Economic Warfare: Keeping Visible the Iron Fist


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

This article is forthcoming in the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies’ Journal Synergy.

Download full article here: Shankar_Economic_Warfare

Keywords: Economic Warfare, Economic Sanctions, Sanctions: Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Perpetual peace, Military and Political Economy

Abstract: The foundational weakness with all ‘open-access’ nations to this day is that Markets do not work well unless governments get out of them, at the same time Markets do not work at all unless governments get into them using power to stabilise. Herein lies the inseparable linkage between Markets and Power, both are joined at the hip and any system that seeks to operate one without the other or recognises one for the other is destined to crash.


Perpetual Peace: Economics the Rejoinder to the Waste of War

By 1793, a Europe sickened by colonial massacres and the bloodshed of the past three centuries of debilitating imperial wars saw in the aftermath of the American Revolution an impulse to transcend war. George Washington wrote from his experiences of the war of independence “it is time for the age of Knight-Errantry and mad heroism to be at an end,” because “the humanizing benefits of commerce, would supersede the waste of war and the rage of conquest; … as the Scripture expresses it, ‘the nations learn war no more’.”[i]

Washington’s declaration inspired the German philosopher Immanuel Kant to pen an essay in 1795, titled Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical sketch. The essay, in its preliminary articles, described a proposed global order that in inception was defined by a renunciation of arms, strategic military treaties and violence as an arbitrator of conflicts. His succeeding formulations were founded on three pillars; firstly, the civil constitution of every nation be democratic, similar and based on open-access egalitarian principles; secondly, law of nations would be founded on a federation of Free Sates and thirdly guarantees of discord resolution between States would be settled through the “natural course of human propensities” identified as restraints intrinsic to the mercantile spirit, the power of money, the weight of majority commercial interests and should the need arise, economic injunctions. Central to Kant’s treatise was the belief ‘that war would be no more’[ii].

Perpetual Peace, attempted to underscore the indispensible condition for lasting peace. Even to this day despite its idealism it remains very influential. However, in its day, before the ink was dry on Kant’s thesis, ground realities asserted that there was something drastically skewed with the arguments. Far from ushering in perpetual peace, the economics of republicanism plunged Europe into competition and wars. France, without too much deliberation, transformed its internal peoples revolution (which in 1794 had slaughtered a quarter of million of its citizenry) to a peoples war of imperial conquest. While the continuing carnage in the ‘new lands’ built colonial empires which generated wealth to fund wars and surpluses which gave rise to new and lethal technologies. This in turn demanded innovative military doctrines and developed organisational skills that set off a string of irresistible revolutions in military affairs that eventually paved the way for the World Wars of the 20th century. So much for the reality of commerce and economics providing a basis for bloodless conflict resolution.

Marriage of the Invisible Hand with the Very Visible Iron Fist

Laissez-faire was a political as well as an economic doctrine of minimum governmental interference in the economic affairs of individuals and society. The origin of the term is uncertain, but folklore suggests that it is derived from a reply given by a French industrialist when asked what the Louis XIV government could do to help business: “Leave us alone” he retorted. Laissez-faire is usually associated with the economists who flourished in France from about 1756 to 1778. The policy of laissez-faire received strong support in classical economics as it developed in Great Britain under the influence of economist and philosopher Adam Smith. The pervading theory of the 19th century was that the individual, pursuing his own desired ends, would thereby achieve the best results for the society of which he was a part. The function of the State was to maintain order and security and to avoid interference with the initiative of the individual in pursuit of his own desired goals. But laissez-faire advocates nonetheless argued that government had an essential role in enforcing contracts as well as ensuring civil order. Smith also laid the intellectual framework that explained the free market. He is most often associated with the expression “the invisible hand,” which he used to describe the self-regulating behaviour of the marketplace and demonstrate how self-interest guided the most efficient use of resources and provides balance to the economy of a country, with public welfare coming as a by-product.[iii] To underscore his laissez-faire convictions, Smith argued that the State and personal efforts to promote social good are ineffectual compared to unbridled market forces.

