The South Asia Channel

Guns and Butter in Pakistan

Nuclear weapons have drastically reduced Pakistan's vulnerability to India. So why doesn't it slow spending on conventional arms and increase spending on its population?

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN:  A Pakistani commando (R) looks on as Ghauri intermediate-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warhead are transported on launchers during the National Day parade in Islamabad, 23 March 2005.  Speaking at the ceremony where Pakistan showcased its military might, President Pervez Musharraf warned that ongoing rapprochement between Pakistan and India could derail if there was no progress on the Kashmir issue.   AFP PHOTO/Farooq NAEEM  (Photo credit should read FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN: A Pakistani commando (R) looks on as Ghauri intermediate-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warhead are transported on launchers during the National Day parade in Islamabad, 23 March 2005. Speaking at the ceremony where Pakistan showcased its military might, President Pervez Musharraf warned that ongoing rapprochement between Pakistan and India could derail if there was no progress on the Kashmir issue. AFP PHOTO/Farooq NAEEM (Photo credit should read FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this year, retired Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, who was in charge of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons for 15 years, delivered a message to policymakers in the United States. In his prepared remarks, Kidwai argued that nuclear weapons have rendered conventional war in South Asia “near redundant.” In turn, if conventional war is unimaginable, Kidwai reasoned, India and Pakistan should be able to invest more in their populations’ socioeconomic well-being — as long as their leaders are up to it.

There is precedent to Kidwai highlighting the potential welfare-increasing effects of nuclear weapons. When Western leaders first grappled with its political effects in the early 1950s, they believed that this new and dangerous technology could help them save money. The strategy of “massive retaliation” in the first decade of the Cold War prioritized nuclear over conventional deterrence against the Soviet Union, and was pursued partly in the hope of cutting long-term defense expenditures. Indeed, the intellectual case for massive retaliation was most persuasively made by Britain in its 1952 Global Strategy Paper, primarily due to its dire economic situation. Even France, pushed by former President Charles de Gaulle’s fiscal conservatism, emphasized nuclear weapons in its defense policy for budgetary reasons.

These states were acting on what, on the surface, appears to be sound reasoning. All countries operate in an environment of scarce resources. Those resources must be channeled to the population’s well being, through building schools and hospitals, as well as the state’s security, through buying tanks and missiles.

Nuclear weapons seemingly allow states to ameliorate the pressures of this guns-butter tradeoff; their awesome power means that states locked in arms races do not necessarily have to match their rivals’ conventional acquisitions. After all, is a nuclear state’s security really compromised if it has slightly fewer jets or brigades than its adversary? In turn, the sanguinity bestowed by nuclear weapons should help states spend money on their societies, rather than their security. That is, the bomb should help states forego the tank in favor of the school.

The problem with this logic of nuclear “substitution,” simply put, is it does not hold in the real world, certainly not for any sustained period.

Consider Kidwai’s Pakistan. Given that it is essentially secure from Indian invasion, why does Pakistan, a relatively poor, underdeveloped state, not slow down spending on conventional arms, and increase spending on its population, as some of its former state officials have called for? The three reasons why Pakistan has failed to substitute speak to more general reasons why nuclear weapons fail to end conventional arms races.

First, nuclear weapons deter only specific forms of threats, such as large-scale conventional attacks, or nuclear war. While nuclear weapons’ ability to deter such threats is impressive, they are essentially useless against other threats. For instance, if a state faces a domestic insurgency or civil war, as Pakistan has since 2004 against Islamist groups such as the Taliban, then it still needs to invest heavily in conventional defense. Israel’s experience is suggestive: Its need to deter, and defend against, conflict at lower levels, such as attacks by terrorist or guerrilla organizations, impels its continued purchases of high-end military technology, even though it has a regional nuclear monopoly.

Second, even absent such “low-level” threats, states cannot put all their eggs in the nuclear basket, especially against nuclear-armed adversaries, because of the issue of credibility. If a state jettisons conventional armaments, and relies solely on nuclear weapons for defense and deterrence, it faces the unpleasant prospect of having its bluff called. States need sufficient conventional arms as a robust first option to credibly threaten escalation to the nuclear level.

Concerns about credibility are what pushed the United States to abandon massive retaliation for the far more expensive “flexible response” in the late 1950s. After all, once the Soviet Union also acquired nuclear weapons, NATO’s nuclear threats against any and all Soviet actions ceased being believable. France too adjusted to a more flexible policy once the implications of Soviet nuclearization became clear. Similarly, even if Pakistan relies heavily on its nuclear weapons to deter an Indian attack, it needs enough conventional strength to credibly climb the escalatory ladder.

Finally, a significant portion of Pakistan’s conventional build-up since 1998 can be attributed to the revisionist interests of its military. Any state interested in overturning the territorial status quo needs significant conventional strength. As with the United States and the Soviet Union, whose massive Cold War defense spending would be more accurately termed spending on “offense,” Pakistan’s conventional spending is fueled partly by its desire for Kashmir. As long as its military considers Kashmir “inseparable” from Pakistan, and as long as such an offensive posture helps maintain the military’s impregnable position in the country’s domestic politics and political economy, Pakistan is unlikely to take its foot off the conventional pedal.

Pakistan, then, is an instructive case. If a poor state, where health and education spending lag, cannot take advantage of the ostensible fiscal benefits of nuclear weapons, then who can? Indeed, my research suggests none of the established nuclear states evinced any sustained slowdown in conventional spending after nuclear acquisition.

In turn, this finding calls into question at least one common understanding of nuclear weapons: that they should help states “feel” secure. To the contrary, the historical evidence suggests that nuclear weapons do not appreciably change how threatened states perceive themselves to be, and that the costs of nuclear and conventional security are additive, not substitutable.

Photo credit: FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Image

Ahsan I. Butt is a Stanton Nuclear Security Junior Faculty Fellow with the International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and an Assistant Professor at the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola