Hillary Nuclear Policy: A Time of Change, Dither or Sameness?


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(First published on the IPCS web site on 02 Nov 2016, as a part of their Impact Series. may be accessed at: http://www.ipcs.org/article/us-south-asia/hillarys-nuclear-policy-a-time-of-change-dithering-or-sameness-5163.html)

An Inexpedient Second

The last time that a Democrat President of the USA was elected to office after two terms of a Democratic Presidency was 180 years ago. A certain Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson in 1836. Coincidentally he was a former Secretary of State. The occurrence is unique in an unflattering way for a variety of reasons which has little to do with the candidate’s merits but more with ballotter’s disposition. Significant of these fancies are: exaction for change, anti-incumbency, voter fatigue, absence of choice and the resigned philosophical knowledge that this would be a one-off, destined to enter office as a ‘lame-duck.’

In the current Presidential race, two candidates have been thrust on the electorate who under circumstances of choice would have been spurned. Donald Trump comes with dangerous impetuousness while Hillary carries a baggage of alleged chicanery and unimaginativeness. However reality and opinion polls suggests that Hillary would enter the Oval office as America’s 45th President (this assumption is central to the narrative).

The 1837 inauguration of Van Buren proved less of a celebration and more of banality. His inaugural address took melancholy note of it: “In receiving from the people the sacred trust twice confided to my illustrious predecessor… I know that I cannot expect to perform the task with equal ability and success. But, I may hope that somewhat of the same cheering approbation will be found to attend upon my path.” … and Van Buren pledged to “tread generally in the footsteps of President Jackson.” Needless to state that Buren lasted just one term, his Presidency was troubled, weak and had little success to legate; collapse of the economy, hostility to Native Americans and compromises in securing the frontiers with Canada and Mexico. On leaving office he was re-baptized ‘Martin Van Ruin’. Clearly if history is to prevail and Hillary elected, then ‘Continuity’ is her only deliverance.

Survival of Obama’s Nuclear Policy

In addition to his ‘Global Zero’ initiative, one of the most significant promises Obama made in his, now less-than-lustrous, 2009 Prague speech was to “put an end to Cold War thinking” by reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy. The Cold War had ended decades earlier and while the U.S. nuclear arsenal had decreased, little else had changed in U.S. nuclear weapons policy. As the Commander-in-Chief he could have made meaningful changes without the agreement of Russia or Congress. He did not. Changing the deeply entrenched status quo and overcoming inertia in the U.S. security establishment, however, demanded more than a vision; it required statesmanship, profoundly lacking, it would now seem. In some areas his administration has made nuclear matters worse. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, considered “making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.” However, it did not take this step. Instead, U.S. policy still allows the United States to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis. This suggests that nuclear weapons have legitimate uses in war fighting. Add to this, Obama announced a $1 trillion plan to rebuild and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Whatever became of the resolve to bemoan the Cold War nuclear paradigm? With such a distracted policy inheritance, Hillary’s by now well acknowledged dawdling on nuclear matters is more than likely to return to Cold War beliefs.

The No-First-Use Non Starter

Obama, towards the last few months of his term in office, toyed with the idea of unilaterally declaring a No-First-Use (NFU) nuclear weapons policy to impel a first step towards goals of Global Zero. It would have been a landmark change in the U.S. nuclear posture. America’s overwhelming conventional weapon superiority provided the logic for such a step and the probable dividend was that the other nuclear weapon states would follow suit. This, notwithstanding, protests from allies who believe that “extended first use deterrence” works, despite convincing arguments of the “first-use-illusion” (after all, first-use not only suggests a break down in deterrence but also brings with it an assurance of retaliation). To declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter and if necessary only respond to the use of nuclear weapons by other countries; would not only conform to the Nuclear Posture Review of 2010, but would also provide incentive for Hillary to veer away from Cold War nuclear theology and set the NFU agenda in order to give fresh meaning to the idea of Continuity. Nevertheless, the question is really not of rationality but of whether the Hillary administration will have the resolve to take on a Republican dominated Congress? Clearly if Cold War thinking were to prevail, then such a transformatory change in posture is destined to collapse.