In the context of the vast, and for most, savage imperial enterprise that Europe unleashed in the 18th and 19th centuries, the matter of unbridled ‘market forces’ had manifold meanings. To the colonies where, Europe’s expansion into their worlds had transited from commercial and cultural equality to exploitative hegemony and finally to direct rule; market forces translated to loot, subjugation, slavery, lopsided indigenous economies and monopolies; making conquest and denying it to competitors, the new and most copious source of wealth.

The ‘invisible hand’ of the 19th century had a curious handmaiden, ‘the very visible Iron fist’. This lethal combination created capital on an inconceivable scale along with vast undivided apathetic governments (Hobbes’ Leviathan), organised armies and massive bureaucracies. Significant to our study is the emergence of another power tool of coercion and this was ‘political economics’.

Political Economics: A Branch of State Craft

The phrase political economics is not new, however it lost its essence through history and was replaced by ‘economics’ (literally in Greek to mean ‘run the household’) a more precise and formal scientific notion which stood for the mathematical study of the processes that govern production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. And yet, what differentiates is that political economics as an idea places economics in a position inseparable from politics and gives it a much more expansive span as an essential branch of state craft organised within the larger scope of a nation’s comprehensive power. It endows states with the capacity to selectively influence economic processes both internal and external; with it comes the potential to coerce and control political orientation of challengers and competitors.[iv]

Political economic analysis examines the strategic pressures and interests that affect policies and how these pressures influence the political process, taking into account a range of interests, international environment, competing strategies and philosophical perspectives. In particular, analysis takes into account how non belligerent aspects of national power can be leveraged as a strategy to influence the pattern of economic growth or bring about sought after biases in the global system. This terminology in large part reflects the belief that economics is not really separable from politics. More than just a semantic classification of disciplines; it arose from the widespread view that economic factors are crucial in determining political outcomes. Hence, as a discipline political economics historically viewed economic forces not only as influencing politics, but often as the principal determinant when military power reached its “Culminating Point”. Our examination will therefore be better served by keeping this framework in perspective.

Culminating Point of Military Power

Success in the application of power results from the availability of superior strength. However, as Clausewitz pointed out, when power is a function of physical force only, then it gradually diminishes with continued application and beyond a point the scales are turned and the reaction that follows is with a force stronger than that of the original force applied.[v] Events in Vietnam, Soviet Union and more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq would suggest that not only had military power extended beyond the culminating point, but reached a chapter when reaction resulted in strategic losses that outweighed gains originally envisaged.

Indeed the history of contemporary wars has made planners question the efficacy of violence as an unconditional arbiter of friction between states. This is not because of any abstract concepts or illusion of happy endings but more on account of three very good reasons:

  • The disproportionate destructive and disruptive promise that violence holds to all sides.
  • The diminishing existence of any such thing as a productive war.
  • The mounting reluctance of rational governments to employ radical means to alter the status-quo.

The dilemma about wars that societies face today are twofold, while wars in the past created larger, wealthier and more organised communities and governments, “it today has got so good at fighting and our weapons so destructive that war is beginning to make further war of this kind impossible”.[vi] The utility of military power may have reached a culminating point when the suppression of violence demands less destructive solutions than what brute military power offers. In this context it would be interesting to examine if the concept of economic autarky provides a satisfactory retort.


The Curious Case of Cuba

The United States embargo against Cuba is a commercial, financial and economic ban. It began on 19 October 1960 (almost two years after the Batista regime was deposed by the) when the US prohibited exports to Cuba. On 7 February 1962 this was extended to include almost all imports. Currently, the US embargo is enforced through six statutory US instruments: the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the Cuba Assets Control Regulations of 1963, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Act of 2000.[vii] The Cuban Democracy Act was signed into law in 1992. This was significant for its opprobrium, for not only did it degrade the idea of choice of self governance but was also intriguing in rationale. The Law stands in direct opposition to the right of self determination, a cardinal principle of International Law, which has been sanctified by United Nations General Assembly Resolution1514 (XV). The Cuban Democracy Act’ stated purpose is to maintain sanctions on Cuba so long as the Cuban government refuses to move towards “democratization and respect for human rights”. Quite clearly the law was expected to be defied and Cuba was condemned to a slow economic haemorrhage.

