Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Colombo for the SAARC summit, two months after both nations detonated nuclear devices, July 28, 1998.
Jason Reed / Reuters


Last May Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee authorized a series of nuclear tests beneath the desert sands of Rajasthan. While the aftershocks were still registering on seismographs around the world, he proclaimed India a nuclear-weapons state. Fifteen days later, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, claiming he had no choice but to match an adversarial neighbor, ordered Pakistan's own series of tests in the Chagai Hills of Baluchistan and declared that his country, too, had nuclear arms.

The tests spurred immediate global condemnation. In all, 152 nations—large and small, developed and developing—voiced their opposition. So did numerous international organizations, including the G-8 major industrialized democracies, the Regional Forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Organization of American States, the Nordic Council of Ministers, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. They all saw the tests as a double setback: for peace in South Asia and for international efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and control dangerous technology.

The consequences for American policy toward South Asia were also severe. The explosions derailed an initiative by the United States to put its relations with both India and Pakistan on sounder footing. The relationship between the United States and India had been in a rut throughout much of the Cold War, when the United States was the leader of the West and India a leader of the nonaligned movement, which it helped found in 1955. With those divisive categories now largely in the past, President Clinton saw India and the United States—fellow democracies with highly developed entrepreneurial economies—as natural partners.

With Pakistan, too, the Clinton administration had sought a fresh start. For decades, Pakistan had been a U.S. ally on the frontline of the struggle against the Soviet Union. That preoccupation had inhibited the United States and Pakistan from making common cause in other areas, especially fostering moderation and democracy in the Islamic world. The more complex and subtle geopolitics that came with the end of the Cold War provided a more variegated basis for bilateral relations.

With these opportunities and the approach of the 50th anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence in mind, President Clinton instructed the State Department in 1997 to explore ways to broaden and deepen ties with both countries. The president has remained committed to that goal. But in the wake of the tests last May, the United States has had to concentrate its diplomacy on preserving the viability of the global nonproliferation regime. Since last June, Washington has conducted separate but parallel discussions with New Delhi and Islamabad aimed at heading off an escalation of nuclear and missile competition in the region.


The tests last May brought to a head an old and persistent source of tension between the United States and both India and Pakistan. The dispute over nuclear weaponry has been part of the subtext of U.S.-Indian relations from the earliest days of India's independence from Britain. Even then, at the dawn of the nuclear age, mainstream Indian leaders feared that the bomb would loom large in the coming phase of international politics and that India might not be able to stand passively by. In 1948, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a champion of disarmament, told Parliament that, "of course, if we are compelled as a nation to use [atomic energy] for other purposes [than peaceful ones], possibly no pious sentiment will stop the nation from using it that way."

In the 1950s and early 1960s, under programs such as "Atoms for Peace," it was American policy to help India and other countries acquire peaceful nuclear energy while discouraging them from developing nuclear weapons. India, however, never forswore putting nuclear technology to military use.

India's brief war with China in 1962 was—and remains—a traumatic experience. China's test of a nuclear weapon two years later, its burgeoning strategic relationship with Pakistan, and the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war over Kashmir weighed increasingly heavily on Indian minds. Many experts believe that it was during this period that Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri authorized what became Delhi's nuclear-weapons program. In a letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson in May 1966, Shastri's successor, Indira Gandhi, hinted strongly that the Chinese program was driving a reluctant India toward a test of its own. Officials in Washington feared that India could go nuclear. In the words of a National Security Council memorandum prepared for President Johnson in June 1966, "Such a decision could start a nuclear-proliferation chain reaction. This would be contrary to basic U.S. national interests."

