Since taking office in 2017, US President Donald Trump’s chaotic stint has heralded some of the most substantive changes in geopolitics since 9/11. From Israel to North Korea, his polarising decisions will shape global events long after his term concludes. However, when historians write about his presidency, special attention will be paid to nuclear arms control. On this front, Trump has presided over a return to the 1960s, as virtually all bilateral nuclear arms control agreements between Russia and the US have lapsed.
Unshackled from qualitative and quantitative caps on their nuclear programmes, the two countries are goading each other into an arms race that is likely to affect every major military power.
The watershed came in February 2019 when the Regan-era Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty signed in 1987 – which restricted the deployment of nuclear missiles with a maximum reach of 5,500 km by the two nations – was allowed to lapse. Beginning in 2014, as Russia developed intermediate range nuclear missiles, an ambivalent White House instead of holding Russia to account, demanded that a renewed Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty should also include China – effectively sealing its fate.
As the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, also known as New START, which places absolute limits on the number of deployed warheads comes up for renewal in February 2021, history is repeating itself. The Trump administration has put off negotiations and the treaty is doomed to lapse.
In the aftermath of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, China – which already possessed a comfortable stockpile of intermediate range missiles – has become more dogged in seeking conventional and nuclear parity with the US.
This has brought the arms race to India’s doorstep – and its response couldn’t have been worse. Principally, India has decided to signal an intent to alter the fundamentals of its nuclear doctrine, the No First Use Policy. This approach substitutes strategy with pseudo-machismo, and is a disservice to India’s carefully crafted reputation as a responsible nuclear power.
India is a de facto nuclear weapons state and developed nuclear weapons despite its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This treaty prohibits nuclear weapons states from trading in nuclear weapons technology with states that have not signed the agreement. India’s strategists have maintained that India’s nuclear arsenal mainly serves as a deterrent to China. India has so far maintained a No First-Use policy, suggesting that its arsenal will only be used for retaliatory strikes.
India enjoys a privileged position in the nuclear weapons state club. It is the only non-Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory that is allowed to trade with members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the countries that have access to nuclear technologies or which have large stockpiles of uranium, a material that is essential to build nuclear weapons. This, in significant part, is the result of India’s reliable, poised conduct of its nuclear policy over the decades.
But in August 2019, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh told journalists that India’s No-First Use policy could change if necessary. Jettisoning the No-First Use policy would mean that India could launch a pre-emptive first strike – in self-defence – in response to a threat, rather than in response to an actual attack. Intuitive as it may seem, this is a legally regressive and militarily suicidal suggestion.
The legal justification for this policy often comes from an overstated reading of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which preserves the right of states to self-defence. Proponents argue that Article 51 – despite an explicit pre-requisite of an armed attack – does not foreclose the inherent right of states to act preemptively in self-defense.
This argument conveniently papers over the fact that pre-emptive self-defense as enunciated in the infamous Caroline Affair of 1837 and restated in the Nuremberg Trials is a very narrow right, existing only when the threat is imminent. This is relevant since as nuclear doctrine, pre-emptive self defence does more harm than good.
Breaching a red line
Advocates of pre-emptory self-defence fail to enunciate a specific red line that could justify using nuclear weapons. Even where it could be defined, the rule will never be as neatly defined as with the No-First Use Policy, since the latter is predicated on tangible evidence. In such a scenario, the pre-emptive self defence doctrine bases the use of nuclear weapons on political willingness, which is inherently vague and shifting.
The very notion of basing a trigger on anything other than a tangible bright-line rule is unsound. A pre-emptive red line runs the risk of an overbroad definition. The decision to use nuclear weapons against any country unless they have been used by that country first, is incredibly difficult – politically, strategically and morally. The fear of retaliation alone would make a head of state hesitate to make that decision.
Even if a red-line is breached, a leader would want to avoid making such a choice and would seek negotiation. However, each time the red-line is breached but the nuclear threat is not carried out, the deterrent value of nuclear weapons is diluted.
It is therefore vital for a country like India to base its nuclear doctrine on clear, tangible evidence. The No First-Use policy is the only one that provides that.
Additionally, there is no pragmatic utility of pre-emptive self defence for India. An effective pre-emptive self defence policy requires crippling strike capability, a euphemism for complete decimation of the adversary. This is necessary to preclude a retaliatory response. India’s arsenal is far too ill-equipped – qualitatively and quantitatively – to achieve this against China in the event of a war.
Even if India were able to destroy China’s ground-based arsenal, China has weapons at sea that are by design undetectable and exist to deter against this exact eventuality. The costs of entering a nuclear arms race with a China that is seeking parity with the US would be insurmountable and divert resources from its conventional forces.
India’s military strategists have had to balance the imperatives of maintaining conventional military supremacy against Pakistan; an effective conventional deterrent against China on the border; and, also a nuclear deterrent against China. It is for this reason that the No First-Use policy is not just a compromise, but a strategic masterstroke. It allows India to maintain a nuclear asset that is just enough to make an attack prohibitively costly, while allowing it to focus on conventional forces that are necessary in the more routine border skirmishes with Pakistan and China.
Consider this: would anyone conceivably expect Chinese ground incursions in Ladakh to be deterred if we had another nuclear submarine? The logic of pre-emptive self defence is based on a flawed understanding of India’s strategic imperatives. Frankly, it is the same story of senseless imitation of policies pursued by bigger powers that seems to be dictating a lot of policy these days. Self-aggrandisement and fantasies of parity with the likes of the US and China attack the foundations of strategic brilliance that has kept India safe until now.
Prashant Khurana is a recent LLM graduate from UCLA School of Law and the Founding Editor of Polemics and Pedantics Magazine.