To understand the magnitude of the embargo certain macro economic figures make the enormity clear. In 1958 US investments in Cuba amounted to near $ 2 billion, which was more than 25% of all US investment in Latin and South America; Cuba’s GDP at that time was $ 20 billion and per capita GDP was $3170 (approximately the same as Japan in that period).[viii] The economic blood loss becomes clear.

Despite the Cuban government referring to the embargo by the Spanish term bloqueo (blockade) which by international law is an act of war there was neither a formal declaration nor public censure. The embargo includes foreign countries that trade with Cuba who could be held liable and penalised by the U.S. However Cuba has and continues to conduct international trade with many third-party countries. The awkward irony is that Cuba has been a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since 1995.

To date, US-Cuba relations remain frozen and the latter also remains designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism by the United States Department of State. The UN has with ineffective monotony, passed a resolution every year since 1992 condemning the ongoing impact of the embargo and declaring it to be in violation of the Charter of the United Nations and international law. Human rights groups have also been critical of the embargo as too harsh, citing the fact that violations can result in 10 years in prison. In an absurd reversal, some critics bemoan the economic price on the United States itself, as 10 different agencies are in charge of overseeing the embargo resulting in further government bureaucracy and debt. Despite the massive effort the U.S. puts into the embargo, Cuba still benefits from trade and tourism from all other major countries, making the embargo a pointless egoistic labour. Still others say that the embargo places an unnecessary stress on Caribbean politics, and that the U.S.’s resources would be better served through re-establishing relations with Cuba. In short economic warfare waged against Cuba has been an utter failure on all counts despite having been imposed by the global ‘policeman’.

The Cuban case suggests to any prospective instigator of economic warfare six critical considerations:

  • In a globalised and networked world, economic warfare does not work when stretched over protracted periods (half a century in Cuba’s case) even when a vast differential in power and influence exists between protagonists.
  • Economic sanctions and embargoes must relate to a strategic environment and must be linked to time and effects if they are to produce a desired outcome.
  • There must also be a Plan B that defines conditions when a back down becomes the best option.
  • Protracted embargoes can be frustrated by increased trade between defiant nations unwilling to cooperate. In the absence of objectivity and resolve, economic warfare loses meaning, promotes sanction busting, has a reverse deleterious effect and degenerates to ineptness on the part of the instigator of the embargo. Both Cuba and Iran are studies in point. In a multi-polar world the situation gets further vitiated.
  • Although economic warfare is often considered a relatively inexpensive complement or alternative to military engagement, it imposes costs on the initiating country by denying it access to economic exchange with the targeted country.
  • The brunt of the impact of economic sanctions is unfortunately and ultimately borne by the civilian populace.

Military Power a Necessary Adjunct to the Invisible Hand

Relying just on the invisible hand of the market rather than integrating it with the Iron fist of military power in the hope that the target dispensation will crumble and alter its political and economic orientation, is a forlorn expectation. Far from breaking the country apart the crisis becomes an opportunity to push political centralization further and a rallying point that polarises international opinion as in Cuba’s case.

Under certain circumstances, introducing military power deliberately combined with an embargo may offer rapid results, provided its entry is marked with a focussed aim that targets the oppositions centre of gravity.[ix] The effectiveness of economic warfare is also limited by the ability of the adversary’s government to redistribute sufficient domestic wealth toward the military or other institutions to compensate for reductions in capability caused by the loss of the restricted goods. In the 1990s, for example, economic warfare against Iraq and North Korea did not substantially reduce the military threat posed by those countries because both were able to direct their limited economic resources toward their militaries. Critics of economic warfare have argued that it often imposes greater costs on the general population of the adversary e.g., through starvation, the spread of disease, or the denial of basic humanitarian goods, as it did in Iraq, than it does on its political or military leaders. At which time military power may be the more appropriate instrument to bring about political reorientation.


A resurgence of the concept of Political Economics puts into stark relief the contemporary state of global order and the stresses that competing interests place on it. The reluctance of nations to willingly subordinate their regional concerns to stability, well and truly, hammers the last nail into the coffin of a universal system that is defined by a renunciation of arms and an acceptance of the mercantile spirit as a strategic arbitrator of conflicts. The foundational weakness with all ‘open-access’ nations to this day is that Markets do not work well unless governments got out of them, at the same time Markets do not work at all unless governments got into them using power to stabilise. Herein lies the inseparable linkage between Markets and Power, both are joined at the hip and any system that seeks to operate one without the other or recognises one for the other is destined to crash.