During this period, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) became a landmark on the international landscape. This document might better be called the "No Further Proliferation Treaty," since when it was signed in 1968, proliferation had already occurred. Five states had tested nuclear weapons—the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China. The NPT was explicitly not intended to legitimize those arsenals indefinitely. Rather, it represented a bargain: states that had not tested at the time of signature would promise never to develop or acquire nuclear weapons; in exchange, the parties agreed to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology with one another and to work toward the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons. The NPT was a brake on what would otherwise have been a juggernaut of nuclear proliferation. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy predicted that there would be 25 nuclear-weapons states within a decade. Instead, 36 years later, 182 non-nuclear-weapons states plus Taiwan have joined the NPT and renounced nuclear weapons, and the 5 nuclear-weapons states party to the treaty have accepted the NPT's disarmament obligations. Only 4 states—India, Pakistan, Israel, and Cuba—remain outside the global regime, and of these, only India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons and declared their nuclear status.

Under the terms of the NPT, 25 years after its entry into force its members would decide whether to extend the treaty indefinitely or for a fixed period of time. In 1995, 175 states agreed to indefinite extension. From the sidelines, India complained that the treaty was discriminatory because it protected the right of five countries—notably including China—to a monopoly on nuclear weapons while consigning the rest of the world to permanent inferiority. In their attacks on the NPT, Indian commentators and officials have argued that many of the non-nuclear-weapons states were duped or pressured into joining a treaty regime that infringed on their sovereignty and security. India presented itself as the champion of the rights of others who were too weak, shortsighted, or craven to stand up for themselves.

In fact, the decision to extend indefinitely the NPT reflected the participation and support of nations whose motives clearly, and properly, included self-interest. The non-nuclear-weapons states that signed the NPT did so because they believed it would spare them the expense of having to compete with one another in nuclear weaponry and because it would prevent their neighbors from being able to threaten them with nuclear weapons. The overwhelming majority of states continues to believe that the spread of such weapons would add perilously to regional and global tensions. Most of them tended to see India's and Pakistan's tests in that light.

The NPT has become part of the bedrock of the international system. For many nations, adherence to the NPT is a matter of international good citizenship. In the early 1990s, the newly independent states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine returned Soviet nuclear weapons to Russia for dismantlement. As part of its transition to democracy, South Africa became the first nation to destroy a clandestine nuclear arsenal and then join the npt as a non-nuclear-weapons state. Argentina and Brazil shut down their nuclear programs, joining the NPT in 1995 and 1998, respectively.

Since the South Asian tests, several non-nuclear-weapons states have noted pointedly that in joining the NPT, they were accepting the existence of five states that had declared nuclear arsenals, not seven. If efforts to hold the line against further erosion fail, last year's tests could spark a chain of withdrawals from the NPT. The unraveling of the treaty would, in turn, almost certainly jeopardize future progress in arms control and in the movement toward disarmament, since the NPT has made it possible for the nuclear "haves" to pursue arms reductions.

Since the early days of nuclear weapons, the United States and others have been looking for ways to control and even abolish nuclear weapons. In 1946, the Acheson-Lilienthal report suggested creating an international authority for nuclear weapons and materials, and the U.S. representative to the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission, Bernard Baruch, offered to destroy all U.S. nuclear weapons if other countries would accept a ban on acquiring their own. Once the Soviet Union tested its first bomb in August 1949, disarmament gave way to arms control. During the first decade of the Cold War, the best the superpowers could do was to work out rules of the road for the arms race. But following the Berlin and Cuban crises, a gradual easing of tensions permitted the United States and the Soviet Union to take difficult, practical steps toward the limitation and then the reduction of their nuclear arsenals.

The United States and Russia have already dismantled or removed from service 18,000 warheads. The Clinton administration is prepared in the next round of strategic arms reduction talks (START III) to cut the U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals by 80 percent from their Cold War levels. The United States has also diminished the role of nuclear weapons in its defense posture and cut its stockpiles of shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons by 90 percent. The United Kingdom and France have also taken steps toward disarmament, including the dismantlement of missiles and the cessation of production of fissile material, the stuff of which nuclear warheads are made.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) opened for signature in 1996 was also an essential step toward disarmament—one that the NPT parties had unanimously called for when they indefinitely extended the NPT the year before. By banning all nuclear explosions, the CTBT makes it impossible for states to develop new types of nuclear weapons with any confidence, thereby inhibiting a renewed nuclear arms race.