Test Ban and START

Seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution affirming a ban on the testing of nuclear weapons was Obama’s scheme to enshrine the United States’ pledge not to test without having to seek the Senate’s unlikely ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Then again, this runs contrary to the one trillion Dollar upgrade of the nuclear arsenal. Could the state really contemplate warhead and vector enhancements without testing was the conundrum? Hillary will have to juggle with this very complex issue of making large investments without a corresponding assurance of reliability; and then will the nuclear establishment give her the lee way to make such compromises? Time will of course tell, but, the prospect of such an event transpiring is stacked against her.

The Obama administration had noted that offering Russia a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty’s limits on deployed nuclear weapons (even though those limits don’t expire until 2021) would pave the way for his successor to not let the treaty lapse. Hillary, undoubtedly would have recognised this and it is reasonable that she will take steps to give legitimacy to the proposition provided Russia ‘plays ball’.

Long Range Stand Off Weapon (LRSOW)

The development of a new LRSOW nuclear cruise missile may have held logic for a limited nuclear strike but it also suggests a warped rationality that can only push the risk of nuclear weapon proliferation. In the circumstance of it being used against a nuclear weapon state, then, the risk of retaliation and a nuclear exchange spinning out of control is very real. It is a capability Obama doesn’t believe the United States needs and by any wisdom, worthy of cancellation. It would also fulfil his campaign promise to take U.S. land-based missile off hair-trigger alert. Discarding the option of launching weapons-on-warning was his way of rejecting the very Cold War thinking he was calling the world to castoff. It will remain an awkward irony that Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for his vision of a world without nuclear weapons if he is unable to pass down such a legacy to his successor. Yet robust opposition to such a dramatic remodelling of nuclear doctrine can, with some certainty, be expected to come from the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex.

U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

There are two issues related to America’s nuclear arsenal that the establishment has never really attempted to resolve, these are: Firstly, why the Pentagon is embarking upon a trillion-dollar programme to modernize the Triad? Is the program necessary (remember Hillary, in Jan 2016, had already dismissed the expenditure as meaningless)? And secondly, how do advances in non-nuclear weaponry affect theories of nuclear deterrence devised during the 1950s and 1960s? Does the logic of those early theories still hold, particularly in the light of overwhelming conventional and technological superiority? And will the Hillary Administration be resolute enough to put ‘actions where their mouth is’ and review the trillion-dollar proposed outlay in addition to challenging the ‘Word’ of Washington’s nuclear Ayatollahs? The matter seems dubious; given current relationship with Russia and China’s modernization of its nuclear arsenal. This will imply more of Cold War rationality rather than less.

The Future of the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal

On successful conclusion of the Indo-US civil Nuclear Deal on 10 October 2008, the late     K. Subramanian, one of the early proponents of India’s independent nuclear deterrent and an architect of her nuclear doctrine, argued that the convergence of strategic interests between the two nations made such a remarkable agreement a reality, overcoming decades-long US stand on non-proliferation; what he did not mention was, it also put an end to an equally long antagonism between the two establishments. While much of the world’s approach to India in the past had been to limit its access to nuclear technology, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratories (a leading institution for nuclear weapons design during the Cold War) in a Senate hearing in 2008 put the matter in perspective. He suggested that it may well be that today we (the U.S.) limit ourselves by not having access to India’s nuclear technology developing such entrée should help to advice… efforts with India because India’s nuclear program was developed mostly indigenously, the country used unique techniques that other countries can learn from. Given this technical standpoint and not for a moment losing sight of the commercial prospects, the element of mutuality must come as no surprise and neither must the contract for 6 Westinghouse AP 1000 nuclear reactors due to be inked in June 2017.