Military power and its application has not quite reached that point of culmination when it is good for nothing; at the same time economic power does not have the gravitas to bring about perpetual peace, at least not quite as yet. In the circumstance prudence will suggest that the interest of stability would best be served if the Invisible Hand of economic power be tempered by the Visible Iron Fist.

Download full article here: Shankar_Economic_Warfare

End Notes

[i] Washington, George. Letter to Marquis de Chastellux, 25 April, 1788.

[ii] Kant, Immanuel. Perpetual Peace a Philosophical Sketch 1795, translated by M Campbell Smith. George Allen and Unwin Ltd London, 1903, p 106-158.

[iii] Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations, W Strahan & T Cadell, London 1776,Book IV Chapter 2 Para IX.

[iv] Author’s definition.

[v] Clausewitz, Carl Von. On War, Princeton University Press, 1976, p 528.

[vi] Morris, Ian.War Profile Books, London 2014, p 9, 65-111 and 259-271.

[vii] Amnesty International. The US embargo on Cuba its impact on economic and social rights. Amnesty International Publications,2009, UK.

[viii] Statistics extracted from UN,WHO and ILO figures for 1958. Other sources: Bank of Cuba,US Department of Commerce and Investments in Cuba by HC McCcllelan 1956.

[ix] Clausewitz, Carl Von, in his work On War develops the concept of Centre of Gravity of a State as the source of power that provides it moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act.

Of Lawrence, Sykes-Picot and al-Baghdadi

(This article was first published in the author’s monthly column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website.)

Keywords: ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Sykes-Picot Agreement, Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence, “Intrusive Group”


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

ISIS’s Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a July 2014 speech at the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul vowed,”this blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”

At the start of the First World War a curious informal group took shape in Egypt. It called itself the “Intrusive Group” comprising surveyors and archaeologists; it was headed by the Director of Civilian and Military Intelligence, Cairo. Sensing the rot in the Ottoman Empire, the Group saw in the vitality of the Arab desert tribes a latent power that could upend the Turks in the Hejaz, Syria, Mesopotamia and Kurdistan; if they banded together, were motivated by the belief in a Pan-Arabic State and led by the British. Amongst the adherents was a diminutive British archaeologist Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence-of-Arabia. Patrons of the idea included Kitchener, Wingate and McMahon.

The British foreign office would have none of it as the campaign against the Ottoman Empire was being waged vigorously and very successfully, till the Dardanelles Campaign came along and by end 1915, the British were facing a wretched defeat. Then the idea of raising the Arabs in revolt Northward from the Hejaz became more palatable.

By early 1916 the Arab Bureau was created in Cairo to foster and whip up the revolt. The remarkable guerrilla campaign against the Turks led by Lawrence brought victories to the Arab Army and conquest of Syria and Palestine. At the peace conference, Lawrence pleaded the Arab cause, but unbeknownst to him and the Arab Bureau was the machination of the Foreign Office which had other plans for war termination. This took the form of the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, an Anglo-French Pact hatched as early as May 1916 to carve the Middle East into British and French spheres of control and influence (Czarist Russia played an undermined part in the Pact). The rest is history, as the League of Nations awarded the Palestine mandate to the British and French and ratified their spheres of control.

Lawrence was the first to recognise the difficulties of the Arab estate on the one hand while on the other, their readiness to follow to the ends. One could never answer, with any conviction, a fundamental civilizational question: “Who were the Arabs if not ‘manufactured’ people whose names were ever changing in sense year-by-year?” (Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence, 1922). He further noted that the harshness of both climate and terrain made the tribes desert wanderers circulating them between the Hejaz, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia with neither attachment to lands nor systems that inspired settlement; According to Lawrence, what established bonds was their character that despised doubts and the disbeliever; found ease in the extremes and pursued the logic of several incompatible opinions to absurd ends carrying their beliefs from “asymptote to asymptote”. He claimed that they were people to whom convictions were by instinct and activities intuitional so they require a prophet to lead and set them forth; and Arabs believed there had been forty thousand of them. To sum their mystique Lawrence notes most prophetically: “they were a people of spasms for whom the abstract was the strongest motive and were as unstable as water, and like water would perhaps finally prevail.”