A quarter-century ago, in 1974, Indira Gandhi authorized the first—and until May 1998, the last—Indian nuclear test. Delhi explained that device to the world as being for peaceful purposes. That was a distinction without a military difference; terminology aside, India now had the bomb.

Largely in reaction to developments in India, Pakistan had already concluded that it, too, must have nuclear weapons. It sought and received help from China, which further stoked India's mistrust of both nations. By the early 1990s, India had extensive nuclear facilities that could produce and reprocess plutonium for nuclear weapons. It also was developing ballistic missiles. Pakistan kept pace but with an important difference. While India's nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs were well established and largely indigenous, Pakistan was trying to come from behind and therefore relied on equipment and technologies acquired abroad. During this period, the United States and others were trying to halt proliferation by penalizing countries trafficking in dangerous material. Therefore Pakistan was more vulnerable than India to U.S. sanctions.

But from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, India, not Pakistan, seemed poised to be the first since 1974 to detonate a nuclear explosive device on the subcontinent. On several occasions the United States and other governments appealed to Delhi, arguing that testing would harm, not strengthen, India's security. After all, Pakistan would then be virtually certain to test a weapon of its own, which could trigger an all-out arms race on the subcontinent. Washington also argued that the CTBT proved that there was an international consensus against testing.

Without tipping its hand on whether it would actually test, India claimed, wrongly, that the CTBT was, like the NPT, discriminatory and warned that India would keep all its options open. After completing its preparations in great secrecy, India detonated a series of what it described as "weaponized" devices in Rajasthan last May. The United States was among the 14 countries that imposed sanctions—tightening export controls, suspending or sharply curtailing bilateral defense relations, shelving other cooperative ventures, and canceling foreign aid—first against India and then, when Pakistan followed suit, against that country as well. This was the low point in two relationships that the United States had hoped to improve.

India stepped up its castigation of the NPT and demanded that it should be treated as an "equal" of the five nuclear-weapons states. Jaswant Singh, my principal interlocutor in the U.S.-Indian dialogue and now India's minister of external affairs, wrote in these pages in September 1998 that India, nervous about a rising China, was the victim of "nuclear apartheid." Several prominent Indians acknowledged that the motive for the tests had been mainly—and perhaps essentially—to achieve a "great-power status" that they believed could come only with membership in the nuclear club. As Chandan Mitra, an Indian commentator, put it, "The bomb is a currency of self-esteem." Or as K. Subrahmanyam has noted, "Nuclear weapons are not military weapons. Their logic is that of international politics and it is a logic of global nuclear order. . . . India wants to be a player in, and not an object of, this global nuclear order."

Because the five NPT-recognized nuclear-weapons states are also the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, some Indians have suggested that their country's new, self-declared status as a nuclear power enhances its claim to permanent membership on the Security Council if and when that body expands. The United States disagrees. The composition of the Security Council is a function not of nuclear status but of the geopolitical realities following World War II. Only the United States had nuclear weapons in 1945. In the Clinton administration's view, it would be far more in keeping with the global trend away from reliance on nuclear weapons for any new permanent members of the Security Council to be countries with a demonstrated commitment to nonproliferation and disarmament. Germany and Japan, whose candidacies the White House supports, achieved both security and stature without nuclear weapons. Some Indian commentators retort that those two nations, by virtue of being U.S. allies, live under an American nuclear umbrella while India enjoys no such international security guarantees. But testing is no answer to India's problems. International assurances and enhancements of Indian security will only be harder to get if India is engaging in an arms race and if testing prompts India's neighbors to respond in ways that diminish India's security.

