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On nuclear madmen and their perilous bluffs

During the Cold War, and in particular, the Nixon era, the US’s Nuclear Deterrence Strategy had at times flirted with the idea of its leadership playing the role of an unpredictable ‘madman’ in charge of one of the world’s most destructive nuclear arsenals. This strategy, that has since been defined as a more aggressive or coercive form of diplomacy, went as far as loading American long-range bombers with thermonuclear weapons and flying them over the north pole for eighteen hours in a holding pattern. This was done in a bid to signaling to the Soviet Union, the US’s seriousness and intent in ending the Vietnam war via any means necessary. However, as both history as well as a number of analysts have since concluded, the entire exercise did more to heighten the risks of an unnecessary global catastrophe than extracting any real or proven political or diplomatic concessions.

This signaling of unpredictability and even irrationality on the part of US leadership have been echoed in the assertions and fiery rhetoric of several other global leaders over the last few decades. These range from North Korean, former Iranian, Indian, and even perhaps to a certain extent a former Iraqi leader all of whom based their entire image on the notion of being dangerous and unpredictable with their finger readily on the nuclear button. Not to mention the current US President and his penchant for compulsively tweeting threats of all-out destruction to his adversaries. (Although the jury is still out on whether the current US President’s irrational behavior is part of a deliberate policy or quite simply an actual condition).

All in an all, appearing as irrational or even dangerous as part of a diplomatic ploy to exact concessions based on fear or through sheer terror is not something exclusive to the advent of the atomic era either. Similar ploys have been advocated by the likes of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu where such posturing and deceptive saber-rattling has been deemed an important part of a robust politico-military strategy. Yet, one wonders what such strategists contemplating warfare in the medieval or ancient periods would have thought of when facing the possibility of putting the entire human race at risk, simply for the pursuit of certain restricted political gains. Especially when the stakes and repercussions of failure are so much higher, does a ruthless realism or pragmatism stand justified in the case of nuclear brinkmanship?

Leaving aside the imagined reservations of classical military strategists, such projected notions of madness or unpredictability still remain very much a reality within our world today. Its latest incarnation can be witnessed in the case of South Asia where escalating tensions between age-old rivals and nuclear weapons capable India and Pakistan, have led to a serious assessment of what a nuclear engagement between the two would look like. While the global dangers of nuclear war are mostly common knowledge, the simple fact that such dangers need to be emphasized and need reminding of speak volumes of the precariousness prevalent in our world today.

This holds especially true when considering that just a few months ago, the world witnessed its first aerial dogfight between two nuclear weapons states over the skies of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region. This dogfight which was a culmination of years of escalating tensions and bellicose rhetoric particularly from Indian leaders was followed by even more incendiary rhetoric referring directly to the use of nuclear weapons. References alluding to the mother of all bombs or to a purported ‘night of slaughter’ can all be seen as premeditated and highly calculated attempts by PM Modi to not only appear tough, but even a tad unhinged. What’s more, both the above references were made at election rallies as part of projecting a carefully crafted image of a strong leader that was ready to depart from the calculated restraint shown by his predecessors. Instead, it was his readiness to all but embrace the destruction and irrationality associated with the use of nuclear weapons that proved instrumental in projecting this image. An image of a leader, who by pandering to his electorate’s basest fears and insecurities was capable of belligerently challenging Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent.

It is worth mentioning here that Pakistan’s response to such open provocation has remained forcefully measured. In balancing both its resolve and credibility, against the need to come off as a responsible nuclear weapon’s state, Pakistan has had to project itself as the rational actor against the more irrational, near nonsensical rhetoric coming out of the other half of the South Asian nuclear dyad. This is despite immense internal pressures and criticism that has deemed adopting such a course as akin to showing weakness in the face of such brazen threats.

While there are many in Pakistan that would want their country to adopt a tougher, even perhaps irrational stance keeping in mind their nuclear weapons capability, there is however a certain overarching wisdom that lends a sense of clarity to this whole affair. This is perhaps best encapsulated in one of Sun Tzu’s oft quoted maxims in which the great strategist advises to ‘appear weak when strong, and strong when weak.’ In this simple yet eloquent couplet, one finds not only the basis for the measured restraint being adopted by Pakistan at the present, but also the desperate madness exhibited by the likes of a Nixon or Modi when threatening the end of humanity.

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M Waqas Jan

M Waqas Jan is a Research Associate and Program Coordinator for the China Study & Information Centre (CS & IC) at the Strategic Vision Institute, a non-partisan think tank based out of Islamabad.

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