Kobani a Syrian Kurdish town on the border with Turkey, is today under siege and partial occupation by Baghdadi’s Islamic State (ISIS). Already this lethal spasm which fuses 21st century American technology and equipment with Arab fanaticism has rolled across parts of Syria, Iraq and through dozens of Kurdish villages and towns in the region sending over 200,000 refugees fleeing for their lives across the border.

Predictably, the lightly armed Kurdish militias desperately holding out in Kobani are fighting and losing to ISIS. So why has the American grand coalition not been able to relieve the town or why hasn’t air power been able to destroy the rampaging forces of the Islamic State? And why, the question begs to be asked, has Turkey, not done anything substantial to relieve the hapless Kobani?

In what is a historically awkward irony, the very destruction of Saddam’s Iraq has paved the way for fragmentation of the Sykes-Picot borders and the tri-furcation of Iraq into a Kurdish enclave in the northeast, a Shia enclave in the south and ISIS running riot in the centre. The US delusion that it was building a new Iraq flies in the face of the current situation which tragically is more reminiscent of Lawrence’s Arabia.

In the meantime Turkey’s President Erdogan stated his nations position in unequivocal terms “For us, ISIS and the (Kurdish) PKK are the same” the crisis in Kobani is a case of “terrorist fighting terrorist.” The Kurdish fighters in Kobani are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK which has long been considered Turkey’s top security threat and has been officially classified as a “terrorist” group by the U.S.

Further South, the Saudi’s want to destroy the Assad regime in Syria because it is allied with their Shiite enemy, Iran. Consequently, they see the fight against ISIS as essentially a pretext for escalating their war against Syria and show little interest in militarily engaging the Islamic State. The Emirates appear content to show token participation in the ‘Grand Coalition’ while at the same time seeking economic opportunities that the Islamic State may offer.

Indeed it would appear that neither does the US have the resolve to confront and neutralize ISIS, which is having a free run in the Levant, Syria and Iraq; nor does the coalition share common purpose. The situation in the region is evocative of the appreciation made by the “Intrusive Group”, a fading Imperial power waging a strategically irrelevant war amidst the rise of ISIS led by one more prophet driven by a fanatic belief. Lawrence, in the circumstance, would have suggested demolish the belief, dry up the water and attack that prophet (Abu-bakr Al Baghdadi).

All the while the esoteric call for Jehad and the establishment of an Pan Islamic Caliphate under Abu-bakr Al Baghdadi that ISIS has put out, has not fallen on deaf ears particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Strategic Stability: Grappling the Enigma of Sub-Continental Nuclear Politics


Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar 

Keywords: Strategic Stability, Nuclear Security in South Asia, Indo-Pak Diplomacy, China Nuclear Policy, Pakistan Nuclear Policy

Download full article here

This article is forthcoming in the “South Asia Defense and Strategic Year Book 2015” 


It can be no nation’s case to destroy the very purpose that polity sets out to attain and
therefore strategic empathy lies at the heart of nuclear stability

Cold War Mantra-Catastrophic Force as the Basis of Stability

In September 1950, responding to a directive from the President of the USA to reexamine objectives in peace and war with the emergence of nuclear weapons capability of the Soviet Union; the Secretaries of Defense and State tabled a report titled National Security Council – 68 (NSC-68).[i] This report was, in general terms, to become the mantra that guided world order till the end of the Cold War and in particular formed the source that defined and drove doctrines for use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. As a founding policy document of contemporary world order the memorandum contrasted the fundamental design of the Authoritarian State with that of the Free State. Briefly put the coming clash was seen in almost Biblical terms as a life and death struggle between the powers of ‘evil’ with that of ‘perfection’.

