Strategic Space

Regional Nuclear Behaviour and Third Party Mediation

05 Sep, 2018    ·   5513

Dr Manpreet Sethi reviews Moeed Yusuf's book, Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia, published by Stanford University Press in 2018

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Senior Fellow at CAPS

Mooed Yusuf, Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia, (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2018), Pp: 320, Price: INR 3,431.

Concern regarding crises between two regional nuclear powers has been high ever since India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998. The world, led by the US, was quick to not just condemn the act, but also express its lack of faith in the ability of the nascent nuclear powers to responsibly manage their weapons. It was widely predicted that India and Pakistan, who already shared a troubled relationship, would face a nuclear flash point sooner rather than later.

As if on cue, the Kargil crisis took place soon after the two countries completed one year as nuclear-armed states. Illegal occupation of Indian territory by regular Pakistani soldiers under the garb of the mujahideen led to a conflict that lasted until India evicted the intruders. Two and a half years later, India and Pakistan were again in confrontation after the terrorist strikes on Indian Parliament in December 2001. Nearly all of 2002 saw both in a tense military stand-off, which fortunately however did not erupt into a hot war. Demobilisation took place towards the end of the year. Six years down the line, another terrorist strike took place in Mumbai and the region teetered yet again on the verge of war.

Strategic analysts within the region and beyond have studied these crises in great detail to understand actions on both sides in escalating or stabilising the situation, as well as the role of third parties in facilitating de-escalation. A recent book by Moeed Yusuf makes another significant contribution to the subject. Having spent nearly nine years on the study, it is not surprising that the author offers a well-researched book based on extensive interviews with the main protagonists of the crises, and an in-depth examination of relevant writings. Some of the chapters have endnotes well over 200, which reflects a thoroughness of investigation that has been undertaken to articulate, in the author’s own words, "an original theory of crisis behavior that is centered on third party mediation in regional nuclear settings." He calls this the process of brokered bargaining.

Indeed, the premise of the book is to examine the role of external players in influencing crisis behaviour as exhibited by regional nuclear players. In doing so, however, they also face calibrated behaviour from the antagonists themselves in order to manipulate third party anxieties to shape outcomes perceived to be favourable to themselves. The book is neatly divided into three sections – the first presents conceptual and theoretical issues related to nuclear crisis behaviour; the second section undertakes a detailed examination of the three nuclear crises; and the last one thoughtfully analyses the phenomenon of brokered bargaining to draw lessons for South Asia, and also to generalise its application for other regions.

Given that the basic aim of the book is to study the nuclear crisis behaviour of India and Pakistan vis-à-vis the US, the author largely presumes a unipolar international setting in which the US occupies a pre-eminent position. So, as the only leader of the world, the US believes it has a responsibility to broker peace in regional crises between nuclear states, even if unsolicited. In playing this role of a mediator, restrainer, arbiter or balancer between antagonists, the US and the other two involved parties engage in a process of three-way bargaining to affect each other’s choices to shape crisis resolution to suit their own interests. The modus operandi of this process is well documented through the three case studies of crises that the region experienced in the first decade after its overt nuclearisation.

The book candidly explains how it is Pakistani nuclear strategy to manipulate the risk of war in order to get especially the US involved in crisis resolution in South Asia. India was far more reluctant to accept third party engagement in what it deemed a bilateral issue. However, with the introduction of nuclear weapons in the region, and ever since the US began to appreciate New Delhi’s strategic restraint as a nuclear power during Kargil and thereafter, India has been more welcoming of the US to help de-escalate a crisis. The book offers several policy conclusions for Indian, Pakistani and US decision-makers on how to interpret future crisis dynamics and identify crisis management options.

The author recommends to Pakistan that it must "make utmost efforts to defeat all forms of terrorism emanating from its territory." He contends that unless this is done with immediacy and urgency, not only would the "danger of fresh crises remain clear and present," but Pakistan’s global reputation would also continue to be under a cloud, which in turn would adversely affect its ability to garner third-party diplomatic support for future dispute resolution. In fact, he even advocates the idea that both India and Pakistan should jointly work to defeat terrorism in order to avert the possibility of non-state actors playing their own agenda of starting a war between a "Muslim Pakistan" and a "Hindu India." While he is right in stating this, the possibility of joint action against terrorism can only be possible when Pakistan too considers it a menace to be defeated. Till such time as Rawalpindi considers terrorist organisations as its strategic assets, it dismisses the dangers of flirting with terrorism. However, as the author highlights, such a situation could bring major challenges for Pakistan’s own survival when a crisis spins out of control of the major protagonists, including a third party.

It is also strength of the book that it tests the applicability of the theory of brokered bargaining beyond the South Asian region. It analyses the possibilities of such bargaining during crises between players in the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula, and also between India and China. The centrality of the US in such crises, which might play out between its friends and foes, in new regional settings is well-explained. One scenario, however, that the book overlooks is a crisis wherein there is China-Pakistan collusion against India. In previous crises, China was a neutral party siding with the US in attempting crisis resolution. But, future crises between India and Pakistan may see China overtly taking Islamabad’s side given that Chinese stakes in the country have significantly risen. This would raise unique challenges for US crisis management, considering US’ own relationship with both China and India. How would brokered bargaining then play out?

In fact, one major limitation of the book is the presumption of the US as a "unipole" engaged in brokering peace. This may have been true during the three episodes of nuclear crises. But, with the current US policy seemingly relinquishing its leadership position on global issues from climate change to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to even questioning the nature of its long-standing alliance relationships, it is unclear whether the US would continue to perform this role in future crises. A large part of the US strategic community may still believe that the risk of a regional nuclear war would merit Washington's immediate participation. But there might also be some who take a more isolationist position and argue that limited nuclear use in a regional crisis may be one way of demonstrating the dangers of nuclear weapons possession to all. Additionally, a major change in the US-Pakistan relationship cannot be discounted. It has hit a new low with the fall in US military and financial assistance. With this, US leverage over Pakistani behaviour would also naturally suffer, thereby placing a question mark on the US' ability, and desire, to engage in brokering peace.
Another point of contention with the book is its argument that the third-party outlet in the form of the US has allowed India and Pakistan to "perpetuate strategic and doctrinal immaturity," as evident in the "highly non-transparent" nature of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear programmes. The author describes them as being "locked in an active tit-for-tat nuclear buildup, including a missile race." This is certainly not true of India. A draft nuclear doctrine made public by India in 1999, 20 years ago, still guides India’s strategic build-up. Its nuclear delivery capability is aimed at strengthening a capability of assured retaliation. Hence, the focus is essentially on technologies that support survivability. None of India’s nuclear capability trajectory is in response to developments in Pakistan and there certainly is no doctrinal immaturity with an eye on US help during a crisis.

In conclusion, the book offers a useful addition to the growing literature on the nuclear behaviour of regional states. It breaks new ground through its meticulous examination of bargaining between actors during crises to offer a theory to explain this process. Besides its policy conclusions that will be of help to decision-makers, the book makes a big contribution through the identification of new, related areas of research in order to further test the theory proposed. The author's suggestion to further examine the relationship between terrorism and nuclear weapons in situations where the non-state actor has operational independence from the state and its impact then on crisis dynamics is particularly worthy of further examination. Yusuf’s book is indeed recommended for reading by all individuals interested in understanding and those involved in undertaking crisis management.

Dr Manpreet Sethi is Senior Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies  (CAPS), New Delhi.