While the full potential of the civil nuclear deal is yet to be realised, there can be no two opinions on changes in bilateral strategic orientation since the deal was struck. The extent to which transformation has occurred may be judged by several episodes in the relationship which include: deletion of many high technology sanctions imposed on India since 1974. Enhancing nuclear power generation through imported uranium and purchase of new reactors is an example; while convergence of strategic perspectives holds great promise for the future whether it be measures to bring about strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific or whole hearted support to India’s admission into the UN Security Council as a permanent member and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as a steps to buttress stability in global security and nuclear politics and commerce. The U.S. has become India’s largest trading partner in goods and services and the two sides have set an ambitious goal of half a trillion dollars for future trade; cooperation on counter-terrorism, information-sharing and intelligence-partnership have expanded rapidly in recent years. In military cooperation the America has become one of India’s major suppliers of arms, and the two sides have on the table agreements that were improbable a few years ago such as the Logistic Memorandum of Understanding or entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime or even rejecting the idea of mediating between India and Pakistan, especially on the Kashmir question. All these advances are direct dividends of the nuclear deal for it provided the strategic ambience that facilitated partnership.

About the UNSC and NSG membership, Hillary has made it amply clear that her backing for India’s full membership is comprehensive. It includes the three Nuclear/ Chemical & Biological Weapon export control regimes; the NSG, Wassernaar Arrangement (an export control regime for conventional arms and dual-use Goods and Technologies) and the Australia Group.

Continuity and a Retreat to Cold War Thinking-A Forecast

Much like the hapless Buren, the 45th Presidency is more than likely to face an unsympathetic Congress, a hostile Pentagon and the prospect of a near certain ‘lame duck’ term. The only virtue that history may remember Hillary for is that she stayed-the-course laid by her predecessor. And yet even here it cannot be easy, for the geopolitical script has changed. There is, today, a far more assertive Russia than was in the first decade and a more forceful China set on rewriting the rule book. In the nuclear field the early flirtation with ending Cold War thinking is a pipe-dream. So for Hillary, Continuity may prove an arduous abstraction that could boomerang with more recoil than forward momentum. Perhaps her only redemption may come from building an entente cordiale with India as a balancing power.

There is a New Symphony at Play


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

(This article was first published on the IPCS website on 22/06/2016)

Change, more often than not, is driven by circumstances rather than scholastic deliberation. As President Obama once put it, perhaps as an unintended barb to the legions of geo-political seers that stalk Massachusetts Avenue, Washington DC, “Change doesn’t come from Washington but comes to Washington.” So it was with Prime Minister Modi’s three-day state visit to the USA (6th June to 8th June 2016). Not only did the visit lay the foundation to several strategic goals mutual to both sides, but was also punctuated by symbolism that provides a basis for the future. When Modi suggested stepping out of the “shadows of hesitations of the past” he could not have stated in more unequivocal terms that India’s strategic orientation was now one that not only respected the status quo, but also would contribute towards ensuring that attempts to upset it would not go unchallenged. At the same time laying a floral wreath at Arlington Cemetery to the Tomb of the Unknowns (a first for an Indian PM), on the face of it, was a tribute to that one unquestioning instrument of state power who historically has laid down his all for a national cause. Underlying the salute was recognition of the role played by the military in binding and stabilizing an uncertain security milieu.

Two salients of his visit are particularly significant. Seemingly disparate, they share a geo-political outcome that aggregates to stability in world order. The first is measures to bring about strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific and the second, India’s admission into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as a step in support of stability in global nuclear politics and commerce.

Mahan in The Influence of Sea power upon History underscored several prescient perspectives relating to the Global Commons. His treatise submitted that competition for materials and markets is intrinsic to an ever trussed global system. Inferring that the nature of commerce on the one hand deters conflicts, while on the other engenders friction; the oceanic routes and ports of access had to be assured. And then he went on to advocate that the Commons require to be warranted against hegemony, disruption and rapacious exploitation. These perspectives today ring a reality whose significance has not entirely been lost on the Prime Minister.

