The world has been on edge watching India and Pakistan’s latest crisis. For the first time since 1971, India bombed mainland Pakistan. The strike was retaliation after a Pakistan-based terrorist group supported a suicide bombing in the disputed territory of Kashmir that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers.
Unlike in 1971, however, India and Pakistan now have sizable nuclear arsenals. Before Pakistan released a captured Indian pilot who had ejected over its territory, some observers worried that the crisis could have escalated into a nuclear conflict. Others, however, would likely credit nuclear weapons with getting both countries to step back from the brink.
Which is it? The crisis is just the latest chapter in a long-running debate about the consequences of nuclear weapons.
The traditional school of thought is that once two countries establish secure nuclear arsenals that can withstand attack and still hit back, they enter a state of mutually assured destruction, or MAD. Even the loser in a war can devastate the other’s civilians, making military victory and relative military power all but meaningless.
The result, according to this logic, is that nuclear-armed adversaries will behave quite differently from countries without nuclear weapons. Afraid of nuclear escalation, such rivals will avoid arms races, stay out of wars, deescalate crises, refrain from threatening one another’s core interests, and generally maintain the status quo.
Not all scholars agree with this analysis. Precisely because countries with robust nuclear arsenals can threaten one another with such devastation, they may believe they can safely skirmish at a lower level without fearing all-out war. Glenn Snyder called this the Stability-Instability Paradox.
A country with a secure nuclear arsenal might even increase its low-level military provocations of a nuclear-armed opponent, betting that the opponent’s fear of escalation will constrain the response. From this perspective, nuclear weapons can make conflict more likely and — if countries miscalculate escalation risks — more dangerous.