Even during periods of significant leverage, Washington has not had the power to stop and reverse Pakistan’s nuclear trend lines. As a result of the US-India nuclear deal and the presence of a large number of US troops in Afghanistan, Washington’s influence on Pakistani nuclear choices is unusually low. Washington’s ability to convince Pakistan’s leaders to refrain from building up its nuclear capabilities is likely to further decrease with US arms sales to New Delhi and stronger security cooperation on a range of issues.
External pressures relating to the Bomb have been manageable for Pakistan’s nuclear establishment. Public opposition to “caving in” to Washington’s “demands” on nuclear issues is fierce, and Pakistan’s national security decision makers hold unshakeable views about the centrality and requirements of nuclear deterrence. Consequently, Pakistan continues to refuse to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and currently leads the opposition to the start of negotiations on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). Pakistan’s national security managers have also been able to draw the line between what they view as necessary adaptation to, and rejection of, external pressures relating to their policies toward Afghanistan and India. They clearly perceive that Washington’s highest priorities in bilateral relations relate to the US military campaign in Afghanistan and efforts to combat terrorist groups with global reach. They presume that nuclear issues will continue to take a backseat to ongoing military campaigns in which Pakistan’s assistance is crucial to US success.
This correlation of pressure and response might well change if Pakistan’s nuclear activities again become front-page news. Absent this, US-Pakistani relations do not lend themselves to effective, near-term suasion by Washington on nuclear issues. In one respect, Pakistan’s diplomatic stance against US preferences has hardened during the Obama administration: Islamabad has backtracked and refused to agree to a work program at the Conference on Disarmament (CD), ostensibly due to concerns over the prospective scope of a treaty governing fissile material production for nuclear weapons. In effect, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been given the assignment to argue that it is essential to roll back and eliminate existing stockpiles of fissile material for nuclear weapons, but not to cap them.
There is some validity to the proposition that Pakistan hardened its position on the FMCT because the Obama administration’s initiatives threatened to breathe new life into the CD. But it is far more likely that Pakistan’s harder-line position is a carryover from the US-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement that predated the Obama administration. Pakistan had no need to take blocking action in Geneva during the Bush years, as the CD was tied up in knots for other reasons. When the Obama administration resumed efforts to negotiate the FMCT, Pakistan accepted the challenge to take blocking action, citing prominently the US-India deal and its acceptance by the Nuclear Suppliers Group as justification for its action. A tactical retreat on the FMCT negotiations could occur when enough inducement or embarrassment can be generated to cause such a shift, at which point Pakistan can be expected to drag its feet on negotiations until its perceived fissile material requirements for nuclear weapons are met.
Regrettably, it is easier for the United States to promote negative reactions within Pakistan than positive ones, nuclear issues included. If, for example, Washington rejected the CTBT and resumed testing, Pakistan would most likely place itself in the queue of states following suit. If, however, the US Senate consented to ratify the CTBT, Pakistan would likely to continue to hold back, awaiting New Delhi’s response. India has far more sway on Pakistan’s nuclear choices than does the United States. Pakistan’s nuclear establishment is sufficiently concerned about growing Indian military capabilities and reported planning for limited conventional war that it is determined to enlarge its nuclear arsenal. This path is unlikely to change in the near term, absent significant changes in Pakistan’s relationship with India or in Pakistan’s leadership. But change can close, as well as open, space for constructive nuclear initiatives. If a major breakthrough on nuclear matters occurs in southern Asia, it will follow, not precede, significant improvements in bilateral relations between Pakistan and India or between India and China.
Even in an environment of waning US influence on Pakistani choices, Rawalpindi and Islamabad are still acutely sensitive to messages from Washington. The United States sets the international tone on nuclear issues, establishing the context in which Pakistan finds it necessary to adapt. For example, the Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) relieved Pakistan of pressures associated with the CTBT and FMCT, while tightening them on the issues of proliferation and terrorism. Tone setting, however, does not translate into significant leverage on Pakistan, as is evident from Pakistan’s response to the Obama administration’s support for the CTBT and FMCT. Washington’s diplomatic initiatives matter far more whenever Pakistan finds itself in a serious crisis with India or in other grave difficulties. In the past, US diplomacy has not only defused crises, but also prompted confidence-building and nuclear risk reduction measures between Pakistan and India. There is no substitute for US crisis management on the subcontinent.
The Obama administration’s NPR seeks to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons. Only a handful of countries are bucking this trend, and Pakistan is among them. Pakistan’s national security managers do not feel comfortable outside the mainstream on nuclear matters, but they will accept discomfort to protect their nuclear options. Besides, it is very hard to escape outlier status when key figures in Pakistan’s nuclear program have previously engaged in illicit nuclear commerce and when this record is too sensitive to clear up. The steps required to join the mainstream—signing the CTBT and agreeing to a moratorium on fissile material production for nuclear weapons—are considered unacceptable on national security grounds. New Delhi could sharpen Islamabad’s choices far more effectively than Washington by embracing the CTBT and a production moratorium, forcing Pakistan to decide whether to become more of an outlier or adopt necessary but insufficient steps toward more normal relations. But India is not close to achieving a working political consensus to sign the CTBT or accept a moratorium on fissile material production. And as long as New Delhi remains aloof, Pakistan has sufficient company, as well as the perceived necessity, to maintain its current course.