NSC-68 came at a time when the previous 35 years had witnessed some of the most cataclysmic events that history was subjected to; two devastating World Wars, two revolutions that mocked the global status quo, collapse of 5 empires and the decline and degeneration of two imperial powers. The dynamics that brought about these changes also wrought drastic transformation in power distribution. Key determinants of power were seen as a function of ideological influence, military prowess, economic muscle and the means of mass nuclear destruction. Comprehensive Power had decisively gravitated to the USA and the USSR. The belief that the USSR was motivated by a fanatic communist faith antithetical to that of the West and driven by ambitions of world domination provided the logic and a verdict that conflict and violence would become endemic. And thus was presented to the world a choice to either watch helplessly the incarceration of civilization or take sides in a “just cause” to confront the possibility. World order rested upon a division along ideological lines, and more importantly to our study, the formulation of a self fulfilling logic for the use of nuclear weapons. The 1950s naissance of a nuclear theology was consequently cast in the mould of armed rivalry; its nature was characterized by friction and thwarting the spread of influence. The scheme that carved the world was Containment versus burgeoning Communism. In turn rationality gave way to the threat of catastrophic force as the basis of stability.

The Quest for a New Paradigm

Crumbling of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the twentieth century and the end of the Cold War brought down the curtains on the distinctive basis of global stability that NSC 68 had spawned. In its wake scholarly works suggested the emergence of one world and an end to the turbulent history of man’s ideological evolution. Some saw the emergence of a multi polar order and the arrival of China. Yet others saw in the First Iraq War, the continuing war in the Levant, the admission of former Soviet satellite nations into NATO and the splintering of Yugoslavia an emerging clash of civilizations marked by violent discord shaped by cultural and civilizational similitude.

However, these illusions were dispelled within a decade and found little use in understanding and coming to grips with the realities of the post Cold War world as each of them represented a candour of its own. The paradigm of the day (if there is one) is the tensions of the multi polar; the tyranny of economics; the anarchy of expectations; and polarization of peoples along religio-cultural lines all compacted in the cauldron of globalization in a state of continuous technology agitation. An uncertain geo-political brew, as the world had never seen before, has come to pass under the looming shadow of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The Problem

The problem with nuclear weapons in an uncertain world is the complexity of convincing decision makers that no conceivable advantage can be achieved from a nuclear exchange. For, as long as one side believes that there is some value to be had through the deployment and use of nuclear weapons, indeterminate fears creep in that sets into motion a chain reaction which in turn provokes and raises the degree of calamitous risk.

Military planners are familiar with the fact that risk assessment is an imperative in the development of a strategic plan. The process is marked by persistent motivation to not only eliminate uncertainties and bring about balance between political objectives and resources, but also to ensure that probability of success of a strategy and benefits that accrue outweigh the hazards of failure. In the nuclear arena we note that strategic imbalance is intrinsic to the relationship. From start, the equation is irrevocably in a state of unstable equilibrium caused by the fact that when nuclear resources are used the impact will invariably be to obliterate the political objectives that were sought to be achieved. This is the reality of nuclear weapons. Its value lies in non usage; its aim is, nuclear war avoidance; its futility is, in attempting to use it to attain political goals.

Strategic collaboration with a potential enemy is not a concept that comes naturally to leadership. Tradition is against it and the very idea of sovereignty rejects the thought of it. Nonetheless it can be no nation’s case to destroy the very purpose that polity sets out to attain and therefore strategic empathy lies at the heart of nuclear stability.

A nuclear deterrent relationship is founded entirely on rationality. On the part of the ‘deterree’ there is rationality in the conviction of disproportionate risks of hostile action; and on the part of the deterrer rationality of purpose and transparency in confirming the reality of the risks involved in a manner that strategic miscalculations are avoided . The exceptional feature of this transaction is that the roles are reversible provided it is in the common interest to maintain stability in relationship.

The test of a durable deterrent relationship is its ability to withstand three dynamics that are common to contemporary politics, significantly so in the sub-continent. First: the deterrent itself must be stable; by which is implied its command, control and doctrinaire underpinnings must be unwavering and transparent. Inconsistencies increase the temptation to take pre-emptive action. Second: in a crisis, either conventional or sub-conventional, the propensity to ‘reach-for-the-nuclear-trigger’ must be restrained. Third: the predicament that intrusion of technology into the nuclear calculus causes, for it invites covertness but its impact demands transparency.

