More nuclear claptrap from another ex-diplomat

I suspect that whenever former civil service types, ex-diplomats, and growingly even retired militarymen feel the inner tug to be in the public eye, they pronounce on things manifestly beyond their ken and areas of expertise, revealing their quite appalling ignorance on strategic, especially nuclear, matters in the process. They should mightily resist it. Striving to be K. Subrahmanyams is one thing, but the original put in a lot of effort! Subbu (ex-IAS) to his acolytes, KS to this analyst, had years of reading and learning from the great masters of N-deterrence theory of the 1950s and Sixties behind him, and even then got things wrong in the last phase of his life when he compromised his message to ensure his influence on policy (to wit, the India-US nuclear deal). Less gifted civil servants,foreign service retirees, ex-Generals and that lot, who are habituated to at most reading and drafting two-page policy briefs — and can never be accused of cluttering up their minds by delving too deeply on any particular topic, leave alone reading the vast literature on N-deterrence before expounding on the subject are, understandably, all at sea. (On the reading habits of Foreign Service officers, for instance, Natwar Singh, former MEA Minister and IFS-man, candidly informed me that 80 percent of Indian diplomats do not read books once they enter service!) The latest to go public with the usual misinformed, uneducated, confused and confusing take on nuclear weapons, deterrence, and national security is Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, a onetime Indian Perm Rep at the UN in NY.

His piece “Nuclear weapons, costs and myths” — a more bureaucratic-sounding title is hard to conjure up, is dismissible as so much claptrap. Plainly, one wishes he’d stick to safe material — Arab Spring, stuff like that, as he has been doing — than venture into a combustible area, where there’s the danger — albeit slight — of his being taken seriously. The trouble is his kind of nonsense is heard in certain sections of the Establishment, and in some ways is a more extreme expression of Shyam Saran’s expostulation, and needs to be shown up for what it is — an attempt at intellectual over-reach! (Refer my ‘India’s nuclear amateurism’, June 28, 2013).

The main point of Gharekhan’s appears to be that becoz India is “miles behind” China in the nuclear weapons department, there’s no possibility of N-conflict with that country and therefore one needn’t strive to neutralize it. On the other hand, ‘coz India is supposedly on on the same level as Pakistan, that New Delhi should try and reach a nuclear arms limitation agreement with Islamabad. More fatalistic and defeatist thinking is hard to imagine because, at a minimum, it consigns India to the also-ran category of great powers; worse, it lends credence to Islamabad’s longtime policy thrust that the world and New Delhi acknowledge Pakistan’s “strategic parity” with India (hence, an N-deal like the one India secured, etc). It means — in the context of his making much of the geographic proximity aspect — that if tomorrow Mexico acquires nuclear weapons, that it ought immediately to think of itself on the same strategic plane with the US. (Ridiculous analogy? Consider that India’s GDP — even in its present straitened circumstances, is 8 to 10 times that of Pakistan, its territory and population five time as large, etc.; Mexico’s GDP is some $2 trillion compared to US’s $14 trillion — only seven times as large! And so on…)

The rest of his stuff are tid-bits he has picked up here and there, presumably from newspaper op/eds, and deserve no attention, including a half-baked understanding of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. (But a bit of education is nevertheless in order! No, Mr Gharekhan, Kennedy did NOT push the Soviets, rather he was extra careful to not offer conspicuous provocation, rejecting General Le May’s preferred option of a surgical air strike on the Russian missile batteries on the Caribbean island, but imposing a naval blockade giving the two sides time to drawback from the brink, etc. and, as part of a grand bargain, agreeing to withdraw the American Jupiter missiles from Turkey in the wake of the Russians taking out their N-warheaded MRBMS from Cuba.)

Gharekhan’s more egregiously silly belief, which has infected large parts of the Indian intelligentsia, is that nuclear weapons are a panacea for all ills and ought to deter conventional conflicts, border skirmishes, terrorism, and everything in between. Next he and people like him will blame nuclear weapons for their toilet flush not working properly! Again, a basic LESSON that Gharekhan and his ilk better ingest fast: Nuclear weapons only deter other nuclear weapons and, in military terms, deter little else. Right or wrong, they are also — along with factors such as geography, population, and economic size and strategic location, an attribute of great power. So a nuclear weapons-armed Pakistan, for instance, is and will always remain in a world of very big countries, as I have said in my writings, only “a mouse that roared” (after that devastating Peter Sellers comedy from the Fifties where a European Duchy threatens to wage an atomic war on the United States in the hope that, like Japan and Germany devastated by war in which they lost, it will benefit — as a defeated power — economically from American largesse!)

Pakistan needs to be ignored; if it wants to nuclear arms race, well, it can choose to do so and bankrupt itself. There’s no danger of that were India to build up a consequential thermonuclear force, which will require resumption of nuclear testing, to prevent China from getting too far ahead. Strategically, Mr Gharekhan et al, India should key on the prime adversary, China, and leave Pakistan to key on us, if it wants to to while compounding its internal peril. And keep China on the leash by doing to it what Beijing has done to us — covertly or overtly nuclear missile arm Vietnam and states of Southeast Asia who seek protection against the dragon to the north. Hey, India cannot lose. But not if you listen to the likes of Garekhan!

