U.S. has few options to halt possible S. Asian arms race Forces at work there are beyond our diplomacy

May 24, 1998|By Michael Mandelbaum

The nuclear explosions India detonated raise two questions for U.S. foreign policy: Why was the United States unable to prevent them? And what should be done now?

The answer to the first is that although Washington's opposition to the spread of nuclear weapons is universal in theory, we divide potential nuclear weapon states into three categories and treat each differently.

In the first category are the allies, Germany and Japan. If they were to get nuclear weapons, their adversaries - Russia and China - would react sharply, making Europe and Asia far more dangerous places. To keep them from acquiring nuclear weapons, the United States provides security guarantees through NATO and the Japanese-American Security Treaty.

The second category includes rogue states such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea. They would use nuclear weapons for political and military goals directly contrary to U.S. interests. Thus, the United States has been willing to do a great deal, including - in Iraq's case - going to war to keep such weapons out of their hands.

The third group are the orphans, countries such as India, Pakistan, Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel, which confront larger, potentially hostile and often nuclear - armed neighbors and have an interest in nuclear weapons to protect themselves. The United States would prefer that they not acquire nuclear arms. But keeping the orphans out of the "nuclear club" is not so important as to warrant the carrot used with the allies or the stick wielded against the rogues, including the use of force.

The United States periodically has tried to remove the political basis for the orphans' desire for nuclear weapons, and has had some success. Despite its fear about Russia, its nuclear - armed neighbor, Ukraine was persuaded to give up the nuclear weapons that had been deployed on its territory when it was part of the Soviet Union. The United States has been involved in the peace negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors for a quarter of a century, although even a final settlement with the Palestinians is not likely to eliminate Israel's need for some nuclear capability.

While Washington has devoted far less attention to India and Pakistan, even more energetic diplomatic efforts would probably not have prevented the Indian nuclear tests, which were less a response to China's nuclear threat than to domestic politics - the need for India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to placate its supporters by fulfilling a campaign promise. The BJP also had promised to promote Hindu causes and to limit foreign investment in India, but these measures, while also popular with its political base, are unacceptable to the other political parties with which the BJP formed a governing coalition.

What should the United States do now? The Clinton administration is imposing economic sanctions on India and seeking to persuade Pakistan not to conduct nuclear tests. Pakistan has fought three wars in the past half century against India, has an advanced nuclear weapons program and sees India as a dangerous foe.

While it seems sensible to force India to pay a price for joining the nuclear club, and to try to stop a South Asian nuclear arms race, the first goal is not easily attainable and the current U.S. strategy may not achieve the second.

U.S. sanctions are unlikely to have a decisive impact on the large Indian economy, especially since few other countries will back the United States. Nor will sanctions against India persuade Iraq and Iran, already the targets of such sanctions, to abandon their own nuclear ambitions, which stem from strongly held (and, from the U.S. perspective, extremely dangerous) political goals.

As for stopping a South Asian arms race, this may occur independently of U.S. diplomacy. Because China has a stronger economy and a 34-year head start, India may conclude that it has no realistic prospect of matching the Chinese nuclear arsenal and decide not to go beyond last week's tests. Similarly, because its economy is far smaller and shakier than India's, Pakistan may make the same calculation about matching India and decide not to conduct nuclear tests of its own. But economic considerations do not ordinarily override security concerns. Pakistan will certainly not renounce the right to test and to become a nuclear - weapons state, without the U.S. security guarantee that Germany and Japan have and that Washington is most unlikely to offer.

A stable nuclear equilibrium in Asia would require that India and Pakistan negotiate limits on nuclear deployments with each other and with China. This will not be easy. But it is probably not possible at all unless Pakistan formally enters the nuclear club with its own test. The measure perhaps most likely to limit the damage caused by the Indian tests is, ironically, precisely what Washington is mustering all its diplomatic resources to try to prevent.

Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University, directs the East-West Project of the Council on Foreign Relations.

! Pub date: 5/24/98

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