The Tri-Polar Tangle

Unique to the deterrent relationship in the region is the tri-polar nature of the playing field, with China and Pakistan at ‘the collusive base’ and India on the vertex. Ever since the 1960’s it was amply clear and comprehensively demonstrated that China would use all means at its disposal to not just embarrass India in the international arena but also to ensure that it never posed a challenge of any nature to its larger designs. Continued nuclear and missile technology proliferation in-region remains an abiding symptom. What is striking is that despite several incidents over the last decade and a half that could have escalated to the nuclear level, security establishments in China, India and Pakistan have not set themselves to the task of preparing concrete perspectives on the issue of nuclear stability barring endorsing the idea. China’s proliferation policy may have been driven by balance power logic but in today’s geo political circumstance it only serves to diminish its global standing and in time may rebound on its ambitions. With Pakistan the only meaningful measure in place is mutual notification of ballistic missile flight tests. On the perilous side is induction of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) by way of Chinese collaboration with the consequences of devolution of control and ever increasing ambiguities.

The Blight of Ambiguity

The policy of nuclear ambiguity was brought to prominence when Prime Minister Eshkol in 1966 stated that ‘Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region’. Three red lines were linked to its use. These included successful Arab military penetration; destruction of Israeli Air Force; cities attacked by weapons of mass destruction. It served as Israel’s ultimate guarantor of security.

The worth of ambiguity and its corollary, opacity of policy only serves to accentuate hazards of the unintended. Indistinctness in policy, when TNWs are in the arsenal, immediately suggests that conventional principles of war apply. This provides the incentive for use of nuclear weapons and a reactionary development of a first strike capability on the one hand, while the adversary strives to generate a counter force potential.

Ambiguity has been used as an offset for conventional inferiority with the belief that control over escalation is possible. This is so obviously a fallacy due to the nature of the weapon. Also its effect in disrupting stability is apparent. Covert technology intrusions coupled with ambiguity of intent increases the hazard geometrically, making the demand for transparency more urgent.

Paradox of Indo-Pak Diplomacy

Bi lateral diplomacy between India and Pakistan is a paradox particularly when considered against the framework of conservative diplomacy. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the two parties sit across the table and deliberate with political leadership views, power balance and national perspectives forming the basis. The rub when dealing with Pakistan is that political leadership is a charade that masks the real manipulators of power. The unfeigned decision makers are those represented by the military establishment who as a rule do not expose themselves to diplomatic parleys and appear to thrive in an ambience of imprecision. While this policy has served the military well, it makes for an awkward situation when diplomatic deliberations invariably end in a void. Diplomacy in the classical sense implies the practice and art of conducting international parleys between states with the purpose of (in addition to others) defusing starkly competitive behavior. This orthodox structure comes a cropper when dealing with a situation where the real national leadership absents itself from the tedium of negotiations.

When dealing with Indo Pak parleys there is a certain Chamberlainesque tragedy to its progress that is squarely on account of the refusal to recognize the reality of who tenants the seat of power in Pakistan. On the Indian side a rejection of this reality ironically leads to an untiring conciliatory policy that is marked by appeasement. Such policy as characterized by the inability to fully exploit the 1971 liberation of East Pakistan, The “Gujral Doctrine” of appeasement, the stalemate during ‘Operation Parakram’ (the one year military stand-off after the failed terror attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001), the self imposed restraints during Kargil and lastly the reliance on means that had little relevance to the nature of the 26/11 assault on Mumbai; all these are more symptomatic of India’s unreal appraisal of the adversary. Chamberlain, between 1938 and 1939, it will be recalled pursued a peacemaking course, which had a contradictory and inadvertent effect of revealing true Nazi policy. Despite the breakdown of the Versailles treaty and the brazen Czech invasion he refused to reconcile to the dangerous face of Nazi power.[ii]

The fundamental dilemma that States must master in peace and diplomacy and more so to in developing a nuclear strategy is an appraisal of the other’s intentions. In an environment of control ambiguity, a military strategy that embraces Jihadists compounded by nuclear opacity (as is the case in Pakistan) the complexity of this estimation shows up often in the skewed and poor quality of strategic decision making. The current implosive situation in Pakistan and its strategic links with China has not made matters any simpler for planners to generate responsive counter strategies.

China’s Janus Faced Nuclear Policy

When dealing with nuclear issues uncertainties rise from the multilateral nature of nuclear relationships, discriminatory regimes that exist and importantly the competing strategic groups that the multipolar has precipitated. It has blurred the lines between conventional and nuclear weapons at the same time it provides a warped incentive in asymmetric situations for the lesser State to habitually provoke incidents and then threaten to reach for the nuclear trigger.