Even before May 11, 1998, no one doubted that India had a nuclear-weapons capacity, just as Pakistan's nuclear-weapons capability was universally recognized before May 28. By testing, India and Pakistan proved little except that they are at odds with much of the rest of the world on the need to reduce the political salience of nuclear weapons. Since May, both India and Pakistan have advanced the notion that their tests will usher in an extended period of nuclear stability in South Asia comparable to the one that preserved the peace between the United States and the Soviet Union for half a century. Some Indians and Pakistanis seem to see Cold War brinkmanship between the superpowers as something to be emulated. They should look at the record again—not from the vantage point of having seen the Cold War end peacefully, but rather from the sobering perspective of what it took to manage the rivalry.

Security has an economic dimension as well as a military one. Before India and Pakistan decide to replicate the U.S.-Soviet nuclear standoff, they should consider the price tag. A recent Brookings Institution study estimates that maintaining the American nuclear capability cost the United States just under $5.5 trillion. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the expense of prosecuting the nuclear arms race helped make the Soviet system and state disintegrate. The massive spending required to develop nuclear weapons is only a fraction of what is required for safely managing even a modest nuclear arms capability. The tense military situation generated by a nuclearized subcontinent would further drive up overall military budgets—a trend already in evidence.

Those looking for lessons from the Cold War should also consider how close the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink. India and Pakistan have even less margin for error than the United States and the U.S.S.R. did in Cuba and Berlin, for geographic and other reasons. During the half-century of their global rivalry, the United States and the Soviet Union never drew each other's blood on the battlefield—at least not in a direct conflict. By contrast, India and Pakistan have, over approximately the same span of time, fought three wars, and there continue to be frequent and sometimes fatal exchanges of artillery fire across the "line of control" in Kashmir. India's and Pakistan's capitals are within less than an hour's reach of the other's supersonic fighter-bombers—and are only minutes' flight time away for the mobile ballistic missiles that both are developing.

In that context, they—and we—must heed the current debate, especially within India, over doctrine and deployments. A number of theoreticians of Indian nuclear policy have adopted jargon and concepts from the more apocalyptic school of American strategic thinking in the 1950s and 1960s. They write with confidence and even enthusiasm about overkill, war-fighting, and city-busting, and they advocate deploying a thousand or more Indian warheads aimed at Karachi as well as at China's larger cities. An alternative view asserts that nuclear war is neither fightable nor winnable, that the very existence of the weapons will deter their use, and that India should therefore embrace the idea of "existential deterrence."1 For its part, the Indian government is conducting a strategic defense review. In their public comments, Indian officials have thus far been careful not to prejudge the conclusions of that process. But several recent high-level statements seem to imply that the government is looking for a position at the more moderate end of the spectrum. Most prominently, Vajpayee himself spoke last December of adopting a posture of "minimum credible deterrence."

Pakistani officials have been even more circumspect, preferring to wait and see what India is planning to do before announcing their own policies. But given their country's pronounced disadvantages of size, geography, and economic strength in comparison to India, they should be amenable to the concept of minimum deterrence as well.


Having India and Pakistan stabilize their nuclear competition at the lowest possible level is both the starting point and the near-term objective of the U.S. diplomatic effort underway since last June. The United States must remain committed to the long-range goal of universal adherence to the NPT. It cannot concede, even by implication, that India and Pakistan have by their tests established themselves as nuclear-weapons states with all the rights and privileges enjoyed by parties to the NPT, such as full international help in developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. To relent would break faith with those states that have forsworn a capability they could have acquired. Moreover, it might inadvertently provide an incentive for other countries to blast their way into the ranks of the nuclear-weapons states. Therefore, until India and Pakistan disavow nuclear weapons and accept safeguards on all their nuclear activities, they will continue to forfeit the full recognition and benefits that accrue to members in good standing of the NPT.

At the same time, if India and Pakistan are willing to move toward the international mainstream in the way they define and defend their interests—even if they remain for the foreseeable future outside the NPT—their relations with the United States and other members of the international community could improve substantially. Lifting sanctions would be only one component of a return to the process of transforming the relationships, which was among the first casualties of the May tests.

