A Passive U.S. Approach to the Next India-Pakistan Crisis?

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Quote of the week:

“Escalation is inherent in war both because the desire to win and the need not to lose.” – V.R. Raghavan, “Limited War and Escalation Control,” Nonproliferation Review, 2001.

One common thread among the comings and goings of top national security advisers to President Trump is that none have much experience with South Asia, and none are well suited for the role of crisis manager. This won’t matter if there is no crisis-triggering event, but it could matter greatly if there is another sequence of events with significant escalatory potential.

Before being shown the door, Trump’s second National Security Adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, said the following in an interview with the New York Times:

“The consensus view has been that engagement overseas is an unmitigated good, regardless of the circumstances. But there are problems that are maybe both intractable and of marginal interest to the American people, that do not justify investments of blood and treasure.”

McMaster defined the Trump administration’s foreign policy as “pragmatic realism” rather than isolationism. If his characterization is correct and continues under his successor, John Bolton, the question arises whether “pragmatic realism” also applies to not investing diplomatic capital in “intractable” disputes “of marginal interest to the American people.”

This could be one explanation for the Trump administration’s de-funding of and disinterest in the proper functioning of the State Department, including the practice of not nominating individuals to fill key jobs, including Assistant Secretaries for South Asia and other regions.

The Kashmir dispute certainly qualifies as “intractable.” No administration has seriously considered investing diplomatic capital in reaching a settlement since the 1960s – even after India and Pakistan brought their bombs out of the basement in 1998. Their ritualized friction occasionally boils over when militant groups based in Pakistan send cadres to carry out acts of violence across the Kashmir divide and within Indian cities. When these explosions are either cumulative or spectacular, they can prompt military clashes with escalatory potential. (For an excellent assessment of when and why escalation occurs, see the essay by Sameer Lalwani and Hannah Haegeland, “Anatomy of a Crisis: Explaining Crisis Onset in India-Pakistan Relations” in Stimson’s new book, Investigating Crises: South Asia’s Lessons, Evolving Dynamics, and Trajectories.)

In prior nuclear-tinged crises, Washington’s diplomatic intervention was bothersome to some in India, as these moves constrained freedom of action after triggering events. Proactive U.S. diplomacy was, however, widely recognized as serving useful purposes, helping to choreograph climb-downs and letting cooler heads prevail.

Would the Trump White House define an “America First” foreign policy as being passive rather than proactive in the event of another crisis between India and Pakistan? If the Trump administration conveys its disinterest in playing the role of primary crisis manager — unlike the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations — this might induce more cautious behavior by Rawalpindi and New Delhi. By signaling its disinterest to play an active role, Washington could also prompt Indian and Pakistani leaders to take more responsibility not only for avoiding crises but also for crisis management. These outcomes could have positive repercussions.

Alternatively, Washington’s passivity could remove an important buffer against escalatory dynamics while inviting Beijing and Moscow to fill this vacuum. Moreover, a crisis that spirals into the detonation of a nuclear weapon, whether by command decision, the breakdown of command and control, or by accident would hardly be “of marginal interest to the American people.” Instead, the first appearance of a mushroom cloud on a battlefield since 1945 would be a norm-shattering event, shaking the Nonproliferation Treaty regime to its core.

This line of argumentation — implying western paternalism and the absence of sound leadership judgment on the subcontinent — drives many within the region to distraction. But if it makes colleagues in India and Pakistan feel any less put upon, the same concerns over the absence of sound judgment and escalatory spirals also apply at present to other nuclear-armed states in other regions. No region where nuclear dangers are on the rise deserves a pass.

Critics in India assert that Washington becomes an accomplice to Pakistani brinkmanship by engaging in preventive diplomacy. Actually, the contrary is true: U.S. crisis management has instead served to reject changes in the status quo that acts of violence seek to undermine. After every nuclear tinged crisis that traces back to Pakistan, U.S.-Indian ties have become stronger while Pakistan’s standing has diminished. These dynamics may help explain why there has not been a crisis-triggering event in almost a decade.

No administration’s foreign and national security policies are completely consistent. Trump has decided, for example, that the criteria of pragmatic realism and an “America First” approach to prevent further unwise “investments of blood and treasure” do not apply to Afghanistan. Pragmatic realism also justifies a U.S. readiness to engage in crisis management on the subcontinent – not just as a buffer against escalation, but to clarify penalties to reckless behavior.

The contours of crisis management have changed over the last decade, reflecting the shifting dynamics of U.S. and Chinese ties with India and Pakistan. Success remains possible, however, because no one wants failure.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on April 10, 2018.

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