Sameer Ali Khan

Earlier this year, the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), Institute for Conflict Cooperation and Security (ICCS), University of Birmingham, and Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research (CSSPR), University of Lahore(UoL) joined hands to provide a platform for exchanging views on “Exploring Responsible Practices in Crisis Prevention & Management” between British and Pakistani officials, former officials, and academicians.

Nuclear weapons possessors talk of themselves being responsible but do not generally explicate as to what these responsibilities entail. Responsibilities to self tend to take precedence, and rather than communicating their intentions, states often tend to communicate threats. This generally leads to escalation in rhetoric: a blame-game ensues as the dust of crisis settles.

Accepted norms and worldviews of states and their leaders dictate how a nuclear weapons possessor state operates in the international environment. Since these states feel a responsibility to protect themselves against a perceived adversary, they tend to rely on deterrence, which is essentially a threat of nuclear consequences if the enemy transgresses the often declared and undeclared red lines. Therefore, it becomes difficult for states to maintain a reasonable balance between their perceived nuclear responsibilities and security imperatives.

Asymmetries in terms of military and strategic capabilities, pursuit of a certain status in the international order, and revisionist approaches tend to cast a shadow over what ought to be responsible practices in crisis prevention and management. An associated issue is that of the outstanding disputes, which triggers crises and, consequently, demands frequent crises management instead of resolution of disputes, which could otherwise obviate the need for crisis management. Peaceful and cooperative resolution of outstanding disputes could in itself be a major and sustainable Nuclear Risk Reduction Measure (NRRM).

In the past, arms control arrangements have helped manage potentially destabilizing arms racing. In the absence of robust arms control arrangements, however, the prospect for stability remains bleak. In the South Asian scenario, there have been some confidence-building measures (CBMs), like the Agreements on Non-Attack on Nuclear Facilities and Pre-Notification of Missile Tests along with the two communication channels (hotlines), which have created a semblance of predictability and trust but have not advanced to verifiable, legally-binding arrangements. While there is room for improving the scope of existing CBMs, there are prospects for new CBMs like a bilateral commitment to not deploying ballistic missile defenses (BDMs) along the Indo-Pak border.

In the past, mediation from third parties has played an important role in defusing Indo-Pak crises. However, the traditional peace brokers seem to be losing their credibility and acceptability as neutral mediators in either or both India and Pakistan. While third parties may continue to be useful in the prevailing environment of trust-deficit, ideally, the two states need to resolve their disputes and prevent and manage crises bilaterally. Until that time, the United Nations (UN) and the five permanent members of its Security Council are ideally placed to play a mediatory role.

The United Kingdom, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, is well placed to share its experiences of dealing with various crises as a Nuclear Weapon State (NWS). Although the UK and Russia (earlier the USSR) never fully trusted each other, they have worked around a situation of trust-deficit. Developing an understanding of the other side and keeping the communication channels open always proved useful for the UK. In this regard, finding the right people to connect with always came in handy in times of crises.

It also helped the UK to be transparent about its nuclear doctrine. Even though the UK does not subscribe to a policy of No First Use (NFU), it clearly spells out that its nuclear weapons will only be used in self-defense and under extreme circumstances. Similarly, the UK has very clearly identified its nuclear use authority – backed by constitutional arrangements.

The UK also considers that clearly communicating its nuclear capability, in terms of the number of nuclear warheads and their very specific delivery systems, helped avoid a potentially dangerous and expensive arms race, and the issue of conventional-nuclear entanglement. The UK has also consistently refrained from communicating any intent to escalate or dominate the escalation ladder. It also communicates its doctrine and discusses NRRMs within the P-5. In order to create common grounds for discussions and dialogue, it maintains a glossary of nuclear terms. While this glossary doesn’t provide a common ground for contested concepts like strategic stability, it attempts to do so in case of other commonly used terms.

In times of crises, the UK has sought to buy time to gather greater visibility into the various aspects of the crisis through evidence and fact-gathering. It has also strictly ensured that no automations are introduced in its nuclear decision-making and refrained from targeting any state’s nuclear weapons capability. This approach helps remove any sense of urgency in contemplating and communicating any response options. Another associated approach that has proven to be useful for the UK in case of the ongoing Ukraine crisis is to refrain from responding to aggressive rhetoric. If anything, the UK has consciously restricted itself from criticizing the aggressive posturing and rhetoric coming from the other side.

That being said, context is extremely important and is going to be different in every case. Newer elements of power will play a role in crises going forward. Hence, new challenges will come to the fore as a result of an onset of any crisis. Likewise, the situation can also vary drastically between different nuclear dyads based on their unique experiences and circumstances. Nonetheless, some experiences may be equally relevant in most, if not all, situations.

For instance, the importance of communication cannot be overstated between any two nuclear-armed antagonists. This is especially true in times of crises where lack of access to reliable communications would increase uncertainty and the chances of escalation. But the problem with establishing reliable channels of communication is that they can only be built and strengthened in peaceful and cordial environments. However, when their need is felt the most in times of crises, it is difficult to create them.

Similarly, buying more time is probably a great practice that all other nuclear weapon states could adapt to their own situations. Adding a sense of urgency upon nuclear decision-making tends to create unnecessary pressures on the decision-makers. This was certainly a practice of the past that proved helpful for two nuclear weapon states who felt that a devastating surprise first-strike was imminent and accordingly invested in technologies like airborne bombers, elaborate chain(s) of command, and nuclear forces, which were on hair-trigger alert. However, not all other nuclear weapon states share the same threat perception, and therefore, they could always benefit from greater access to information for more sound judgements. As happens to be the case, access to information is always directly proportional to the time available. Therefore, buying time will always be a good bargain.

Another practice that Pakistan, like the UK, already follows is unambiguous declaration of the capability of each system that it develops or tests. Sometimes, being so transparent has cost Pakistan in terms of criticism that is hurled at it – declaration of Nasr as a solely nuclear capable missile is a case in point. However, Pakistan continues to follow the policy of declaring its capabilities through an official channel of communication i.e. the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR). This is despite the fact that the other South Asian nuclear power mostly disseminates information about its capabilities through different media platforms – ostensibly seeking plausible deniability. Moreover, Pakistan also does not have any missiles, which are initially labelled ‘conventional’ but later inducted by its Strategic Force Commands.

The UK’s declaration of the exact number of nuclear warheads that it maintains, and Pakistan’s lack thereof, are a product of entirely different contexts that the two countries operate within. For most part, the UK has exactly known the number of nuclear warheads maintained by the USSR and later Russia as part of latter’s bilateral arms control arrangements with the U.S. However, it is not the case with Pakistan. The other lead actor in Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence equation, India, maintains huge stocks of military usable fissile materials outside the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA). Accordingly, the estimates of its nuclear warhead building capacity range from as low as 150 to as high as 2,682. The UK could find itself in a similar situation as Pakistan if the New START Treaty expires without a similar successor.

The inevitability of a different context and operational environment of each state possessing nuclear weapons does not necessarily have to be a divisive factor. Similarly, nuclear practices cannot be identified as absolutely responsible or ‘irresponsible’ as these are a product of the state’s operational environment. However, this can only be realized through active listening, non-violent communication, empathic engagements, inclusivity, diversity, and respecting cultural sensitivities. Finding and connecting with actors across the globe who embrace these values can enable more meaningful discussions on an otherwise divisive subject of discussion that usually attracts self-righteous views.

Sameer Ali Khan is an independent strategic affairs analyst.

The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Pakistan Politico.