One of India’s eminent strategists, the late K. Subrahmanyam, once observed, “There is not much, if at all any, literature on the game of deterrence among the second- and third-rung nuclear nations under such conditions of uncertainty. So we have to think for ourselves.” The same must also be true of nuclear confidence-building measures (CBMs) among these states. As we mark the 18th anniversary of the subcontinent’s 1998 nuclear tests, it has become clear that the India-Pakistan nuclear nexus can be informed only to a limited extent by prior models, and thus, new ideas and initiatives are needed. In this regard, it is welcome that scholars and practitioners from the region are thinking about the evolution of deterrence between the two states and how CBMs can contribute to stability.

Interestingly, in the South Asian Voices series “18 Years On: Examining State of India-Pakistan Nuclear CBMs,”  the four contributing scholars arrive at rather different conclusions about the success of these initiatives. For Arka Biswas, they “have been fairly ineffective at reducing tensions…because they are unable to address the intricate linkage between nuclear and conventional issues in India-Pakistan relations.” Sobia Paracha similarly assesses that the success rate “has remained unimpressive so far, especially in terms of creating an enabling environment for conflict resolution.” Tanvi Kulkarni offers some tepid praise of the “limited success” of these measures to date in maintaining the status quo, while lamenting the lack of “any major breakthrough in functional and institutional measures.” Finally, Sitara Noor suggests that measures implemented thus far “have played a positive role in India-Pakistan relations,” citing in particular their help “to increase communication, transparency, and openness across the border, thereby reducing the risks of unintended escalation.” What is striking here is the quite varied expectations about what the CBMs are intended to do. One wonders whether a useful CBM might be a bilateral dialogue to clarify expectations about CBMs!

In their assessments, the scholars point to a critical feature of existing CBMs in South Asia: they don’t really address the serious and potentially destabilizing dynamics of the bilateral security competition. In particular, the growth in size and scope of nuclear arsenals, the development of related strategic capabilities such as ballistic missile defense, and an evolving conventional military balance complicate efforts to identify means or steps to bring stability to the picture. Understandably, any CBM that either side would perceive as impinging on or weakening its relative deterrence advantages is easy to dismiss as infeasible or selling out national security. (The same arguments have been and continue to be made about U.S.-Soviet/Russia arms control agreements, of course, yet those measures demonstrate that durable, mutually-beneficial restraints are possible between antagonists.) It is for exactly this reason that Pakistan’s proposal for a strategic restraint regime and India’s offer of a bilateral no-first-use pact have no traction. Kulkarni’s honest assessment of this problem, and thus the lack of bargaining space – and, arguably, lack of sincerity – inherent in the formal proposals advanced by both governments is commendable.

One objective to which existing and potential future CBMs can contribute is what might be termed “avoiding inadvertence.” The ballistic missile pre-launch notification regime, incomplete as it is, fits in this category. Noor usefully identifies two other areas in which both sides, without compromising on operational or national security imperatives, could work out procedures that would help avoid inadvertent crisis or conflict escalation: non-attack on nuclear facilities involving cyber weapons, and cooperative border communication to interdict illicit trafficking in nuclear or radiological materials.  In the case of trafficking, a third party – the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for instance – could help develop procedures in a way that would give political cover to both sides, given the sensitivity that attends cooperation on nuclear security. Both ideas deserve in-depth technical analysis to consider modalities.  There has been no shortage of good ideas for CBMs in South Asia, including these, but it has been difficult for the two sides to agree even to simple augmentation of existing measures, like adding cruise missiles to the pre-launch notification regime.

Another potential objective for CBMs in South Asia would be to help create firebreaks in the spectrum between sub-conventional and conventional conflict. A critical assumption about the utility and desirability of such CBMs, as Paracha points out, is an internal consensus in Pakistan about the relationship of the state with militant groups that operate in and from its territory. Paracha asserts that a conversation along these lines is underway in Pakistan. However, the evidence that exists thus far is insufficient to determine with confidence whether this reflects a change in philosophy, or just a temporary phenomenon. Without such a consensus, perhaps Paracha would agree, India faces a moral hazard in agreeing to firebreaks between sub-conventional violence targeting India and Indian conventional military reprisal. For Indian decisionmakers, taking the threat of conventional responses off the table would be negligent, absent a track record of Pakistani efforts to demobilize terrorist groups that attack India.

By the same token, as Biswas highlights, those potential conventional responses are the most likely trigger of nuclear use, and thus it isn’t possible to isolate nuclear CBMs aimed at conflict avoidance from sub-conventional and conventional catalysts.  This observation does not absolve policymakers of responsibility to address nuclear CBMs, of course, but it is important in thinking about escalation and deterrence. Biswas focuses on the responsibility of Pakistan to address “non-state actors as proxies.” But at this stage, with tactical nuclear weapons now joined to this issue, India must also consider the role of offensive conventional military doctrines. If the joint investigation following the Pathankot attack leads to prosecutions in Pakistan, and further progress in building firebreaks between sub-conventional and conventional violence, could Indian decisionmakers shelve Cold Start? If so, how would this be demonstrated? Biswas is right to highlight the need for this discussion, but in order to gain traction, both sides would need to come prepared to consider reassurance steps.

Kulkarni makes a similar point about the need for Indian and Pakistani decisionmakers to consider “appropriate issue linkages—nuclear to nuclear and nuclear to conventional—[which] can bring out bargains that are not necessarily symmetrical in terms of quality, but similar in terms of the quantity of mutual confidence built in the bid.” This understandably begs the question: if progress can’t be made in nuclear or conventional CBMs singularly, because of the interrelationships between them, is there a strategic framework for such dialogue that might work? Larger dialogue structures have a habit of collapsing under their own weight, as participants in the Composite Dialogue might attest. Yet at this point, is there an alternative? Probably not.  Kulkarni’s suggestion of joint lexicon may be one small step to get there, but the big question is political will.

It is on the political question that Paracha most usefully dwells, highlighting the need for varied stakeholders within the establishments of both countries to agree on a vision. It is a prerequisite that both civilian and military leaders, as well as a broad spectrum of political parties and civil society, support the objectives of CBMs. With apologies to the diplomats, however, peace and stability in the region is too important to be left in their hands.  Political will of a higher order is needed to create a new equilibrium and break the mold that Ashley Tellis termed “ugly stability” that prevails in the region. There are examples from other times and regions of risky political overtures that have resulted in cessation of security competition, if not peace, that serve as inspiration. The trick is in the engineering and alignment of geopolitical fortunes. When the stars do align and a path opens for such change, both India and Pakistan will need policy entrepreneurs – scholars such as Biswas, Kulkarni, Noor, and Paracha – to feed ideas into the system, to argue for them publicly, and to hold politicians and military leaders to account. We should hope that such an opening arrives soon.

This article originally appeared in South Asian Voices