Michael KreponMagical Realism

The Bomb lends itself to magical thinking on both sides of the usual divide. Died-in-the-wool realists scoff at arms control, let alone the plans of abolitionists. They tend to ascribe powers to nuclear weapons even beyond the Bomb’s destructive capacity, powers that include deterrence stability, escalation control and escalation dominance.

As readers of these posts have figured out, I don’t do dogma. Arms control can be useful but not magical. Successful arms control constitutes pragmatic steps toward ideal objectives – to borrow the founding motto of the Stimson Center. Those who believe that arms control can transform international relations will be sorely disappointed.

Nor do I believe in magical realism related to nuclear weapons, by which I mean beliefs that the Bomb can diminish political differences, compensate for weakness, win wars between well-armed, nuclear-weapon states or secure favorable post-war settlements. Nowhere is magical realism more evident than in writing about the Bomb on the subcontinent, where serious South Asian strategic analysts have penned passages that they would now like to forget. I include myself in this club, but I don’t keep my own wrong-headed predictions on 4X6 cards. Shall we dip into the shoebox files?

“If a minimum nuclear deterrent is in place, it will act as a stabilizing factor… Why all this fuss about India and Pakistan…?” –K. Sundarji

“India should be relieved Pakistan has gone ahead and tested its nuclear devices and declared itself a nuclear weapons state. Such a move has ensured greater transparency about Pakistan’s capacities and intentions. It also removes complexes, suspicions and uncertainties…” — J.N. Dixit

“[F]uture nuclearization in India and Pakistan is more likely to resemble an ‘arms crawl’ than a genuine arms race.” — Ashley Tellis

“The possibility of nuclear war between India and Pakistan is infinitesimally small due to close cultural linkages, India’s fear of the consequences of prosecuting a war of annihilation against Pakistan, conventional near parity and the controlled nature of conflicts… Time and again there were crises, but the meta-stable system righted itself.” — Bharat Karnad

“[N]uclearization of the region has rendered direct, interstate conflict increasingly unlikely.” — Sumit Ganguly

“Pakistan’s intrinsic capability to make additions to its nuclear arsenal is limited.” – Bharat Karnad

“India and Pakistan have reached a stabilizing threshold: an unspoken taboo on the overt deployment of nuclear weapons.” — Devin Hagerty

“Because neither side has the requisite capability to pursue a decapitating first strike against the other, the ‘stability/instability paradox’ will hold for the foreseeable future.” — Sumit Ganguly

“[India and Pakistan] are steadily moving up the nuclear learning curve and towards a stable deterrent situation.” — Naeem Salik

“There is no more ironclad law in international relations theory than this: nuclear weapon states do not fight wars with one another.” — Devin Hagerty


  1. Nick Ritchie (History)

    Magical realism also pervades the UK debate on replacing its Trident system and staying in the nuclear weapons business well into the second half of the century. The formal rationales peddled by the establishment rest on the categorical necessity of retaining a strategic nuclear capability of global reach to hold at bay the demons of ‘future uncertainty’ and worst-case possibilities of a Cold War redux. The key here, though, is that the public won’t buy a case for recapitalising Trident at significant expense that rests solely on retaining nukes for exotic scenarios involving military threats to the very survival of the state. Sufficient justificatory weight requires a sprinkling of magical realism to conjure up the catalogue of ‘strategic’ rationales ably presented by the Labour government in its 2006 White Paper on ‘The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent’: deter established nuclear powers, deter WMD-armed rogue states, deter state-sponsored nuclear terrorism, provide an ‘insurance’ against future strategic uncertainty, provide a second-centre of nuclear decision-making in NATO, and support collective security in the Euro-Atlantic area.

  2. Scott Monje (History)

    Was there a war between India and Pakistan that I missed?

    • Tom Sauer (History)

      Yes, you missed the Kargil War mid-1999 with more than 1,000 deadly casualties. Some believe that the fact that Pakistan had just obtained nuclear weapons, made Pakistan more risk-prone. If that is the case, it is another argument to fight proliferation and to favor abolition. The violent conflict is certainly a failure of nuclear deterrence in practice.
      With respect to the outcome, advocates of nuclear deterrence believe that because of the Bomb the war did not further escalate. Opponents of nuclear weapons reply that the latter can never be proved, that there are other explanations why it did not further escalate, and that the war itself shows that nuclear weapons are not a magic bullet against interstate war.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      Good points. This highlights the contradiction between Sumit Ganguly’s two statements. Nuclear weapons can’t render interstate conflict increasingly unlikely and simultaneously engender a stability/instability paradox, inasmuch as the latter suggests that strategic deterrence makes it safer to engage in conflict, albeit at lower levels of violence. (Actually, Sumit is an old friend of mine. I hope he’s not reading this.) Perhaps the two quotes reflect an evolution in his thinking.