Typically the Global Commons describe international and supranational resource domains. It includes the earth’s shared resources, such as the oceans, the atmosphere, outer space and the Polar Regions. Cyberspace also meets current discernment. It is hardly coincident that it is in these very domains that China has shown aggressive intent. PM Modi’s understanding of contemporary dynamics in the Commons and the need to balance out China’s objectives of hegemonic control through strategic security partnerships is adroit. The current distressed state of the Commons is marked by the impact that globalization has had: strains of multi-polarity, anarchy of expectations and increasing tensions between demands for economic integration and stresses of fractured political divisions are all symptoms. Nations are persistently confronted by the need to reconcile internal pressures with intrusive external impulses at a time when the efficacy of military power to bring on positive political outcomes is in question. While most nations have sought resolution and correctives within the framework of the existing international order, China emerges as an irony that has angled for and conspired to re-write the rule book. In this context the PM’s statement to Congress that it was only strong Indo-US ties that could anchor security in the Indo-Pacific Region left little to speculate what direction relations were taking and the extent of mutuality that was perceived in the Logistic Support Agreement being fleshed out. Not only is India preparing for strategic collaboration with the US, but is buttressing its posture in the Indo-Pacific through multilateral cooperation with ASEAN. All this must be seen as its intent to institutionalise its presence in the waters of the Indo-Pacific.

Critics, maintain that scripting an international security relationship with the US flies in the face of autonomy in global affairs. In response one only has to note the transformed conditions of world order of the day which is far removed from that which existed between the post-World War II era to the end of the Cold War. Uncertainties of events and their multi-faceted impact reflect the new substance of increased global interdependence in every field of endeavour. Whether these fields are in the economic, political or security domains, corollary imperatives are interlinked at the national, regional and international levels.

Reports on the run-up to the plenary session of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) held at Seoul on 24 June 2016 suggest that the US and Russia along with 36 other member countries (total 48) have expressed support for India’s admission to the Group largely as a result of 3 considerations: India’s clean track record of non-proliferation; American, Russian along with majority support; and the lure of commercial gain. But China is resisting admission on the basis of a curious principle – that before any decision is taken about India’s membership, the NSG needs to agree on equitable and non-discriminatory criteria for membership of those countries that are nuclear weapon states (for “those countries” read Pakistan), but are not signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). China argues that if any exception to the conditions for admission is to be made, then it should apply equally to both India and Pakistan. As a counter argument, accession to the NPT is not a criterion for membership — France was not a member of the NPT until 1992 though it was a founder member of the NSG in 1975. On the second rule condition — a good non-proliferation record; India has a better history than some of the NSG members. Particularly China, given membership in 2004, has debatably the most dubious proliferation record whether it is their dealings with Pakistan or North Korea. For that matter, equating the Indian and Pakistani applications for membership, as China has done, is disingenuous. Pakistan, while gloating that it has “successfully” blocked India’s bid to gain membership of the NSG, has not made a case worth examining. The United States in the meantime has apparently divulged some pretty damning information that entities of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission have continued to be in violation of UN sanctions as they supply restricted items and equipment with a direct bearing on the production of nuclear weapons to North Korea. China has been in the know of this information all along and may have been party to this fresh case of clandestine proliferation. So now the question that begs to be asked is, with what credibility does China obstruct India’s entry?! India has never had a state sponsored AQ Khan nuclear black-market network extending from Libya to North Korea nor sold nuclear technology to third parties nor been a persistent proliferator of nuclear technology. For China to have overlooked all this including the fact that, as Modi put it to the US Congress, all global terrorism is “incubated” in India’s neighbourhood (meaning Pakistan); must speak of China’s own veracity within the group.

What are the stakes involved? For India, the logical sequel to the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement of 2008 and the concomitant NSG waiver followed by entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime is membership of the NSG; for this will not only give total legitimacy to India’s nuclear aspirations but also, by entering the larger nuclear establishment, it will substantially contribute towards global nuclear stability. It also provides regulated and unimpeded access to technology. However, has China’s stonewalling worked? Given the circumstances that China finds itself in, clearly, not for long.  Also, New Delhi has thrown the gauntlet to China in a manner that most states are hesitant to in recent times; it’s flanking bid to gain entry to the NSG despite China, is suggesting new terms for global nuclear politics. The good news is that she carries the weight of more than 38 members in support including all major players. The initiation of an informal consultative process chaired by the outgoing chairperson of the NSG (who was actively involved in promoting India’s case) to continue examination of India’s basis for admission and the US continued advancement of the case are indicative of things to come.

