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Reflections on Rethinking Nuclear Responsibilities

Pakistan’s threat perceptions have always determined its strategic trajectory. From the late 60s onwards, the raison d’être of Pakistan’s threat perceptions justifying the acquisition of nuclear weapons was India and its quest to acquire nuclear weapons. Since 1998, when India and Pakistan became overt nuclear weapon states by testing their nuclear weapons, a series of crises ensued which led scholars to interpret the duo’s nuclear behavior and theorized about limited war scenarios under the nuclear umbrella in South Asia. India and Pakistan for their part did not do much to assuage the fears of the international community and continued adding to the fragility of strategic stability in South Asia. 

For any student of nuclear South Asia, India and Pakistan appear to be the weakest links in the global nuclear order, nuclear possessors who might be the first ones to use nuclear weapons in any future crisis and break the nuclear taboo. However, if you speak to the nuclear establishments in both countries, or their publics, their intellectuals, their journalists, and their academics, you will frequently hear them say that each country, singularly, in its own right, is a responsible nuclear state. 

My first interaction with this word ‘responsibility’ in the nuclear context was right after the 1998 nuclear tests that Pakistan conducted on May 28 and May 30, 1998. Pakistan’s foreign secretary, Ambassador Shamshad Ahmad, said that Pakistan had conducted the nuclear tests with “a high sense of responsibilityand that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability was “solely meant for national self-defense. It will never be used for offensive purposes.” Since 1998, India and Pakistan have come a long way and have amassed massive nuclear learning experience given the crises they have survived: 1998 Kargil, 2001-02 border standoff, 2008 Mumbai attacks, 2016 Uri, and 2019 Pulwama-Balakot, some with nuclear overtones and some with nuclear undertones. 

Nuclear responsibility, therefore, in the South Asian context, primarily meant non-use of nuclear weapons. As long as the nuclear taboo was not broken, or an attempt towards breaking the nuclear taboo was not deliberately made, both India and Pakistan, continued to claim themselves to be responsible nuclear weapon states. However, my engagement with the literature co-produced by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) at the University of Birmingham on ‘Nuclear Responsibilities’ has changed my perspective and broadened my intellectual horizon on how countries can have a shared understanding of nuclear responsibility even when they have different perceptions about it. The process of engaging with the concepts of security dilemma sensibility, working with the Nuclear Responsibility Framework, and conducting critical introspection of Pakistan’s responsibility matrix, has been inspiring on all counts. 

For years on end, the South Asian nuclear discourse has been heavy on the blame game to the extent that it has become chronic. But there is hope with the new generation of nuclear scholars in India and Pakistan to connect anew with the nuclear responsibilities framework and theorize on how to break away from the blame culture. We must find avenues for our respective countries where the definition of nuclear responsibility can be expanded to look at engagements beyond the non-use of nuclear weapons. This new approach to thinking about nuclear weapons and talking about nuclear weapons in South Asia can experiment with the nuclear duo’s responsibilities towards their own respective citizens and their immediate neighborhood; their responsible deterrence approaches, and responsible arms racing if that’s the imperative each country believes it faces.

If you step back and take a look at this expansion of the definition of nuclear responsibilities to include the ones cited here, the discourse on nuclear South Asia, generated by intellectual strategic communities from within, is bound to change. That’s a start. Once the new generation of nuclear scholars in South Asia start talking about nuclear responsibilities in a new light, we will start moving away from the negatives and move towards the positives. At this stage, we do not even know how the State perceives its nuclear responsibilities to itself, as the State, or to its citizens, its neighborhood, the world at large, or the planet. There is very little open-source information for a citizen-scholar to obtain information beyond the obvious. There is no discourse taking place between the citizen-scholar and the State about the nuclear responsibilities and the sources they come from, or about the policies and practices in place to fulfill those responsibilities, or even about how the State’s adversaries perceive the State fulfilling its responsibilities in relation to the nuclear weapons it possesses. 

Our work as nuclear scholars and experts, intellectuals, academics, researchers, civil society, and media is cut out. We need to identify ourselves as the primary stakeholders in relation to the State possessing nuclear weapons and generate a discourse on nuclear responsibilities. We also need to talk to other strategic communities in regions beyond South Asia to understand their security dilemma sensibilities in relation to nuclear weapons present in their region. Engaging with communities outside South Asia will also help us understand how non-nuclear NPT States look at nuclear responsibilities of the NWSs and how they make them accountable to fulfilling those responsibilities. A broader multilateral stakeholder analysis of nuclear responsibilities will push us globally to broaden the scope of critical introspection at levels higher than ourselves. It will also help us better understand each other’s perspectives and leave no room for misunderstanding. Once this small regional strategic community starts working together with a common understanding about nuclear risks, they will develop shared understanding and frameworks for reducing nuclear risks and dangers to make their region and the world a safer place. The pattern of the South Asian crises suggests that communication is usually and often the first casualty in the crisis between the duo. Perhaps, a discussion on keeping the strategic lines of communication open during the crisis, could also make its way to the broader nuclear responsibilities discourse in South Asia. 

We can start small. Indian and Pakistani academic strategic communities can start talking to each other as to how each perceives the other as being responsible. And if that perception is negative, then what are the pathways through which a better understanding can be developed for how each is fulfilling its nuclear responsibilities. Dialogue is the key. And both countries surely do not have to wait for another crisis before this process begins. Let’s talk.


artworks 000099707675 bhbxq1 t500x500This article is co-published with the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham. 

Dr Rabia Akhtar is Director, Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research, University of Lahore. She is the founding director of the School of Integrated Social Sciences at University of Lahore, Pakistan. She is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the South Asia Center, Atlantic Council, Washington DC. She has written extensively on South Asian nuclear security and deterrence dynamics. She is the author of a book titled ‘The Blind Eye: U.S. Non-proliferation Policy Towards Pakistan from Ford to Clinton’. Dr Akhtar is also the Editor of Pakistan Politico, Pakistan’s first strategic and foreign affairs magazine.

Views expressed belong solely to the original author of the article and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of BASIC.

Image: Pixabay

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