As the world’s eye was transfixed by the predictable but necessary summit between North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and President Trump, India and Pakistan were at each other’s throats for more than a week. I’d avoid the hyperbole declaring an impending nuclear war. A full-scale war is unlikely.
If one remembers both the Kargil war in 1999, the India-Pakistan troop mobilization after the Indian Parliament attack of 2001 by Pakistani-backed terrorists, and the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, a couple of third-generation fighter jets pounding some pine trees in the middle of the night is comparatively nothing. There were no troop movements, no border evacuation orders, no freight train route and timing changes, no artillery and armor and missile movement towards the frontiers.
A war between two nuclear powers is not a football game, and like any other war it takes time to mobilize and genuine resolve to launch a conflict. Like any other potential war where nuclear weapons are involved, rational cooler heads usually prevail, and the theory of deterrence holds.
That said, this incident brings to the forefront a debate that has sadly taken a backseat in the current DC foreign policy world. The biggest issue facing Washington DC is not North Korea, the Middle East, or Venezuela. That doesn’t mean those are not threats to geostrategic stability. North Korea’s dictator might be brutal, but he is a rational actor, whose primary aim is to perpetuate his own survival.
To launch a war that would wipe his country and regime off the face of the earth is not rational. He can commit mischief in neighboring countries and savagery to his own people, but it is highly unlikely he would miscalculate and launch a full-scale war against the United States. If he did, he and his state would be obliterated.
Likewise, as I have written before, Venezuela is a humanitarian concern, but not a strategic one. An unstable Venezuela, a civil war in Latin America, or even an American intervention might lead to massive numbers of refugees, but most of them would end up in Brazil or Colombia, two big buffer states. And the Middle East is a mess that is culturally, historically, and strategically a place of declining importance for greater American grand strategy. As American dependence on Middle Eastern energy declines and the essential wisdom of the United States’ failure to import Western democracy into feudal societies settles in, more isolationism about the Middle East will gain steam.
No, the biggest challenge in front of the United States is, as always, the stability of the two most geostrategically important regions in the globe: Europe and Asia. In Asia, the one challenge most overlooked is the lingering conflict between India and Pakistan.
India is the world’s largest isolationist quasi-democracy. It is traditionally skeptical of any alliances, but is a potential strategic ally against a rising China, as well as for a stable Afghanistan. America’s historic ally of Pakistan has turned into a hybrid of rogue and failed state, whose population mostly hates the West, that is now working as a satellite of China.
Unfortunately, contrary to popular wisdom, America cannot be isolationist in this case. While the chance of nuclear war remains low, the risk of an accidental nuclear clash is catastrophic. A recent study about the lowest level of nuclear clash between the two states concluded that, at a minimum on the first instance, it would result in the deaths of 20 million people, the rise of 5 million tons of smoke into the atmosphere, the destruction of the ozone layer, and a nuclear winter across the entire northern hemisphere. Again, the chance of that happening is minimal, but it’s a risk that no one can afford to take.
“Any plan,” Prince Metternich once wrote, that is “conceived in moderation must fail when the circumstances are set in extremes.” Metternich, of course, is known as an old-fashioned conservative-realist, to whom stability, realpolitik, order, and equilibrium were far more favorable than ideology, war, and chaos. It doesn’t matter who provides the order, as long as the order is enforced and stability and peace are maintained.
Having lived through the revolutions of Europe toppling social hierarchy and the devastation of Napoleonic wars, Metternich understood that mindless crusading idealism is the root cause of all evil in the world. His understanding, and that of his contemporaries, including Castlereagh and Wellington, was formed with a gloomy realistic stoicism about the cyclical nature of human history, and not formed in some utopian triumphalism.
As Metternich stated in 1826, “We wish to preserve the political peace not because we have embraced the utopian ideas of the Abbé de S. Pierre, but because the day that this peace is broken, the liberal pack will fling itself on the powers.”
There are two pieces of conventional wisdom in DC circles with regards to India and Pakistan, and both are flawed and idealistic. On one hand, there’s a set of analysts who think that because of the historic nature of Pakistani-American alliance, it needs to be preserved. Pakistan is considered a rogue but necessary actor, the North Korea of the West, whom we have to tolerate or else they will commit mischief under their nuclear umbrella and jeopardize stability in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
This line of thinking misunderstands Pakistan’s changing nature. Pakistan now is not the Pakistan of the 1960s, with British-educated military generals working hand in hand with the United States to contain the Soviet Union. While the Pakistani military top brass is still considerably rational and serious, the majority of the country has turned more and more feudal with Islamist funding and teaching sent from our other great ally, Saudi Arabia.
The country is in a vicious debt and poverty cycle, the economy in a perpetual downturn, and it is now acting as a backstop for Chinese military interests in the Arabian Sea. It is futile, therefore, to continue to treat Pakistan as a strategic ally when it is not. No alliance is sacrosanct, the past is past, and time changes political reality.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the United States can lean on India. While India is a democracy, it is culturally very different from the rest of the Western democracies. India lacks the culture of free speech the way one knows in the West. The Indian media maintains the sensationalism of American media and the competitiveness of British tabloid press, and prefers jingoism instead of reporting truth.
The Indian military has turf wars between different branches. There is no combined strategic culture of joint decision-making, and there’s an incredibly bloated bureaucratic inertia, a legacy of India’s Soviet Cold War past, which hampers enforcement.
For example, India is fully capable of making short to medium aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines and single-seat fighters, and has successfully created prototypes and test models for all of them. But the mass production of those will still take more than a decade, which is unthinkable for any Western countries.
Most importantly, India is strategically skeptical of any formal alliance. While the North Atlantic Treaty Organization hopes that India, due to its inherent democratic values, will join forces alongside Australia and Japan to contain China, it is a fool’s dream. India is the only country to share an actual land border with China, so the risk of a skirmish turning into war with Beijing remains New Delhi’s primary strategic consideration.
India is also an extremely politically divided nation, due to the same multiparty democracy and coalition politics, which comes with all its chaotic mess, compared to a more streamlined authoritarian China, or two-party stability in the United States and the United Kingdom. There’s no long-term vision in India about joining any formal coalition or alliance against China, and for the near future India would still be focused on economic growth and maintaining equidistance from both the superpowers.
In sum, the United States is in a bind, because there are no good options in South Asia. This might change. A series of catastrophic terror attacks originating from Pakistan might change India’s orientation, as might a short punitive war with China. Even worse, Pakistan might internally combust and collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, a scenario that would be nightmarish for any American policymakers. One can only hope contingency plans are in place to secure Pakistani nukes.
But for now, the only option in front of the United States is to maintain a narrow strategic alignment with India on intelligence-gathering and -sharing about China, and political pressure and an eye on Pakistan to see that the nuclear weapons are safe. Nothing more can be done or is even achievable, and one must be a realist about it. To channel Metternich: equilibrium and stability, even with low-level sub-optimal cross-border firing and terror attacks, are far better than war and chaos.