    • Anon (History)

      Nuclear weapons made sure that Kargil did not spin out of control. Non-magical unrealism is also unhelpful.

  3. Atia (History)

    Magic and realism are oxymoronic. Nuclear weapons are inanimate, but their developers, holders, users and above all “commentators” are magicians. If they believe that the weapons can add to deterrence, that belief can add to deterrence. However, if they believe that weapons can resolve interstate issues – that is a probably a sad misperception.
    Deterrence a state of mind, nukes its symbolism.

    • krepon (History)

      Well said.

  4. Sharif (History)

    “There is no more ironclad law in international relations theory than this: nuclear weapon states do not fight wars with one another.” — Devin Hagerty

    Yes, instead they have proxy fights and kill hundreds of thousands of dirt-poor third world peasants.

    How nice nuclear weapons are.

    How well they have kept the peace…in Vietnam, Grenada, Nicaragua, Af/Pak.

    They are good for those that hold them: that’s why more and more nations want them, and that’s why no one of the NWSs is going to comply with Art 6 of the NPT.

    All one can hope for is minimum deterrence magic. Will the NWSs lead on that at least?

    China is a good leader on that I admit.

  5. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Belief in the reality and efficacy of nuclear deterrence is not magical thinking. It is a belief well-founded on the fact that people have intelligence and can recognize when they are unlikely to gain anything, and risk losing everything, from further escalation of a violent conflict. It is also, incidentally, borne out by history since 1945. Not that the presence of nuclear weapons on two sides of a confrontation excludes the possibility of violence and “war,” but that the latter has not escalated to even the pre-nuclear heights of barbarity and desperation experienced in the First and Second World Wars. Not between the US and SU, not China and the SU, not between India and Pakistan, not even between the US and North Korea.

    What would be magical thinking is to believe that nuclear deterrence could never fail, could never collapse in the chaos and sheer terror of a crisis that seemed to relevant players sufficiently likely to result in the large scale use of nuclear weapons. And therefore to fail to understand the urgent need to move beyond deterrence into a world of security guaranteed by arms control, international institutions, and nuclear weapons abolition.

    The Bomb by itself does not diminish political differences, and it often seems to feed and magnify them, but it surely focuses the mind and forces the more sober minds on both sides of a nuclear confrontation to think seriously about the point of view, claims, grievances, and intentions of the other side, and to seek negotiated resolution of conflicts as an alternative to mutual annihilation.

    Possession of the Bomb does not cancel weakness but it does tend to curb the appetite of the strong for total war as a way to settle issues.

    Arms control by itself may not appear to transform international relations, but by arresting or preventing arms races it can help to reduce one factor that propels antagonism, conflict and ill-will, and create a space within which cultural, economic, and diplomatic exchanges can build a more solid structure of peace. Richard Nixon called this “detente” These days it’s hard not to miss the old buzzard sometimes.

  6. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I would attribute the magic not to the graven idol of the bomb, but to the worshiper. Physically, the bomb can erase the military gains or losses to be had with conventional weaponry. I think there’s also something that can’t be ignored. The bombs ability to directly engage the leadership to participate directly in the bloodletting. Nuclear warfare is a spectator sport for only a few, it binds the leadership directly to the fate of the citizenry. I would suppose it would be easy to attribute a change in behavior of people to a external force of super-nature instead of a summation over a large set of nudges from a natural force.

    • Sharif (History)

      superb point. that’s (to me) a fresh take.

  7. Mark Lincoln (History)

    Major war 1947, major war 1965, major war 1971, Indian Bomb, minor war 1999, Pakistani bomb. . .

    What is magical or mystical about that?

    In the 1950s, the USA, fearing the first ‘Asian bomb’ would be Chinese covertly backed the Indian effort.

    In the 1980s the USA, to gain access Afghanistan and Reagan’s Freedom Fighters, allows proliferation of nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan.

    In the 2000s the USA supplies funding for Pakistan’s bomb program and via the ISA the Taliban and Al Queada.

    Short term reasons for long-term disaster.

    Seems to me that the US government is the one which has repeatedly engaged in magical-mystical thinking.

    • kme (History)

      The “minor war 1999” post-dates, rather than pre-dates, the Pakistani bomb.

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