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Nuclear comment, nuclear response

On March 31 and April 1, there was a Nuclear Security Summit in Washington that, among other motives, endeavored to provide a reliable international platform for world leaders to enter deliberations on what is perhaps the most contentious international issue of our times: commitment to nuclear security. For those of you who already view this as just another one of those forums akin to United Nations bodies, the intrinsic idea here is that the world today can simply not afford to procrastinate on collective responsibility until an untoward nuclear act transpires – due action must be taken long before. Though this was the fourth occurrence of the summit, there have been strides towards a safer nuclear policy compared to the first summit in 2010. But as is the case with virtually any international dealing, differences in both foreign policy and nuclear energy policy that impede smooth deliberations are only natural, to say the least. More often than not, the matter of contention lingers even after the summit and is resolved (or not) at subsequent discussion forums.  

And this is precisely what seems to have transpired at this summit after President Obama chose to opine on India’s nuclear arsenal by clubbing it together with Pakistan. President Obama’s recommendation that India and Pakistan cut down their respective nuclear capabilities seemed fair. But the assumption that India and Pakistan must follow a similar course of action drew a bitter reaction from the Indian government. He further went on to warn the two nations against constantly moving in the “wrong direction” in formulating military doctrines.

Turns out even the much-talked-about and ever-so-conspicuous recent camaraderie between President Obama and his Indian counterpart PM Modi does not seem to have stopped the U.S. from viewing India and Pakistan under one umbrella with regards to the risks of nuclear terrorism within the region. Were six meetings between the two world leaders within a short time span of two years not enough to inculcate a change of perception? Apparently not. Deeper insight leads me to believe that as India and Pakistan almost always remain the focal point of tension in the Indian Subcontinent, it is glaringly obvious that other nations would bracket the two when talking nuclear policy.

Among all the imminent reactions from Indian officials was a not-so-staggering claim that the U.S. lacks a complete grasp of India’s defense outlook. And even if (hypothetically) this is the case, it probably stems from a general perception of the roller coaster relationship between India and Pakistan since 1947. It comes as no surprise now that India is wary of being inextricably conflated with Pakistan in the U.S.’s foreign policy and diplomacy, much like it was until the George W. Bush administration. What remains absolutely essential to take into consideration though, is that India follows a doctrine of ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons. This essentially refers to the commitment of not using nuclear weapons for warfare unless an adversary strikes first. While this policy was first articulated in India in 2003, nuclear disarmament on Indian soil was advocated as far back as 72 years ago by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. That said, it is also globally known that India has never prompted military action against any of its neighbors, let alone Pakistan. Furthermore, with Pakistan admitting to making smaller tactical nuclear weapons, the concern of those weapons falling into the vicious hands of the ISIS is one that India wanted President Obama to emphasize more upon. Agreements like the 2008 India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement also lead me to opine that India has, of late, made a considerable effort to carve its image as a “normal” nuclear country despite being out of the ambit of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In sum, it is perhaps true that the India-Pakistan volatility, especially in this era of nuclear capability, is one that cannot be trifled with. And in this regard, Obama’s comments on the two nations’ military doctrines were by all means well-founded. But the shortcoming of the U.S. at this Summit in explicitly pointing out India’s effort towards nuclear safety on one hand and in contrasting it with Pakistan’s use of cross-border terrorism and sub-conventional warfare on the other did not go down well with newsreaders in India. It was also coincidental that India had also gotten knocked out of the cricket world cup (cricket is virtually religion in India) on the very same day – there was so much more to be peeved about!

Contact Arjun Soin at asoin ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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