In the event, India did not gain entry into the NSG during the June plenary. However, the robust thrust on the issue underscores a critical refrain: that the long-held perceptions of Indian foreign policy being ineffectual, non-aligned, placatory and unable to shape geo-political events are a thing of the past. That India will gain entry into the NSG, with the support it has garnered, is a foregone conclusion if not now, most certainly in the immediate future. If there are delays, it is solely due to China’s obstinacy, which is double edged, for it exposes to the world that China has no intention of accommodating Indian aspirations in favour of promoting ‘questionable’ interests and remains indifferent to the idea of mutuality. In this context, one must not so easily forget the lessons of the lead-in to the Sino-Indian war of 1962. The Indian plea in 1960 to arrive at a border agreement amicably based on all that India had done to gain China’s communist government legitimacy despite invasion of Tibet and Korea, fell on (Prime Minister Chou En-lai’s) deaf ears. If there is one lesson to be learned from China’s machinations, it is that the Politburo respects power and has scant respect for history or for any rule book that is not self-serving. Events in the South China Sea, making chattels of sea lines of communication and points of ingress of trade, brooking no competition where access to resources is concerned are all a continuum of its unrelenting march to strategic control; and this march cannot but look askance at the emerging challenge of India’s endeavours. For India’s foreign policy establishment, this must be seen as a fortuitous setting to find itself in provided it continuously questions China for its autocratic ways, its territorial thirst, its nuclear proliferatory dealings with Pakistan and North Korea, its disregard for the hazards of global terror and critically the legitimacy of its leadership. It is only then that India can proactively be a factor in global outcomes. Moves to stage a lateral entry into the NSG, securing Indo-US partnership in the interest of bringing about a strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific and gaining membership to the MTCR are all symptomatic that India’s foreign policy and posture have come of age.

Observing recent events the prolific poet and realist, Walt Whitman, would agree that “now that the orchestra have sufficiently tuned their instruments and the baton has given the signal to play” Modi’s addendum that it “was best that a new symphony be played” is most appropriate.

What is Strategic Stability?


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Strategic Stability: the Cold War Paradigm

There is no consensus on the definition of strategic stability nor is there common understanding of what it comprises; it is also reasonable to assume that there probably never will be. Yet, the awkward irony is that nations of every predilection individually clamour for strategic stability and therefore rises the need for determining its significance.

For the Cold Warriors, strategic stability was a military rationale. It was all about surviving a first nuclear strike and then credibly being able to respond with a massive retaliatory nuclear strike. Moony mirrored rationality, mutually assured destruction and a willingness to fight limited nuclear wars (as if control over the escalatory ladder existed!) were of the essence. But as history so starkly illustrated such an approach catalysed great instability at the regional level and if the regional players were themselves nuclear weapon states then stability persistently teetered on the brink.

An Alternative Characterization

So, it is not in the Cold War paradigm—which sought strategic stability in parity of nuclear arsenals in terms of capabilities, numbers, conceptual permissiveness of limited nuclear war fighting and conformity of intent—that one can find understanding of strategic stability. Not either can pure military analysis of interstate relations provide comprehension of what makes for strategic stability. An alternative characterization perhaps lies in a holistic inquiry into the matter where the parts determine, and in varying degrees, influence the whole. Following this thread, ten determinants of strategic stability may be identified, these include: civilizational memory, recent history, geographical context, political proclivity, social structures, economic interests, religious orthodoxy, technological prowess, leadership and military power. The real question to now answer is what manner, proportion and to what intensity do these determinants influence interstate relations? A report in these terms would offer an insight into strategic stability; this conceivably provides a more sophisticated approach to the matter. Intuitively, the absence of strategic stability is perceived as a proneness to friction and conflict between states.

