Even now that the Cold War is long past, most Westerners feel horror and shame at the thought of nuclear war. This is understandable, but the possibility of mutual assured destruction, and the intensive cultural revulsion that possibility engenders in us, are the products of a particular time, place, and set of assumptions.
It took a great deal of time and effort to demonize all things nuclear. Immediately after the Second World War, there intense optimism about harnessing atomic power for the good of mankind. For example, there was Operation Plowshare, which sought a way to turn the crude destructive power of the atom bomb to more mundane purposes, much the same way TNT and other explosives became a tool of the construction and mining industries. The attitudes of 1950s America toward the power of the atom seem blithe to us now, but this is the direct result of a campaign to convince us of the utter horror and unwinnability of a nuclear war.
There was a losing side of that campaign, for which I feel some sympathy. While they lost the war of public opinion, they definitely won the actual Cold War. After the 9/11 attacks, Paul Krugman suggested creating an office of evil to help the government imagine horrible things so we would not be surprised so badly next time. This role was filled for a long time by men like Edward Teller and Herman Kahn, who were perfectly happy to think the unthinkable in order to better prepare for it. A later entry in the field was the Strategy of Technology by Possony, Pournelle, and Kane. They argued that a decisive advantage in war could be gained by the targeted pursuit of specific technologies, particularly in the Cold War, which was already a technological contest.
Arguably, this was in fact the strategy that impoverished the Soviet Union to a degree where the dissent of client states like East Germany and Poland could fatally destabilize it. However, at present, the men who brought this about are likely to be remembered for nuclear brinkmanship and warmongering rather than successfully preventing the Cold War from turning into a hot one, and achieving victory as well.
What is perhaps even less well appreciated is how different the world is now from the peak of the Cold War. The US and Russia still have a lot of nuclear weapons, but the real worry these days is that some unpleasant little excuse for a country like North Korea or Pakistan will start something nuclear. It would be bad if they did, but to see MAD as the result is a failure of the imagination, or perhaps a success of propaganda. Look at the picture that heads this post, and imagine for yourself, "this is one of only two cities ever destroyed by nuclear weapons." And then try to believe your lying eyes.
There are three important points about the current confrontation between India and Pakistan. The first two are commonplaces. The third has not been addressed by policy makers, at least in public.
First, it is not likely that the fighting between the two countries will go beyond border skirmishes. This is not a situation like 1914 in Europe, when strategic plans had to be carried out like clockwork if they were to be carried out at all. Furthermore, the situations of the parties are not symmetrical. While Pakistan is perhaps most to blame because of its acquiescence in the use of its territory by militants, India would be the actual aggressor in a war. That country's friends and well wishers have let the Indian government know that a war would delay India's accession to the ranks of the great powers.
Second, even if a serious invasion of Pakistan does occur, it is unlikely that the conflict will go nuclear. On the nuclear level, Pakistan would have to be the aggressor. It is hard to see what Pakistan could gain from that step. The use of tactical nuclear weapons to halt an Indian invasion could cause the Indians to escalate their goals from border security to the destruction of the Pakistani state. In any case, India will always be in a position to declare victory and withdraw. There is no necessary ladder of escalation.
Third, if there is a war and it does go nuclear, India is going to win decisively. Its traditional enemy will be dismembered and the fragments disarmed. The civilian casualties India would suffer, even in the worst-case scenarios, would be proportionately less than those suffered by Great Britain in the Blitz. The moral that the world would draw from a South Asian nuclear war is that nuclear wars are fightable and winnable.
The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union occasioned the creation, not just of new weapons systems, but of new disciplines in logic and political science. Those disciplines applied only in a historically unique situation of overwhelming firepower and comparably high levels of technical competence. Nuclear weapons began, however, as an incremental augmentation to the tactics of area bombing. A substantial amount of time passed before the Cold War competitors had the nuclear devices and the delivery systems that could threaten the existence of each other's societies. India and Pakistan are far from crossing that threshold.
Several countries around the world aspire to just the situation in South Asia, where the use of nuclear weapons is a rational option. An Indian victory would have obvious policy implications for Iran, Taiwan, the Koreas and even Japan.
Just yesterday, President George Bush made a speech at West Point in which he declared that deterrence is not enough. He is right, but few people have remarked on the scope of the police project he is proposing. Let us take a deep breath as we prepare to jump in.