The war of words between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has done as much as the award of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to International Campaign for Abolition of Nuclear Weapons, in bringing focus squarely on the nuclear dangers this year. Commentators have it that the standoff between Trump and Un brought our world closest to a nuclear exchange since the Cuban missile crisis.
This because the nuclear button in both cases is under the finger of an erratic strongman. Looking at the psychological makeup of the key nuclear decision makers in making sure that nuclear weapons/buttons are in safe hands is not illegitimate, and may possibly be the right place to look.
Take the example of Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, whose religious views cluttered his worldview and approach to communism and, for that matter, non-alignment. This resulted in the ‘massive retaliation’ nuclear doctrine as the American answer to any attempted conventional aggression by the Soviet Union.
Later, the ‘madman’ theory provided cover for President Nixon, who grew increasingly eccentric as the Watergate scandal unfolded. The theory had it that appearing crazy to the enemy would heighten deterrence. Since Nixon’s condition complicated nuclear decision making, his defence secretary asked the nuclear decision chain to check with him or the secretary of state on receiving any nuclear marching orders.
The situation in the current White House appears to be resembling the Nixon years. A recent book on Trump’s mental and psychological health, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, has led to questioning whether the nuclear ‘football’ – as the proverbial briefcase with the nuclear button is known - can be entrusted to him.
This apparently prompted the apex level commander, General Hyten, of United States Strategic Command, to let on that he will resist any ‘illegal’ orders for nuclear strike from his commander- in- chief President Trump. The general said that he would inform his supreme commander of the shortcoming in his orders and suggest rational, legal options. This is of course good to know, but that is to rely on the good sense of the American military.
After a decade and half of American wars on this continent, such a belief can only amount to naivety. Nevertheless, the upshot is that cracks in nuclear deterrence theory also appear at individual level, and most problematically so.
How’s the case closer home
Indian nuclear strategists would be inclined to give Prime Minister Narendra Modi a perfect ten, not because all of them have been closet cultural nationalists so far, but because they have been yelling hoarse all along that India lacks a strategic culture. This absence, to them, has led to Indians – read Hindus – being perceived as lacking aggression. This trope has been calling for more ‘resolve’ in Indian nuclear decision makers or exhibition of such resolve. Thus, the nuclear hawks were unhappy when the mild and professorial Dr. Manmohan Singh had the nuclear briefcase.
It is with reason that India’s nuclear doctrine has the bombastic phraseology – ‘massive’ punitive retaliation – disfiguring it. It was purposely put in by nuclear (‘expert’) bureaucrats to frame a commitment trap for the nuclear decision makers, their political masters. The assumption was that the politicians would likely be afflicted with pusillanimity and end up with butter fingers when it comes to pushing the nuclear button. So they were given no options to think through better response possibilities than that written into the doctrine – ‘massive’ retaliation in case of any form of nuclear first use by the adversary.
Over the following decade, such retaliation would turn out to be obliteration of Pakistan even in case of use of a low yield tactical nuclear weapon by Pakistan against aggressing Indian military forces on their own territory. In light of the smog that covered most of the Indo-Gangetic plain over early winter, these doctrine writers – now retired – will hopefully have revised their bellicosity, mindful of trans-border and transgenerational environmental consequences of higher order nuclear use.
Since the arrival of Modi, the nuclear strategists have no doubt been happier, knowing that the political decision maker boasts a ‘56 inch’ chest. Modi’s image as a strongman has long been in the making. Early on, Muslim terrorists apparently out to get Modi, including in one case a girl barely out of her teens, were gunned down by Gujarat Policemen in staged encounters. Most recently, with his demonetization decision, Modi has demonstrated his decision making ability and ‘resolve’ to the satisfaction of nuclear strategists. To them, India has finally got a nuclear decision maker worth its nuclear doctrine.
To nuclear strategists Modi being advised by Ajit Doval, the Chanakyan grandmaster, makes deterrence stronger. Doval is the civilian master of a military outfit, the Strategic Forces Command, in his capacity as the head of the executive council of the Nuclear Command Authority. He spent some seven years as a spook in Pakistan. This might explain his obsession with Pakistan and account for India’s topsy-turvy policies for Pakistan. That the accountability of nuclear weapons decision making lies with the duo, only heightens fears rather than allay them.
Modi’s animus against India’s Muslims had been in full throttle as his pocket borough Gujarat appeared to be slipping out of his grip in the run-up to the recent elections. He had implausibly but typically made the connection, insinuating that Pakistan is out to meddle in India’s elections. Apparently, his predecessor, the mild and professorial Dr. Manmohan Singh was complicit in attempting to install a Muslim chief minister with Pakistani support. The anti-Muslim bias is reflected in Modi’s Kashmir policy, that has Operation All Out as its motif, and his hardline Pakistan policy. The Afghanistan policy – an offshoot of the Pakistan policy – is one of proxy war with Pakistan in that benighted country.
This combination of a resolute decision maker and an insane nuclear doctrine that has the Muslim state, Pakistan, at its crosshairs, implies that the imbecile phraseology – ‘massive’ retaliation - in India’s nuclear doctrine will resonate with Modi. While no less destructive options will be likely given by his chief security adviser, Doval.
To the nuclear strategists, this is how the nuclear doctrine is designed to work, and, therefore, their answer to the question asked as the title of this article would be in the affirmative. They purposely do not share with the nuclear decision maker and the public what will happen after such a strike. On execution of ‘massive’ retaliation, India will likely take similar levels of strikes back, lasting the fallout but a few days longer.
Consequently, the pronounced personality traits that make nuclear strategists warm up to Modi are a handicap, particularly since Modi’s prejudices need factoring in.
Thus the short answer to the question in the title then is, ‘Not quite!’