To Lift the Painted Veil: Transparency in Nuclear Policy as the first step towards Deterrent Stability

By Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

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

Lift not the painted veil which those who live call

life: ….(for) behind lurks Fear and Hope.

                                                                                    – Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Cold War Mantra

In September 1950, responding to a directive from the President of the USA to reexamine objectives in peace and war with the emergence of the nuclear weapons capability of the Soviet Union, the Secretaries of Defense and State tabled a report titled NSC-68. 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 the 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 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 (Russia and China), 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 with the elements of influence, weight and the means of mass nuclear destruction having 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 end of civilization or take sides in a “just cause” to confront the possibility of Armageddon. 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 probing peripheral conflicts. 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 killed this paradigm. 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 within a decade were dispelled 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 a polarization along religio-cultural lines all compacted in the cauldron of globalization in a state of continuous technology agitation.

China’s Two Faced Nuclear Policy

Uncertainties of contemporary times, rise of the irrational and the multilateral nature of nuclear relationships only served to enhance the role of nuclear weapons. What it did was to blur the lines between conventional and nuclear weapons at the same time it provided a warped incentive in asymmetric situations for the lesser State to reach first for the nuclear trigger. In dealing with 4th generation threats it underscored the significance of strategic non-nuclear weapons in adding pre-emptive teeth to a deterrent relationship.

The current situation has not left the Indian situation unimpaired. The two faced nature of the Sino-Pak nuclear relationship has put pressure on the No First Use (NFU) doctrine that that has shaped India’s policy and indeed its arsenal. For China’s stated NFU policy hides the First Use intent of Pakistan that the former has so assiduously nurtured. Forgetting 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 have the makings of a global nuclear nightmare. 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.

Deterrent Stability: the First Step Transparency

We note thus far that nuclear relations in the region have been bedeviled by a persistent effort to combat the monsters that shrouds of covertness and perilous liaisons have cast; it has left us the unenviable task of, once again, permitting rationality to give way to the threat of catastrophic force as the basis of stability. It is time we saw the dangers of an Armageddon and embrace the opportunity that transparency presents as a first step towards deterrent stability and in the process to lift the precarious veil that is edging the Indo-Sino-Pak nuclear correlation to the precipice.

32 thoughts on “To Lift the Painted Veil: Transparency in Nuclear Policy as the first step towards Deterrent Stability

  1. Chinese strategists have stated quite explicitly that the essence of deterrence is ‘uncertainty’, based on ambiguity: You are deterred not by being sure of what I can do with the capability that you know I have, but by being unsure of what I will actually do. China has, of course, tutored Pakistan in the technology of nuclear weapons; she has now tutored Pakistan into being transparently uncertain in its doctrine.

  2. Snitchy-tranparency the first step, how far off to bringing it in practice – any efforts that have born creative responses?

    • Puddy,
      Nuclear weapons are not for use, but to deter use. Therefore the knowledge of intent lies at the core; this is where transparency clutches in. With the Chinese we have gone beyond the first step; it’s with the Pakis that we have acute problems. A single military point of control, in bed with jihadis and ambiguous underpinnings makes for a nuclear nightmare!

  3. Unfortunately Pakistan has further complicated the nuclear issue by lowering the threshold of a nuclear conflict by their crazy desire to introduce theatre nuclear weapons– Dread to think that some fanatic Maj or Col in charge of the cruise missile battery could start a nuclear holocaust in the sub continent!

    • Dear Jaggi,
      Thanks for your mail. You have hit the nail on the head. By decentralising and sending TNWs under field control, there is in actuality no control. We understand the military psyche; “aakhri goli tak” and for a weaker army, the aakhri goli comes pretty fast. It’s the reason why NATO and Russia pulled back TNWs from the European front.
      As always,

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