Michael KreponA New Look at Crisis Management in South Asia

Editor’s note: The Stimson Center has a longstanding interest in the dynamics of U.S. crisis management between India and Pakistan. We have published case studies of the 2001-2 “Twin Peaks”  and the 2008 Mumbai crises, as well as a new book co-edited by Sameer Lalwani and Hannah Haegeland, Investigating Crises. Most recently, Travis Wheeler has written that the changing U.S. postures toward India and Pakistan need not adversely affect Washington’s role as the region’s primary crisis manager. Moeed Yusuf has now added to the literature on crisis management with an important new book, Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia (Stanford University Press, 2018). Moeed is the associate vice president of the Asia Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He has written the following for ACW:

Much has been said about America’s waning appetite to act as a global leader and its implications for peace and conflict around the world. Nowhere are the stakes higher than in nuclearized environments.

The global nuclear debate in recent months has focused on North Korea and Iran. Little has been said about South Asia, another nuclear theater, that has been heating up for some time. This also happens to be a region where U.S. mediation has previously been central to lowering the risk of war. But what of the future?

Two decades ago this May, India and Pakistan became the first countries to test nuclear weapons after the Cold War. Since, they have been regularly involved in crises, including a limited war merely a year after their nuclear tests. These crises played out differently than Cold War models of brinkmanship would have predicted. Third party states, principally the U.S., had a crucial role in mediating between the two rivals and pulling them apart.

In my new book, Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments, I examine these third-party roles in regional nuclear contexts. I end up urging a fundamental rethink of how we approach nuclear crisis behavior. Unlike the superpower rivalry during the Cold War, regional nuclear rivals operate in a world with greater powers who are interested in preventing nuclear war and able to influence crisis behavior of middle-tiered states. This makes these crises three-actor games, not bilateral engagements à la Cold War.

Crisis moments between India and Pakistan have been more about these two antagonists trying to lure third-party support to gain concessions from the rival than about the two contemplating having a go at each other.

Four factors were crucial in ensuring a positive third-party role in crises:

• Fearful of nuclear war, the U.S. was willing and eager to take the lead in crisis management.
• Competitive third-party involvement was absent. All other external actors, including China and Russia, readily complemented, if not coordinated with, U.S. crisis diplomacy. This meant that India and Pakistan could not play third parties off each other.
• Third-party involvement was only about one objective: de-escalation of the immediate crisis. Larger security interests that seemed to contradict this agenda were suspended in time during the crisis moment.
• The U.S. had active communication channels with both India and Pakistan. While neither side trusted the U.S. as an impartial broker, their willingness to use the third party was driven by their belief that the U.S. had the requisite leverage to influence their rival’s behavior, and by a recognition that defying the U.S. could force it to tilt the crisis in the rival’s favor.

South Asia remains crisis prone. And even though official Indian and Pakistani rhetoric suggests that they have moved beyond using outsiders to do their bidding in crisis moments, they still lack bilateral escalation control and crisis management protocols. Nuclear confidence building between the two has been all but non-existent since the Mumbai terrorist attacks derailed a promising bilateral peace process a decade ago. One fact is as true today as it was two decades ago when they declared their nuclear status to the world: they know how to get into crises but have never terminated a serious crisis on their own.

Will the four determinants of third-party crisis management success from the past hold?

• Is the U.S. still willing to play lead in the next crisis? Will its demeanor be predictable? Is there enough institutional memory within the current administration to use the playbook from previous crises?
• Given the resurgence of great power competition and the rapid deterioration of U.S. relations with important allies and foes alike, is it realistic to expect a coordinated crisis management intervention from third-party actors?
• Or will the other strong powers with influence in South Asia see a crisis as an opportunity to compete with the U.S. and use India and Pakistan as regional proxies to further their positional interests? If so, would de-escalation be trumped by these other policy preferences?
• In South Asia itself, how will the changing contours of regional alliances affect India and Pakistan’s appetite to engage the U.S.? Will the all-but broken relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan and its increasing warmth with India make it too partisan to have effective leverage over both rivals? Will anyone else be able and willing to fill the vacuum?
• And how will all these uncertainties affect crisis stability?

In my book, I contend that the concern about nuclear war will tend to incentivize third-party cooperation even under sub-optimal circumstances. And yet, there is too much flux in global politics to be able to answer these questions definitively. The problem is that past South Asian crises have created certain expectations in terms of third-party roles. Mere uncertainty on this count could create confusion and force costly miscalculations in Indian and Pakistani crisis strategies.

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