Michael KreponNuclear Optimism

No country has been more optimistic about the atom than India. Most Indians believe in nuclear energy and in the ability of their nuclear establishment to deliver it efficiently and cheaply. Indian strategic analysts tend to be extremely confident, which often results in a dismissive attitude toward Pakistan. Indian government leaders have been proud about their ambivalence toward the Bomb, while being optimistic about the benefits of minimal nuclear deterrence. In Pakistan, on the other hand, deterrence pessimism reigns. This helps explain why India has been so relaxed about nuclear weapon-related issues, while Pakistan takes them so seriously.

Here are a few quotes from my shoe boxes that reflect India’s longstanding nuclear optimism:

“India’s nuclear test can pave the way for the creation of stable conditions on the subcontinent by making Islamabad realize the futility of seeking artificial and, indeed, unattainable military parity with a many times bigger country… Pakistan will have to adjust itself to the realities of the situation.” — J.P. Jain, Nuclear India, Vol. I, 1974.

“If a mutual minimum nuclear deterrence is in place, it will act as a stabilizing factor… Possession of nuclear weapons would give Pakistan the confidence to face a larger neighbor with security and honour… This confidence on the part of Pakistan is to be welcomed as it is a positive asset for national sobriety and regional stability.” — General K. Sundarji, India’s Nuclear Weapons Policy, 1996

“Islamabad should realise the change in the geo-strategic situation in the region and the world. It must roll back its anti-India policy especially with regard to Kashmir. Any other course will be futile and costly for Pakistan.” — Public statement by Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani after India’s nuclear tests, 1998

“Now both India and Pakistan are in possession of nuclear weapons. There is no alternative but to live in mutual harmony.” — Public statement by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, after Pakistan also tests nuclear devices, 1998

“The only sensible option would be to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff… Indian public opinion will accept nothing short of the final dismemberment of Pakistan in case that country chooses to cross the nuclear Rubicon.” — Gurmeet Kanwal, Nuclear Defence: Shaping the Arsenal, 2001

India should “hold its nerve and coolly ratchet up the proceedings and compel Pakistan to make good its threat [of first use] or back down.” — Bharat Karnad, Nuclear Weapons & Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy, 2002

The most stable pairing in the world of nuclear weapons is between two deterrence optimists. But these dyads are hard to find, unless you want to pair Great Britain and France. The most worrisome dyads – the ones that generate arms racing and dangerous behaviors – are between two deterrence pessimists, as exemplified by the United States and the Soviet Union. Another pairing of deterrence pessimists will occur if Iran joins Israel as a state that possesses nuclear weapons.

The pairing of a deterrence optimist with a deterrence pessimist, as in South Asia, is unusual, lending itself to an arms competition, not an arms race. This competition will heat up over the next decade, testing the assurance of India’s nuclear optimists. If I were still teaching at the University of Virginia, I’d turn this conjunction into a midterm exam: Is the pairing of a deterrence optimist with a deterrence pessimist good or bad for strategic stability? And does it matter if the optimist is the stronger or weaker party?


  1. Alex W. (History)

    I’ve quoted this on here once before, but I like it so much I’ll do it again: Spencer Weart notes in his _Nuclear Fear_ that the French translated “deterrence” into “dissuasion,” whereas the Russians translated it into “terrorization”—two sides of the same nuclear coin. Says Weart: “Most thinkers mixed the two approaches, evading refutation in one mode of thought by shifting indiscriminately to the other.”

    • Scott Monje (History)

      Actually, the Russians use two different words for deterrence: sderzhivanie (сдерживание) and ustrashenie (устрашение).

      Ustrashenie, as you suggest, could be translated as terrorization. Sderzhivanie is the same word they use for containment (which introduces its own host of complications).

      As a rule, they generally used ustrashenie when referring to the U.S. policy of deterrence and sderzhivanie when referring to their own.

  2. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Do you really think you can characterize entire nations as “deterrence optimist” and “d. pessimist”? Aren’t there individuals in every nation who could be characterized one way or the other? And actually, don’t most individuals, let alone nations, have streaks of both in them? Some tendency to think optimistically, some optimistic beliefs and cliches, and some pessimistic?

    Do you really think that whether a nuclear rivalry becomes an arms race, or what technological forms a confrontation takes, will be driven by who is an “optimist” and who a “pessimist,” rather than by myriad factors including technical and economic resources, institutional interests, politics, ideological and interest conflicts, hot and cold wars, and internal dynamics of the nuclear confrontation itself?

    And finally, do you think a “deterrence pessimist” will, in the end, be any more likely to choose assured suicide over the possibility, at least, of peaceful resolution, or that “deterrence optimists” will be any less prone to the apocalyptic hysteria that, if events appear to be spiraling out of control, is the only plausible explanation for a “preemptive” nuclear attack that is sure to bring massive retaliation?

    Well, maybe you do, but I am no less skeptical of this than I am of any other broad-brush characterization of nations, or even individuals. Seems to me that differences in style tend to be greater than differences of substance, and that students of comparative cultures should remember that they come from within one, too.

