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Limits of Practising Nuclear Brinksmanship
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Dr Manpreet Sethi | Date:24 Dec , 2016 0 Comments
Dr Manpreet Sethi
is Distinguished Fellow with the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.

Thomas Schelling, a noted nuclear strategist who passed away recently, explained brinkmanship as a strategy that “means manipulating the shared risk of war. It means exploiting the danger that somebody may inadvertently go over the brink, dragging the other with him” (Arms and Influence, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996, pp. 98-99). He graphically described this with the analogy of two cars heading towards an intersection from different directions. As one of the drivers accelerates his vehicle, he gives a signal to the other of his determination to cross first. By doing so, he has placed the onus of the decision on the other side to either slow down to let him pass, or to ignore his signal and carry on at the same speed even at the risk of a collision that would be equally harmful to both. If the second driver slows down, the first has successfully managed to use brinksmanship to deter the second driver by the threat of an accident. 

It is easy to apply this example to the Pakistan-India equation in order to understand the strategy of nuclear brinksmanship as used by Pakistan to buttress its deterrence. Pakistan may be compared to the first driver who accelerates his speed (or indulges in provocative acts of terrorism) and then seeks to deter India from crossing the intersection (or launching a military response) by suggesting the possibility of collision (or the threat of an all-out nuclear war).

Besides India, Pak strategy of brinksmanship is also meant to magnify the fears of the international community. Pakistan’s military works on the assumption that a ‘concerned’ international community (especially the US) would restrain India from using military force. This then, in Pakistan’s perception, gives it the immunity to execute its strategy of bleeding India through a thousand cuts, while constraining India’s response to merely dressing its wounds without being able to strike at the hand making the injuries.

India has faced this behaviour for at least two decades by now and has understood the compulsions for Pakistan’s behaviour, as well as its limitations. The response to Uri through a surgical strike was a move to explore other by-lanes that could be taken instead of being cowed down by the threat of collision on the main intersection. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s propensity to cry nuclear wolf every now and then is now well understood by India and the international community.

Another subscriber to the strategy of nuclear brinksmanship that has been well known to the international community is the DPRK. Since the conduct of its first nuclear test in 2006, it has paced its provocative acts of nuclear and missile testing in order to garner attention through the negative route of raising risks. The tests are aimed at not just perfecting technologies but more importantly at creating the dread of growing risks in the region as a way of drawing attention. However, Kim Jong-un’s nuclear brinksmanship has not elicited the desired response from the US. In fact, the Obama administration was wary of giving the impression that it was having to engage with DPRK with a nuclear gun to its head and hence refused to do so on terms set by Kim.

Meanwhile, more recently, another country seems to have joined the ranks of those exercising nuclear brinksmanship for deterrence. President Putin has been making extremely overt noises about Russian nuclear weapons capability since the annexation of Crimea, and ostensibly, to deter interference over Ukraine. In October 2016, Russia moved its nuclear-capable missiles close to Poland and Lithuania in a clear signal to NATO and the US.  A little earlier, Russian media held out stories on bomb shelters and conduct of exercises with nuclear weapons. Russian bombers have flown across and close to US borders often. Russia has also chosen to abandon the long held practice of keeping nuclear arms control issues independent of the overall political relations between Russia and the US. Its decision to walk out of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement for political reasons is only one example of the display of its willingness to take nuclear chances.

With the new presidency about to be inaugurated in the US and going by the not-so-encouraging utterances of President-elect Donald Trump, one is not sure about how the US would deal with Russian behaviour. Would Putin be met with Trump’s version of nuclear brinksmanship? Would that cancel out each other’s moves? Or raise the nuclear temperature?

While the purpose of brinksmanship strategies is essentially deterrence, the dangers of a cavalier acceptance of risks are well known. If anything, Cold War nuclear politics brought home the need for strategic stability between two nuclear nations. In contemporary times, when nuclear dyads have proliferated, the need for stability is even greater.

Brinksmanship strategies that appear to be working raise the salience of nuclear weapons and increase their attraction for proliferation. None of this is good for international stability and security. It is therefore imperative that responsible nuclear powers around the world use every opportunity to drive home the limitations and uselessness of nuclear brinksmanship by exposing the hollowness of the threats to use nuclear weapons.

Ironically, it would be better also for the countries playing the game of nuclear brinksmanship that the nuclear emperor is not exposed for not wearing any clothes.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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