Social scientists and casual analysts have for long understood the importance of nuclear weapons as a direct correlate to their destructive power. Given that we live in a world where some of the lowest technology weapons take the most number of lives and are the most effective in waging war, and where “low-intensity war” is the new buzz word, the exaggerated importance of nuclear weapons and the consequent paranoia of nuclear-armed countries rife in literature seems utterly baseless.
I posit that possession of nuclear weapons imbue no special properties to a nation and no special protection against attack and doesn’t protect it from retribution if it is found to have erred. Superiority in conventional and not-so-conventional weapons, including Phosphorus and Depleted Uranium bombs, remains the primary criterion in military supremacy and ability to initiate action and respond to aggravation.
The enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons and the stigma associated with their usage has proven to be their undoing in the “real world” as opposed to the “realist world”. A slew of “realists” have argued that nuclear weapons guarantee peace between states. Aside from the “hot” cold-war era that led to the deaths of millions, the 1999 Kargil War between two nuclear-tipped nations, India and Pakistan, provides an easy rebuttal to the argument.
Others have posited that possession of Nuclear weapons by a regime limits the options of other countries in dealing it. “Chaste” in his article presents the 1999 Kargil invasion by Pakistan as an example where Pakistan’s nuclear capability limited India’s options in the field. The scenario that he mentions is not particularly true for India did respond back with a fairly robust counter-attack, successfully repulsing Pakistan’s attack and only held back at the personal assurances of Clinton. Even if we discount this particular example, concerns remain as to whether states will genuinely have fewer options in dealing with a nuclear-tipped rogue state. I believe that the answer is no and will try to corroborate my point my examining two possible scenariosâ€“ a rogue state conducts a terrorist attack against a much more powerful nation, and an event where it conducts a terrorist attack against say an equally or less powerful nation.
If a rogue state were to sponsor a terrorist attack against say the US, the US will respond militarily much in the same way as it has done in the past. If the rogue state were to choose a nuclear-tipped response at that juncture, it would be annihilated fairly quickly given the overwhelming nuclear superiority of the US. One may reasonably argue from the above that unless a regime is self-destructive, and then there would be repercussions even in a non-nuclear scenario, it would not use any nuclear weapons. And if the regime doesn’t choose to use nuclear weapons then we can take nuclear weapons out of the equation and see the conflagration as a “conventional” war.
Let’s consider now if a “rogue state” were to conduct a terrorist attack against an equally or less powerful nation. This is akin to the example of Pakistan sponsoring terrorist attacks against India. The choices that India has are already limited because, though India has conventional superiority against Pakistan, a conflagration with Pakistan will inevitably cost a lot, cause a fair amount of lives and create the threat of communal discord. If Pakistan were to use a nuclear weapon against India, as a response to a conventional attack by India, it would be stigmatized at the world stage and would swiftly result in a host of powers joining hands with India to at least affect a regime change. Here again, given the stigma of using nuclear weapons and given the repercussions of using one, the chances that Pakistani regime will ever use nuclear weapons against India are very limited. Even if India were to pro-actively launch strikes against “terrorist hideouts” in “Azad Kashmir”, there would be little that Pakistan could do to affect it except reply back with conventional firepower or via sponsorship of more terrorism.
Hence, one can safely assume that for most purposes, the possession of nuclear weapons is immaterial. This framework leverages the universal stigma against using nuclear weapons and hence will hold only until the stigma continues to be powerful and the will of the international community to be punish the errant strong.