Political theorists propose four major contributing as well as competing factors that best explain why nations “go nuclear” and build nuclear arsenals. These are: security challenges; prestige and power; technological imperatives; and domestic push and pull factors.

Beginning with security concerns, scholars note that when a state’s physical security and survival is directly at risk, it may be driven to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities in order to protect its integrity and safeguard its people. Any state located in a dangerous region and threatened by an aggressive enemy is likely to be seriously concerned about its national security. Such fear often leads a state to develop methods to ensure its survival, in terms of both offensive and defensive policies, often resulting in the pursuit of strong military capabilities, a critical way to project power. In this sense, nuclear weapons empower states to feel secure.

For instance, this theory argues that the “first-generation” nuclear powers (the USA, the USSR, the UK, France, and China) and the “second-generation” nuclear states (India, Pakistan, and Israel) acquired nuclear weapons because each faced a grave security threat from an adversary. Thus, developing nuclear weapons capability deters hostile action, enabling a state to effectively threaten that the consequences of an attack could be devastating for any aggressor.

A second view holds that the acquisition of nuclear weapons acts as a symbol of national prestige for any state. It also demonstrates technological sophistication, which creates a sense of pride not only in the abilities of its people but also of its state institutions. A nuclear weapons programme denotes a highly skilled industry requiring an extraordinary level of expertise, raising the standing of a state in the community of nations. Acquiring nuclear capability, according to this view, bestows great power status or global recognition upon a state.

Britain, France, and India are often cited as examples of states for which prestige was an important factor in their decisions to acquire nuclear weapons.

A third motive behind a state’s decision to develop a nuclear weapons programme is a logical and inevitable result of technological momentum created by civilian, purpose-driven nuclear research and development programmes. This argument by Professor Matthew Fuhrman advances the notion that the successful implementation of nuclear programmes to foster greater knowledge of nuclear science and technology, as well as potential positive uses such as nuclear energy, naturally and logically drive further exploration into weapons programmes. His research concludes that “on average, countries receiving higher levels of peaceful nuclear assistance are more likely to pursue and acquire the bomb – especially if they experience an international crisis after receiving aid”.

The last basis for a nuclear weapons programme holds that domestic bureaucratic politics and the political calculus of leaders may lead a state to a nuclear path. According to this view, bureaucrats inspired by their personal policy preferences and ideas, or bureaucracies carrying out their specific institutional interests, attempt to influence states’ decision to go down the nuclear road. Homi Bhabha is often cited as an example in this category, as he played a central role in India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons technology.

All of these theories can be considered relevant to Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons technology. Lowell Ditmer’s insights on Pakistan’s motivations to develop a nuclear weapons programme in his 2001 Asian Survey review essay are noteworthy: “Pakistan’s motive for the acquisition of nuclear weapons is far less complex and more conventional and is merely about national security.” Sumit Ganguly, a leading Indian-American scholar, concurs, making the case that the core aim of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme is to prevent a repetition of the events of 1971 whereby direct Indian involvement facilitated the creation of a sovereign Bangladesh out of former East Pakistan. In this sense, according to Ganguly, a nuclear Pakistan would deter India strategically from further reducing Pakistan’s territory. Essentially, from a Pakistani point of view, nuclear weapons would significantly reduce the chances of any aggressive Indian manoeuvres threatening the territorial integrity of Pakistan.

Overwhelming evidence shows that India’s nuclear activities shaped Pakistan’s nuclear policy and postures.

Samina Ahmed aptly remarks that “every landmark in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program links closely to its troubled relationship with India and to Indian nuclear aspirations”. There is a consensus in Pakistani policy circles that the decision to pursue nuclear weapons was a product of Indian-generated security imperatives.When India conducted a nuclear test in 1974, Pakistan was simply left with no other option but to aspire to do the same, according to this logic (whether we call it realism or neorealism). It was a core security interest for Pakistan to pursue nuclear weapons. A similar dilemma was faced by Pakistan after the 1998 Indian nuclear tests. Any Pakistani leader would have decided to demonstrate Pakistan’s capabilities in a similar way. As Shamshad Ahmad, Pakistan’s foreign secretary in 1998, maintained in a Foreign Affairs article: “to restore strategic balance to South Asia, Pakistan was obliged to respond to India’s May 1998 nuclear blasts”.

In 1998 the internal Pakistani debate was not really about whether to respond to Indian tests or not, but rather to what extent it should do so, and how best to weather the international sanctions that would surely follow. Hence, not surprisingly, when India decided to unveil its nuclear capability, Pakistan followed suit shortly thereafter. Similarly, in 1972, the discussion among policy-makers was not whether to pursue the path to nuclearisation, but how long it would take and how much it would cost. Stephen P Cohen, a leading American scholar of South Asian studies, sums up Pakistan’s security dilemma while comparing it with almost identical challenges faced by the state of Israel:

Like Israel, Pakistan was founded by a people who felt persecuted when living as a minority, and even though they possess their own states (which are based on religious identity), both remain under threat from powerful enemies. In both cases, an original partition demonstrated the hostility of neighbours, and subsequent wars showed that these neighbours remained hostile. Pakistan and Israel have also followed parallel strategic policies. Both sought an entangling alliance with various outside powers (at various times Britain, France, China, and the United States), both ultimately concluded that outsiders could not be trusted in a moment of extreme crisis, and this led them to develop nuclear weapons.

A renowned Pakistani nuclear scientist, Pervez Hoodbhoy, however, differs with these security-driven explanations, and believes that the prestige factor provides a pertinent basis for understanding Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

He also frames this issue in terms of the state’s need to distract the public’s attention away from other state failures. Hoodbhoy considers this as one of the three “critically important” elements of the imperatives for the Pakistani bomb, the other two being the “nuclear shield” doctrine and the military dominance of Pakistani decision-making structures. Hoodbhoy finds:

The growing institutional malfunction and a feeling of collective failure have understandably led to a steadily deepening crisis for the nation. Pride and confidence follow from real achievement; conversely absence of achievement inexorably leads to diminished self-esteem...The psychological anguish must somehow be made bearable. Enter the bomb.

He further observed that the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) helped create a “sense of achievement” in an otherwise bleak environment, and many Pakistanis took “mental refuge within its four walls”. No longer just a secret laboratory, KRL became a “sacred symbol”, in his words, which must be protected at all costs, as the atomic weapons produced there were “glittering objects” symbolising the mastery of the most sophisticated technology. He went on:

It is important to understand the extraordinary sense of desperation felt by most Pakistanis as they reel before the rapacity of political and economic elites...The bomb provides to the masses a refuge from reality and an antidote to collective depression.

Another important Pakistani scholar, Professor Rasul B Rais, in a 1985 Asian Survey article argued that, other than the security considerations, economic and political factors were important in Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear technology.

In terms of economic motivations, Rais suggested the desire and political will to resolve the energy crisis, which affected commerce and prevented many industrial sectors from growing. This line of argument followed the official Pakistani position of the time. Rais’ second contention concerning political motivations stemmed from Pakistani perceptions about Western suspicions and hostility towards Islamic countries. Rais believed that the distrust engendered by the differences between Western and Islamic culture and the subsequent nature of international relations between these divergent societies played a role in formulating public policy to pursue nuclear weapons technology. He concluded that in reality it was the political dimension of the nuclear programme that sustained Pakistan’s interest despite significant political changes such as the shift from democratic to military rule and back again.

Excerpted with permission from Pakistan’s Bomb: A Story of Defiance, Deterrence and Deviance, Hassan Abbas, Penguin Random House India.