In conducting parallel diplomatic dialogues with India and Pakistan over the past nine months, the United States has taken into account both governments' conceptions of their own national interests. The Clinton administration does not expect either country to alter or constrain its defense programs simply because we have asked it to. The essence of the case the administration is making to both is that they can meet their security requirements as we have heard them define them without further testing nuclear weapons, without producing more fissile material, and without deploying nuclear-capable missiles—and that, conversely, they will undermine their security unless they move quickly and boldly to bring under control the action-reaction cycle between them. Against that backdrop, the United States is encouraging India and Pakistan to take five practical steps that would help avoid a destabilizing nuclear and missile competition, as well as more generally reduce tensions on the subcontinent and bolster global nonproliferation.

TEST BAN. India and Pakistan have both declared voluntary moratoriums on further testing. At the United Nations in September, the two prime ministers pointed their governments toward CTBT adherence within a year.

FISSILE MATERIAL. Last year India and Pakistan agreed to join talks at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on a fissile material cutoff treaty. This agreement would be an important milestone in promoting international acceptance of a key principle of nuclear arms control. But even if those negotiations move forward quickly, the completion and formal entry into force of a cutoff treaty is still several years away. To prevent accumulation of fissile material during that time, the administration has urged India and Pakistan to join the other nations that have conducted nuclear tests in announcing that they will refrain from producing fissile material for nuclear weapons pending conclusion of a treaty. The United Kingdom, France, Russia, and the United States have done so.

STRATEGIC RESTRAINT. The third key objective of our discussions with the Indians and the Pakistanis involves restraint in the development and deployment of missiles and aircraft capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction. Testing explosive devices is not the only threat to peace. Unless India and Pakistan exercise great care, the delivery systems themselves could become a source of tension and increase the incentive to attack first in a crisis. They could also increase the risk that weapons would be used as a result of accident or miscalculation.

EXPORT CONTROLS. The principles of prudence and restraint also apply to the fourth issue the United States has raised with India and Pakistan: tightened export controls on sensitive materials and technologies that could be used to develop weapons of mass destruction. Both countries have agreed that it makes sense to bring their existing policies and legal regimes in line with international standards. The United States and other countries have begun discussions with both on export controls, and they have agreed to move beyond the realm of principle into that of the practical, including the exchange of information and expertise.

INDIA-PAKISTAN DIALOGUE. While the first four proposals deal with the overt manifestations of the Indo-Pakistani nuclear competition, the fifth deals with the underlying causes: the long-standing tensions and disputes between the two countries. No amount of diplomatic exertion on our part—on nonproliferation or any other subject—will have much effect unless and until India and Pakistan liberate themselves from their own enmity. And while the United States and others can help through their good offices with both countries, that liberation will occur only through direct, high-level, frequent, and above all, productive dialogue between the two of them.

In this crucial respect, some progress has been made in recent months, especially with the resumption of talks between the two foreign secretaries in Islamabad last fall. They are talking about confidence-building measures, better communications between civilian and military experts, bus lines across the border, trading in energy, and even Kashmir. India and Pakistan are far more likely to stabilize their military competition—and meet international nonproliferation benchmarks—if each knows, through bilateral dialogue, what the other is doing and planning.

In that spirit, direct contacts between India and Pakistan will, one hopes, not only complement but eventually supersede the efforts of the United States and other third parties. This would be as it should be: two great countries dealing directly, normally, and peacefully with each other, to their mutual benefit and in pursuit of their many mutual interests. Moreover, a breakthrough between India and Pakistan would let the United States get on with the task that President Clinton set for us before the tests last May: developing the kind of broad-gauge, forward-looking bilateral relationships with these two countries that they, and we, want and deserve.

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  • Strobe Talbott, the Deputy Secretary of State, is President Clinton's envoy in talks with India and Pakistan on nonproliferation and security issues.
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