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Stability-Instability Paradox

Michael Krepon

Edited by P.R. Chari , Sonika Gupta and Arpit Rajan
Manohar, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 221, Rs. 450.00


The first fifteen years of a nuclear rivalry can be very rocky. This is when  the  rules  of  the  competition  are still being written, when vulnerabilities are greatest, and when monitoring capabilities are spotty, at best.  It therefore comes as no surprise that India and Pakistan are going through a dangerous passage.  Since acquiring nuclear weapons, they have experienced a succession of hair-raising crises, one limited border war that was stopped with the help of the President of the United States, and a subsequent ten month-long standoff in which nearly one million soldiers were at battle stations, poised to fight.        Political scientists and deterrence theorists have a concept to describe what India and Pakistan are going through: They call this the stability-instability paradox.   The theory, which was developed from Cold War experience, holds that nuclear-armed rivals will avoid a conventional war that could escalate across the nuclear threshold.  In other words, nuclear rivals will tacitly or formally put in place arrangements that are stabilizing.  Their rivalry will continue, however.  Indeed, it may even be intensified under the assumption that nuclear weapons provide security against escalation.  So stability that prevents a central strategic exchange can also prompt instability at lower levels of violence.     During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union expe-rienced close calls over Berlin and Cuba before they tacitly decided against playing with fire in sensitive areas.  Then both superpowers began to negotiate and implement measures to prevent and reduce nuclear danger, even as they jockeyed for geo-political advantages  or to make each other’s mistakes very costly in out-of-the-way places like Vietnam and Afghanistan.  India and Pakistan are now in a similar, early stage of their nuclear rivalry, where they have poor lines of communication, little or no trust in each other, and meagre crisis management capabilities. On top of this, they have reached no agreement, tacit or otherwise, to refrain from playing with fire in sensitive areas.  The most sensitive area, of course, is Kashmir  “the divided Berlin of South Asia”. It is hard for westerners to image the Berlin crises of 1949 and the early 1960s with the added dimension of small arms fire, mortar, and artillery barrages across a divided Germany.  In stark contrast, the exchange of fire across the Kashmir divide is no big news; cease fires, on the other hand, are noteworthy.       Mutual confidence in escalation control appears to be very ...

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