The Big Bangs

The cold war ended and the nightmare of nuclear war slipped from our waking minds, the grip of its terror receded from our bellies. Most of us heaved a sigh of relief and forgot the Bomb. And it may be that atomic attack is no more likely today than it was May 10, the day before India conducted nuclear tests and provoked Pakistan two weeks later into doing the same. Even so, the grim possibility of nuclear war once again seized our attention.

Can that be a good thing? Following the initial shock of atomic saber rattling and the imposition of economic sanctions, both India and Pakistan expressed willingness to talk. Can they—can we—curb the genie loosed from its bottle fifty years ago? Will the rest of the world pay attention long enough to press India and Pakistan to an agreement? There are first of all questions about the nature of the threat nuclear India and nuclear Pakistan can credibly make. Were the tests as successful as claimed? Can either deploy its weapons soon? Or in a mode of any military significance? Having declared themselves nuclear powers, does either country have the wherewithal to produce a sufficient number of nuclear weapons to change the balance of power in the subcontinent?

But uncertainty about how much damage either country could inflict on the other, or how likely either is to try, should not obscure a second set of issues just as chilling: the political and religious climate in which the tests were carried out. The decision to resume nuclear testing in both countries was taken by minority governments that made political capital from a rebuff to world opinion. In Pakistan, opposition parties played a pivotal role in forcing a hesitant government to approve the tests. In both countries, unstable political coalitions could make the deployment of nuclear weapons the bottom line every political party will boldly pursue. Add to that the powerful feelings symbolized by talk of an "Islamic bomb" and a "Hindu bomb." These sobriquets may be more nationalist than religious, but it would be foolish to ignore the sense of vindication they reflect, particularly in other Islamic nations, pointing downward on the path to nuclear proliferation. Finally, one cannot ignore the potential for a fatal misstep in nuclear brinksmanship, especially in the vast disparities of class in Pakistan and caste in India. In two countries always struggling to feed and support so many people, why would political and military elites feel any compunction in exposing hundreds of thousands of people to nuclear attack?

But responsibility does not lie only with India and Pakistan. Russia and the United States drag their heels in reducing their own nuclear arsenals, and Russia, the United States, and China have connived in laying the foundations for Pakistan and India’s nuclear capabilities. There is merit to the charge by "wannabe" nuclear powers that we who possess such weapons and have tested them to a faretheewell are hypocritical in banning nuclear testing and then imposing sanctions when the ban is broken. Well yes, we are hypocrites, but the nuclear burden that sticks to us like tar should make us humble and rational, not stupid. The nuclear nations must work with India and Pakistan to keep more nuclear weapons from being deployed while again taking up the task of getting rid of many more of their own.

Inattention and festering political conflict feed the pursuit of nuclear weapons; sustained and serious international attention should work to resolve those conflicts. For India, it is Pakistani insurgency in Kashmir and border conflicts with China; for Pakistan, it is the loss of Kashmir and East Pakistan. And then there are the sanctions, now imposed by the United States. Sanctions can be a blunt instrument, but the other four nuclear powers should join in some form of economic isolation of India and Pakistan. Both need aid and investments; neither can sustain a prolonged economic siege. And they need not. The economic sanctions should be employed as leverage in bringing both countries to settle their political conflicts and to agree to forgo deployment or further testing. This is not impossible.

We forget that some nations, South Africa, for example, have given up possession of nuclear weapons, and that others have forgone their development. In 1994, North Korea negotiated a freeze of nuclear-weapons development. In a remarkably instructive study of "cooperative threat reduction," Leon Sigal shows how this was negotiated (Disarming Strangers, Princeton University Press, 1998). Yet he laments how "even now the [U.S.] foreign policy establishment resists drawing appropriate lessons from the success of diplomatic give-and-take: that it is possible to reverse a state’s decision to 'go nuclear,' that inducements work, that cooperation is far less costly than coercion, and that the international norm against nuclear-arming facilitates cooperation, not only among those trying to prevent proliferation but also by the would-be proliferator."

India and Pakistan have done themselves no good, but they have done the rest of the world a great favor in reawakening the dormant fear of nuclear war. In the United States, especially, we seem to have forgotten that it is we who brought this terrible scourge into the world, and it is we who must bear the greatest burden for containing it. Now we have been reminded of what too easily slips from memory.


Related: Horror & Shame: the Editors' response to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Published in the 1998-06-19 issue: 
Also by this author
Colombia conundrum

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads