How to Build Nuclear Confidence

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How to Build Nuclear Confidence

India and Pakistan are eyeing nuclear confidence building measures. They must remember it’s no zero-sum game.

The foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan met once again from June 23-24 to try to resolve some of the problems that bedevil the bilateral relationship. Following the brazen attack by Pakistan-based terrorists on Mumbai in November 2008, India suspended the ‘composite dialogue,’ which had been ongoing in various forms for several decades. And, although Pakistan has shown little public remorse (let alone offered clear indications that it will abandon its policy of ‘encouragement’ for terrorism as a foreign policy tool) Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh thought it prudent to engage with Islamabad for the sake of peace and security. So the dialogue process is on yet again, and the Indian side has described its approach as being driven by a ‘great sense of confidence, optimism and determination.’

Aside from the usual issues of bilateral concern on the talks agenda, it was interesting that nuclear confidence building measures were also included for discussion in this round of discussions. This is a significant step, and one can only hope that the interlocutors on both sides invest the necessary seriousness and urgency in the process.

It may be recalled that soon after their nuclear tests in 1998, India and Pakistan embarked on nuclear confidence building measures. The bilateral memorandum of understanding signed in Lahore on February 21, 1999 was forward looking, and included measures such as an agreement to exchange information on nuclear doctrines and security concepts, numbers of warheads and missiles, advance notification on missile tests and prompt notification of any accidental, unauthorized or unexplained nuclear incidents.

Unfortunately, though, the full potential in the memorandum could never be realized, as within months of the bilateral agreement on nuclear confidence building measures, Pakistan blatantly breached all trust by sending its army regulars dressed as mujahedeen into Indian territory with the obvious intention of seizing parts of Kargil in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Confidence building since then has been disrupted several times by acts of terrorism.

The irony is that existential nuclear risks that accompany a nuclear weapons capability demand some understanding between hostile nations. In fact, the greater the hostility, the more it’s necessary to explore and undertake steps that hold the promise of establishing strategic stability, especially since arsenals grow and capabilities increase on both sides. Obviously, the risks of unplanned or inadvertent escalation due to unintended use or miscalculation triggered by improper judgments increase as nuclear arsenals do. Some of these risks can be mitigated through measures taken at the national level. But some risks demand a mutual response, based on a common understanding of the concerns and risks.

For this to happen, it’s important that India and Pakistan recognize the need, rationale and mechanics of nuclear confidence building measures, as well as nuclear arms control. More than in any other nuclear dyadic relationship, the negotiators from both sides will have to rise above the many misperceptions that exist between the two. It’s obvious that disagreements and mistrust will threaten negotiations, but such obstacles must not deter the pursuit of the process because the alternative is a far more dangerous situation of nuclear instability.

For starters, nuclear confidence building measures need to be arrived at on the principles of equity of benefits, flexibility of approach, domestic acceptability of end results and verifiability of agreed measures. They must be rooted in the general belief that these would lead to greater security of both parties involved. Unless both sides see the benefits for themselves, the negotiations will be unable to produce any worthwhile results, and in fact, could actually be counterproductive by placing greater strain on the bilateral relationship if one side were to see itself as a loser in the process.

By its very nature, confidence building has to be undertaken with an adversary. In fact, the more adversarial the relationship, the greater the need for confidence building. But the problem is that the greater the hostility the more difficult it is to engage meaningfully in a way that results in something constructive. As India and Pakistan once again try to bridge the huge trust deficit that exists between them, the task must be undertaken with the appreciation that this will have to be a long drawn out process that will be slow to produce results—if any are produced at all.

It’s also important that neither side raises unnecessary expectations of quick results or spectacular breakthroughs.  Indeed, the political leadership on both sides must steadfastly look beyond momentary benefits to actually set the stage for a more rooted interaction that will hopefully, over time, produce insights into each other’s strategic thinking as well as a shared understanding of key deterrence concepts and dangers. 

More than anything else, what is required is the belief that the process of nuclear confidence building measures will contribute significantly to the security of both sides. It needs to be treated as more than a zero-sum game.