The current situation has not left the Indian strategic dilemma unimpaired. The two faced nature of the Sino-Pak nuclear relationship has put pressure on the No First Use (NFU) doctrine that has shaped India’s policy and indeed its arsenal. China’s stated NFU policy hides the First Use intent of Pakistan that the former has so assiduously nurtured from development of the Pakistan nuclear weapons programme to the supply of TNWs. China would appear to have forgotten the actuality of an enfeebled Pakistan civilian leadership incapable of action to remove the military finger from the nuclear trigger, the active involvement of non-state actors in military strategy and an alarming posture of an intention-to-use. Indeed the Pak proxy gives to China doctrinal flexibility, it unfortunately also makes the severance of the Nuclear from the Conventional a thorny proposition that even China must know can boomerang on its aspirations.


The Nuclear Nightmare

We have thus far noted the effect of the external environment introducing nuclear multilateralism; an enfeebled civilian leadership in Pakistan that is incapable of action to remove the military finger from the nuclear trigger; the active attendance and involvement of non state actors in military strategy; internal environment that without rationale finds solace in TNWs, larger and more varied arsenals; security anxieties shoving arsenals down the slippery slope of developing nuclear war fighting capabilities; absence or at best ambiguity in doctrinal underpinnings that mould nuclear posture and the alarming reality of ‘intention-to-use’. The larger consequence of the considerations discussed so far makes the status quo untenable.

The nuclear nightmare, when articulated, is a hair trigger, opaque deterrent leaning towards conventionalizing under single military control steered by a doctrine seeped in ambiguity and guided by a military strategy that carouses and finds unity with non state actors. It does not take a great deal of intellectual exertions to declare that this nightmare is upon us.

Strategic Non Nuclear Forces

Given the state of relations with Pakistan and their persistence of employing terror organizations as a part of military strategy, there is every probability that conventional forces will have to be employed on both sides of the border by the Indian state. This naturally runs the risk of escalation. Theoretically, under these circumstances it is important that both sides do not reach for the nuclear trigger. Obviously the best way of averting such a situation is to ensure that such a conflictual possibility does not arise at all, through transparency and unrelenting diplomacy.

In practice, history has shown, this is often not workable and therefore conventional forces should have the mobility and firepower to achieve limited aims rapidly without allowing escalation beyond the conventional threshold, the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine is an expression of just such intent. This would mean maintaining nuclear forces that inhibit the adversary from even contemplating a nuclear exchange in addition its strategic forces must also equip itself with select non nuclear conventional hardware that tracks and targets nuclear forces (all under political control). This would provide the pre-emptive teeth to a deterrent relationship that leans so heavily on NFU.

Bringing about strategic stability is therefore the key to manage Pakistan’s nuclear forces and holding it in a state in which deterrence does not break down. Against the reality of a conventional war with its limited goals and moderated ends and the unlikelihood of it being outlawed in the foreseeable future; the first step is separation of the conventional from the nuclear. Where this severance is not articulated the No First Use arsenal must be of a nature that credibly deters. As mentioned earlier given the politics of the region, historical animosities and the emasculated nature of civilian leadership in Pakistan, the dangers of adding nuclear violence to military perfidy is a reality that demands a high level of preparedness.


The challenge before us is clear. To put the nuclear genie back into the bottle is neither realistic nor a proposition that merits consideration. The key lies in bringing about an ambience conducive to strategic stability. Areas that could be addressed begin with weakening the Sino-Pak nuclear collusion (as discussed earlier); mutually dispelling the veil of opacity that surrounds the nuclear deterrent; technology intrusions that have put the arsenal on a hair trigger must be subjected to a safety catch through the instruments of transparency and the removal of ambiguities in strategic underpinnings; Institutional verification measures must evaluate and exchange risks and alert status. It is only such devices that will enable strategic restraint and in turn a stable deterrent relationship to be realized on the sub continent.

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End Notes

[i] US Department of State Office of The Historian. <;

[ii] Murray Williamson. The Change in the European Balance of Power 1938-1939.Princeton University Press 1984 pp. 193-215