    That said, maybe the difference between India and Pakistan is that Pakistan has always feared its big brother more than the other way around. Pre-nukes, that made some sense. Now that both sides have more than enough nukes for minimum deterrence, both ought to be able to chill out. That the confrontation seems instead to be slowly escalating probably has more to do with institutional interests and politics on both sides, as well as the fine example of the blind pursuit of technological supremacy set by Uncle Sam, than it does any relative tendencies toward optimism or pessimism.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      I don’t know. The mere fact that one can speak of cultures suggests that there must be something that sets them apart. Just because two national cultures will both have “optimists” and “pessimists” doesn’t mean that the tendencies will be comparably distributed and certainly doesn’t mean that both tendencies will be equally reflected in the institutional culture of their respective military/political elites. In the end, the elites’ confidence in deterrence and attitude toward technological change can have as much (or more) influence on decision making as the objective change itself. And I don’t believe MK said either of them was about to rush to suicide.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)


      I should clarify that it’s not that I don’t think there are cultural differences, it’s just that I believe they are more superficial than people think. For example, the Japanese are reputed to be very polite, but I think they are actually quite offensive to each other just as often as we are–only the offense is expressed in ways we may not be sensitive to. It’s like the way people from other ethnic groups may appear physically strange to you, until you spend some time among them, and then they look normal.

      So, there may well be a culture of “optimism” among Indian strategic thinkers, but this may be more a matter of how it looks to an American comparing what he reads and hears from Indians with what he reads and hears from Americans. I suspect that, in reality, thoughtful Indians are no less discerning of the range of the possible, and of the many byways of the logic of nuclear confrontation. Which means, in the end, that the way they behave and the decisions they make, as compared with ours, will not be explicable in terms of cultural differences.

  3. RAJ47 (History)

    @Mark Gubrud,
    You can ask any Indian anywhere in the world if he would like to nuke Pakistan. The answer you will get would always be that India would not to be the first to use nukes even if it is being used against China.
    There may be many pessimists in India but none so bad to be the first user of nukes. India is a very mature democratic nation with great political leaders. India has and will always stand by its words. Our adherence to NAM principles is well known.
    There is no “blind pursuit of technological supremacy” as quoted by you. India has an unwritten self imposed moratorium on nuclear tests. India has a declared NFU policy.
    Why can’t Pakistan have any such policy? Pakistan has always followed the policy of maximum nuclear deterrence, no matter what policies India pursues. Pakistan is increasing its uranium and plutonium production day by day. It has increased nuclear facilities at PINSTEC, Chasma, Kushab etc. Their delivery systems are becoming more and more sophisticated. Almost all Pakistani PMs and Presidents have threatened India by the first use of nuclear arsenal. Imagine how haunting it must be for all Indians to be under constant nuclear threat (just two minutes missile flight time) from the highly “jihadi” Pakistani armed forces willing to launch for Allah at the smallest possible religious stimulus. Let me remind you, Pakistani armed forces has only two kinds of officers – the religious jehadis and the nationalist jihadis – and both have only one goal – to destroy India.
    A Q Khan, Bashir‑ud‑Din Mahmood and the likes in Pakistan will not hesitate to proliferate to the Muslim brethren at the slightest religious stimulus. Pakistani universities teach subjects like nuclear electronics, metallurgy etc with great emphasis on practical learning. It is surprising to note that even small universities like Allama Iqbal Open University of AzaKhel has a department of Nuclear Sciences along with Department of Hadith and Seerah and Department of Islamic Thought, Islamic Law and Jurisprudence. The students in such Universities are generally from lower middle class who are imbibed with such great religious hatred towards India as if it runs in their genes. This is the stark reality of today’s Pakistan.
    Even after being fully aware of Pakistani mental setup India has always displayed more maturity to even the most dastardly provocations of Pakistan like attacking our highest temple of democracy – the Parliament and the prestigious Taj Mahal Palace and Tower in Mumbai. Even when Pakistan Army encroached upon the Kargil heights, India restrained from crossing the LOC to evict them.
    That is the confidence India has in its own capabilities which Michael is talking about. Yes, you can safely characterize the entire India as a “deterrence optimist” nation.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)


      You’re sounding pretty pessimistic to me.


  4. Shah (History)

    India developed the bomb in order to threaten Pakistan and fulfill the “final dismemberment of Pakistan” as was quoted by yourself. There was never any need for it to start the nuclear arms race in the subcontinent until India became convinced it could change the status quo on Kashmir. That India has no qualms about using several nuclear bombs to fix Pakistan naturally has the region and the world alarmed and this is precisely the reason why Pakistan needs to continue to build its stockpile. A reasonable step would be to mate the missile and warheads in advance to prepare for the impending nuclear strike from India. India needs to realize that it cannot believe Pakistan is any less than its equal.

  5. Sineva (History)

    The one that interests me is how does India feel about its other nuclear rival China,I wonder?,is it deterrence optimism or pessimism in that particular case.

  6. krepon (History)

    You would think that all hawkish nuclear strategists are, by definition, nuclear pessimists. This goes with the territory: bad things can happen, our nation has to be prepared, we have to take this business seriously, etc. And in this sense, those who are seriously concerned about nuclear weapon requirements in India are “hawks.” But there is also, in some precincts, an underlying optimism about the results of nuclear exchanges with Pakistan that strikes me as otherworldly. I’ll post more on this at some time in the future.

  7. Raj (History)

    There’s no dyad here; it’s a triad, wherein India considers China its primary deterrence adversary, and Pakistan considers India its adversary.

    India’s deterrence ‘optimism’ is the result of us not considering Pakistan anything more than a regional nuisance, and therefore not directing the sort of rhetoric at them that would be classified as ‘pessimism’ here.

    Further, this analysis is incomplete – there’s the added India-China dyad that is approximately a case of two deterrence ‘pessimists’. In other words, depending on the country, India is both an ‘optimist’ and a ‘pessimist’.

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