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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12 Responses to More nuclear claptrap from another ex-diplomat

  1. RV says:

    Bharat, a donkey doesn’t become a tiger merely by donning a tiger skin. Within the present Indian society and system, there will always be a venue for and even merit in the views espoused by Garekhan, and others like him. You’ve stated: “Pakistan needs to be ignored; if it wants to nuclear arms race, well, it can choose to do so and bankrupt itself.”. You’ve missed three points which I am sure you are aware of. First, if at all there was nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, till now, Pakistan has won this race hands down, despite being bankrupt. Second, Pakistan’s fiscal bankruptcy has little to do with its nuclear policy. Third, India is well on the path to fiscal bankruptcy without having seriously partaken in a nuclear arms race with Pakistan.

    The very notion of India, as we know it in the modern sense, was an artificial entity created by British colonialism for the sake of crass economic exploitation. Unless the Indians find core values that foster a sense of unity, purpose, and national destiny, IMHO the wheels are starting to come off from the Indian vehicle. This has to be at an individual level, and no change of governments, or PM’s, or bringing in NaMo, or any other gimmick will stem let alone reverse the rot.

    • @Ravi — what surely could not have escaped you is the fact that were India militarily to prepare to deter China — and this is easier accomplished in the nuclear field — then Pakistan threat, such as it is, is automatically taken care off. In the words justifying the British H-Bomb by John Slessor, Marshal of the RAF “a dog will take care of the cat as also the kittens”.

      • RV says:

        Very true Bharat. But what can one do given the present and realistically foreseeable situation in India today? You were one of the few people who highlighted the role of Bose and the INA in the British decision to pack off and leave India. In fact, as you are aware, this was arrived at in a brief meeting between Wavell and Claude Auchinleck, sometime in mid-late 1945, when the latter was forced to eat crow and commute the sentences of the INA officers and men. Despite this, see who got the credit for Indian independence – people who fell over themselves in competing to criticize Bose for forming the INA. That’s India for you and it will never change.

      • RV says:

        Bharat, since this is a public forum, let me tread as gingerly as possible. In any country that means business, Garekhan and his ilk would certainly be given a choice – of lamp posts!

    • Shaurya says:

      I agree with the last paragraph to a large degree. A caveat, the very notion of sovereign nation-states is a concept that is of relatively recent origin since the treaty of versailles in 1648. It is a European concept imposed on the world. China was able to construct a “han” identity and expand its territory using tenuous “historical” claims, thus effectively taking advantage of the new nation-state concepts. India OTOH, managed to vivisect its natural boundaries and allowed its buffer zones to be occupied by competing nations, without resolving its fissiparousness under the oxymoronic moniker “Unity in Diversity”. Leadership was the difference between the two.

  2. RV says:

    Bharat, the very notion of the development of deterrent by a mature State is to possess the ultimate doomsday protection against *any* prospective enemy. Relentless citing of China as a reason to develop a deterrent are needless, and raise the specter (rightly or wrongly) of vested interests. In fact, using China or any other specific country as the reason for an Indian deterrent puts India in the same boat as Pakistan which cites India as the reason for its nuclear deterrent. Isn’t this the very “equal-equal” which you have been trying to dispel? If magically, China decides tomorrow to give up its nuclear deterrent, would/should India follow suit? I would say NO! Can you discount the possibility that at some arbitrary future date, situations may force India and China to ally with each other against some other country or group of countries? In any case, India cannot possess a credible deterrent without a demonstrated TN capability, and deployed ICBM’s (and not mere talks of possessing an ICBM capability, which in operational terms means nothing). Here’s one glaring instance where India’s lack of a national ethos and a notion of national destiny creeps to the surface.

  3. Garg says:


    Logically, an India/China conflict will not go nuclear. China has no reason to use nukes on India (it is far superior in conventional might).

    As regards Pakistan, it is hard to guess its behaviour. Pakistan is hell-bent on damaging India through all means at its disposal. I will not be surprised if it launched nukes on New Delhi during next conflict. Any nuke-limitation deal with Pakistan is useless, as it is impossible to enforce such a deal. There is no trust between India and Pakistan. So in current circumstance, it is hard to see how India can do anything else but to have a credible nuclear posture.

  4. Garg says:

    I disagree that India’s TN warhead is unreliable due to lack of testing. I have far more faith in scientists than in politicians. Nuclear warheads may work as designed, but politicians may not. So the effectiveness of India’s nuclear arsenal is limited by political will and influence of CIA. If Delhi is ruled by current set during next India/Pakistan conflict, very good chances that India will take a hit without responding.

  5. Garg says:

    As regards the notion of an Indian nation, India is the oldest nation on earth. Read Mahabharat epic. This book, written more than 5200 years back conclusively proves that the nation of Bharat existed for a very long time. Bharat continued to exist for 2000 years after this war and then weakened and fragmented over the next 3000 years.

    The unity in diversity comes from the Vedic roots of the Bharti civilization. This common element is far stronger than seems from the outside. Read about efforts of Shankaracharya and Swami Dayanand to unite and educate this country.

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