The South Asian Stability See-Saw

Before applying the determinants to the South Asian region we must first consider that there are dynamics involved that prompt the need to view Indo-Pak and Sino-Indian relations separately, and then discern them together for there exists a collusive orientation that bears on bilateral correlation. Taking Pakistan first, of the ten determinants, other than civilizational narrative (and even there, some suggest that they are in denial), technological stimulus, and an imaginable economic potential; the remaining seven, present an appositeness marred by friction. Assigning the determinants to the Sino-Indian situation we cannot fail to note a sense of accord in eight of ten determinants; other than geography in terms of the un-demarcated border in the north and north-east and military power, where there is undeniable competition, yet relations are not quite “uncongenial.”

A singular feature of the deterrent relationship in the region is its tri-polar character. As is well known today, it is the collusive nature of the Sino-Pak military and nuclear relationship which created and sustains its weapons programme. Therefore it is logical to conclude that there exists doctrinal links between the two which permits a duality in China’s nuclear policy; a declared No First Use can readily fall back on Pakistan’s developing First Use capability as far as India is concerned. Such links have made China blind to the dangers of nuclear proliferation as exemplified by the AQ Khan affair. Also, as was reported, the July 2007 army assault of the “Lal Masjid” was at the behest of China (or was it on orders from Beijing? The then Chinese ambassador’s almost imperial declaration after the abduction of seven PRC citizens in June of the same year that Pakistan must do its utmost to capture the culprits and protect Chinese citizens would suggest who was behind the decision to storm the masjid). It becomes amply clear that the key to GHQ Rawalpindi’s compliance with rational norms of strategic behaviour lies in Beijing. And the direction in which Sino-Pak collusion is headed will, to a large extent, also influence nuclear stability in the region. If the alliance was intended (as it now appears) to nurture a first-use capability in order to keep sub-continental nuclear stability on the boil, then the scope for achieving lasting stability is that much weakened. However, the current political situation in Pakistan represents a very dangerous condition since its Establishment nurtures fundamentalist and terrorist organizations as instruments of their misshapen policies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The essence of Pakistan’s rogue links will, unmistakably, seduce the Islamic State (IS) into the sub-continent underscoring the distressing probability of the IS extending its reach into a nuclear arsenal. At a time when the politico-ethnic situation in western China remains fragile and the fanatical outburst of xenophobia advanced by the IS has stretched south and eastward to influence the fertile Jihadist breeding grounds of Afghanistan and Pakistan, a nuclear armed Islamic State, is an alarming prospect which China cannot be blind to nor can it be in China’s interest to persist with the promotion of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.

Nuclear Malfeasance

Against the reality of conventional war with its limited goals, moderated ends, and the unlikelihood of it being outlawed in the foreseeable future, the separation of the conventional from the nuclear is a logical severance. Nuclear weapons are to deter and not for use; intent is the key; coherence and transparency are its basis. These remain the foundational principles that a nuclear weapon state must adhere to. However, given the politics of the region, historical animosities, rising influence of Islamic radicals and the persisting dominance of the military in Pakistan, the dangers of adding nuclear malfeasance to military perfidy is more than just a possibility. The nuclear relationship with Pakistan has catalysed a perverse logic that links sub- conventional warfare with nuclear escalation. This bizarre correlation, Pakistan will have the world believe, comes to play if and when India chooses to respond with conventional forces. Stability in this context would then suggest the importance of not only reinforcing the determinants that foster amity but at the same time for Indian leadership to bring about a consensus among both China and the USA to compel Pakistan to harmonize and at the same time bring about a re-orientation in the Sino-Pak nuclear collusion.

End of the Deep State

The challenge before us is clear. To roll back the Deep State in Pakistan is to wish for Pakistan’s own “Islamic Spring”, this unfortunately, in the short term, remains an anaemic possibility. We noted earlier the discord that existed between the determinants of strategic stability and the impact that Pakistan collusion with China (particularly in the nuclear weapons field) has had on the wobbly condition of interstate relations in the region. What remains is to convince international opinion that it is the Islamists that continue to pose the existential threat to not just Pakistan but rather to the world. Rapprochement with India is anathema to the ‘Deep State’. Therefore, the removal of the Pakistan Deep State is the first step towards Strategic Stability in the sub-continent.