there is an urgent need to revive the non-proliferation regime and engage the non-NPT states in the full spectrum of non-proliferation and disarmament standards and obligations.
Within this debate, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development cannot be understood without taking into account this remaining puzzle: why a similar taboo does not exist against proliferation of nuclear weapons; why has one not emerged and why is one not recognized? Why did states find it difficult to institute a codified, stringent norm or a taboo against the proliferation of nuclear weapons? Unless there is a stringent prohibition of proliferation of nuclear weapons, the chances of moving towards total elimination or a global zero are low. A new taboo against proliferation will help secure the existing taboo against use and would pave the way to establish the ultimate and decisive step of a taboo against the possession of nuclear weapons.